Mad Embodiments: Female Corporeality and Insanity in Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar – Venla Oikkonen

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 3, 2004

Literary Studies

© 2004 Venla Oikkonen





Venla Oikkonen



For more than two thousand years, madness has carried strong associations with female corporeality. While the assumed cause of insanity has varied from the ancient “wandering womb” to the more modern PMS,1 the gendered associations of madness have not changed significantly. Not surprisingly, one of the main targets of feminist criticism since the early 1970s have been the representations of mad women in cultural and medical texts. While some feminists have criticised these representations for equating women with their bodies by connecting mental instability with menarche, menstruation, pregnancy and menopause (see, for example, Ussher 11, 74), others have pointed out that “madness, even when experienced by men, is metaphorically and symbolically represented as feminine: a female malady” (Showalter 4).

During the past decade, the early feminist scholarship on madness has received severe criticism for its tendency to “metaphorise” madness, to view insanity as a socially constructed category (used to punish nonconformist female behaviour) and women’s mental problems as (conscious or unconscious) rebellion against patriarchal gender roles.2 Although these critics have an important point – madness does not empower the mad – they have rejected the study of female insanity as a cultural metaphor perhaps too eagerly for fear of ignoring the reality of the mentally ill. While it is crucial to acknowledge mental patients’ suffering and the physiological aspects of mental illnesses, we should not forget that cultural representations of madness play a significant role both in female patients’ experiences of their own illness and in the expectations of their societies.3 This “representational power” of madness – “madness” itself a slippery term standing for a variety of mental problems – is best studied not in the laboratory or psychiatric clinic but in female patients’ autobiographical accounts. It is in these reflective textual representations that the concrete effects of the Western ideology of “the female body as mad” are to be found, for these texts respond to cultural values as well as spring from first-hand experiences of insanity.

This paper will address representations of female madness in Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water (1961) and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), two well-known autobiographical texts that have so far been viewed almost exclusively in terms of gender roles; the historical association of madness with female corporeality has hardly gained any attention in the context of these two novels.4 The novels describe the treatment of insanity in two geographically distant places (New Zealand and the US) at around the same time (late 1940s/early 1950s), thus offering us two distinct expressions of Anglophone culture at a historical moment that, according to Marta Caminero-Santangelo, marks a sudden flurry of women’s asylum accounts5 and the beginning of a period when the madwoman became an important cultural image (Caminero-Santangelo 4).

While traditional Plath and Frame criticism has tended to see madness as a result of repressive gender roles (or, in non-feminist accounts, of repressive social roles),6 I would like to shift the focus to the body itself. I suggest that the cultural negotiations over the meaning of madness, as portrayed in both Faces in the Water and The Bell Jar, are in fact less about gender (or social) expectations than about the visibility and representations of the female body (though, as we will see, the line between a “psychological” gender role and “material” corporeality is an unstable one). In both novels, the female body is a site of a conflict between cultural expectations and personal needs. On the one hand, society considers madness not as an illness but as bad behaviour, as women’s refusal to hide their sexuality and to tame their threatening femaleness by subjecting their bodies to male control. In other words, madness is seen by society as the “untamed” female body. For Frame and Plath’s protagonists, on the other hand, madness is caused by a cultural denial of that very same body. However, both writers refuse to see madness simply as rebellion. While caused to a great extent by the gendered expectations of the surrounding patriarchal society, insanity is nevertheless portrayed as an impairing illness, resulting in a loss of corporeal agency.

My analysis benefits from the theoretical insights of recent corporeal feminism, which has repeatedly questioned the traditional feminist binaries female/feminine and sex/gender. Such theorists as Judith Butler, Donna Haraway and Elizabeth Grosz have argued that what we consider “natural” or “biological” has in fact a long, unstable genealogy.7 In Grosz’s words, bodies “are not only inscribed, marked, engraved, by social pressures external to them but are the products, the direct effects, of the very social constitution of nature itself” (Grosz x). Furthermore, Butler argues, the traditional distinction between sex and gender is not only artificial but also heteronormative, as it works on the assumption that two opposing genders (masculine/feminine) are imposed on two opposing sexes (male/female) that desire each other (Gender Trouble 6).

Particularly interesting in the case of madness is Butler’s suggestion that we should see “the matter of bodies as a kind of materialization governed by regulatory norms in order to ascertain the workings of heterosexual hegemony in the formation of what qualifies as a viable body” (Bodies that Matter 16). In other words, in order to be positioned as subjects within the Symbolic, bodies need to fulfil the norms of “a viable body”, a process that involves gendering, becoming a woman or a man (in the culturally accepted sense of these words). What does not match the norms is rendered unintelligible, the abject that is denied but necessary for the maintenance of the Symbolic. As mad bodies are repeatedly considered as not proper bodies and mad subjects as not proper subjects, Butler’s concepts of “viable body” and “the body as a product” could help explain how certain bodies go mad, how and why they are seen as mad by others, and why they are experienced as threatening by the mad (non)subjects themselves.

In agreement with Butler’s position, Grosz has argued for the significance of theorising the leakage between the interior and exterior of the body, sketching a project that rebuts the mind/body dichotomy along with any kind of mind/body holism (Volatile Bodies). For Grosz, it is exactly the simultaneous inseparability and incompatibility of the inside and the outside that reveals the far from non-violent merging of the cultural and the material in female embodiment. By viewing theories that conceive subjectivity as a psychic rewriting of the physical (Freud, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty), on the one hand, and theories that see the body as a surface for social inscription of psychic interiority (Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari), on the other, she builds a basis for a new corporeal feminism, which, by acknowledging “the Möbius strip” model of the body, would be able to theorise gendered subjectivity and embodiment in a complex and non-essentialist way (Volatile Bodies 117). I believe that this view of the body as a volatile border between the cultural and the material, a precondition for all experience as well as for the status of a subject, can suggest how, on the one hand, discourses of femaleness, femininity and insanity participate in the social production of “mad” bodies and, on the other hand, how madwomen’s experiences of their own corporeality relate to those cultural discourses.

In what follows, I will argue that Grosz’s and Butler’s theoretical insights are useful in examining why mad female bodies are seen simultaneously as non-bodies (that is, as failing to qualify as viable bodies) and as emphatically bodily (that is, as carnal, sexual and uncontrollable), a paradox that evades easy explanation.

Living a Bodily Paradox: Failures to Disguise the Disgusting

The protagonists of Frame and Plath’s novels, Istina Mavet in Faces in the Water and Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, seem to suffer from schizophrenia, the new “female malady”, which, according to Showalter, replaced hysteria as the symbolic female disease after the First World War (Showalter 203).8 Both novels have been frequently read as protests against the mid-twentieth-century use of electric convulsion therapy (ECT), lobotomy and insulin treatments, which had “strong symbolic associations with feminization and with the female role” (Showalter 205).9 They have also been regularly seen as critiques of the narrow feminine role that both American and New Zealand society prescribed for women.10 The absence of alternatives for intellectual women is indeed presented as a significant reason – though undoubtedly not the only one – for the mental breakdowns Istina and Esther experience. However, I would argue, it is not only the gender role itself but also – and perhaps more importantly – the denial of female sexuality implied by the gender role that haunts the protagonists.

Viewed in the light of Butler’s concept of the “viable body”, both Esther and Istina can be seen as going mad because they fail to fulfil the norms of “bodily viability”, which, in the cultural context of the novels, equals “desexualisation”. As Western societies at the time functioned on strongly binary heterosexual relations and the role expected of women indicated a hiding of the body (and thus such pathologised acts as menstruation, female masturbation, or independent female sexuality), the only way to be accepted in society was to admit the “dirt” of the female body and, consequently, conceal it with a deep feeling of shame.11 Istina and Esther, however, react differently to this demand. Istina’s mental breakdown is depicted as a process of trying too hard to fulfil the expectations of a “good girl”, as she is obsessed about earning a “star for good conduct” and views herself as guilty of “badness” (badness seen as very unfeminine though profoundly female) (Frame 11-12). Most importantly, it is her “untamed” body12 that she feels she should be ashamed of, evident in her unsuccessful attempt to hide the used sanitary towels as if denying her menstruation (12).13 The same pattern of guilt and obsession follows when Istina is “on probation” after her first stay in Cliffhaven: “Have you ever been a spinster living in a small house with your sister and her husband and their new first child? Watching them rub noses and pinch and tickle and in the night, when you lie on the coffin-narrow camp cot that would not hold two people anyway, listening to them because you cannot help it?” (65). This comment implies a collision between Istina’s fear of sexuality and her envy of her sister, contributing to the impression that her madness is – to a great extent at least – caused by a failure to deny the undeniable, that is, to count as “a viable body” and thus as a proper “sexually tamed” subject.14

Unlike Istina, Esther risks insanity by consciously refusing to deny her body in marriage, which she sees as inevitable subordination parallel to that of a “kitchen mat” (Plath 85). Nevertheless, the other options available for Esther seem unsatisfactory as well; Jay Cee, the female editor of the magazine Esther works for in New York, has become too much like a man in order to succeed in her career, and Esther’s mother, as Christina Britzolakis points out (quoting Plath’s phrase in her Journals), “embodies the worst of all possible worlds – the ‘motherly breath of the suburbs’ (…) combined with female drudgery in the public sphere (the secretary who transcribes the words of men)” (Britzolakis 33). In one way or another, all these female roles also indicate a rejection of the body; in marriage, female sexuality is subordinated to patriarchal control while success in the public sphere, with the necessary childlessness, means “plug-ugly looks” like those of Jay Cee, whom Esther cannot imagine “in bed with her fat husband” (Plath 6). Particularly striking is the negativity with which Esther views Jay Cee, showing how deeply she (and Plath herself?) has internalised cultural attitudes towards women’s looks. Esther’s crisis between these alternative denials of independent female sexuality culminates in the double standard, which expects virginity from unmarried women while condoning premarital sex on the part of men, as she realises when Buddy confesses his lost virginity. Yet, at the same time, Esther also seems to be disgusted with female sexuality, visible in her view of the woman giving birth, as Britzolakis points out: while critiquing “the arrogant interventions” of male doctors, Esther’s “own intense and vigilant scrutiny … defensively wards off the horror of the female body” (Britzolakis 35).15

While the novels present Istina’s and Esther’s breakdowns as undeniably real illnesses resulting from cultural pressure to disguise the female body, they suggest that society tends to view women’s madness as bad behaviour (a refusal to hide the body) rather than actual mental illness. In The Bell Jar, Esther’s mother epitomises this cultural view, begging Esther to “be good” (Plath 179). When Esther refuses to see Doctor Gordon after her first traumatic experience of ECT, Esther’s mother betrays her view of Esther’s madness as a failure of decision to behave: “I knew you’d decide to be all right again” (145-6; emphasis added). The hospital staff share this attitude, considering punishment the right “cure” for “uncooperative” (read: unfeminine) behaviour: “At you-know-where they’ll take care of her!” one of the nurses states when Esther breaks a mirror, an object associated with femininity (175; emphasis original). In Faces in the Water, this ideology is yet stronger. The nursing staff view madness as bad conduct, which is to be punished with ECT, isolation, or – in Lawn Lodge, the disturbed “hopeless” ward in Treecroft – even with straitjackets, familiar from the early nineteenth-century asylums. Patients who can “not be taught what Matron Glass and Sister Honey decreed to be ‘a lesson‘” are subjected to yet severer punishments (40; emphasis added).

What society tries to punish in these cases is only superficially “uncooperative” behaviour; on a deeper level, the punishments are aimed at women’s refusal to fulfil conventional social expectations, particularly the demand to hide the female body and submit it to social control. This traditional cultural need to suppress “women’s supposedly unbridled carnality”, long seen as an “inevitable antecedent of madness”, has been well documented by feminists (Ussher 71-72). Shoshana Felman offers intriguing insights into how this association of madness with femaleness is constructed and maintained in Western culture. Building upon Irigaray and Derrida, Felman argues that

The Masculine . . . turns out to be the universal equivalent of the opposition: Masculine/Feminine. It is insofar as Masculinity conditions Femininity as its universal equivalent, as what determines and measures its value, that the textual paradox can be created according to which the woman is “madness,” while at the same time “madness” is the very “absence of womanhood.” The woman is “madness” to the extent that she is other, different from man. But “madness” is the “absence of womanhood” to the extent that “womanhood” is what precisely resembles the Masculine universal equivalent, in the polar division of sexual roles. If so, the woman is “madness” since the woman is difference; but “madness” is “nonwoman” since madness is the lack of resemblance. What the narcissistic economy of the Masculine universal equivalent tries to eliminate, under the label “madness,” is nothing other than feminine difference. (34-35; emphasis in original)

In other words, womanhood refuses to be captured in the cultural masculine/feminine binary, the aim of which is to maintain the status of the masculine as the universal standard; something of womanhood always falls outside the patriarchal cultural norms, and that “something” is rendered “mad” in the phallocentric economy.

Very often, I would suggest, this “something” is female corporeality. Frame and Plath’s novels imply that women have to render their bodies “disembodied” in order to be placed within society and the Symbolic. When they refuse – or, more often, fail – to tame their “dirty” flesh, they risk going mad and becoming part of the socially illegible. In both novels, the representation of madness as a failure to follow cultural imperatives is created through the symptoms a large number of the female characters suffer from: disgust at the ageing body, obsession with the functions of the body, compulsive bodily movements. In The Bell Jar, Esther meets Mrs Mole, who “laugh[s] in a rude way and slap[s] her thighs at the passing doctor”, a behaviour implying that her madness is perhaps an ultimate reaction to her life-long, confused rejection of her corporeality (Plath 181). Buddy’s ex-girlfriend Joan, a lesbian who commits suicide soon after Esther’s post-coital haemorrhage, is clearly presented as Esther’s double, whose suicide can be read symbolically as her desperate expression of disgust at heterosexual intercourse, as her confused rejection of the limited forms of female sexuality accepted by society16 – and, Diane S. Bonds argues, as Plath’s inability to imagine a lesbian alternative for women in Esther’s and Joan’s position (Bonds 56-60). Esther herself seems to suffer from an opposite “denial” of corporeal possibilities: she is so imprisoned in the heteronormative discourse about bodies that the mere possibility of lesbianism is incomprehensible to her.17

In Faces in the Water, instances of women’s confusion about their bodies are still more recurrent: there is Mrs Dean, “a middle-aged woman suffering from the fact of middle age”, whose disgust at her own body reflects the cultural disapproval of post-menopausal female bodies, as women’s supposedly unsatisfiable and therefore “dirty” sexuality no longer serves its only accepted purpose, maternity in marriage (Frame 76). There is also Mrs Ritchie, who feels that she has lost control over her own body, indicated by her repeated stories about “an operation” where “a part of [her] body, a secret part that [she] cannot name” was “stolen” by doctors (representatives of patriarchy) (59). There is Susan, who consciously insists on freezing her body (59), and Hillsie, who seems to try to deny her corporeality by exhausting her body with work (72-73). And, most revealingly perhaps, there is Totty, a fifteen-year-old girl who is simultaneously obsessed and appalled by the supposed dirtiness of her sexuality; when masturbating in the hospital park, she “began to scream at the top of her voice, ‘Stop it Totty, Totty, Totty,’ and a shuddering groan broke from her and she withdrew her hand, covered with blood, for she was menstruating and could not be made to wear a napkin” (169). Totty’s loss of control over her voice reflects her loss of control over her body.

Acting out the Discourses of Bodiliness

In both novels, the representation of the female body as mad is reinforced by the treatment of female mental patients as mere bodies. In Frame’s public understaffed hospitals this tendency is more prominent than in Plath’s mainly private institutions. While in The Bell Jar female patients are rendered mindless objects by a group of “observing” doctors and students, in Faces in the Water they are made to feel still less human by the absence of shower screens or toilet doors, and even by denying them pants or sanitary towels. In Frame’s novel, female patients are also equated with animals (“cattle chosen for exhibit”) by Istina, who seems well aware of the attitude of her society (Frame 17, 102, 98). By naming the mad women “non-human” (and thus not properly gendered), society tries to deal with bodily “deviance” that does not fit into the accepted binary corporeality of the phallic economy; considering mad women’s bodies “human” would grant them the status of subject and thus endanger the border between the discursive and the illegible.18 As a lack of naming has a similar dehumanising and thus de-empowering effect, it is not surprising that the names of the patients in the “disturbed” wards have been “almost forgotten and replaced by a nickname” (Frame 92).

Grosz’s analysis of the two traditions of Western corporeal philosophy can illuminate the presentation of madness as non-human from a slightly different, though related, angle. In Volatile Bodies, Grosz argues that one of the two major strains of philosophy, the “outside in” approach represented by Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, sees the soul merely as an effect of bodily inscription, as an illusion of psychic depth. In this light, I would suggest, the madwoman’s body can be seen as a body that is denied this illusion. It is a body produced merely as a surface without psychic interiority and is therefore not seen as properly human. As denying the psychic depth of “mad” bodies is necessary for the maintenance of the reason/madness binary upon which social order relies, madwomen are seen as unable to express themselves (no psychic interiority: no speech), and their insanity is seen as manifested in bodily symptoms. A body denied psychic interiority is not, however, necessarily powerless, for it can reveal the constructedness of the idea of psychic depth.19 Grosz’s theoretical discussion implies that much of the unease the sane experience with mentally ill is caused not only by a fear that the mad will turn out to be too much like the sane – too “human” – but also by a threat that the sane themselves are revealed not to be properly “human” (that is, lacking autonomous agency, psychic depth, unity of the subject). As Susan Schwartz’s argues in the context of Frame’s asylum texts, the novelistic madwoman can be seen as “representative of the ontological fragmentation that the sane, in misrecognizing themselves as whole, refuse to see” (Schwartz 114).

In Faces in the Water, the dehumanising attitude that the patients face in the asylum leads to a loss of identity, another indication of how powerfully cultural values affect individuals. Many of the women begin to behave as they are addressed, that is, as mere animal bodies, as non-subjects without access to language. This is also evident in the patients’ own emphasis on sexuality, which, in the discourse of madness as “untamed” female sexuality, is, of course, a behaviour expected of (and despised in) them. In the “disturbed” wards, patients lift their skirts to doctors and greet male patients “with bawdy phrases” (Frame 213, 106). Istina, too, adapts the role of an “oversexual” animal, singing “rude rhymes” (93) and urinating on the floor (95). The Bell Jar‘s Esther, too, starts acting as expected, breaking the thermometers a nurse has left on the bed, and kicking the black man who brings her food. Although the effect of cultural attitudes on the patients is obvious in both novels, we should recognise, however, that there is, to borrow Butler’s words, “no power that acts, but only reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability”, (Bodies that Matter 9). In other words, the female patients should not be seen as merely acted on by some mythical cultural power, which is falsely given the status of an agent; the women themselves are part of the process of producing that instable power. However, they do not have conscious control over this process, for the process itself is what (re)produces the women as (non)subjects. It is important to remember this point in discussions of madness, as madness is too often conceived simplistically in terms of innocence and guilt, of (ab)users of power and its victims.20

The denial of “untamed” female sexuality in Western cultures is related to other forms of denial, most importantly perhaps to the question of race. As Freud’s view of female sexuality as a “dark continent” suggests, the female body is often seen in racial terms and thereby distanced, a view which is present in female patients’ self-images in both novels. In an early state of her breakdown, Esther sees herself in the mirror as “a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically” (Plath 18) and in a later state as “a sick Indian” (112). Importantly, both images are marked as clearly negative (“idiotically”, “sick”), and they are seen as reflections in a mirror or a window, implying a culturally internalised view of women as the object of a gaze. In Faces in the Water, Istina repeatedly notes the darkened skin colour of the most severely ill (and thus the most corporeal) mental patients, whose “eyes stared dully from their leaf-brown faces – the brown colour that most of us had and that I had thought to be sunburn and windburn but that I realized was a stain of something else, a color of stagnancy spreading from inside and rising to the surface of the skin” (Frame 113). In this image of the dark colour of madness, racial non-whiteness – described negatively as “a stain” – is symbolically linked with female corporeality.21

Curing Femaleness: Attacks on the Body and the Mind

Although female patients are treated as mere uncivilised and not properly gendered bodies (in Faces in the Water particularly), the women are, ironically, simultaneously pushed towards the acquisition of the conventional feminine role of the disembodied “Angel in the House”. Recovery, in the mental institutions in Plath’s and Frame’s novels, equals becoming feminine and hiding bodily demonstrations of femaleness. This “gender training” takes place in the established class system of the asylum. The Cliffhaven and Treecroft hospitals as well as the private clinic Esther enters are divided into hierarchically positioned wards. The lower a patient is in the hierarchy, the more bodily and less human she is considered. While being in the “highest” ward (Ward Four, Ward Seven, Belsize) is made appealing with privileges (better food, parole, modern premises), the “lowest” wards (Ward Two, Lawn Lodge, Wymarck) are presented as scary and bleak (not enough food, locked doors, old premises). The hospital discourse reflects this ideology: in Faces in the Water, a patient is “taught a lesson” by transferring her “down” to a lower ward, and, in The Bell Jar, Esther is “moving up” (Plath 193). The “feminising” effect of the class system is supported by feminine ward work: in Faces in the Water, women polish floors, cook meals, do the laundry – and the more she is trusted, the more highly valued feminine chores she is given. The only way out from an asylum, Istina points out, goes through “settling in”, that is, through acquiring a feminine role (Frame 42). This gender training is also conducted through social events such as asylum dances, which include an encouraged use of make-up. In The Bell Jar, the same ideology is hinted to by the staff’s disapproval of Esther’s breaking the mirror – the article through which women learn their role as the object of male interest – and of her refusal to participate in “Occupational Therapy” (Plath 179). In this sense, the asylums in both novels are clearly heirs of the “moral management” of the nineteenth century described by Foucault.22

But gender training is by no means the only way of persuading the patients. Another means is physical treatments – ECT, lobotomy, insulin treatment – which in medical discourse are presented as “science”, based on the view of the body (as opposed to the mind) as the diseased “organ”. Physical treatments, however, can also be seen in a different light. For, if madness is seen by Istina’s and Esther’s societies as a refusal to tame the female body, physical treatments are an attempt to take over the control over the body from the uncooperative woman and thereby tame her unfeminine femaleness. Seen within the logic of the mind/body binary, the body is attacked if the mind refuses to be persuaded by imposing femininity on it.

In both novels, the focus of the critique is on the use of ECT. Both Istina and Esther see ECT as a punishment for misbehaving rather than a cure. Through the reference to the Rosenbergs on the first page, Esther equates ECT with electrocution. For Istina, ECT is “the new and fashionable means of quieting people and of making them realize that orders are to be obeyed and floors are to be polished without anyone protesting and faces are made to be fixed into smiles and weeping is a crime” (Frame 15).23 As this passage implies, ECT is both a way of robbing women of control over their own bodies and punishing unfeminine behaviour (a refusal to polish floors or hide unhappiness behind a smile).24 My reading differs here from such non-feminist interpretations of ECT as Tim Kendall’s analysis of Esther as “a victim of state control like the Rosenbergs” (Kendall 56). While I agree with Kendall’s claim that “ECT is designed to make her conform to the same social structures which are responsible for her breakdown” (56), I do not subscribe to his implicit claim that these “social structures” are mainly gender-neutral and repressive to Plath/Esther as a poet rather than as a woman. Both novels demonstrate painfully clearly that ECT is used particularly to turn unfeminine behaviour into feminine behaviour.25

Another means of control is the insulin treatment, experienced by both protagonists. This treatment, in which insulin is used to produce a coma, is clearly “reminiscent of [Dr Weir] Mitchell’s rest cure imposed upon the Victorian hysteric” (Ussher 107), as the female body is forced into a state of stereotypical passivity and childlikeness as well as fatness that resembles controlled pregnancy. Although neither Esther nor Istina detests the treatment nearly as much as the traumatising ECT, neither of them likes it. For Esther, who “[n]o matter how much [she] eat[s] . . . never put[s] on weight”, the insulin treatment means a loss of control over her body (Plath 24). Istina, too, gains weight, and as glucose is “being poured in a tube down [her] throat”, she is repeatedly forced into a dream-like state where she “struggled through the drifts” of snow that “changed suddenly to deadly black velvet, like love which overstrains itself into hate” (Frame 226). In this nightmare, she has lost control not only over her own body but over her emotions as well. Apart from insulin, the regulation of food functions as a means of controlling women’s bodies. Thus the patients in Lawn Lodge – that is, the most corporeal bodies – are denied enough nutrition, as if their untamed corporeality could be tamed by hunger. Denying food (when needed) and overfeeding (when detested) both function as tools of subjection.

The cruellest of the physical “cures”, however, is psychosurgery. Seen in the light of the association between madness and the female body, this treatment is an extreme means of silencing uncooperative femaleness. If a woman is unresponsive to gender training (ward work, social roles) and physical punishments (ECT, insulin), a lobotomy is used to force her into submission by mutilating her brain, suggesting that the brain – despite the dehumanising view of women as mere animal bodies – is still seen as a location of agency and thus of potential subversion. Through this mutilation, the female body is forcibly turned into a feminine non-body (“feminine” because intellectually passive, “non-body” because robbed of corporeal agency). Importantly, lobotomy has a highly gendered history: lobotomy patients tended to be women, since women were considered to need less intellectual capacity than men (Ussher 175). Valerie, whom Esther meets in the asylum, is a clear example of the effect of this operation: suffering formerly from unfeminine “anger”, she now reads the emphatically feminine magazine Vogue and has a “calm, snowmaiden face behind which so little, bad or good, could happen” (white the colour of purity, snow a symbol of the passivity of winter) (Plath 240). Faced with a threat of lobotomy, Istina sees psychosurgery as an theft that steals her control over both her body and mind: “I have seen others, how they wet the bed, how their faces are vague and loose with a supply of unreal smiles for which there is no real demand. I will be ‘retrained’ – that is the word used for lobotomy cases. Rehabilitated. Fitted, my mind cut and tailored to the ways of the world” (217). The future she is promised is also stereotypically feminine with “a good job in a shop or perhaps an office”, a detail reminiscent of Esther’s disgust at the idea of being a secretary who writes down men’s words in The Bell Jar (Frame 216).

But psychosurgery does not always have a desired feminising effect: Istina meets women whose lobotomies have, instead of taming the body, in fact reinforced the “bodiliness” of the patient. The young talented pianist Brenda is probably the most telling example: after her lobotomy, she has “convulsions” and “would put her hand up the leg of her striped pants and drawing forth, after a little manipulation, a lump of feces would exclaim, ‘Look Miss Istina Mavet. Just look. I’m terrible aren’t I?. . .'” (Frame 148). This is part of the cruel irony of lobotomy: the attempt to deny women’s corporeality can only lead to an increased corporeality in one form or another – either, through a so-called “successful” operation, women become mere passive, obedient bodies (Valerie), or, through an “unsuccessful” operation, they become active, threateningly “primitive” bodies (Brenda).

Both Istina’s and Esther’s recovery is connected with a rejection of physical treatments and an introduction of voluntary “therapy” that grants them control over themselves. Istina’s recovery is most clearly associated with her access to books by Dr Portman, after which “[she] felt in [her]self a reserve of warmth from which [she] could help [her]self, like coal from the cellar on a winter’s day” (Frame 243). For the first time in years, she is treated as an equal rather than an object of patriarchal gaze (243). As for Esther, she finds in Dr Nolan finally a person of authority who listens to her anguish regarding the limitations of the feminine roles available in society. Perhaps most importantly, though, Dr Nolan understands that a precondition for Esther’s control over her life is her control over her body. Through access to then illegal birth control, Esther can potentially escape from subordinating her body to patriarchal control.

Neither Esther’s nor Istina’s recovery is, however, complete and unambiguous. Bonds suggests that Esther’s recovery in The Bell Jar is based on the idea of “separative self”, “a self uncontaminated by others”, which unavoidably robs Esther of the potentially positive influences of other women (Jay Cee, Joan, Philomena Guinea, Dr Nolan) and “leaves Esther prey to defining herself unwittingly and unwillingly in relation to all that remains to her: culturally-ingrained stereotypes of women” (Bonds 50). Although Bonds’s view of Esther’s future seems slightly too pessimistic, as she does not acknowledge the significance of Esther’s new-found control over her body, Bonds is correct in her critique of interpretations that see Esther’s recovery in merely positive terms. As Bonds demonstrates through an analysis of Plath’s imagery, Esther’s recovery indicates an institutionally imposed acquisition of stereotypically feminine behaviour (e.g. images of marriage at the end of the novel) (Bonds 53-54).26 In other words, it is Esther who has been “cured” – society has not changed. Istina is in a similar situation. She realises that she “cannot live [her] life escaping” reality (Frame 247); in order to keep sane, she has to learn to live with the paradox of femaleness, the simultaneous social disgust at, and dependence on, the female body. Whether this is possible she is unsure, for, as in The Bell Jar, society has not changed – the reproduction of the domain of “not-properly-human”, which both madness and female sexuality are associated with, is a crucial part of the maintenance of society. “[H]ave we changed when we no longer claim as our treasure the stalk of grass in our hand or the chocolate paper but choose the human beings that we hope to hold tight in our heart? Are we sane then?” Istina asks, questioning the assumed obviousness of the line between sanity and insanity that society insists upon (Frame 247).27

Conclusion: Tracing Inconsistencies

As we have seen, women characters’ loss of sanity, as well as their recovery from madness, is closely associated with their control over their own bodies in both novels. These representations of female madness reveal a complex picture where madness and female corporeality are connected on several merging levels. On the one hand, women’s madness is represented as resulting from women’s confusion over their bodies. In other words, madness is seen as women’s failure to negotiate the cultural paradox that simultaneously demands them to deny their bodies and yet insists on their bodiliness. It is these contradictions that are presented as causing Esther’s and Istina’s loss of bodily control, and are thereby portrayed as important causes of their insanity. On the other hand, madness is also represented as a label by which society distances threatening female sexuality and thus recreates the “illegible” necessary to its own existence.

Perhaps most importantly, however, Faces in the Water and The Bell Jar reveal several inconsistencies in the cultural discourses of madness as the female body. The two texts show how societies benefit from presenting the sane/insane dichotomy as natural and unwavering, while this presentation in fact conceals significant paradoxes: mad female bodies are seen as not proper bodies and yet as emphatically bodily; mad women are seen as lacking psychic depth and yet as having potentially rebellious minds; “animal sexuality” is condemned and yet reinforced in female patients. It is perhaps from these “illogical” textual moments that our re-theorising of the association of madness with female corporeality should start from. Pointing out inconsistencies in the cultural narrative of the mad female body might offer us a way to weaken the “representational power” that the cultural metaphor of female madness still carries.




1. See, for instance, Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Back to text

2. These early feminist studies include such pioneering works as Phyllis Chesler’s 1972 study Women and Madness and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s 1978 book The Madwoman in the Attic, followed by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s For Her Own Good (1978) and Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady (1985). This feminist tradition has been challenged, among others, by Jane Ussher, Elizabeth A. Donaldson, Andrea Nicki, and particularly Marta Caminero-Santangelo – the author of the tellingly titled The Madwoman Can’t Speak: Or Why Insanity Is Not Subversive – who has attacked feminist literary critics for idealising madness and ignoring politically inconvenient textual evidence. Back to text

3. I would like to emphasise that the studies of madness cannot be divided into the categories of “reality of madness” and “representations of madness” quite this smoothly. Any inquiry into a “madwoman’s” mind, scientific or sociological, always takes place through language and is therefore inevitably textual. Notice that even medical research on madness has to rely on representations, whether textual (patients own accounts), mathematical (measurements of brain activity), or visual (brain scans), which need to be interpreted. Back to text
4. Even critics who recognise the presence of a cultural pressure to cover women’s “natural” bodies under “unnatural” feminine make-up and clothing in The Bell Jar and Faces in the Water tend to concentrate upon the construction of the feminine “cover,” leaving the female body – what is “covered” – outside the theoretical focus. Garry M. Leonard’s “‘The Woman Is Perfected. Her Dead Body Wears the Smile of Accomplishment’: Sylvia Plath and Mademoiselle Magazine” is a good example here (see Leonard 64). Back to text

5. These asylum accounts include Maude Harrison’s Spinner’s Lake (1941), Mary Jane Ward’s The Snake Pit (1946), Lara Jefferson’s These Are My Sisters (1947), Antonia White’s Beyond the Glass (1954), Jennifer Dawson’s The Ha-Ha (1961), Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964), Ellen Wolfe’s Aftershock: The Story of a Psychotic Episode (1969). (See Caminero-Santangelo and Showalter, who both have researched these madness accounts in detail.) Back to text

6. Tim Kendall’s Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study represents this latter tradition, in which a (disembodied) poetic mind tries to discover its “true” identity in order to create but goes mad under the pressure of conventional social expectations.Back to text

7. Haraway is a pioneer in this field of theory; she has written on the construction of nature in biology since the late 1970s. Back to text

8. Although there are no significant differences between the numbers of schizophrenic male and female patients, the illness itself, Showalter argues, is constantly represented as female (203). As for Frame and Plath, it seems that both authors were diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia, although Frame protested her diagnosis, which was later proved wrong by experts in the field. The treatment she received before that, however, was that for schizophrenics. Back to text

9. In addition to Showalter’s The Female Malady, see, for example, Suzette A. Henke’s “Jane Campion Frames Janet Frame”. Back to text

10. See, for example, Christina Britzolakis’s Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning, or Leonard’s “The Woman Is Perfected”. Back to text

11. The only approved evidence of female sexuality at the time (late 1940s/early 1950s) was maternity in marriage. Even then pregnancy was preferred hidden with loose clothes or convenient accessories, leaving women in a paradoxical position where fulfilling the role prescribed by society involved feeling shame. Back to text

12. I would like to emphasise that this “untamed” female body does not represent any “authentic” or “real” femaleness that patriarchal culture has forced outside our society and which feminists could “free” and celebrate. Although Butler distinguishes between the discursive and “the unintelligible”, she emphasises that the latter does not constitute an ontological “outside”, an “opposite of the former, for oppositions are, after all, part of intelligibility; the latter is the excluded and illegible domain that haunts the former domain as the spectre of its own impossibility” (Bodies that Matter xi). Back to text

13. The representation of menstrual blood as dirt in Western cultures has been theorised by many feminists. For example, Julia Kristeva views menstrual blood as one form of the “abject”, parallel to another “polluting” body waste: excrement. For Kristeva, the “abject” is that which is from the body (body fluids, body waste) or becomes incorporated into the body (food) and thus transgresses the boundaries between the body and its outside, the subject and the object, thereby threatening the notions of entity, solidity and order. In order to secure the prevailing status quo (an attempt never completely successful), the “abject” is presented as dirty and repulsive. See Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Back to text

14. My claim is not that the “feminine” gender role would be completely non-sexual – it certainly does include certain forms of sexuality. However, this expected “feminine” sexuality is “tamed” in the sense that it is confined to patriarchal interests; it is dependent upon male acceptance, desperately balancing between the traditional opposites of virgin and whore. Back to text

15. Critics have also pointed out (although within very different argumentative frames) Esther’s need for self-purification through vomiting and bath. See, for example, Britzolakis (37-38) or Leonard (67-68). Back to text

16. Esther views Joan as her double several times (Plath 205, 225). See Diane S. Bonds (57-60), Christina Britzolakis (38), or Tim Kendall (56) for a discussion of Joan as a double. Esther’s haemorrhage and Joan’s suicide are also linked symbolically by the narrative structure, as the scene at the emergency ward is immediately followed by Joan’s disappearance (Plath 233). “I wondered if Doctor Quinn was going to blame me for Joan’s return to the asylum. I still wasn’t sure how much Joan knew, after our trip to the Emergency Ward, but a few days later she had come back to live in Belsize”, Esther ponders (234). Back to text

17. Reading The Bell Jar as a critique of consumption, Leonard suggests that Esther cannot identify with lesbians because lesbianism has not been commodified and is therefore not visualisable (Leonard 71). Although intriguing, this explanation can hardly account for the extent of Esther’s dislike of lesbianism. Back to text

18. In Butler’s words, this kind of naming “contribute[s] to that field of power that orchestrates, delimits, and sustains that which qualifies as ‘the human'” (Butler, Bodies that Matter 8). Back to text

19. The power a mad body has/is, is, of course, purely representational. On the every-day level of individual lives, mental problems are often both psychologically and physically impairing. Back to text

20. Feminist theory has been struggling with the innocence/guilt binary for most of its existence: how to speak about the oppression of women without rendering women either powerless victims (thus reinforcing the conventional idea of innocent femininity) or powerful actors (thus implying that women are responsible for their own oppression)? Back to text

21. However, it is important that we do not consider femaleness and race (or sexism and racism) as merely analogous or interchangeable, since this dismisses the lived experience of non-Western women, many of whom feel “doubly marginalised”. This kind of analogy also fails to recognise the specific histories of racism and sexism, and the complex ways in which race and sex deploy each other, analysed, for instance, by Gayatry Spivak. Back to text

22. In Madness and Civilization, Foucault describes how the “liberated” asylum was organised on a bourgeois family model, in which the patients were treated as children whose acts were punished or rewarded according to their compatibility with the bourgeois morality, “the imperative fiction of the family”: “Thus in the modern world, what had been the great, irreparable confrontation of reason and unreason became the secret thrust of instincts against the solidity of the family institution and against its most archaic symbols” (254). However, Foucault fails to acknowledge the gendered implications of this patriarchal family model on female patients.
In her discussion of the treatment of mental retardation in the US, Licia Carlson offers further insights to the use of patients as unpaid, hierarchically positioned workers in the asylum. Acknowledging her debt to Iris Young, Carlson sees this kind of exploitation of the inmates as exactly what maintains the unsymmetrical power relations between the experts and the patients. In Carlson’s words, the “feebleminded” woman’s “labor served the needs of the very structure that limited her freedom” (“Cognitive Ableism and Disability Studies” 130-1). Back to text

23. The central role of the “feminine smile” in the reproduction of patriarchal ideology has been suggested by Shulamith Firestone, who advocates a smile boycott in The Dialectic of Sex (88-89). Back to text

24. In her discussion of Alphonso Lingis, Elizabeth Grosz mentions ECT as one means of “social inscription” on bodies. Although critical of Lingis’s Euro-centric view, she suggests that “his work makes it clear that in our own culture as much as in others, there is a form of body writing and various techniques of social inscription that bind all subjects, often in quite different ways according to sex, class, race, cultural and age codifications, to social positions and relations. These modes of scarification are no less permanent or more removable than tattooing or epidermic or muscular lesions, although they may be less readily observed or directly readable” (Grosz 141). Back to text

25. Caminero-Santangelo is critical of feminist readings of The Bell Jar that see ECT in merely negative terms. According to her, the view of ECT presented in the novel is ambivalent: while detesting ECT, Esther also seems to benefit from it when conducted “properly” by Dr Nolan (Caminero-Santangelo 29). Caminero-Santangelo’s point does not, however, invalidate the connection between the use of ECT and imposition of femininity – learning to accept the expected gender role can certainly make one’s life much easier on the practical every-day level. Whether Esther actually recovers form her illness is also a debatable question. Back to text

26. Leonard offers a slightly different, though equally pessimistic, reading. Viewing The Bell Jar as a critique of consumption culture, he argues that the imagery at the end suggests that “Esther is reborn in a sense that a commodity is reborn; she must be ‘approved for the road’ if she is to leave the asylum. It seems understood that ‘health’ means resuming her role as a consumer who buys commodities in order to appear as a ‘woman’ on the sexual marketplace” (Leonard 65). Back to text

27. This questioning of binarisms has been recognised by a number of critics. Monika Reif-Hülser, for example, offers a detailed discussion of the ways in which Frame’s narrative challenges the stability of the centre/margin dichotomy (Reif-Hülser 185). Back to text

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