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Who is the Madwoman in the Attic? Why is She Still Relevant?

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

- Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte wrote these phenomenal lines in her cult-classic Jane Eyre at a time when female writers used pennames to get published. One of her most famous novels, Jane Eyre, subverts and challenges the conventional patriarchal norms in both literature and society through feminist ideas way before they became a mainstream topic. The novel also introduced the trope of ‘madwoman in the attic’ in literature which became a sensation for literary critics of the upcoming generation.

A ‘madwoman in the attic’ is a woman who has been locked away due to mental illness, physical deformities or disease since she will never fit into the society. Such women were diagnosed with hysteria during the nineteenth century. They were deemed unfit of any social interactions and were kept usually locked or confined in a room. The only advised treatment was the ‘rest cure’ which denied any physical activities or social interactions to cure hysteria. Female writers during the nineteenth century identified the problematic nature of the practice and acknowledged the same in their works way before it was scientifically and socially accepted. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin, all these explore the impact of the diagnosis of hysteria on the female mind and how it was perceived in society.

Bertha Mason as madwoman in the attic
Bertha Mason, the original Madwoman in the Attic, as illustrated in the second edition of Jane Eyre (1847)

As more and more women fell deeper into misery, the rest cure treatment was later dismissed by psychologists as an extension of the patriarchal scientific discourse. With advancement in psychology and science, hysteria itself was dismissed as a diagnosis, acknowledging how the physiological and biological differences between men and women were made to favour the former over the latter resulting in the subjection of women at a much higher level.

The ‘madwoman in the attic’ like any other trope, had its own features. Feminist theorists Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their groundbreaking work The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, discuss the typical distinction between the ‘angel’ and the ‘monster’ woman which was often the topic of conversation in the works of female writers during the nineteenth century. While the angel is referred to the female character who is intelligent, beautiful and conforms to the societal expectations of a woman; the monster is referred to the mad woman in the attic who is the ‘other’, dehumanised and alienated from the society as well as an ‘object’ of grotesque.

However, two centuries and decades of feminist movements later, the trope still remains relevant and has entered the popular culture establishing its inevitable existence. From literature to cinema, the ‘madwoman in the attic’ has created a distinct type of woman more relevant to the modern times yet compliant to the patriarchal discourse of the past. She is either villainous or immoral, often goes by the slang ‘vamp’. From Priyanka Chopra in Aitraaz (2004) to Tabu in Maqbool (2004) and Haider (2014), the roles played by these actors comply to the trope of the ‘vamp’ for being desirous, ambitious and cunning. While the on the other hand, these characteristics are lauded in a man, the woman remains objectified and villainised as was the ‘madwoman in the attic’ catering the male gaze of the audience.

To challenge such tropes is a matter of perception and narrative. Subverting the male gaze, the female gaze has created a more inclusive and comprehensive space for female narratives without objectifying or dismissing them. With more female voices and narratives coming into the multimedia, there has been substantial conversations, if not change in its entirety, around the oppressive and contemptuous nature of patriarchy and how it has dismissed women for centuries. It has made the ‘madwoman’ come out of the ‘attic’ and involve in social conversations to be heard and understood in order to heal.

Image credits: The Spellbinding Shelf Blog

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