Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic had been a seminal text in early feminist literary criticism that responded to the stereotypical tradition of associating women with madness and hysteria, which is apparent in many Victorian novels like Jane Eyre, Lady Audley’s Secret, and so on. Since early times there has been a strange tradition of looking at women as psychologically deficient and more irrational compared to men, and therefore, as more susceptible to madness or more specifically hysteria, the term for madness in women. Madness became closely associated with mental illness as it came to be looked at as a medical condition that can be cured or diagnosed. It is interesting to note that in the beginning, the cure for such a disease was completely within the purview of males in the medical profession. Hysteria was constructed as a female malady that results due to the lack of the uterus or because the uterus strays around in the women’s body. Therefore, in most traditions, including Egyptian and Roman, the usual cure for such an anomaly was to put bad odour near the women’s mouth or nose and pleasant aroma near the vagina to attract the uterus to its normal place. Unmarried women, widowed women and infertile women were considered prone to madness and hysteria as society considered abstinence and the lack of sexual satisfaction as other key reasons for madness. Confinement, either in the house or an asylum, and exorcism emerged as primary cure, or for that matter, punishment for these women. Victorian novel Jane Eyre explores this problem through the character of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife, who is constructed as a drunkard, beastly, violent and insane in Rochester’s narrative. Rochester justifies his decision of leaving his first wife, confining her in the attic, and later marrying Jane Eyre by proving Bertha Mason insane. Rochester presents hysteria in Bertha as something she inherited from her mother and this highlights how a patriarchal society’s understanding of a women’s mental state is highly problematic. The more authentic reasons that may be for Bertha’s disturbed mental state is neither clearly stated/explored in the novel and the same can be said of the way women’s mental health is approached in our society. In most cases, women who do not fall within the patriarchal notion of a “good woman” or a “normal woman” are constructed as madwomen.
In Indian English fiction, especially those written by women writers, the figure of the “madwoman” emerge as a prominent trope to delve into the innermost workings of the female psyche and to explore how the image of the “madwoman” in Indian society is entwined with patriarchy. If we look at novels like Cry the Peacock, That Long Silence, The God of Small Things, and so on, we find that most female “madness” is related to marriage, childbirth, dysfunctional families or longing and repression. These novels bring to the fore the impact of a patriarchal society on women as the structure does not allow equal decision making power, equal work distribution, equal pay for labour between men and women. Women find themselves suffering under the weight of uncaring relationships, stressful work environment, unequal access to education and care, stigmatization, restriction and stereotyping.
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things deals with a traditional Christian society in Kerala, India and the prevalence of evils like untouchability, ostracism and repressive treatment of women in such societies. Apart from being the story of Ammu, The God of Small Things is also a story of many other things; it encompasses the story of three generations and how the lives of one generation affected the other generations. The story can be read as a critique of religion as far as how it tries to control love and other aspects of the life of the people. As far as the issue of madness is concerned, the texts first deals with Baby Kochamma’s schizophrenic disorder and her transformation from a once sweet and nice girl into a dangerous mad woman. Baby Kochamma happens to fall madly in love with a Catholic priest named Father Muligan, so much so that she converts herself into a nun in the Catholic convent. While the step brought her closer to Father Muligan, it was impossible for her to initiate a romantic and sexual relationship with the priest, especially when carnal pleasure is prohibited for the clergy. The sexual repression results in Baby Kochamma becoming schizophrenic as she adopts the persona of “Koh-i-noor” evident from her desperate letters to her father. The text draws attention to the crisis faced by Indian women and how the rigid cultural and religious structures of different types of Indian societies lend to this crisis.
In the novel, the Catholic convent emerges as a symbol of control that regulates the bodies and desires of its inmates. Initially, in all her innocence, Baby Kochamma looked at the idea of joining the convent as the only way of being with Father Muligan. However, the convent had its own set of rules that Baby Kochamma is unable to surpass. She eventually becomes a misfit and a rebel that is reflected through her aversion to the wimple. She grows restless, unhappy and lonely in the convent. Her father withdraws her from the convent; however, no steps are taken to cure her. Eventually, Kochamma’s rebellious attitude is manifested in more outrageous forms: she fiercely engages in gardening to distract herself, she does not give up on loving and fantasizing about Father Mulligan, she puts on weight, she decides to dress up like an outrageous teenager wearing lots of makeup and jewellery in her 80’s, and, most of all, she turns into a mean and revengeful soul.
Ammu, later mirrors the “madness” of her aunt Baby Kochamma as she chooses to have an affair with Velutha, an untouchable. Ammu’s choice is deliberate and both personal and political. While Baby Kochamma was forced to repress her love and desire, Ammu’s actions – first of marrying a Bengali, and then of developing an affair with an untouchable – are bigger acts of defiance of patriarchy and transgression of social norms. Her family and society therefore, reject her as a mad and a dangerous woman. Both Ammu and Velutha have to face death as a consequence of their transgression.
Anita Desai’s Cry, the Peacock is set in North India and is the story of Maya, a sensitive and romantic woman, married to the extremely rational and logical Gautama, a lawyer by profession. The difference in personality between these two characters is established from the very beginning as Maya, the narrator, as she describes the death of Toto, their pet, in the first part of the story, shows how her approach towards Toto’s death was emotional, while Gautama followed a much more matter-of-fact and rational approach. The thing that disturbed Maya, in her otherwise comfortable existence, was the emotional distance that her husband maintained from her; the “he knew nothing that concerned me (her)” (9). Her experience of alienation was further aggravated by the fact that she was also childless, sexually repressed and was often haunted by her memories of the past. Maya’s condition is emblematic of many wives in India who feel oppressed and forced to live a drab and boring existence. Like in the case of these women, one of Maya’s primary struggles is to find an authentic identity for herself, one that she can be proud of, rather than just being the insignificant and lacking Other of her husband.
Anita Desai’s fictions explore the relation between loneliness and madness in the Indian context. Maya begin to engage in philosophical reflections and neurotic fantasies, as her husband is unable to feed her emotional needs. Gautama is the agent of patriarchal Symbolic control in the novel and his inconsiderate attitude towards his wife’s feelings is symptomatic of the general lack of consideration towards women in a patriarchal society. Maya was childless and the novel allows the interpretation of her madness as also an expression of her intense longing for motherhood. Feminist critic Luce Irigaray believes that women have always been made to believe that the highest pleasure for women is in the pleasure of producing children that implies that the joy of maternity surpasses all other desires. Maya struggles with the lack of motherhood, as the society seems to reject all other forms of expression of her femininity. Maya feels unwelcome in the company of Gautama and his friends and her understanding of the world is constantly rejected by Gautama as he “saw no value in anything less than the ideas and the theories born of human and preferably male brains” (99). The novel, therefore, presents the idea that the madness that Maya suffers from is not biological or hereditary (as is the explanation provided for madness in most cases; Jane Eyre, for example), but is one that is imposed on Maya by her uncaring and emotionally distant husband. Maya’s obsession with the childhood prediction of the Albino regarding the death of either herself or her spouse during the fourth year of marriage may be interpreted as a way of finding her an alternative world that is fearful as well as thrilling at the same time. Her fantastic imagination of death and her hallucinations were perhaps coloured by the fantastic stories of fairy tales that she was raised with as a child. For Maya, therefore, madness eventually becomes a way of life that she deliberately chooses in order to resist the absurd and incomprehensible rationality imposed on her by her husband. Texts like The God of Small Things and Cry, the Peacock show that a woman who challenged societal norms were considered a threat and therefore declared mad/insane in Indian societies and highlight how madness becomes a conscious or subconscious strategy for the women characters to resist and challenge patriarchy. Maya’s blunt fantasy and reliance on magic for explanation of things provides a counter to the masculine and imposing rationality and logic of her husband. Maya’s final act of murdering her husband implies a defence mechanism on her part to secure her own survival for if Gautama does not die, she surely will, due to suffocation and repression. While at one level, the story seems to show how women like Maya in India are prone to superstitious beliefs and is therefore an anti-feminist text, at a deeper and a more symbolic level, the Albino’s prophecy symbolizes the eventual survival of only one – the dominating husband or the resisting wife. Cry, the Peacock is a feminist text in the sense that the text centres on the consciousness of the “madwoman” who is not only a symbol of confinement, but also of revolt. Maya does not only have the quality of the perfect “angel in the house” but can also turn into a rebellious monster as she tries to break free from the shackles of patriarchy. In The God of Small Things, Ammu’s deliberate madness in loving Velutha is a way of questioning societal norms and resisting male power. Ammu’s level of transgression increases with time – she smoked as a young woman, later married a Bengali, and finally loved an untouchable. She is aware that she would be considered mad for her behaviour as she foresees what society could say about her, “There was Ammu…Married a Bengali. Went quite mad. Died Young” (213). Yet her choice of madness is deliberate and probably she enjoyed the fact that people, that way, were more wary of her and let her be.
Desai’s work portray resistance to patriarchy by having Maya hold on to her madness as a way of feminist subversion, and thereby disrupt the phallocentric culture. The mad and dangerous Maya demonstrates the discontentment of a woman trapped in an oppressive and sadistic society, threatening to break free if challenged for too long. As her femininity and sensitivity in constantly rejected and silenced by Gautama, she resorts to hysteria to project dissent. Maya’s depression, withdrawal and hysteria can be read as feminine forms of dissent and a way to reclaim her Self. The only way she could finally express her femininity in a patriarchal hegemony was through madness. The novel, with the death/murder of Gautama rejects the glory of masculine sanity.
It is interesting to note that Desai follows the stream of consciousness technique of writing and her works, much in the vein of the writings of Sylvia Plath or Kamala Das, are confessional in nature. The story is Maya’s story narrated in the first person and describes her journey towards madness. In the middle of the story Maya becomes conscious of her own madness. She says,
“But, in the night, under the stark gaze of the moon, in that waiting silence, my memories came to life, were so vivid, so detailed, I knew them to be real, too real. Or is it madness? Am I gone insane? Father! Brother! Husband! Who is my savior? I am in need of one.” (97-98).
The outburst describes Maya’s sheer desperation to resist madness, being constantly aware of the fact that she still might have to rely on a man in order to get out of the situation. Maya is conscious of her subaltern status and her inability to stand for herself. However, Desai’s use of the confessional mode of writing and her use of “madness” as a narrative strategy allows her protagonist to represent herself directly and thereby resist marginalization and repression.
Feminist writers such as Virginia Woolf and Helen Cixous have written about the importance of women’s writing in a field that is largely dominated by men. They emphasize on the importance of building a unique language for women through which they will be able to understand themselves. In “The Laugh of the Medusa”, Cixous asserts, “Women must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from where they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies” (279). The subaltern voice, as Spivak says, is always sieved through dominant forms of political representation and therefore, not heard when others represent them. There is always a gap between women’s experiences and their representation by men. Desai promotes a different kind of writing that rejects representation of women’s condition from the outside and usurps the voice and agency to speak for them. In Cry, the Peacock, Maya is the sole informant about her condition and is the “center of consciousness.” Maya’s shame and guilt at being so repressed at her own home forces her to reveal herself as a psychologically bruised person. She expresses her innermost desires and feelings, which are otherwise, mutilated and suppressed by her family. In this manner, Desai’s protagonist brings forth the story of a number of frustrated and depressed women whose only option is to suppress their desires in a male dominated society. They speak on the behalf of women who do not speak for themselves, so that, their story becomes not only their story but of the entire community of oppressed women who are labelled as mad for being different. Desai moves away from traditional portrayal of women as self-sacrificing, forgiving and enduring and moves towards portraying women who have learnt to defy victim status and to resolve conflicts with the Other.
On the other hand, The God of Small Things, although avoids the first person narrative and tells the story in the third person, encompasses the story of the marginalized and the subaltern – Baby Kochamma, Ammu, Veluth, Estha and Rahel – all of whom who faced oppression, injustice, trauma and labelled as “mad” for challenging conventional norms. The madness in these characters that belong to three generations is not dismissed as a hereditary disease; rather, trauma is introduced as an explanation for their madness. The novel evolves as a resistance text as the story emerges as a collective account of the painful experiences of the marginalized. Madness becomes a reflection/projection of the trauma faced by the characters. Baby Kochamma turns mad because of unrequited love; Ammu resorts to transgressing norms as she becomes aware of the divisions and discrimination that exists in society, and Estha and Rahel’s traumatic childhood experiences – Velutha and Sophie Mol’s death and their separation from each other – transform them into mad people. Estha develops OCD, becomes more feminine and silent; Rahel on the other hand, lands into an interracial marriage and then into a divorce and becomes more silent. Trauma, as explained by theorists like Dori Laub, Shoshana Felman and Cathy Caruth, take certain forms of articulation even when that articulation is silence. The characters emerge as both victims as well as witness of oppression that force them towards madness and silence. Roy, by focusing on individual as well as the collective experience of trauma and madness by women and other subalterns, subverts dominant discourses of madness.
However, at the same time, texts like Cry, the Peacock and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things also highlight the fact that in the Indian society female insanity is still a very private affair as there is a lack of solid solidarity among women to present a collective dissent. Maya’s private musings in Cry, the Peacock or Baby Kochamma’s madness in The God of Small Things is not able to generate enough sympathy from the other female characters in the story. Moreover, Baby Kochamma becomes revengeful and later condemns Ammu’s love for Velutha, an untouchable, strongly. Ammu’s love for Velutha is seen as madness, irrational and profane by her family and society. Baby Kochamma’s persecution of Ammu and Velutha can be interpreted as an act of revenge for her own experience of unfulfilled love and desire. In the same way, Ammu expects her children to behave well and educates them with patriarchal ideas while her own acts are non-conforming and transgressions. Their acts are symptomatic of the fact that in most cases, women in India, instead of empathizing with the “madwoman” looks at “madness” as a means of avenging the madness that was earlier imposed on her by society. The female characters in the big Indian families of the novels lack empathy for the mad character and go on to either dismiss or silence her. Under these circumstances, the family, especially the women in the family, also emerge as oppressors of the victim; the victim understands this and yet, unfortunately in most cases, the family cannot be done without.
Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. John Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Chakravorty, Gayatri Spivak. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Grossberg, University of Illinois Press, 1989, pp. 271-316.
Cixous, Helen. “Laugh of the Medusa”. Signs, vol. 1, no. 4, Summer 1976, pp. 875-93.
Desai, Anita. Cry, The Peacock. Orient Paperbacks, 1980.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University press, 1980.
Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crisis of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. Routledge, 1992.
Irigaray, Luce. Sexes and Geneologies. Colombia University Press, 1993.
Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. Penguin Books, 2002.
Issue 85 (May-Jun 2019)