Power, Control and Empowerment in Frances Burney's ”A Mastectomy”

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Frances Burney started feeling pain in her breast in 1810, and in September 1811 a mastectomy was performed to her. In her letter ”A Mastectomy” she describes the illness and the operation, her feelings and fears, to her sister Esther Burney. The letter tells a story of a battle of control and against the feeling of powerlessness. It also speaks of empowerment; writing is Burney's way of regaining control over her operation and making it part of her own history. In this paper I attempt to find and analyse the reasons for Burney's feeling of powerlessness, its describtion in the letter, and the ways she tries to fight it.

Although the moment when Fraces Burney as a character of the text is most vulnerable is certainly during the operation, the theme of powerlessness starts to emerge in the letter from the very beginning. Burney first describes how she is separated from her family and friends in England, and then goes on to explain why she is writing her letter. She tells she is only writing the story of her illness because someone else has already made quite sure that her family will hear about it, and she wants them to learn about it from her, not from strangers. She is not, therefore, acting because she yearns to share her experience, but because she feels the situation demands it from her, and she has no power to change this. After this adapting to the circumstances, begins the story of her real, deep feeling of powerlessness, starting with doctors examining her body.

In her essay ”'This Breast -It's Me'; Fanny Burney's Mastectomy and the Defining Gaze”, Heidi Kaye presents and interesting and convincing idea, that Burney resist seeing a doctor because she feels uncomfortable about a male doctor examining her. ”When she fina...

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.... In the text, power is not seen as corrupted or violently taken from her, but it is naturally posessed because of knowledge or supernatural power. This might make her empowerment even more difficult, since she has no-one to blame on her powerlessness, there is no villan in the story. But Burney manages by making the story her own, writing it on her own conditions and with her words, from her own point of view.

Works Cited

Burney, Frances. ”A Mastectomy”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Greenblatt etc. Eight edition. London/New York: W. W. Norton Company, Inc., 2006. 2822-2827.

Epstein, Julia L. 1986. ”Writing the Unspeakable; Fanny Burney's Mastectomy and the Fictive Body”. Representations Autumn 1968, 16; 131-166.

Kaye; Heidi. 1997. ”'This Breats – It's Me': Fanny Burney's mastectomy and the defining gaze”. Journal of Gender Studies 6,1; 43-53.
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