Madness Oppression And Unfulfilled Aspirations In Sylvia English Literature Essay

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This thesis attempts to study two novels by Edith Wharton and Sylvia Plath , and further represents the silent anonymous others who have existed behind the curtains of mental illness. It also attempts to examine the women of the asylum who have been cast aside for their 'otherness' and particularly those with unfulfilled aspirations, overshadowing marriages and frustrated potentials.

This study not only examines these women artists who have been labeled "mad" and who live in the private world of emotional suffering undergoing psychiatric conditions of depression, but also tries to answer some of the following questions :

a) What is madness?

b) Why is mental illness considered a 'stigma'?

c) What are the circumstances in a woman's life that drive her "out of her mind"?

B- Outline

I- Introduction

What does society think of madness? Is it perceived a weakness, a stigma or a curse? Or is it simply classified as an illness? Then, let's think of all the creative minds of Charles Beaudelaire, Guy de Maupassant, William Blake,Aghatha Christie, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Henry James, John Keats, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Silvia Plath, Charlotte Perkins Gilman , Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and Anne Sexton. They all suffered depression. Some went completely out of their minds, and others committed suicide. We can also add Michel Foucault who suffered sporadic bouts of depression and a suicide attempt in 1948. Now, let's imagine that attempt was successful?! We would be so miserable not to read his fabulous texts. In fact, the above list is just a sample and can contain tens of artists of all domains, from different societies, and in different eras. In fact, if we try to give a full record of all the artists who suffered mental illnesses, the list will include more men than women. Not because men are more likely to fall in depression than women, but because society has been dramatically more unjust to mentally-ill women than to mentally-ill men. Mentally-ill women have been shunned and denied any activity. Society has for a long time institutionalized and confined mentally-ill women and rejected their creativity. Many female artists who saw themselves as "outside" of the general public because of a mental illness were likely to have a take on society and humanity quite different from the "inside" man or woman. In order to further justify this statement, I need to answer the following questions:

What does the term madness mean when it refers to women?

How are mad women represented in modern American literature?

The main purpose of the thesis: why, who and how?

- Why a combined analysis of madness and oppression?

- Who are the two American female writers being studied?

- What approach will the analysis of the two novels take?

II- Chapter One: The different approaches that have studied the phenomenon of female 'mental illnesses' and psychiatric conditions.

For centuries, mad persons were considered evil beings who could be treated by only three healers : a physician, a priest or a sorcerer. The year 1100 is the first record of an asylum founded in Europe exclusively for those who suffer from mental illnesses. Still, casting out the devil was the common treatment for the mentally ill. In fact, in Medieval Europe, the mentally ill were labeled witches and assumed to be inhabited by demons.

In 1403, St Mary of Bethelem, or Bedlam, an asylum just ouside London, first accepted psychiatric patients. However, religion had a different say on the matter. In the sixteenth century, the Pope, commissioned two priests to prepare a book concerning how to get rid of the devils and demons from the Christian world. These priests drew up a book describing the devil, the ways to know it, and how to kill it. It also describe the method of torturing the insane, with full details of various procedures and techniques of torture.

1- The pre-Freudian approach:

In 1703, John Broughton first used the word "psychology". Still the mentally ill people in America were incarcerated with criminals , many chained and beaten. In 1849, it was recorded the first use of electrical stimulation of the skin and potassium oxide to treat institutionalized patients with melancholic depression. Electrical stimulation became widespread during the ninetenth century along with the method of word association.

2- The Freudian approach:

In 1895, Sigmund Freud and Josef Breur published Studies on Hysteria, a study of the unconscious mind. Freud's psychology placed much importance on sexuality and sexual development. Freud's findings helped psychiatrists use word-association methods to uncover unconscious processes. Freud and Breur also helped in the creation of new treatment consisting of supportive discussion with hospitalized psychiatric patients.

3- The post-Freudian approach

The term "schizophrenia" was introduced in 1911 to describe a condition characterized by disorganization of thought processes, incoherence of thought and emotion and a turning inward of the patient with a splitting from reality. The split also refers to the split between the intellect and emotion, but not between personalities, as is commonly and incorrectly assumed. Although Sigmund Freud insisted that medical training was not necessary to perform psychoanalysis, the medical profession took over the field and locked psychologists out. In 1961, psychiatrist Thomas Szasz's book, The Myth of Mental Illness, amplifies earlier assertions such as those by Erving Goffman, that mental disease is a metaphor and that most patients in mental hospitals exhibit their psychotic symptoms and behaviour as a direct resullt of being hospitalized.

4- The Feminist approach

In 1978, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published The Madwoman in The Attic, now a classic text of early feminist literary criticism. They argue that those mad women writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century rebelled against the strictures of patriarchal authority. Feminist criticim produced literary texts such as Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (1985) which is a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Rhys revisits the paradigmatic figure of Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester's mad wife. Rhys's approach of the character gives her voice to convey what causes her madness. Generally speaking, Feminists state that psychiatry pathologizes women in an unfair manner and stigmatises the mad woman. As a response, Bertha Mason became a compelling metaphor for women's rebellion. Going mad has also been perceived as a response to sexual repression of women by men and society in general.

5- Michel Foucault's approach

The asylum is primarily a form and a place of institutional control. Foucault argues that the various forms of "madness" identified in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment do not represent what we now call the mental illnesses. First, Foucault criticizes traditional historians of psychiatry for attempting to identify various historical cases of schizophrenia and clinical depression. Second, he argues that madness is culturally constructed and that those who lived in radically different contexts simply could not have had modern psychiatric conditions. Third, he advocates that 'moral' and 'medical' treatments of the mad are thoroughly associated with each other and they must go hand in hand because the very identification of madness is a culturally located moral decision. Therefore, the mad has a voice uncongenial with the imperatives of modernity such as the cartesian rationality, science, and objectivity. Insanity should not be defined in absolute terms but rather in relativistic terms. Insanity is a social construction in its definition by society. In my analysis of The Bell Jar and The House of Mirth, I will use Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Hisotry of Madness, and History of Sexuality.

6- R.D Laing's approach

Sanity, for Laing, is the easy manner for man to resign his true self for the sake of the prevailing values of society. However, insanity is the failure to adjust and the consequent disturbance of this failure. Laing advocates that family, like any institution, is compsed of those who hold power and those who don't. That's why, patriarchy, as many other systems of oppression, persists. In fact, the values of any particular family will be ,of necessity, the values of those possessing the power. He notes that some individuals are faced with a dilemma of having an identity defined for them against a sense of who they experience themselves to be. This situation confuses them and leads them to what he thinks 'going crazy' entails : 'A sane response to an insane situation'. As a psychiatrist, Laing did not prescribe drugs to his patients. Instead, he focused on daily group therapy, individual therapy and ongoing inetraction. In my analysis of the two novels, The Bell Jar and The House of Mirth , I will draw upon two works by R.D Laing, The Divided Self and Politics of the Family.

II- Chapter Two: Oppression and Madness in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth

Sylvia Plath wrote only one novel in her life, The Bell Jar, in 1963. It is semi-autobiographical and it was first published under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas". The novel is often depicted as a roman à clef (a novel about real life overlaid with a façade of fiction) because the main protagonist's descent into mental illness parallels Plath's own experience of clinical depression. The main protagonist in the novel is Esther Greenwood, an intern at a prominent magazine in New York city. Her experiences during her stay in the big city disturbed her. Her association with two colleagues, adventurous Doreen, and pious Betsy pulled her toward two extremes. Flashbacks of Esther's relationship with her ex-boyfriend Buddy, and of her early college years serve to convey how much of her identity is centered upon succeeding academically. Unsure of what to make of her life once she learns that she is not accepted for a writing course given by a world-famous author, Esther could not grasp the choices presented to her, mainly of motherhood and marriage. Consequently, she descends into an increasing depression and severe insomnia. Her mother strongly recommends that she sees a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon, prescribes electronvulsive therapy, ECT. The "treatment" reminds Esther of the eloctrocuted Rosenbergs. In fact, the novel opens with this very incident which affected Esther momentarily. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were American communists convicted and executed on June 19, 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage during a time of war. Their execution was the only execution of civilians for espionage in the United States history. ECT made Esther's mental state worse. She describes her depression as a feeling of being trapped under a bell jar, struggling for breath. She makes several attempts at suicide which culminate in her decision to swallow almost 50 sleeping pills.

After this dramatic episode, she survives and is sent to a different mental hospital where she is treated by a female therapist, Dr Nolan, who gives Esther large amounts of insulin to produce a "reaction", along with regular sessions of psychotherapy. However, Dr Nolan, prescribes shock treatments to Esther too, but this time Esther says they have antidepressive effects. Dr. Nolan refers Esther to a doctor who fits her for a diaphgram. This means of contraception makes Esther feel free from fears of the consequences of sex and marriage. Esther is expected to become a housewife and this idea summarizes the question of socially accepted identity. Esther is imprisoned in a situation that confuses her about her own thoughts and feelings. She is induced to think that she owns the socially approved thoughts and feelings that others want her to have.

RD Laing names this situation as 'mapping'. It occurs when a person 'maps' some accepted social definition of reality onto his/her experience and then acts as if that map reflected his/her experience. Esther's personal experience is very different from the 'mapped' pseudo-experience and from the societal expectations concerning decisions about a potential career and family. However, despite the fact that Esther could not yet decide on which career path to pursue, she does not submit to those imposed on her. She also resists pressures of 'proper' codes of behaviour especially concerning sexuality. In fact, she holds a conflicting view of female sexuality. She divides the world into two distinct categories, those who have had sexual experience and those who did not. She also seems to be preoccupied with her virginity throught the novel. It is only when Esther takes control of her sexuality (through the diaphragm) that she finds a sense of recovery and a better mental health. She has become free from the confinement of the bell jar at last. This memoir also aimss to study how Sylvia Plath relates sexuality to violence against women through the study of Marco's attempt to rape Esther.

Edith Wharton, published The House Of Mirth in 1905 at a time of great industrial expansion in the United States, America's Gilded Age (1876-1901). Wharton sets her novel in the environment of the great cities where the rich become much richer and the poor much poorer, that is, in big cities like New York where on one block lived millionnaires in mansions and on another block immigrant families gathered in tenements. The House of Mirth depicts two years in the life of Lily Bart, an ambitious woman who aspires to move up to the first block, that of the millionnaires. Her obsession with money prevents her from marrying the man she really loves because he is not wealthy enough. Lily Bart's life is the very articulation of unfulifilled aspirations. Her society is governed by the principle that only some members of it are destined for success, while others are doomed for failure. Wharton condemns the elitist world of women such as Bertha Dorset, the antagonist who uses her money and power to thwart others's ambitions. On the other hand, Lily Bart is the embodiment of a woman who wants love but aspires to a status amongst the upper-class New York social circles. Lily's disappointment and her slide down to poverty lead her to depression and to what appears to be a suicide. It is when Lily loses love and wealth that the author offers death as the only other 'safe' place for an unfulifilled woman.

Indeed, it is true that Esther 's unfulfilled ambitions were intellectual and at different level than those of Lily's, whose aspirations were mainly maternal, but in both cases, the emotional motif prevails. Their process of adjustement (or failure to) to an overriding social reality came at the expense of their basic aspirations. Lily underwent, intentionally, a process of abjuration by which she attempted to inscribe herself in a new society. When she fails, she feels marginalised and alien to both the old and the new worlds. On the other hand, Esther veers toward severe depression as a result of a failure to adjust and to compromise her basic principles.

III- Chapter Three: The Bell Jar and The House of Mirth under the lens of Postmodernism

The focus of this section will be the discussion of the accuracy of Foucault's and Laing's specific claims about the mad, and society's response to madness. Furthermore, I will attempt to identify the ontological classification of madness, is it essentially the concern of medicine, morality, sociology or psychology ? What is interesting about postmodernism here is the perception of realities as social constructs and therefore as subject to change. Postmodernist thinkers challenge the notion of rationality and embrace other elements such as madness (Foucault), desire (Deleuze and Guttari) and carnival (Kristeva). Postmodernists claim that reason is not universal as they celebrate notions of diversity, difference, chaos and madness.