Monday, January 18, 2010

Mad for literature

When I took literature classes while working on my Master's degree (that I've not yet finished!) I had the pleasure of being able to take a class about women's literature. I loved the genre. I am not sure I am a huge subscriber to feminist literary theory, but I love the ideas behind Gothic horror, especially southern Gothic, and the themes that are prevalent in this type of women's literature. One of my favorite themes is the idea of madness. The Turn of the Screw, The Yellow Wallpaper, and The Haunting of Hill House all have strains of madness plaguing the central female characters.

In Perkin's Wallpaper, the main character is dealing with what we now call postpartum depression. Her doctor husband has locked her away in a summer home, away from her friends and family and new baby so she can heal. She isn't allowed to write or use her brain. She is participating in the Rest Cure, similar to what Mitchell Weir developed. The main character is in a room with ugly yellow wallpaper and she starts bonding with the wallpaper. Yeah, you read that right, becoming a friend with WALLPAPER! The end of the story finds the main character having gone mad, but who wouldn't have in her situation? I love this story. The other element of this story is that those who study this genre also ask: is she really at a summer home recuperating or has she been checked into a sanatorium? Did she go mad or did she find freedom at the end? And if she found freedom, what is she now free from? I don't want to give away the ending- you can read it and decide for yourself.

I like to read Turn of the Screw as a ghost story with the governess being driven mad. She sees ghosts and tends to evil children while residing in this huge Gothic mansion. There is a sexual psychological undertone to this horror story as the governess addresses the ghost; she knows she is going mad because she is the only one who can see the apparition and sense the evil in the small children. Henry James is a master at spinning the Gothic horror story.

Finally, in the Haunting of Hill House, the central character, a lonely woman, visits a haunted house and becomes possessed and is slowly driven mad by the odd and surreal hauntings taking place around her, even though she isn't alone.

The settings in all three stories are traditional Gothic horror- huge houses, lonely female characters, specters. But what I like most about each is that a debate can occur over whether or not the central women characters have really gone mad or not. Do they control their own madness? I think they do. Then I always wonder if we all control our own descent into madness. Can even those of us who function on what appears to be a normal level actually be dealing with madness? Or do we make it seem less threatening and more socially acceptable and call it depression or Bi-polar disorder? There are times when I would have gladly resided in a sanatorium, content to be filled with happy drugs to make me numb or to sleep a dreamless sleep. Does that make me mad, depressed, in need of a clinical diagnosis? I don't think so, but I love the idea of exploring the human psyche in comparison with the literary feminist Gothic horror type of madness.

If I were to make this a real "paper," I would provide more detail and explanation. Since I don't want to be accused of being a spoiler, I urge you to read the stories yourself and then form your own opinion. Think about the idea of madness and think about the descent into such. Draw your own conclusions. I'd love to know what you think.

Maybe Mad,


Cheryl said...

Can't believe I've never read these stories! I love ghost stories.

I think reality is subjective. We all have our own version of it. And madness is, as defined by society, the inability to recognize the reality the majority of us agree upon. From my own experience, being overcome by strong emotions seems, after I've returned to calm normality, like a short fit of madness. And since we all go through periods like that...guess we're all a little mad!

Maggie said...

Cheryl- I think you can find all these stories in their entireties online, or in almost any anthology. I recommend them!

And I agree with you completely- I think we're all a little "mad" at sometime or another in our lives. I think the madness makes the calm more normal... or at least makes the calm feel calm. (Did that make any sense?)

Anyway, thank you for your comment!