Women Driven Mad

Women’s Madness in English and American Literature

by Gönül Bakay (Author) Handan Dedehayir (Author)
©2022 Edited Collection 252 Pages


This book offers an in-depth analysis as to how and why women have been widely
associated with madness since ancient times. The first part of the book comprises a
historical survey of various perceptions of madness across the centuries, while the
second part of the book covers a wide selection of literary works by American and
English writers who dealt with this subject in their works. In this part of the book,
the authors examine selected works of literature from a feminist perspective by
also drawing on the works of influential theorists of feminist criticism. The authors
further show how these writers, who have been influenced by various philosophers
and theoreticians, critically examine women’s madness in their fiction.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction: The Image of the “Madwoman” as a Discourse of Power
  • Madness: Yesterday and Today
  • Madness Throughout History
  • Madness in the Ancient Greek World
  • Madness in the Roman Period and the Middle Ages
  • Madness in Islamic and Turkish Civilizations
  • Meanwhile, in the West...
  • Reform Movements in the 19th Century and Psychiatry
  • Madness in the 20th Century
  • Mental Illness Today
  • Women and Madness
  • Women and Hysteria
  • Women and Schizophrenia
  • Women and Depression
  • Female Psychologists
  • What has Changed since Yesterday?
  • Gaslighting
  • Social Origins of Women’s Madness in Our Age
  • Women and Madness in English and American Literature
  • Madness in Medieval English Literature
  • John Gower
  • Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Margery Kempe
  • William Shakespeare: The Master of All Times
  • Hamlet
  • Macbeth
  • Taming of the Shrew
  • Women in the 18th Century
  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Maria: A Fiction
  • Women in 19th Century Literature
  • Sir Walter Scott
  • The Bride of Lammermoor
  • Emily Brontë
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Charlotte Brontë
  • Jane Eyre
  • Villette
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  • Lady Audley’s Secret
  • Charles Dickens
  • Great Expectations
  • Dickens’ Other Works
  • William Wilkie Collins
  • The Woman in White
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • The Yellow Wallpaper
  • Women and Madness in Modern Literature
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Mrs. Dalloway
  • Jean Rhys
  • Wide Sargasso Sea
  • Daphne du Maurier
  • Rebecca
  • Doris Lessing
  • The Four-Gated City
  • The Golden Notebook
  • The Grass is Singing
  • Kate Millett
  • The Loony-Bin Trip
  • Phyllis Chesler
  • Women and Madness
  • Marge Piercy
  • Woman on the Edge of Time
  • Joanne Greenberg
  • I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
  • Nawal El Saadawi
  • God Dies by the Nile
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Alias Grace
  • Kay Redfield Jamison
  • An Unquiet Mind
  • Joan Didion
  • Play It as It Lays
  • Stephen King
  • Misery
  • Sebastian Faulks
  • Human Traces
  • Shirley Hardie Jackson
  • The Haunting of Hill House
  • Sylvia Plath
  • The Bell Jar
  • Elizabeth Flock
  • Me and Emma
  • Susanna Kaysen
  • Girl Interrupted
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Index

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Gönül Bakay

Why did I want to write a book on “women and madness”? The first thing that comes to mind is that I am a woman who has always been interested in and tried to understand the lives, contributions, desires and ideals of women, their relationships with their partners, children and friends. All of my research and the books I have written to date, except one, were about women. I have always admired the silent and unlimited power of my fellow women and wanted to get to know them better… I have also always been very much moved by their remarkable productivity, their ability to create life, their unshakable resilience in the face of all odds, and their bold and protective stance when their loved ones are in danger.

Women have been crushed, insulted and pushed around for centuries. How can mankind boast of being the most advanced being on earth and still ignore the other half that produces, gives birth and nurtures? We cannot understand the dynamics behind this unfairness without adequate research. Is it because women were not sufficiently understood, or because of the fear evoked by their power that they have been associated with supernatural forces throughout history, and occasionally been dismissed as “mad”? Have we human beings been quick to judge those who act against the norms to be “mad”? In order to get to the bottom of this problem, we have to carefully consider the social, psychological, physiological and economic dynamics that play an important role in this context.

Fortunately, we are witnessing a change in this situation that has been going on for centuries. Today, most people do not feel obliged to hide their mental illness and they can easily consult a psychologist when they have psychological problems. Mental disorders, including the more severe psychiatric disorders, are seen as other illnesses such as the flu or abdominal pain, for which one could easily consult a doctor. This is a big step, because healing is possible only when the person admits that he or she is ill. However, it is still possible to observe that some people respond with a resounding “Am I mad?” when they are advised to seek help. Although the number of people who have this perspective has been dwindling, estimates published by the World Health Organization indicate that the rate of mental illness in especially women has been on the rise.

The first part of the book takes the reader on a short journey through the history of humanity’s adventure with madness. It traces different perceptions of ←9 | 10→madness in the Western world as well as in Arab, Turkish and Ottoman cultures. After considering the changing approaches to madness with the transformation of psychiatry into a discipline in the 18th and 19th centuries, this chapter concludes with a discussion of the present state of affairs. Under the second heading of this chapter, there is a tour of the horizon that provides insights into the painful lives of women who have struggled with various forms of madness throughout history. Written by my friend Handan Dedehayır, who has managed the publishing and translation activities of various institutions for many years following her degree in psychology, this chapter offers a background to examples of madwomen in English and American literature that constitute the backbone of the present study. We would also like to offer our thanks to Özlem Bayoğlu, a lecturer at the Department of Philosophy at Galatasaray University, for reviewing this chapter’s section on ancient Greek philosophy.

We have selected 37 works by 30 distinguished writers who dealt with the subject of “women and madness” and who were themselves occasionally con- sidered to be mad. We do not claim to offer an exhaustive survey of all the books published on this subject; we were able to include only some of the works that are of interest to us and which we think will serve as good examples that illustrate the ideas put forward in this book. Starting with medieval England, we tried to briefly introduce and then discuss 37 literary works in the light of some of the basic concepts of feminist criticism. Considering that we may have readers who do not share feminist views and who hold different perspectives, we presented our book in a way that would attract a wide audience. Our primary aim is to open a new window to readers who are interested in women’s problems as well as women’s literature.

Gönül Bakay
Istanbul, 2021

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Introduction: The Image of the “Madwoman” as a Discourse of Power

Fatmagül Berktay

“Frailty, thy name is woman”1
Shakespeare, “Hamlet”

The image of the madwoman has been considered a mysterious and a fascinating phenomenon in literature and art from the time of ancient Mesopotamia and Antiquity to our present day. Madness has been widely seen as a generic women’s disease, metaphorically and symbolically, and this prejudice unfortunately persists in some cases even in the 21st century. This tendency, which is reflected in works of art and literature, justifies and disseminates the assumption that (due to their bodies) women are closer to nature, destructive, emotionally weak, unstable and dangerous, and therefore need to be controlled and if necessary, socially isolated. It is not possible to think of concepts such as mental health, mental illness, madness and normality independent of cultural norms and values. The most influential of these norms is gender roles that determine how masculine and feminine roles are to be enacted.

The connection of women with nature, chaos and destructive forces of the universe goes far back in history. This association, which appears to have remained unchanged throughout the centuries, is used to justify the social control of women and the female body. Thucydides writes that the self-image of the Athenian man was built around the need to control allotrion, which means ‘strange’, ‘wild’, and that allotrion often represents the ‘other’ against ‘me’ (Padel, 1983, p. 5). This “strange other” had to be controlled with the use of practical and ideological tools such as rape. It is no coincidence that Greek mythology is full of male gods that force women into sexual intercourse; this “divine rape” can be interpreted as the projection of the phenomenon of male control in society, and eventually of “divine society” through the act and practice of rape. The association of women with nature, especially with the dark side of nature, is not unique to Ancient Greece but has existed since the beginning of civilization. In ancient Mesopotamia, known as the cradle of civilization, female witches were constructed as the antithesis of the Mesopotamian’s ideal of civilization. They ←11 | 12→were therefore associated with the steppes, mountains and the underworld, all of which were outside the social control of the “civilized” Mesopotamians (Rollin, 1983, p. 37).

The connection of woman with nature goes back to the “Mother Goddess” who ruled over humanity for a very long time. She was fertile, nurturing and protective on the one hand, fear-giving on the other. She was Kybele, the goddess of fertility and the ruler of the wild, who was also in charge of life and death. She represented the totality of life as well the bonds people had with each other and with nature. There was a reversal of fortunes with the development of the idea and the imposition of masculine sovereignty over nature. Civilization was gradually associated with the concepts of masculine order and the masculine mind while women came to be identified with nature and its destructive forces.2

For example, “Most Greek demons, especially those which hunt human victims in groups (like Erinyes, ‘Furies’) and those which persecute the mind (again the Erinyes, or single demons such as Lyssa, ‘Madness’) are female. They are also chthonic (born from chthon, ‘earth’) and sometimes described as ‘daughters of the Night’. Their femaleness is linked with their earth-born status, their attack on the mind and their habitation in darkness” (Padel, 1983, pp. 3–4). The privileged elite of the ancient Greek and Roman societies considered women, slaves and barbarians as “Others”. For the Roman nobleman who looked upon the world from an unquestioned position of sovereignty, these “others” were invariably different from and inferior to him. “The most obtrusive polarity of all, the one between himself and women, was explained to him in terms of a hierarchy based upon nature itself. According to physicians and healers, biologically, males were fetuses which have realized their full potential” (Brown, 1988, pp. 9–10).3 As Aristoteles put it, women were left incomplete.

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The idea that women are more akin to nature and destructive dark forces is a reflection of the masculine fear of what might happen if they break out of the boundaries male culture deems appropriate for them. All women were faced with the danger of becoming violent and childish if they escaped from ‘the armed camp of civilization’. That’s why they had to be controlled and kept under surveillance. This control mechanism was also manifest in the medical practice and discourse on madness and abnormality. As a result, it is only possible to comprehend the images and representations produced on this subject in every period within the context of medical models, socio-cultural norms and expectations in that given age.

Cultural representations, whether visual or literary, not only reflect and express a predetermined ideology, but they also actively participate in its construction and transformation. They attribute meaning to the world through the specific codes they employ. Throughout known history, these codes have been equipped with sexist content that subordinated women because it was men who held the power, produced the discourse and determined the content of imaginary representations. In Europe, the majority of women who were burned as witches were women who did not conform to traditional cultural-sexual norms. In the 16th century, physicians began to argue that some of the women who were accused of witchcraft were insane, and this hypothesis led to the idea that madness was a woman’s disease. In the 17th century, Salpetrière, France’s first insane asylum, had wards reserved for prostitutes, women who gave birth to children out of wedlock and poor women.

In Victorian England, the ideal female was ‘the angel in the house’ who embodied purity, delicacy and obedience; women who rejected this ideal exhibited physical and psychological symptoms under pressure and were often stigmatized as mad. By the end of the 19th century, images of madness had become increasingly associated with women. Although the discourse of this period defined madness in relation to a biological model, it reflected moral sexist prejudices about women and their role to the extent that it claimed women’s psychological problems stemmed from their reproductive organs.

The biological model of madness was replaced with a psychological framework in the 20th century, largely under the influence of Sigmund Freud. The shift in gender roles and social power relations had also changed the traditional psychiatric discourse by the mid-20th century. However, the double standards in ←13 | 14→psychiatry - still largely dominated by men - were changing very slowly, as did the double standards of morality and gender roles. The observations made by Phyllis Chesler on this subject in her ground-breaking book Women and Madness (1997) remain relevant. 4 Men define the norms of female behavior which differ from the norms of male behavior. Whether a woman is “healthy”, “neurotic” or “psychotic” is determined by the masculine ethics of mental health, which in turn is grounded in the implicit or explicit assumptions of patriarchal society. In a patriarchal society that devalues women and conditions them to see themselves as worthless, male dominated professions of psychology, psychiatry, and their definitions of mental illness and treatment methods are inevitably patriarchal and norms of female behavior are different from those of men. Accordingly, a ‘normal’ woman is a housewife who does not work outside the home. A woman who rejects gender norms or shows ambivalent behavior regarding this issue is considered a menace to herself as well as to society. Self-destructive and suicidal tendencies caused by the fear of ostracism are tied to patriarchal pressure. When a woman lacks self-worth and is unable to express her resentment, her anger is directed inwards.

Women cannot evade patriarchal norms even when they receive psychiatric help since most psychiatrists are men and hospitals are patriarchal structures. Michel Foucault (1988) refers to the doctor’s authority as the “father-judge” in his famous study, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (p. 272). However, Foucault overlooks the symbolic authority of the patriarch (“phallus”) which infantilizes women who seek psychiatric help. Psychiatrists perpetuate the image of the so-called “healthy woman”, i.e. a woman who conforms to social norms, by designating women who seek help as ‘mentally ill’, while considering those who tend to comply with the expectations of the society as ‘healing mental patients’. A woman who feels an (often deeply buried) rage towards her own dependent and repressed role and who is unable to make sense of her situation, starts to doubt herself, unaware of the fact that it is this same ‘help’ which actually has brought her to the point of asking for help. Patriarchal oppression leads women to face conflict with society as well as within themselves. The limitations and norm-reinforcing nature of psychiatry become apparent in the way it addresses this very problem.

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However, the fact that science, language, religion, psychiatry, etc. have all been used against women throughout history should not cause their rejection or dismissal altogether. Indeed, the rise of revolutionary cultural and political movements – including feminism – since the 1960s has resulted in significant changes in mainstream psychiatry, which had been criticized for being oppressive and controlling. Psychiatric disorders have been increasingly linked to social rather than medical conditions, and their causes are sought in social contexts, such as emotional dynamics in the family. Thanks to the recent worldwide interest in the subject led by Foucault and others, it is now claimed that madness is a socially constructed fiction tied to historical and social causes. In his discussion, Foucault separated mental illness from the social construction of madness which was used for different purposes in different periods of history. Another prominent figure in this field, R. D. Laing (1927–1989), concluded that madness is not a structural weakness, as claimed by evolutionary theorists, or a result of incomplete sexual development, as Freud argues, but it is rather a strategy adopted by the individual to maintain his / her existence in the face of a situation he / she wants to avoid or feels oppressed by. The diagnosis of mental illness was simply one possible response amongst several others to situations that did not meet social expectations. With his definitions of madness, normality, importance of selfhood and the like, Laing became an influential figure alongside feminist critics and inspired the creation of a counterculture that opposed the institution of psychiatry.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (July)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 252 pp.

Biographical notes

Gönül Bakay (Author) Handan Dedehayir (Author)

Gönül Bakay is a professor at Bahçes¸ehir University, Turkey. Her teaching expertise covers women’s studies, Gothic novel and English literature from the 18th century to the present. She is a member of the Women’s Studies Center of I˙stanbul University, of M.S.E.A, BSECS and a member of the board of directors of K.A.D. (Cultural Studies Club). Handan Dedehayır, who has managed the publishing and translation activities of various institutions following her education in psychology, provided a background to the examples of women’s madness in English and American literature that is the backbone of the book.


Title: Women Driven Mad