Feminist critique of the hegemony of the male-dominated society has established the figure of the madwoman as a central concept of feminist theory and literature. In such gynocritical model, the behaviour of the madwoman stands as a subversive reaction against the subjugation she faces. This subversive role of the madwoman has been centripetal to the feminine doctrine. The image of the madwoman parodies the intellectual incapacity women are associated with in the patriarchal society and is established as the initiator of resistance against the oppression they encounter in that society.
In their The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar address the issue of the depiction of female characters in a world shaped by and for men. They offer an exquisite perspective on the roles prescribed to women by a male-dominated world. Each of these roles is ultimately directed to service of the man. Because these roles were essentially negative, especially the role of the madwoman, they imposed limitations on the woman’s behavior.
In their work, Gilbert and Gubar highlight the fact that women writers were obliged to make their female characters represent the symbol of the madwoman. This phenomenon stemmed from the dominance of the image of the rebellious madwoman perpetuated by male writers on women. Hence, the authors urge women writers to “examine, assimilate, and transcend” the image of the madwoman that has been generated by the patriarchal society (qtd. in Lagland 93). This image, which is imposed by men, impedes the woman’s search for self-actualization in the literary canon.
Thus, the authors exhort women writers to “kill the aesthetic ideal through which they themselves have been “killed” into art” (Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman 596). They stress the importance of obliterating this figure because it is far from being an accurate representation of women or women writers. Women writers should search for a far different and more realistic image for their female characters; an image that reflects the true representation of women.
Gilbert and Gubar suggest that a woman writer should celebrate her own perspective of self and repudiate her image within the patriarchal framework of femininity. That is why they call on female writers to resist the crushing and culturally enforced image of the madwoman, and to set a new form of identity which patriarchy has forced into repression. They argue for subverting this patriarchal definition of women in favor of representations of women as fully-fledged subjects.
The sexual analogy indicated in the question posed by Gilbert and Gubar, “Is the pen a metaphorical penis?'(qtd. in Taylor 86) had a rich history and effectively explains the existence of the abundant images of the madwoman in women’s literature. Since women writes lack the “organ” that endows them with the power to write, they confront great misery in producing their literary work. Hence, female writers tend to depict the plight they encounter in their literary experience through their female characters’ madness. In this sense, the madness that descends upon the female character is a deliberate dramatic representation of the crippling pressures imposed on women writers and the suffering they endure in their literary career.
Gilbert and Gubar’s model of the “Anxiety of Authorship” also accounts for the frequent images of madwomen in women’s fiction. In her endeavor for the self-conception necessary to write successfully, the woman writer must confront not only the anxiety of influence which she shares with the male writer, but also a crippling anxiety of authorship. Hence, the madwoman in these texts projects the results of this experience of women writer’s within the overbearing patriarchal society. The female character’s madness articulates the writer’s sense of loneliness, dread and suffering she encounters in her pernicious literary odyssey.
Since it is handed down from the literary fathers of patriarchy, the “Anxiety of Authorship” is debilitating. It causes “disaffection, a disturbance, a distrust, that spreads like a stain through the style and structure of much literature by women” (Gilbert and Gubar, Infection 25). Emily Dickinson describes this disturbance as “infection” and for her “infection in the sentence breeds” (Gilbert and Gubar, Infection 25). As a result of this infection, the female figures in women’s literature suffered from physical and psychological sickness unto death. Hence, the image of the insane woman can be viewed as psychological disease that reflects this infection.
What is impressive in Gilbert and Gubar’s argument is that they interpret the existence of the image of the madwoman in women writer’s fiction as a way for subverting the male-dominated hegemonic society. The authors investigate some ways in which madness and silence in women’s fiction have deconstructed the authoritative patriarchal paradigm. They employ the image of Bertha Mason, which gives Gilbert and Gubar their title, to elucidate the power of women’s sexuality, rage, and revenge. They also examine Jane Austen’s employment of silence in her novels and how this silence can subvert the most conventional structures. Examples of other writers mentioned by the authors include Mary Shelley and Emily Bronte in addition to other women writers.
In this regard, Gilbert and Gubar’s account of the existence of the madwoman figure authenticates the synthesis of the personal and the political in the feminist doctrine. After showing how the effects of socialisation create psychological illness in women, they move on to show how these illnesses are depicted in women’s literature through the madness of the female characters. Women writers used to reflect their psychological misery in their mad female characters and to promulgate a wholesale rejection of the patriarchal canon through them.
The feminist belief that no split can be made between the psychological and the political is one of the major themes of Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Doris Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen.” Both stories stand as a living testimony on the employment of the image of the madwoman as a subversive figure against the restraints of the andocentric hegemony. The significance of the theme of madness in these two stories is highlighted with specific reference to the theory of the Scottish psychiatrist Ronald Laing. Laing’s illuminating account of madness substantiates the argument that the female characters’ madness enables them to articulate, and thus subvert, the oppression they face in the patriarchal society.
In The Yellow Wallpaper, insanity is part of Gilman’s larger comment on the atrocities of the patriarchal constraints. In this story, Gilman depicts insanity as one of the possible modes of escape from these constraints. Afflicted by hysteria and nervous depression, Jane in the story is confined. She is forbidden to work and unable to express herself in writing. Her madness comes as a sort of reaction to the confinements set against her.
In Laing’s terminology, Jane suffers from “ontologically insecurity.” In the Divided Self, Laing defines ontological insecurity as the loss of “a firm sense of one’s own autonomous identity” (65). Jane lacks this sense of “autonomous identity” and experiences a sense of dichotomy between her inner self and the outer world. She wants to resolve the split between “being-for-oneself” and “being-for-another” and to encourage a more authentic identity. As Laing implies, there is a strong connection in the human psyche “between being-for-oneself and being-for-another,” and if there happens any confusion between the two, disturbance may result (Burston 79). Jane suffers from this “disturbance.” She experiences disruption in the schizophrenic relation with those who are around her as well as a split within herself.
As an ontologically threatened person, Jane also suffers from what Laing terms as the fear of “engulfment.” Laing defines engulfment as the “extreme distress of the person who finds himself under compulsion to take on the characteristics of personalityâ€¦ alien to his own” (Laing, Divided 58). Jane really feels that society tends to impinge upon her an identity that is alien to her. Her personality is framed in compliance with the expectations of that society, and she wants to extricate herself out of this frame.
Suffering from ontological insecurity and engulfment, Jane acts in a strange yet meaningful way. She develops a microcosm within herself and identifies with objects of her own imagination. Although often weird, her actions are actually attempts of self-survival. As Laing observes, no matter how meaningless or odd the schizophrenics’ behaviour may be their aim is to save what is left of their being (Evans 141).
In spite of the constraints and confinements that stand against her quest for self-definition, Jane develops active rejection of her status quo. Her repetitive question “what is one to do” is fraught with elements of nonconformity. It sets the foundation for a rebellion against the male-dominated society; a rebellion that would extricate her out of the traditional female role imposed by the patriarchal hegemony. Gradually, her desires take control and she gains strength as she pursues freedom.
In The Politics of Experience, Laing argues that insanity might be viewed as a source of creativity (62). Jane’s creativity is palpable from the beginning and it is set in conflict with John’s rationality. Jane feels her freedom in her power of imagination which is an inherent part of her insanity. However, as a representative of the patriarchal system, John aims at undoing Jane’s imaginative power and maintaining his rigid rationality. By attempting to annihilate her skill of writing, John looks forward to stopping her process of self-fulfillment in order to make her embrace the masculinist frame of the ideal wife.
However, Jane never suppresses her creativity, and she starts to write in secret. Actually, the story itself is part of Jane’s secret writings in which she exercise her mind in spite of her husband’s acts of discouragement. Ultimately, Jane gets tired of hiding her writing from everyone and declares “I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal-having to be so sly about it” (Gilman, Yellow 1577). Hence she moves on to displace her creativity on the yellow wallpaper.
The yellow wallpaper symbolizes the imprisonment of women within the patriarchal confinements. As Paula Treichler argues “the yellow wallpaper is variously interpreted by readers to represent the pattern which underlies sexual in-equality and Jane’s situation within patriarchy” (192). It is really significant that the wallpaper itself, like the patriarchal constraints, is hideous and ugly and its pattern is impossible to define or trace. The link between the yellow wallpaper and the restrictions imposed by patriarchy is enhanced by the fact that the more Jane becomes aware of the male forces, the more the wallpaper begins to reveal itself for her.
This link is further enriched by virtue of the yellow color of the wallpaper. The color yellow is symbolic of sunlight, and sunlight is emblematic of the rationale sphere of men. It is during the day that John issues his orders to Jane and overwhelms her with his annihilating prescriptive schedule. On the other hand, Jane’s creativity flourishes by the moonlight, which is associated with femininity. It is only at night that she is able to better understand the predicament of the woman behind the wallpaper and connect it with her own imprisonment.
Jane identifies the woman trapped behind the chaotic wallpaper, and she becomes her mode of self-expression. As the story progresses, Jane’s identification with that woman is increased. Actually, the wallpaper woman can be thought of as a sort of doppelganger to Jane. She represents Jane’s split psyche and a manifestation of her schizophrenia. The woman behind the wallpaper and Jane are both imprisoned in the hegemonic zone. That is why Jane struggles to free the figure, and thus herself, from that prison.
Jane declares her noncompliance to the patriarchal system of social bars symbolised in the wallpaper. She complains that “this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of” (Gilman, Yellow 1574). This is an intentional attack on the rational orientations in the doctrine of the phallocentric society. It indicates that this rational ideology of the male society is just a set of “unheard-of-contradictions” (1571) that have been assimilated without questioning. Here Gilman is turning the table against the patriarchal society; the woman who is judged by her society to be mad lambasts that society for the lack of reason in its judgement.
Jane’s feelings of emancipation come when she tears the wallpaper down. In tearing the wallpaper, Jane develops an evident symbolic inversion of the masculine and feminine roles. As she sees her husband fainting upon seeing her creep about her bedroom, she daringly addresses him saying “I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman, Yellow 1581). Jane is declaring her freedom from the limitations imposed on her by society. She will no longer be the victim of these limitations that have been binding her inner spirit.
Liberating herself and symbolically tearing down the rules and structure of patriarchy, Jane celebrates her victory over her husband as well as the patriarchal society. Even Jenny expresses this celebration as “she laughed and said she wouldn’t mind (tearing down the wallpaper) herself” (Gilman, Yellow 1582). This highlights the latent females’ desire to free themselves from John, the yellow wallpaper and patriarchy.
Admittedly, the concept of madness in the story is embellished with new meanings. Gilman presents madness as the only choice for women in confronting the confinements of the chauvinistic society. To this end, the doppelganger in the story represents not only the protagonist’s divided self but also the misery of all women who are imprisoned and inhibited from establishing their identities. Thus, Jane’s insanity makes her a spectacle for all women to perceive their plight in the male-dominated society. This proves Gilman’s view that the story “was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being crazy” (Gilman, Why 19).
Like Gilman, Doris Lessing, in her “To Room Nineteen,” aims at elucidating the hidden meaning behind the behaviour of the psychologically-disturbed women, and how this behaviour might be the only means of emancipation for them. Right from the outset, Lessing proclaims her denunciation of the patriarchal view of rationality as she indicates that it is a story about “a failure in intelligence” (Lessing, Room 524). She pokes fun at the fact that, for the couple, “everything was in order,” (527) and that their intelligence “continued to assert that all was well” (528). As Janina Nordius notes, in the story, Lessing condemns “modern society and its celebration of intelligence” (172).
If Jane suffers from engulfment, Susan suffers from what Laing calls “implosion.” Laing indicates that the person who suffers from implosion “feels the terror of his emptiness” (Laing, Divided 45). That is what Susan actually suffers from. She defines her misery as that of “irritation, restlessness, emptiness” (Lessing, Room 531). Susan’s predicament goes so far that that she feels “as if there is an enemy there waiting to invade (her)” (532).
Laing maintains that the schizophrenic person does not experience himself “together with others or at home in the world,” rather, he experiences the true self “in despairing aloneness and isolation” (Laing, Divided 39). Susan feels her real self when she is alone; “She needed when she was alone, to be really alone, with no one near” (Lessing, Room 529). Susan’s need to be alone springs from her heart-felt desire for emancipation and self-fulfilment. It is essentially an ontological quest, and that is why she declares: “I have to learn to be myself again.” (528). In this sense, Susan’s solitude bespeaks much potential for her and creates a world full of opportunities for self-actualisation.
Laing argues that there are two modes of cognition in the human consciousness. He calls them the “egoic” form of consciousness and the “non-egoic” form of consciousness. The dominant mode of cognition is the egoic, which is characterized by a sense of “a consistent identityâ€¦within a framework of certain ground structures of space and time” (Laing, Politics 113). Susan experiences a battle between the egoic and non-egoic dimensions of identity. In other words, she experience a conflict between her mental consciousness, which insists that she obeys the patriarchal expectations of her role as wife and mother, and her inner consciousness, which motivates her for emancipation from the culturally-constructed concept of womanhood.
Ultimately, Susan’s will for absolute freedom wins over. She comes to recognize that she must renounce the principles of her mental consciousness and embrace the instincts of her inner consciousness. In other words, Susan abandons her egoic identity and moves to the non egoic form of consciousness through which she embarks on a voyage into her own inner space and time. This is viewed by the dominant society as a symptom of madness. For the rational male-dominated society, any point of view that goes against the mainstream masculine prescriptions is discarded as a form of hysteria.
Linda H. Halisky comments on the irony of the patriarchal judgment in the story. She observes that as Susan’s real sense of the self is actualized, the society around her claims that she is not “herself.” In other words, society has been programmed “to label the expression of that self ‘madness'” (51). Yet Susan’s view is that it is better to be mad if the price for not being mad is to be a victim of the male hegemony. Thus she would rather be labeled mad than assimilate the prescriptions of a society that fixes her identity.
Susan’s madness represents a new world for her; a world that is of her own making. It serves a healing process which enables her find ways for self-attainment. Her madness becomes a source of freedom and emancipation from the culturally-defined image of the woman. It is a protest set against the crushing principles of the male-dominated society and a way of creating an alternative identity different from the expectations of that society.
In light of this argument, Susan’s suicide is far from being a sign of defeat. Laing argues that in our life “there are sudden, apparently inexplicable suicides that must be understood as the dawn of a hope” (Laing, Politics 37). Susan’s suicide initiates this hope. It is hope for reaffirmation of life, a liberating form of self assertion and a restitution of identity. Susan enters the realm of death willingly. She prefers death over conformity and over compromise with the culturally produced self that patriarchy calls upon women to assume.
In this sense, the story proves Lessing’s view that Susan’s insanity “had become a valuable lesson in respect for other people’s rights” (Lessing, Room 533). Susan’s madness will be of great benefit, not only for women but also for all individuals who feel persecuted by various forces. In this regard, Lessing is conveying a universal message through Susan. At the end, Susan declares that whatever one likes to do, one is “simply not to think about the living” (549).
To recapitulate, the concept of madness deployed in Gilman’s and Lessing’s texts undermine one of the focal patriarchal schemes. Ellen Friedman, in his “Doris Lessing: Fusion and Transcendence of the Female and the ‘Great Tradition’,” argues that “In the female tradition, women characters who choose ordinary life above the alternatives of death or madness must compromise their ambitions to allow themselves to be absorbed into a suffocating world” (466). Jane and Susan subvert this hegemonic paradigm. They reject the “ordinary life” and refuse to “compromise” their ambition of self-attainment. They retreat to madness, and even to death as in the case of Susan, as an enunciation of their rejection of the “suffocating” patriarchal world.
In this sense, the argument provided in these two stories turns the traditional notion of madness upside-down and deconstructs the patriarchal celebration of rationality. In these texts, normality and conformity are viewed to be the real forms of madness. Conformity to the rules of society is the real insane state because it implies clinging to the dictates of a society that is itself insane. Hence, conscious state of insanity is projected as the only way out from the society’s unconscious madness. It is presented as the only method for attaining the true self within this insane society.
In his psychological-political analysis of madness, Laing argues that the term is a social fact and the social fact a political event. He maintains that madness is not a state that one needs to be cured of; rather it is “a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation” (qtd. in Martin 127). Jane and Susan are strong enough to live in this “unlivable” situation. For them, madness becomes “a way of being.” Through their madness, they manage to achieve a personal identity which redefines the identity that society imposes on them. The triumph of the two characters in the two stories substantiates Laing’s view that “madness need not be a breakdown; it may also be a breakthrough” (Laing, Politics 129).