Warning: Mentions of rape, suicide, and abuse.
There’s always been a certain appeal for me in the crazy women of literature—those women of unnamed yet irreconcilable illness who are most often found locked away in the attic. Whether she is meant to be a tragic victim, a fantastical monster, or simply a nuisance who is keeping the romantic hero from marrying again, the mad woman remains a perfect metaphor. She has been broken, devastated, pushed beyond human reality. Her madness is cathartic, and maybe a little too understandable for comfort. She is rage and she is sadness—she is the extremes of emotion that women are not usually allowed to show. She is her time’s worst fears and deepest grievances, depending, and she is one of literature’s most important yet complicated characters.
Shakespeare is responsible for some of the earliest and most famous portrayals of mad women. Hamlet’s Ophelia is definitive of the trope—a woman who is commoditized and mistreated by the men in her life to the point of madness and suicide. Ophelia is also a good example to begin with because she is the perfect victim. She follows all the rules, is quiet and obedient and subservient, yet she is punished brutally nonetheless. Shakespeare is ahead of his time by writing about a woman who had in no way brought this upon herself, whose death was the product of abuse by men. Abuse and madness is not the punishment for bad women, a punishment that can be avoided by toeing the line. Ophelia shows us that even saints can be mistreated—that the acuity of abuse is independent from the behavior of the abused.
However, Ophelia is not Shakespeare’s only notable mad woman. Lady Macbeth is Ophelia’s antithesis. She is undoubtedly evil, an imperfect victim. While it is vital to point out that Lady Macbeth did not actually commit any murders herself, she encourages murder and we can all agree that’s distasteful. Nevertheless I think it is important to look at Lady Macbeth with a certain amount of compassion and perspective. She does and says terrible things, yes, but other non-evil facets of her character often get incorporated into her villainous image, like her age, her shrewdness, and her lack of maternal instincts. This is why it is so deeply disturbing when women in powerful positions are compared to Lady Macbeth. How exactly do men think Hillary Clinton is like Lady Macbeth? Are they referring to her orchestrating the murder of the King of Scotland? Or are they referring to her being a middle aged woman with ambition?
These gender dynamics are crucial to understanding Lady Macbeth’s madness. At first glimpse, it seems as though she is driven insane by her guilt for the murders. This doesn’t quite piece together though. It is a strange turn of events to have the woman who just scenes before was delivering such brutal lines as “My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white”, suddenly and for no reason at all break down completely. Is this just a punishment for her manipulations? Or is it the much more sinister slow burn of a woman living in a world where violence is the only way she can gain power, and power is the only way she can escape subservience? The argument can be made that Lady Macbeth is not driven mad by guilt, but by failure. Her position as a woman in the period is dependent on her husband’s status— as conspirators plot to have her husband killed or overthrown she knows she is as good as dead even before she ties the noose.
Then, nearly 200 years later, the definitive mad woman in the attic was penned. Bertha Mason, of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, is the insane first wife of Jane Eyre’s love interest, Mr. Rochester. Literally locked in the attic, Bertha is described as violent and bestial, with red eyes. Yet feminists throughout the years have penned sympathetic interpretations of her character. The excellent book The Madwoman in the Attic, by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, points out the false dichotomy that Jane Eyre creates where Jane, the prim, Victorian, “Angel of the House” (a reference to Virginia Woolf’s Professions for Women) is set up in opposition to Bertha, “The Madwoman in the Attic”. The argument is that pitting these women against each other splits women into categories of “good” and “bad”. Bertha is a “bad” woman, rebellious and undomesticated, which is what makes her eventual death by suicide palatable for Victorian readers.
Still I think there’s another argument to be made for Bertha and Jane, one that defies the good/bad split. When we better examine Jane’s youth as a poor relation to an abusive family we do actually see restrained and mild Jane lash out. She is violent towards her physically abusive cousin, and more than a little “hysterical”. What does her family do to punish her?
They lock her away.
Jane lasts about five minutes in isolation before having a nervous attack—surely she should have some pity for Bertha’s years of isolation? But this episode is vital because we see how close Jane comes to being Bertha, how she stood on the precipice of becoming the ill treated madwoman in the attic. Jane’s relatives take mercy on her, something Mr. Rochester never did for Bertha, and send her to a proper Victorian boarding school where she learns how to restrain herself and repress her emotions and sew. This path does end up being a safer one, Jane never is locked up for an extended period of time or throws herself off the roof of a building, but it does leave the impression of a half life. Virginia Woolf wrote of “The Angel of the House” haunting her as she tried to write, but Jane Eyre can offer a fascinating reversion of these roles with the unbridled and unrepressed “madwoman” haunting Jane’s “angel”. Bertha represents the passion and anger that Jane has beaten down for many years, and her death is a tragedy both for her and Jane. The death is tragic for Bertha because it is the only way she could escape Mr. Rochester, and it is tragic for Jane because she is glad of it. She relishes the death of this threat to her happy married life and freely settles down with Mr. Rochester, who seems like an upstanding guy. Bertha’s death was at least liberating, Jane must live on and take her long suffering place.
For much of literature the mad woman was a secondary character, a nuisance but never a real threat to the main characters. This is why most of the time their madness culminates in suicide—Mr. Rochester has plot armor, and besides, no girl could ever harm Hamlet or Macbeth in any meaningful way. Authors didn’t want to portray a madwoman as “triumphant”, as a powerful force in her story. She only ever turns the blade upon herself, which also happens to tie things up very nicely and eliminate uncomfortable characters. The revolutionary short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is perhaps the first subversion of this, as the story is narrated by the mad woman herself. We don’t know very much about the narrator, just that she has recently had a baby and her husband has put her on a “rest cure” for her nerves. The rest cure was a brutally common practice for Victorian doctors. Women exhibiting “hysteria”, otherwise known as anxiety or depression, were isolated for weeks on end and forbidden from doing anything—reading, writing, walking, talking. Essentially, women were left with nothing to do but stare at the wallpaper.
The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper does this, and after weeks of isolation she begins to hallucinate. In the patterns of the wallpaper she sees women, sometimes one, sometimes many, trapped and crawling behind the garish pattern. She begins to think that she is that woman, torn out of the wallpaper, and her well hidden psychosis comes to full light as she creeps and crawls about the room. When her husband comes to the room and sees her he faints from fear right in her path, necessitating that she crawl over him again and again as she makes her maddening circles around the room. The story is revolutionary, first because it is told by the mentally ill woman (and written by a woman who endured the rest cure herself), leaving us absolutely positive that her story has not been manipulated by the narrator. But second, the story is important because the madwoman survives. The ending is not neat, the woman neither punished nor saved. Our heroine is not lying, covered in flowers, in the river, she is not hung in her castle chambers, she is not jumping from a blazing building. She continues to creep around and around the room, showing the historical treatment of mentally ill women is not easily resolved, not tied up into a neat box. She may recover, she may be imprisoned, she may just be fated to walk in creeping circles for the rest of her years, around and around again.
A similarly numbing ending is in order for Blanche DuBois, the heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, the only man who should ever be allowed to write women. Blanche toes the good/bad line in a fascinating manner. At first she is “too good” and perceived by men (mostly her sister’s abusive husband Stanley) as such. She is all the distasteful things a “good” woman can be—prude, prim, snobby and vain. This southern belle act she puts on is, of course, just a masquerade meant to please men as a means of survival, but Stanley isn’t pleased and torments her for it. Stanley then goes through great lengths to undress Blanche, both literally and metaphorically. He uncovers that she is in fact a “bad” woman, who has been hiding her promiscuity, alcoholism, and her late husband’s homosexuality. Stanley tells her prospective fiancé about Blanche’s many liaisons, sabotaging her chance at marriage and security. Then, while his wife is in the hospital having his baby, Stanley rapes Blanche.
When the play returns, weeks have passed and Blanche is a raving lunatic. She believes that an old beau, Shep Huntliegh, is going to come and take her away. Instead a doctor comes, on Stanley’s command, and takes her away to an asylum. As she leaves a completely broken and guileless Blanche utters one of the most devastating lines in the history of drama to the doctor, saying, “Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Blanche is a great character because she is every distasteful thing that a woman can be in the eyes of men— she is shrill, hysterical, prudish and promiscuous, obsessed with her appearance, incapable of accepting her age, disparaging and mocking of her brother in law, all those things that generations of readers have found disturbing and unpleasant in women and yet not for one second do we ever see Blanche as anything less than a doomed victim. Her tragic fall condemns a society in which a woman’s entire existence is dependent on the favor of men, the kindness of strangers. No matter how desperately Blanche tries to please and serve the men around her, they dislike her and discard her when she no longer serves a purpose. The good/bad dichotomy is fruitless because as long as women try to be perfect in the eyes of men, we will always fall short.
In more recent literature, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye offers the haunting image of Pecola Breedlove, a young girl suffering abuse from her alcoholic father. Pecola is displaced when her father tries to burn down their house. When she is returned to his custody he rapes her. Pecola then becomes pregnant with his child and is shamed by the town for her own rape. Throughout the novel Pecola describes herself as ugly, repeating the words of her mother and those around her and fixating on Shirley Temple as the epitome of white beauty. She believes that if only she were blue eyed and beautiful (read: white) all her problems would disappear and she would be loved. Pecola is driven mad by the mistreatment from her father, certainly, but also from the self loathing that is far too common amongst young women of color. Pecola convinces herself that she deserves abuse—it is this unimaginable self hatred that pushes her over the edge. When her baby miscarries she is driven to insanity and she roams the edges of town, utterly convinced that she finally has blue eyes.
Pecola’s race is interesting for another reason. Looking back over the history of mad women, we see that African American women are extremely underrepresented. This is strange, for one thing because I can think of lots of Victorian writers who would have jumped the gun to write a racist, monstrous, raving African American mad woman, but also because who has more to be mad about? To be a woman is one thing, to be a woman of color is another entirely. An African American woman stands at the intersection of sexism and racism—it is hard to imagine any group more mistreated, more beaten down.
There are many possible reasons for this underrepresentation, most notably that there is far less representation of women of color than white women in general, so of course there are proportionally fewer mad women of color. But it is also possible that this lack of representation for mentally ill black women specifically stems from the continued perpetration of “The Strong Black Woman” stereotype. The phenomenal YouTube channel The Take has a video essay covering this narrative, exemplified in literature by tough women like Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God or Aibileen in The Help. I’m as white as they come, so I won’t pretend that I understand all the nuances of this stereotype, but the gist of it is such: black women are often represented in media as tough, self sacrificing superheroes as a way to help them defy racism. However, this stereotype neglects to allow black women any moment of emotional vulnerability. They are expected to be a constant inspiration to the rest of us, which makes women of color much less likely to search out help for their mental illnesses. According to England’s NHS, black women are much more likely to experience anxiety, depression and other mental health issues than white women, but are much less likely to seek out treatment. Often people encourage this stoicism by saying “Women are tough! They can take anything!” Those people mean well, but they neglect to add the necessary caveat: women can take anything, but that doesn’t mean they should have to. The revolution of The Bluest Eye comes from Morrison’s depiction of a woman who isn’t able to just pull through on her own. Pecola is painted as a victim of a racist and sexist society—not weak, just mistreated.
Women have suffered a long time. We have suffered by men, by other women, and by our own hand. Women of color have suffered doubly, as have LGBTQA women. Knowing this we must read about mad women in literature not with fear or disgust, but an abiding empathy—and then turn that understanding and empathy towards the real mentally ill women who need our support today.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-7233
Rape, Sexual Assault, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN): (800) 799-7233