10 ‘Madwomen’ from Literature Who Were Probably Just Misunderstood
Perceptions of mental health have changed dramatically in the last two centuries. ‘Madness’ was once something to be feared and hidden away. However, the emphasis now is on holistic approaches where mental health issues can be discussed as part of a wider conversation on acceptance and tolerance.
Fiction writers have drawn on the ‘madwoman’ motif for centuries, from heroines suffering from a classically Victorian ‘attack of the vapours’ to the downright criminally insane. The female psyche seems to have endured as one of literatures most popular plot devices. It provides a fascinating insight into how mental health was perceived at the time of writing.
As opinions change we can re-examine some of these so called ‘madwomen’ and ask ourselves, were they mad? Or were they just misunderstood?
10 Mrs Danvers
Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
Rebecca is arguably Du Maurier’s finest novel. Most famous for featuring a protagonist who is dead and so entirely absent from the story – the character of Rebecca is given life through Mrs Danvers inability to move on from her death. Rebecca is narrated by the second Mrs de Winter as she tells her story of living in another (dead) woman’s shoes. In the story, she struggles to put her mark on a household who are still enthralled by the first Mrs de Winter (Rebecca). Mrs Danvers creepy behaviour and insidious mentions of Rebecca to the second Mrs de Winter is certainly cause for alarm, let alone that she keeps one wing of Manderley, the stately home in which the novel is set, as a shrine to Rebecca.
The second Mrs de Winter remains nameless – except of course for her married name. This is a deliberate literary device used by Du Maurier to strip the second Mrs de Winter of any authority in the story and in her narration. The result is that Rebecca is revered by both the characters and the reader. It’s a wonder the second Mrs de Winter didn’t succumb to madness herself. (1)
The final act of insanity comes towards the end of the novel, when Manderley goes up in flames. Who lit the fire is never resolved, but Du Maurier leaves the reader with little doubt that Mrs Danvers had a hand in it. (2)
Of course, these days, Mrs Danvers reaction to the death of Rebecca would be seen as a natural consequence of grieving for a loved one. She would probably have received some form of counselling, a cup of tea and compassionate leave – but that wouldn’t make quite such an impactful story, would it?
9 Miss Havisham
Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
It is hard to choose a memorable character from the many works of Charles Dickens, but Miss Havisham – in all her jilted glory – has become synonymous with the madness of a woman scorned who is unable to move on from her heartache.
You can’t help but feel a tad sorry for poor Miss H. After all, being abandoned on your wedding day, of all days, is about as low as it gets in relationship terms.
Miss Havisham internalizes her anger at her situation by literally living a death-in-life (3). By stopping her life at the moment of humiliation she self-indulgently remains in a state of perpetual anger and vengefulness. She then projects this on to all of mankind, not just the man who jilted her. By interfering in Pip and Estella’s relationship, she seeks to accomplish a twisted scheme to ensure that yet more hearts get broken. Bunny boilers have got nothing on Miss H. (4)
Is she mad? Probably – but with good reason. The poor woman clearly needs some girlfriends to go around with a bottle of wine, popcorn and a movie and to be told that she “can do so much better.” Failing that there’s always Valium.
8 Bertha Rochester
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
If ever a fictional character was totally let down by society, it’s got to be poor Bertha Rochester. The original ‘madwoman in the attic’, Bertha Rochester is the first wife of Edward (Mr) Rochester – the eponymous Jane’s employer and future husband. Having been transplanted from the Colonies to a freezing cold England with a disinterested husband, and then locked up in a draughty attic, it’s of little wonder she’s gone mad. (5)
She certainly fits the criminally insane profile, with her evil “demoniac” laugh and violent acts. Firstly, she sets fire to Mr Rochester’s bed during a night time wandering. Then she bites her brother, as well as ripping Jane’s wedding veil in half. However, there are many among us who’d be pretty furious if their spouse had locked them in an attic and then started having it off with the nanny (6). And her brother doesn’t appear in the least bit concerned that his brother in law has locked up his sister – which is probably why she bites him (7).
The fact she would rather commit suicide by jumping off a building than spend another day locked up in the attic of Thornfield Hall speaks volumes about the mental state she has been driven to. Definitely a case of madness caused by environment rather than genetics. Someone get the poor woman a therapist…
7 Emma Bovary
Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
More deluded than mad, Emma Bovary is the wife of a provincial doctor. Her boredom and inability to accept the life to which she is tied leads her to commit a series of indiscretions. These include love affairs and accruing an insurmountable amount of debt. The latter ultimately drives her to commit suicide. Her highly romanticized view of the world is the real culprit in her downfall; hastened along by a very dull husband and the banality of every-day life.
Madame Bovary rattled a few cages when it was first serialized in the 19th Century. It was attacked for being obscene and a threat to the natural laws of society i.e. that women should just put up and shut up. Emma Bovary has been described variously as a bourgeois narcissist (8) and a neurotic (9). Essentially, she married the wrong guy and paid the price – who can blame her for indulging in a little extra-curricular love and retail therapy?
Yes, she had high aspirations but these days she probably would have divorced the ever-boring Charles and married someone wealthy to get her kicks – thus solving all her problems in one fell swoop.
6 Anne Catherick
The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
One of the first ‘sensation fiction’ novels of the Victorian era, The Woman in White paved the way for modern genres such as psychological thrillers and suspense fiction (10). The story centre’s around a villainous plot involving mistaken identity, incarceration and murder – all to protect the good name of the central male character, Sir Percival Glyde. In order to protect his ‘secret’ and therefore get his hands on his wife’s money, he must falsely incarcerate the eponymous Woman in White, Anne Catherick, because she knows what the secret is and has the potential to destroy him.
‘Knowledge’ should, in theory, equal ‘power’, but in Anne’s case the era in which her fictional character lives is prohibitive of this (11). The ease at which Sir Percival is able to abuse the lunacy laws and have her committed for being slightly ‘idiotic’ is indicative of the patriarchal society the characters inhabit (12).
Collin’s never really reveals the extent of Anne Catherick’s ‘idiocy’ (to use the Victorian term) but given that she is capable of escaping the asylum, assessing the danger to Laura (Sir Percival’s wife) and warning her of it, one can surmise that she has most of her faculties about her.
A classic case of being let down by society.
5 Lady Macbeth
Macbeth – William Shakespeare
The Godmother of all literary villainesses – she’s mad, she’s bad and she’s on a power trip – there is no stopping Lady Macbeth from her murderous rampage. Or is there? Interestingly, it is the guilt of her actions that she finally succumbs to; pushing her over the edge and ultimately leading her to kill herself (13).
The text itself isn’t short of madness indicators, from calling on spirits to unsex her and fill her up with cruelty to threatening to kill an infant if it stood in the way of her world domination. It’s safe to say that Lady M has all the hallmarks of a psychopath, but perhaps given an alternative outlet for her ambitious plans, she might have turned out differently. Maybe her calling should have been CEO of a FTSE 100 company….
4 Catherine Earnshaw
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
“Nelly, I am Heathcliff!” Emily Bronte’s one and only published novel isn’t short on crazy behaviour – from violence and emotional manipulation, to Heathcliff’s and Cathy’s much-talked-about spiritual bond. The Gothic Romance novel is a study of what happens when love turns to obsession (14).
One can sympathise with Cathy to some extent – Heathcliff is a ‘rogue’ and a ‘cad’ (to steal some fitting Victorian terms). He has a bit more about him than the more socially acceptable (but also incredibly dull) Linton. Cathy is bound by moral and social codes that determine that she should marry the wealthy and dependable Linton, despite her heart belonging to someone else. Yet again, society has a lot to answer to….
Was she mad? She just loved Heathcliff a bit too much than is healthy – and we’ve all been there…
Hamlet – William Shakespeare
Ophelia’s contribution to Hamlet is minimal, yet her character has transcended the play to become one of the great symbols of female tragedy. She is, even to this day, represented through painting, literature and popular culture (15).
Ophelia is yet another tragic heroine who is driven to insanity by the men around her. Firstly, by her father and the King, and then Hamlet himself. Each use and manipulate her to fulfil their own plans and desires. The sudden and shocking end to her father, Polonius, is probably the final nail in the coffin for the doomed Ophelia. Shortly afterwards she succumbs to full on madness, as evidenced by her ‘bawdy ballards’ and sudden interest in wild flowers and herbs (16).
Clearly, having a bit of a drunken sing-song and showing an interest in holistic therapy was enough to get you certified in days of yore. The poor girl didn’t stand a chance.
The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe
One of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famously creepy short-stories – The Fall of the House of Usher is literally a study of madness and all that is gruesome about it. Roderick Usher keeps his twin sister Madeline confined in a dark room upstairs. When questioned by the narrator, a visiting guest to the house, the reason given is that she is suffering from an undefined mental illness and wasting away (17). Roderick himself displays several behaviours that are consistent with mental illness – such as an aversion to light and food, nervousness and mania. To compound matters, Roderick then tries to bury Madeline alive. The latter then manages to escape and kills her brother – bravo to her!
It’s difficult to know whether Madeline was mad or not, since she isn’t given a voice in the story, but it’s probably safe to assume that the brother definitely was, and she was driven mad as a result of his delusions (and being buried alive)
1 Unnamed Narrator
The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Yellow Wallpaper was semi-autobiographical and is narrated by an unnamed woman who has been prescribed confinement and bed rest as a result of female ‘hysteria’. The catch-all diagnosis of ‘hysteria’ (18), which was bandied about without restraint in Victorian times, was a convenient reason to ensure women fitted in with patriarchal social codes (19). In other words, women were expected to fit certain social norms, such as wives and mothers. Anything outside of this was considered abnormal. The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper literally goes out of her mind with boredom as she has no mental stimulus.
This unfortunate misdiagnosis and subsequent ‘treatment’ is actually the cause of madness in this case.
By misunderstanding that the women of history were capable of thinking for themselves, and any autonomous thought was tantamount to madness, it’s easy to see how ‘misunderstood’ can suddenly become ‘mad’. The real madness lies in how long it took society to realise this…