MARSHA KINDER and BEVERLE HOUSTON

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744

Woman Under the Influence draws on all three traditional visions of female madness, combining elements of each with great subtlety and perceptiveness. From one perspective, Mabel is an Eve who is weak, passive, and childlike. Thus it is difficult for her to resist husband, parents, friends—all those who are trying to make her conform to their expectations. Yet her childlike nature has its positive side; she is vital and creative in contrast to the conventional adults who condemn her…. Although she is presented as having an artistic temperament, Mabel's creativity is restricted to the invention of games and she never considers other outlets for her talents. (p. 11)

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Mabel's touch of Lilith resides in her repressed sexuality. Restless and lonesome for intimacy, she reaches out to a kind stranger in a bar though she really loves her husband. But his job and male friends keep him occupied and her needs are great. Even with her husband's friends, she makes innocent mistakes because she doesn't understand the limits set on physical affection. As a result of Mabel's nature, her husband suffers: he is cuckholded; he is embarrassed in front of his friends, who think he is married to a crazy; he is nagged by his mother to keep his wife in line for the sake of the children.

At the same time, the film develops another perspective on the situation. Mabel is clearly victimized by the familiar authoritarian male triangle of husband, doctor, and father. Yet they are not melodramatic villains, perverts, or emotional zombies from the Gaslight tradition. Instead, they are kind and loving—more like the men in Renoir's films who commit acts of cruelty out of ignorance and clumsiness. The extreme realism of the film shows how a woman can be driven to "madness" under the most benign conditions. On the one hand, this underlines the fact that it is not her fault, yet at the same time it makes her situation more terrifying. (pp. 11-12)

Most interesting and frightening is her complex interaction with her husband, who undeniably loves her, but whose understanding and patience are extremely limited. Even worse for Mabel is the double bind he repeatedly creates for her. Sometimes, they are in cahoots, together against the world, and he reinforces her eccentricity. But when she goes "too far," he gets frightened and becomes the incarnation of conventional authority. This authority makes him so righteous that he will beat her up in front of the children to assure her proper behavior. He is frequently so confused that he doesn't know whether to kiss her or slug her. One of the most valuable dimensions of the film is the fluid, detailed development of their interchanges, showing how reality and her "madness" are a mutual creation.

From a broader perspective, the film also reveals how Mabel is "under the influence" of the entire social structure, which (in the Laingian sense) establishes the schizophrenogenic family context. Madness grows not out of the...

(The entire section contains 744 words.)

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