Hysteria and Femininity: A Tentative Investigation into a Victorian and Edwardian Myth

Hysteria and Femininity: A Tentative Investigation into a Victorian and Edwardian Myth

By Lei Zhang

Journal of Cambridge Studies, Vol.7:3 (2012)

Abstract: This paper attempts to investigate the ambiguous and unsettling relationship between hysteria and femininity that are commonly allied in Victorian and Edwardian eras. Based on the medical narratives of various hysterical women shown in fictional and operatic texts, it meticulously discusses Anglo-American feminist scholars and their French counterparts’ different responses to and interpretative strategies for the same texts, calling for the integration of these two perspectives——a meaningful fusion of humanity and philosophy, essentialisation and romanticisation in ultimately deconstructing the patriarchal myth.

Introduction: So far, a host of intriguing studies have been made about the medical construction of Victorian and Edwardian women portrayed in narratives of fiction and operas. What highlights these various approaches is the scholars’ overwhelming emphasis on the unsettling relationship between femininity and hysteria, a conspicuous malady that is said to be rather prevalent and yet repressed and erased from public view in Victorian and Edwardian times. Despite the common focus they tend to share, scholars fail to reach a consensus on the nature, meaning and consequences of this relationship.

For Anglo-American feminist philosophers like Shoshana Felman and Genevieve Lloyd, hysteria is a disease that is deliberately and certainly unjustifiably assigned to women alone. Within the dualistic systems of language and representation, “woman” and “insanity” are, more often than not, blended into each other as if interchangeable. The diehard “binary opposition” necessitates the women to be situated on the “feminine” side of irrationality, silence, nature and body, thus differentiating themselves from men’s “masculine” side of reason, discourse, culture and mind. Even if the hysterical body happens to be male, he is also regarded as unmanly, or feminine in another form.

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