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The poetics of hysterics: Feminine madness in Victorian English and modern Chinese women's literature





This dissertation explores a significant subject in both women's literature and feminist literary criticism, namely, "the figure of the madwoman." Using the image of hysteria as a metaphor for feminine madness, the study focuses on the connection between madness and female imprisonment, and between madness and female empowerment. It is not by chance that hysteria (significantly derived from the Greek word for "uterus") was originally conceived as an exclusively female malady--i.e., as the lot of women. And it is not by chance that, in Western culture, there seems to exist a definite correlation between women and madness. Yet, is this quintessential association between women and madness an exclusively Western cultural construction? Is there a relationship between women and madness in the East, specifically, in China? And, if so, how can we characterize this relationship? To answer these questions, this study concentrates on three pairs of works, by and about women, from Victorian English and modern Chinese literature: Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Eileen Chang's "The Golden Cangue"; Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Ts'ung Su's The Diary of a Madwoman; George Eliot's Daniel Deronda and Li Ang's The Butcher's Wife. The grouping of these authors is not arbitrary. Classics from Victorian female literary canon, in particular Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, are commonly read by modern Chinese women. The Victorian classics thus bind together those English and Chinese women writers who are geographically and historically distant from one another. Moreover, both Victorian and modern Chinese women's literature were produced within similar historical contexts: i.e., in the early phases of their respective national women's movements. Feminine madness in these women's writings, therefore, represents a particular response to patriarchal culture during an age of growing feminism. Through an analysis of these writings, this dissertation delineates three major prototypes of the figure of the madwoman--"the madwoman in the attic," "the split female self," and "the murderous wife"--as a means of exploring the subject of women and madness. This study, thereby, provides a sort of revision to contemporary feminist discourse on female insanity. Contemporary feminist criticism is more likely to stress pleasure than suffering--the freeing of repressed female desire as opposed to the burden of womanhood. This emphasis on the pleasurable aspect of the freeing of desire obscures many more profound tensions in women's lives. Based on the analysis of women's writings from two different cultures, this study emphasizes repression instead of expression. While contemporary feminist criticism tends to celebrate madness as a subversive force resulting from the freeing of desire, this study illustrates that madness symptomizes the repression of female desire and, indeed, represents a cry for help, a manifestation of political impotence, and a sign of how desperate the struggle of the powerless can be. U of I Only ETDs are only available to UIUC Users without author permission

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