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The lovemad woman was a very important part of nineteenth-century literature. The lovemad woman, originally characterized as a female who becomes insane due to the departure of her lover, was an important character in literature. From Antigone to Ophelia to Jane Eyre, the lovemad woman is seen throughout literature in various contexts. The definition of such a woman changed as the definition of what is it to be a woman in general changed throughout history.
Love madness was seen both in the literature of the nineteenth century and in reality. At the time, the definition of insanity and how it should be treated was going under dramatic changes. Love madness was seen as a primarily female disease. Insanity in general was seen to occur more often in females due to their natural weakness. Being female was almost a form of insanity because of what is seen as their biological inferiority. Living in a male-dominated society, women were forced to be weak, to be sickly. Women were looked at as unnatural if they were too forceful in their actions and emotions. They were also looked down upon if they expressed their sexuality too blatantly. Love madness itself is linked with "sexual knowledge and innocence" (Small 83). A woman was in danger of becoming mad if she had too much sexual knowledge: "A young lady was only worth as much as her chastity and appearance of complete innocence . . . . Once lead astray, she was the fallen woman, and nothing could reconcile her until she died" (Lee).
Nineteenth-century British society was able to brainwash females into ignoring their sexuality through tales of Medusa-like creatures (Gilbert 53). Young women would hear various tales of women who had given into their carnal desires and then as punishment became virtual monsters. An example of this can be seen in Bertha Mason, who becomes a monster due to her overpowering sexual nature. Elaine Showalter addresses these legends in her book, A Literature of Their Own, by saying "the legends themselves express a cultural attitude toward female passion as a potentially dangerous force that must be punished and confined" (Showalter 119).
These monsters of women are experiencing what became to be known as moral insanity. J.C. Prichard defined moral insanity as "a morbid perversion of the natural feelings, affections, inclinations, temper, habits, and moral dispositions without any notable lesion of the intellect" ( Small 163).
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Hysteria also was seen at the time as a female disease caused by the female reproductive organs (Gilbert 53). Females who showed too much emotion (i.e. anger, sexual feelings) were considered hysterical and had to be treated. Females were seen as more prone to this indulgence of emotion because of their organs. Treatment usually meant confinement, which of course is ironic because the women’s insanity can almost be seen as being caused due to already being confined in a patriarchal society (Gilbert 54).
The history of the lovemad woman can be accurately seen through the literature of the time. In early renditions of her, the woman was simply a hysteric who could not deal with the desertion of her lover. An early example of this is seen in Hamlet. Ophelia becomes the lovemad woman; when she is rejected by Hamlet she ultimately goes mad and drowns herself. From there the lovemad woman can be seen in the context of political insurrections. There are numerous stories of women going mad after their lovers leave them in order to fight in the revolutions that occurred in Europe in the nineteenth century. Finally the "new" lovemad woman is seen in authors such as Charlotte Bronte. This lovemad woman is used as an object to lash out against the oppression of the society in which she lived. Authors used this madness as a form of rebellion since women were not able to rebel in any other ways. Mary Wollenstonecraft made lovemadness out to be the product of a male dominated society in her work, Maria. (Small 31). She is just one example of a feminist author who blamed the lovemadness on confinement in society. Though some critics believe that using this type of madness is dehabilitating to women because it just once again stresses the weakness of femininity, this is inaccurate. The new lovemad woman is no longer just a sick woman rejected by her lover. The new lovemad woman is a figure of passion who is confined without the ability to escape, she represents all of womanhood’s inability to be able to speak for themselves during this time period. Woman are imprisoned in their homes, in their social roles, and this madwoman is an attempt to break out of this confinement through insanity. (Small 26).
Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
Lee, Elizabeth. "Victorian Theories of Sex and Sexuality." The Victorian Web. 1997. 20 March 2003.
Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.
Small, Helen. Love’s Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.