Open Access Honors Program Thesis
Hysteria; Hysteria in literature; Chopin, Kate, 1850-1904. Awakening.; Plath, Sylvia. Bell jar.; Morrison, Toni. Bluest eye.;
Modernity would like us to believe we are in control: you can be whatever you want if you work hard enough; you are in charge of your own destiny; practice makes perfect; if you don’t like something, change it; you are what you eat. These popular aphorisms reflect our society’s addiction to self-determinism. We are completely set on the idea that we create and direct our own lives. However, there are larger influences in the world which are sometimes out of our control. The government, the media, society as a collective, and other such establishments have power over the individual. The roles and stereotypes a culture propagates do make an impact on the paths people perceive as being possibilities and the identity they ultimately construct. Genetic predispositions as well as sociocultural norms and expectations affect our fate. An excellent example of this relationship is the notorious neurosis that gripped nineteenth century femininity. The condition was coined “hysteria” after a Greek word meaning “uterus” or “wandering uterus” (Fowler 782). It described a condition where women experienced varying forms of madness supposedly due to having a misplaced or unhealthy uterus. In the modern version, females were observed exhibiting a superabundance of symptoms, often episodic, ranging from epileptic-like seizures, to anxiety attacks and paraplegia. They complained of depression, nervousness, unexplainable pain, and over-emotionality (Fowler 782). The epidemic both flustered and frustrated the perplexed physicians. At that time the medical field was largely male-dominated; nurses tended to be women and doctors were typically men. Thusly, physicians sometimes felt their masculinity and intelligence threatened due to their inability to cure (Smith- Rosenberg 209). In stepping into the household to treat a hysteric, they could not win. They were judged for believing the woman was actually ill in a world that saw her as being lazy, deceptive, or childish. In attempting to cure her, they were enabling her to disobediently avoid her role as wife and mother so that she might stay bedridden, spend time in a hospital, or participate in a variety of other treatments. If they questioned the authenticity of her illness, they were seen as being unable to heal her or heartlessly skeptical (Smith-Rosenberg 209). There was also quite a bit of scrutiny over their specific efforts to cure, which sometimes included horrific shock treatments or scandalous sexual therapies. The spectrum of speculation as to hysteria’s cause was as massively broad as the list of possible symptoms. Some respected medical authorities felt it was a grand scheme or malicious method utilized by spoiled, lazy, or immature housewives. Other doctors and psychologists hypothesized it was a result of repressed emotions or suppressed sexual desires. The theories extended on from there. Hysteria was often viewed through a skeptical and pejorative lens (Smith-Rosenberg 197).
Date of Award
University Honors Designation
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the designation University Honors
© 2008 Jessica Diane Droogsma
Droogsma, Jessica Daine, "Female hysteria across cultures and periods in American literature" (2008). Honors Program Theses. 56.