Women and Literary Madness

15 July, 2022
Elspeth Dehn­ert, “Syr­i­an Bedouin Woman, Sweileh,” May 2018 (cour­tesy Elspeth Dehn­ert).


The fol­low­ing is excerpt­ed from Lit­er­ary Mad­ness In British, Post­colo­nial, and Bedouin Women’s Writ­ing, by Shahd Alsham­mari and is pre­sent­ed here by spe­cial arrange­ment with the author.


Shahd Alshammari


Women, hav­ing always been iden­ti­fied with “emo­tion” and the body, rather than rea­son, have a cer­tain pow­er to threat­en and dis­rupt uni­ver­sal ide­olo­gies that are con­stant­ly work­ing to re-enforce wom­en’s sub­ju­ga­tion. Lit­er­ary Mad­ness In British, Post­colo­nial, and Bedouin Women’s Writ­ing aims to inves­ti­gate lit­er­ary rep­re­sen­ta­tions of mad­women fig­ures who protest against their respec­tive soci­eties and envi­ron­ments. When we think of the fig­ure of the “mad­woman” we imme­di­ate­ly think of the mad­woman in the attic, the crazy, grotesque fig­ure that haunts Char­lotte Bron­te’s Jane Eyre. In a sense, she is the pro­to­type of the “mad­woman” figure. 

The theme of mad­ness and mad­women pro­tag­o­nists is a tex­tu­al strat­e­gy, one that makes use of frag­men­ta­tion and unset­tles the read­ers. The texts do not pro­vide a sense of com­plete­ness or clo­sure; they are fic­tions of frag­men­ta­tion, of gaps and incon­sis­ten­cies, mul­ti­lay­ered dis­cours­es of oth­er­ness, and a sense of dis­in­te­gra­tion. There are mul­ti­ple ten­sions that must be rec­on­ciled with­in the madwomen’s volatile envi­ron­ments and their inner con­scious­ness. The pro­tag­o­nists are not “nor­mal” in any sense, they are dif­fer­ent and deviant, and their end­ings are cul­mi­nat­ed in mad­ness and/or death. This tex­tu­al strat­e­gy of employ­ing mad­ness is used by women writ­ers to speak out against both patri­archy and Empire, and it is the mad­women pro­tag­o­nists who are able to embody agency.

Lit­er­ary Mad­ness is pub­lished by Cam­bridge Schol­ars.

The mad­women fig­ures are embod­ied agents, whether through their expe­ri­ence of mad­ness or phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ty. In fic­tion­al texts, mad­ness and dis­abil­i­ty can­not be ignored; they are potent forces that shed light on dis­cours­es of race, gen­der, and oth­er­ness. I am con­cerned with the expe­ri­ences of mad­ness, inva­lidism and dis­abil­i­ty in lit­er­ary nar­ra­tives because of their poten­tial to dis­rupt any dis­course of nor­mal­iza­tion. Lennard Davis’s work on dis­abil­i­ty is sig­nif­i­cant in the field of Dis­abil­i­ty Stud­ies. In Bend­ing Over Back­wards: Dis­abil­i­ty, Dis­mod­ernism and Oth­er Dif­fi­cult Posi­tions, he argues that dis­abil­i­ty is a dis­cur­sive cat­e­go­ry, and exam­ines the rela­tion­ship between dis­abil­i­ty and nor­mal­i­ty in the light of post­mod­ern the­o­ry. He claims that dis­abil­i­ty is a “new category…seen as con­tin­u­ous, run­ning the gamut from phys­i­cal impair­ments to defor­mi­ty to mon­stros­i­ty to mad­ness.” Ideas of dis­abil­i­ty and who falls into the cat­e­go­ry of the “dis­abled” remain unclear and flu­id; dis­abil­i­ty encom­pass­es an extra­or­di­nary range of phys­i­cal, psy­chi­atric, and cog­ni­tive attrib­ut­es. As such, my mad­women fig­ures in lit­er­ary nar­ra­tives are part of a larg­er scope of deviant fig­ures that are exclud­ed from the dis­course of normalcy.

The fic­tion­al mad­woman fig­ure is either men­tal­ly deranged, has a bout of mad­ness which then man­i­fests itself phys­i­cal­ly, or is both mad and phys­i­cal­ly disabled.

It is cru­cial to his­tori­cize the emer­gence of mad­ness and its reper­cus­sions. Michel Foucault’s Mad­ness and Civ­i­liza­tion: A His­to­ry of Insan­i­ty in the Age of Rea­son is con­sid­ered one of the most influ­en­tial works on men­tal ill­ness, a great con­tri­bu­tion to the sci­ences and the arts. Fou­cault argues that mad­ness is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a bio­log­i­cal or nat­ur­al state, but is social­ly con­struct­ed and sus­tained by oppres­sive soci­eties which aim to con­trol, reg­u­late, and mon­i­tor human behav­ior. Fou­cault has stud­ied the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of mad­ness and humankind’s fear of “the bes­tial­i­ty of the madman…The men­tal­ly ill per­son was now a sub­hu­man and beast­ly scape­goat; hence the need to pro­tect oth­ers.” A major flaw of Foucault’s work is its pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the West’s views on mad­ness, yet it remains indis­pens­able to the study of madness.

Among the authors and novels examined in Literary Madness are Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), Fadia Faqir’s Pillars of Salt (1996), and Miral al-Tahawy’s The Tent (1996).

For Fou­cault, mad­ness and san­i­ty are mutu­al­ly con­struct­ed. He speaks of the “man of mad­ness and the man of rea­son, mov­ing apart, are not yet disjunct…Here mad­ness and non-mad­ness, rea­son and non-rea­son are inex­tri­ca­bly involved: insep­a­ra­ble at the moment when they do not yet exist.” San­i­ty and insan­i­ty are dual­is­tic oppo­si­tions, but for Fou­cault, they are coex­ist­ing. The ques­tion of mad­ness in Foucault’s text deals with West­ern notions of rea­son and unrea­son, what con­sti­tutes both, and how soci­ety had per­ceived those who failed to behave with­in the rea­son frame­work. West­ern cul­ture went through a series of reac­tions to mad­ness, or what was deemed as “unrea­son.” At the end of the Mid­dle Ages, Fou­cault argued, “mad­ness and the mad­man [became] major fig­ures, in their ambi­gu­i­ty: men­ace and mock­ery, the dizzy­ing unrea­son of the world, and the fee­ble ridicule of men.” The mad­man, so to speak, was able to enun­ci­ate real­i­ty and rea­son through his utter­ances of unrea­son. He was able to pro­vide, or speak, “love to lovers, the truth of life to the young, the mid­dling real­i­ty of things to the proud, the inso­lent, and to liars.”

Per­haps even more so is the mad­woman, who in her mad­ness is able to threat­en the patri­ar­chal order. In the selec­tions of texts I have cho­sen, the mad­woman fig­ure is a fig­ure of protest that almost always speaks out against the hege­mon­ic order, and uncan­ni­ly is the voice of wis­dom. Her voice is the voice of true rea­son, the voice that the author employs to cri­tique soci­ety and women’s subjugation.

The many themes I ana­lyze in Lit­er­ary Mad­ness include the patri­ar­chal and colo­nial rela­tions with­in the domes­tic space and the pub­lic space, cul­ture-spe­cif­ic fac­tors that accen­tu­ate the “madwoman’s” con­di­tion, the Bil­dungsro­man, the moth­er-daugh­ter rela­tion­ship in post­colo­nial texts, abjec­tion and trau­ma, loss, self- anni­hi­la­tion and alien­ation, and mad­ness as a break­down as well as a break­through. Mad­women fig­ures speak, but are not heard. Iron­i­cal­ly, their words are usu­al­ly words of wis­dom; they have an uncan­ny abil­i­ty to diag­nose the fail­ures of their soci­eties and crit­i­cize the oppres­sive forces of Empire and patri­archy. There is a para­dox­i­cal pow­er of mad­ness that threat­ens to unrav­el and vocal­ly crit­i­cize pre­vi­ous­ly sanc­tioned ide­olo­gies of oppres­sion. As such, the mad­women are silenced, shunned, and rejected.

As a Lit­er­ary Dis­abil­i­ty Stud­ies schol­ar, I trace notions of mad­ness in lit­er­ary texts, media pro­duc­tions, and con­sid­er how mad­ness is treat­ed across var­i­ous cul­tures. Most recent­ly, my book Head Above Water: Reflec­tions on Ill­ness ques­tions the stigma­ti­za­tion of ill and/or dis­abled bod­ies, with a spe­cial focus on my lived expe­ri­ence of dis­abil­i­ty and nav­i­gat­ing society’s ableism. Ableism as a word is almost unheard of in Arab soci­eties and while gen­der and women’s stud­ies are gain­ing increased schol­ar­ly (and pub­lic atten­tion) dis­abil­i­ty stud­ies and nar­ra­tives (fic­tion­al or non­fic­tion) remain mar­gin­al­ized. In Head Above Water, mad­ness is tied to loss of agency and voice. “Mad­women” fig­ures are not allowed to speak and thus their body/minds break down, thus reflect­ing the inter­twine­ment of the men­tal and the phys­i­cal in the con­text of race and gen­der.  Able-mind­ed­ness and able-bod­ied­ness are both explored through the uphold­ing of patri­ar­chal oppres­sions and silenc­ing of women.



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