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The 'Hysterical' Author: Tracing the Gendered Mental Landscape

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Female authors throughout different historical, cultural and social contexts have written extensively in response to their contemporary/immediate reality and each has addressed the woman question in her way. Although these responses vary in nature, form, and content, a common factor in all of them has been a reactionary instinct. Female writers react to ideas surrounding women in the gender discourse, which has—historically, at least—been a male-dominated discourse. Within such a discourse, women writers have struggled to find their voice and stage female interventions into notions about women/womanhood, notions which are androcentric/patriarchal in nature. Foundational to this struggle has been the mediation of women authors through language which is largely phallocentric. Two important female writers who are interesting to study in this respect are Anne Bradstreet and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Bradstreet’s ‘Prologue’ and ‘The Author to Her Book’ and Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ are complex renderings of female authors responding to androcentric notions of their time, be it notions relating to literature or medicine. They reveal the passive positions assigned to women in a phallocentric universe and how, directly and/or indirectly women negotiate these restraints placed upon their thinking process, their intellectual capabilities, their mental landscapes, even their very self. The term ‘mental landscape’ is used here to refer to the interior, mental processes of and responses to a given social, cultural and political environment given by a person. The term is not supposed to invoke the picture of a unified, static entity. Rather it is to be used as a medium to understand the ‘self’ as that which is fluid, porous and responsive to changing conditions within and without. This paper does not aim at arriving at a resolved answer to the mental/spiritual dilemmas of the ‘I’, but instead seeks to explore the invariable connection between one’s self-identity and their mental landscape and the way the ‘I’ negotiates through ‘self’-narrativisation.

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), often credited as America’s first poet, is best remembered for ‘The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America’, a collection of her poems which was published in 1650. Born to a wealthy Puritan family in Northampton, England, Bradstreet is widely regarded as America’s first published poet and as one of the most important poets of the Puritan period. In her day and age, Puritan, as well as patriarchal views, accorded men primacy in literary discourses and public spaces. In examining how a female author like Bradstreet mediated these circumstances, her poems, especially ‘Prologue’, prove crucial.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a prominent American humanist, who wrote, among other things, novels and short stories. She purported feminist views in her writing and explored utopian feminism in her novel, ‘Herland’. Her best-remembered work today is her semi-autobiographical short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), which she wrote after her prolonged battle with mental illness. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has been noted by several feminists to be an important study of the condition of diseased women under an androcentric discipline of medicine in the nineteenth century.

Before tracing the gendered mental landscape in their works, the question arises: what does one mean by a mental landscape that is ‘gendered’? The debate whether men and women think/write differently has existed for centuries. Are men and women so strongly and definitely shaped by preconceived norms of generic gender/sexual identities so as to never be able to transcend them in their writing? Or is literature a realm where such transgressions and subversions can occur?

Varying social, political and cultural climates across different spatial and temporal contexts have had one thing in common- the presence of androcentrism since antiquity. As noted by several feminists, male domination, coupled with the exclusion of women from public spaces and their seclusion into private spaces, has established a center-periphery dynamic in terms of gender. This dynamic has been constructed along the Cartesian mind-body split which sees Man as the mind, the locus of all intellectual and cultural thought and women as an unthinking being limited to and by the functions of her body. In such male-dominated gender discourse, woman has always been identified as the ‘Other’. This dichotomy has been identified by Simone de Beauvoir as that of the ‘absolute’ and the ‘Other’. She says: ‘…for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity…He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other” (15-6).

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This power asymmetry between the sexes has been reflected in literature as well. Susan Gubar writes about how Jacques Derrida in his criticism of ‘phallogocentrism’, equated the object that is the ‘pen’ (inherently associated with writing and creating) with the male sexual/reproductive organ that is the ‘penis’. Here the ‘pen’ gets visualised as a phallic image associated exclusively with the male. The woman could be idealised/revered as an object of beauty, as an object art but she could never be the maker, the creator. Hence, the male author handling the pen-penis is given primacy, the woman merely his ‘passive creation’, a ‘secondary object lacking autonomy’ (253).

It is precisely this treatment that Gilman’s protagonist receives at the hands of her husband, John, who is a ‘physician of high standing’. He has diagnosed his wife with ‘temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency’. The language of the diagnosis highlights another interesting way of analysing the gendered mental landscape: by studying women’s struggle with language. The behavioral tendencies of women constructed under medical science forbid counter-interrogation and impose the ideology of women as emotionally and mentally fragile.

In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ the diagnosis of hysteria or depression, conventional ‘women’s diseases’ of the nineteenth century, sets in motion a therapeutic regimen which involves language in several ways. The narrator is forbidden to engage in normal social conversation. Because she does not feel free to speak truthfully ‘to a living soul,’ she confides her thoughts to a journal—’dead paper’—instead. The only safe language is dead language (61).

The female ‘I’ here exhibits a mental landscape that is restricted and constrained at the hands of a superior, scientific (and of course, male) authority. Deprived of any stimulation of whatsoever, the ‘I’ takes refuge in focussing all its energies into analysing the yellow wallpaper on the walls of the room she is confined to. What begins with a slight distaste at the design and aesthetics of the wallpaper, soon turns into an obsession. Her mind completely taken over by the wallpaper, the wife soon starts hallucinating that a woman is trapped behind it and decides to help her by ripping the paper off the walls. Since she is prohibited to write/create through pen and paper, the wife’s shackled mind looks for other avenues to release its power and ends up ‘creating’ the woman behind the wallpaper, a creation only for the wife’s eyes. Finally, the wife is able to free the ‘woman’ trapped behind the paper, even if ‘her’ release from captivity comes at the cost of her own sanity. Mustering the finals efforts of her mind and spirit begging to be set free, the ‘I’ becomes one with the free woman, someone who has broken free of her constraints once and for all.

This anthropomorphic treatment of an object conceived through imagination is as remarkable as it is emotionally evocative. Something similar also happens in Bradstreet’s ‘The Author to Her Book’. Bradstreet laments about the ‘ill-formed offspring’ of her ‘feeble brain’ and how it was prematurely taken away from her ‘by friends less wise than true’, no doubt referring to the publication of her poetry by her brother-in-law, Rev. John Woodbridge without her permission. From her verses, one can detect the uneasiness surrounding the idea of women ‘creating’ through their mind when traditionally they are allowed to do so only through their bodies. Both Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Bradstreet’s ‘The Author to Her Book’ can be said to exhibit conscious, sub-conscious assertions of the self—the self which had been earlier pushed into a corner. Both show the tension between ‘creation’ and ‘procreation’ and how women have been marginalised in terms of the former even though they have sole rights over the latter (Friedman, 52). Both display women being horrified yet inexplicably drawn to their creations, though Gilman’s protagonist becomes one with hers by the story’s conclusion while Bradstreet arguably tries to distance herself from hers.

Bradstreet’s ‘Prologue’ displays more subtlety and self-restraint in terms of emotion and the language used than in ‘The Author to Her Book’. Here, the tools of irony and diplomacy allow the emergence of a self-reflexive authorial self that is aware that it is a peripheral female voice speaking to a mainstream public audience that thinks her ‘hands a needle better fits’. The ‘I’ here shows surprising strength, perhaps because it is secure in the knowledge of Bradstreet’s literary prowess. Due to this, there remains an argumentative tension between Bradstreet’s ‘authorial humility’ and her ‘spirited self-defense’ that is visible throughout her poem (Eberwein, 19). She says that she will not speak of great things like wars and kings but then proceeds to refer to a prestigious literary lineage that draws from Guillaume du Bartas and Philip Sidney, both very well-known poets. Thus there is certainly an ambivalence to the way the ‘I’ argues, an ambivalence which in hindsight was a very clever poetic device to use considering the Puritan Age Bradstreet lived and wrote in which was an age where according to Richard Gray, her title of ‘woman poet’ would have been considered ‘oxymoronic’ (11). Bradstreet’s subtlety and poetic humility thus earned her praise and acclaim in her lifetime and saved her from suffering a fate like that of Anne Hutchinson, one of the more vocal/radical dissenters of Bradstreet’s time.

Anne Bradstreet and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in their works discussed above, can be seen grappling with the dual identity of being a woman and being an author, a duality that has traditionally been considered unnatural. Though the forms and genres they wrote in differ, one can sense in them a common anxiety of wanting to break free from the centuries-old mold in which women and their capabilities have been confined in. The question here is not to determine which one of them was more radical and hence more successful in their authorial ventures, but to analyse and appreciate the different ways women writers have become empowered to interrogate societal and literary norms about women/womanhood and take political stances on the same. If the saying “Personal is Political” is true, then women’s subjectivity and their mental landscapes have become increasingly politicised through their writing. Even if men and women have not completely broken free from pre-established ways of thinking (assuming it is possible in the first place), literature certainly has emerged as a space where transgressions of identities can occur and women writers have, no doubt played a significant role in this.

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The ‘Hysterical’ Author: Tracing the Gendered Mental Landscape. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-hysterical-author-tracing-the-gendered-mental-landscape/
“The ‘Hysterical’ Author: Tracing the Gendered Mental Landscape.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-hysterical-author-tracing-the-gendered-mental-landscape/
The ‘Hysterical’ Author: Tracing the Gendered Mental Landscape. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-hysterical-author-tracing-the-gendered-mental-landscape/> [Accessed 27 Nov. 2022].
The ‘Hysterical’ Author: Tracing the Gendered Mental Landscape [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2022 Nov 27]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-hysterical-author-tracing-the-gendered-mental-landscape/
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