A Monster in the House: Gothic and Victorian Representations of Female Madness explores female madness and mental illness as perceived by Gothic and Victorian society over the span of three literary works: The Fall of the House of Usher (1839); Jane Eyre (1847), and The Yellow Wallpaper (1892). Each text features a ‘mad’ female character--Madeline Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher), Bertha Mason (Jane Eyre), and Jane (The Yellow Wallpaper)--who symbolizes the vast inequality women of the mid-to-late 1900s endured. Each character challenges social and religious mores and subverts the established order of a sacrosanct, male-dominated perspective. In Victorian society, female divergence was equated with madness and “moral insanity.” The penalty was isolation, confinement, and/or the woman’s complete removal from society. Depression, aggression, overt sexuality and excessive mental or physical stimulation are just a few of the characteristics considered to be socially inappropriate. In assessing these texts, this essay examines and problematizes the prevailing medical practices and beliefs of the time, the mischaracterization and demonization of natural biological female functions, and the prescribed medical treatments and cures for madness (insanity) and mental illness. Furthermore, this essay reveals how each text features female characters who weaponize their madness to usurp their male oppressors, and as tools to speak out against the hegemonic discourse. A common theme to many Gothic and Victorian novels is the threat posed by female characters whose behavior directly challenges then-contemporary social, behavioral and religious standards. In defense of these institutionalized mores, the deviant character is portrayed as “morally insane,” or inherently evil. What bridges these texts together are the unifying themes of female mental illness, sexual prowess, societal stereotypes, and how each of these female characters employed their madness in an effort to resist and overcome persecution.
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