Contents Index

Monsters and Madwomen: Changing Female Gothic

Karen F. Stein

In The Female Gothic, ed. Julian E. Fleenor (Montreal: Eden, 1983), pp. 123-37

{123} Monsters figure conspicuously in Gothic literature. The product of a sensibility that glorifies the self in isolation from society, the Gothic explores the darker side of the Romantic vision. In the Gothic mirror, the self is reflected in the extreme poses of rebel, outcast, obsessive seeker of forbidden knowledge, monster. Monsters are particularly prominent in the work of women writers, because for women the roles of rebel, outcast, seeker of truth, are monstrous in themselves. For a man to rebel, to leave a comfortable home and to search for truth are noble acts. Thus, this pattern of behavior is expressed in the heroic epic. For women, however, such assertions of questing self-hood have been deemed bizarre and crazy; consequently the Gothic mode -- and in particular the concept of self as monster -- is associated with narratives of female experience.

In their Gothic narratives women reveal deep-seated conflicts between a socially acceptable passive, congenial, "feminine" self and a suppressed, monstrous hidden self. The monster remains an apt symbol for turbulent inner compulsions, particularly in poetry. However, the madwoman serves a similar symbolic function, and this figure appears more frequently in prose fiction. While the monster is a physical emblem of inescapable stigma, madness is a more subjective aberration which may be overcome when the character or society ceases to regard certain types of behavior as monstrous or crazy. In earlier versions of this genre no escape from social denigration and self-hatred is conceivable; in these closed-end works monsters are more prevalent and madwomen are unredeemable. Some recent writers, challenging traditional, stereotyped attitudes, are creating characters who transcend self-hatred. {124} These heroines experience madness as a stage on the journey toward self-knowledge. In these inner journeys -- the female equivalent of the male adventure -- the heroines learn to identify with their hidden selves and to reaffirm the values which had previously been denied. By this means they reintegrate split selves, restore their fragmented identities and return to sanity and social acceptance with open-ended possibilities before them. In this essay we shall enter the Gothic sideshow of monsters and madwomen to examine the ways in which this imagery reveals women's hidden conflicts and their struggles to achieve personal integrity.

Coining the term "Female Gothic," Ellen Moers contends that women's concern with physical appearance prompts them to give visual form to their self-denigration.1 Although Moers' analysis provides important insights, she fails here to take into account the male-defined context of female behavior. Referring to Robin Morgan's poem "Monster,"2 in which a small boy perceives his mother's genitals as monstrous, Moers comments that this male perception of female monstrosity seems to "have nothing to do with the long and complex traditions of Female Gothic, where woman is examined with a woman's eye."

On the contrary, it is precisely this male disgust with woman's sexuality, the male hatred and fear of woman's awful procreative power and her "otherness," which lies at the root of the Female Gothic. This dread originated in prehistoric times, and persists into the present.3 A male strategy for alleviating this fear is to define woman as "Other," to simplify and to stereotype. Karen Horney describes how, rather than responding to each woman as a unique, complex, and therefore potentially fearsome being, men have split the concept of Woman into pairs of stereotyped antitheses: saint/sinner, virgin/whore, nurturing mother/devouring stepmother, and angel/witch. Objectifying women and casting them as praiseworthy or blameworthy types diminishes the threatening power which women hold for men. Significantly, the women who have been most acceptable to patriarchal culture are those who have been powerless; passive rather than active, self-sacrificing rather than self-assertive, meek rather than bold. Mythology, religion, fairy tales and popular literature all reflect this split in its myriad forms. The "good" submissive women have been rewarded with praise, marriage, admiration and sanctification; the "bad" assertive women punished by ostracism, opprobrium and death. Through centuries of conditioning women have internalized this male-created division, and, consequently, much of their behavior can be understood as reaction to this reductionism.

To win social acceptance many women have sought, consciously or unconsciously, to be the virgin, the angel, to hide or disown the traits which might be seen to threaten their acceptability. The decorated surface may {125} come to seem a sham; the smiling mask may become what R. D. Laing has described as the false self, created to hide the vulnerable secret self.4 At some point the mask is no longer a convenient defense but a trap; the woman is then confronted with her own terrifying split between "monstrous" inner drives and "nice" outward appearances. What is she to do then? If she strives for personal achievement, she risks isolation and scorn; if she continues to wear the mask, she denies her own personhood.

This dilemma confronts the heroines to be discussed here:5 Rochester's first wife, Bertha, in Jane Eyre; Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar; Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook; Martha Quest in The Four-Gated City; and Kate Brown in The Summer Before the Dark. Each of these women tries to solve her conflict, and, either by her attempt or by her frustrated reaction to an unresolvable situation, incurs society's judgment of madness. Bertha Rochester and Esther Greenwood are physically and psychologically constrained by societal limitation, scarred by madness, and locked into monstrosity. Anna Wulf, Martha Quest and Kate Brown, however, redefine these terms of opprobrium and achieve personal growth.

Madness has proved a difficult term to define. Assessments of sanity are highly subjective, even among medical professionals. This subjective assessment is particularly true for women. The label of insanity has frequently been ascribed to women who fail to perform housewive's tasks, or who deviate from the "average" norms of expected behavior.6 Yet "madness" is a highly personal response to a unique situation, and a mere label does little to provide us with insights into such patterns of behavior or with understanding of ontological processes. While the term "madness" is applied to the behavior of an "outsider," an objectified other, shifting the focus to the subjective perceptions of the person behaving in an abnormal way grants us sympathetic awareness of the individual's inner realities.

R. D. Laing has suggested such a shift in focus. His pioneering work has provided insights into the subjective states of madness by defining schizophrenia as "a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation."7 Conceptualizing madness as a strategy has made Laing particularly congenial to some feminist writers such as Doris Lessing and critics such as Barbara Rigney.8 Phyllis Chesler contends in Women and Madness that since women who deviate from the narrow range of socially acceptable behavior are quickly labeled insane, madness may be a negative response to these limited alternatives.9 Madness thus becomes an acting out of the "devalued female role."

Fiction, too, reflects this pattern of limitation and constraint of women. Males are portrayed as heroes struggling to define themselves and working for personal power and success, in all aspects of human endeavor while females, {126} according to Joanna Russ, have only one role, "the protagonist of a Love Story."10 Working within traditional literary conventions, women writers have been forced to falsify and to distort their experience to fit into man-made models. Women writers must face "the whole problem of what to do with unlabeled, disallowed, disavowed, not-even-consciously perceived experience, experience which cannot be spoken about because it has no embodiment in existing art."11

The novels considered here are attempts by women writers to deal with this problematic material, to create an embodiment of female experience by modifying existing literary forms. Delineating the emotional dimensions as well as the social contexts of the characters' lives, they present women frustrated by the narrow avenues of experience open to them as they face their conflicting desires for achievement and social acceptance. The Female Gothic may thus be seen as a version of the Gothic created by women authors to explore formerly unspeakable, "monstrous," aspects of women's lives.

In each of the works under discussion, the character's madness is to some extent a critique of the society which has prevented her from developing her full human potential. Trapped and limited, the characters act out their malaise in the bizarre ways perceived by observers as mad. Locked into the "devalued female role," powerless, frustrated and angry, the thwarted women of the closed-end works often accentuate their perceptions of themselves as monstrous. However, Doris Lessing and other contemporary writers are changing the conventional Gothic by evolving a female heroic pattern that parallels the male myth of a heroic journey.12 In these novels of modern Female Gothic, the heroines, no longer powerless, undertake their own inner journeys, turning madness into self-exploration and personal discovery. As we shall see, these characters heal their psychic splits by integrating both components of themselves, the independent and assertive with the emotional and nurturant. In achieving this integration, these characters redefine and revalue the female role.

Discussion of the Female Gothic must begin with the classic example of this genre, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.13 One of the most famous Gothic novels, Frankenstein embodies Mary Shelley's version of the split-self theme in her obsessive scientist and grotesque, human-like monster. While most interpretations of this book stress its universal human theme, that of the Prometheus figure punished for daring to overreach human limitations, Ellen Moers sees it as uniquely female, a product of its author's experiences of childbirth and death. Moers reads the book as a discussion of the parent-child bond, but it may also be viewed as an exploration of the creating/relating duality, the woman's conflict between independent endeavor and dependent emotionality.

{127} Much of the force of this brilliant work lies in the shift of the reader's sympathy from the scientist to the monster. For ironically, the monster here embodies the relating, feeling self. The separation of feeling monster and thinking scientist illustrates the power of these opposing pulls in the emotional life of the Female Gothic novel. Abandoned at birth by his creator, the monster seeks above all love and relationship. Secretly observing a loving family, he tries to win its affection and protection but is spurned because of his loathsome appearance and monstrous proportions. He then demands that Frankenstein give him a mate to share his life. Thwarted again, his frustrated need for love becomes a desire for revenge. Thus, the unmitigated search for love is dangerous, but so is its antithesis, sheer intellect.

Frankenstein's creation of the unnamed monster is a kind of birth; but it is an unholy, unnatural genesis, a creation not of the body, but of the mind of its maker. The scientist sins by divorcing his intellect from his feelings: he cuts himself off from all of human society and even from the possibility of sympathy for his monstrous production. Remembering his neglect of family and loved ones while he was obsessively occupied with his creation, Frankenstein laments his guilt:

A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. (p. 49)
It is this anguish which marks the book as a specimen of Female Gothic, although its protagonist is male. Frankenstein's guilt is the very conflict -- between free use of imaginative, intellectual, power and the ties of feeling -- which divides the creative women. Unable to reconcile these divergent components of the self, Frankenstein and his monster war with and destroy each other.

Shelley's novel gives Gothic form to a problem many ambitious women faced. Because of their inescapable dependence on men and on a patriarchal social order, nineteenth-century women had few means of fulfilling, or even acknowledging, their (supposedly) "monstrous" creative aspirations. Writing within these psychological and cultural limits, early women novelists, like Shelley, devised personal strategies for dealing with the guilt of their self-assertion and fictional strategies for presenting their heroines sympathetically.14

Jane Eyre, for example, is a kind of encoded symbolic message in which the heroine is split into two selves, the "monstrous," passionate, sexual woman, and the "good," rational, controlled woman. The male fear of female {128} sexuality is reflected in Rochester's treatment of his first wife, Bertha. Bertha's existence serves as a warning to Jane. Her mad laughter ironically punctuates Jane's musings on women's needs for a wider sphere of activity:

Women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings. (p. 110)
It is at this point that the laughter of the mad woman interrupts her train of thought. Because Bertha is a symbol of the way in which male definition and control limit women's sphere of activity, her laughter mocks Jane's aspirations. Locked up by her husband in an attic for her "excesses" of passion, Bertha is quite literally trapped. Grown physically deformed as well, she is both madwoman and monster.

Not only does Rochester lock Bertha in an attic, but, according to Helene Moglen:

. . . he must protect himself as well against everything in Jane that suggests an affinity with his first wife. He must deny that aspect of her sexuality which is perceived as aggressive and "masculine." He must bifurcate her personality.15
To some extent Jane resists this bifurcation, insisting on her own identity and refusing to become either the "good angel" or the mistress Rochester would make of her. Yet, the grossly disfigured Bertha is a monstrous incarnation of the passionate, angry aspects of the self that Jane must subdue in order to escape from a series of prison-like rooms. Only after Bertha's death, the death of the "monstrous," angry, assertive self, is Jane's marriage to Rochester possible. Jane's prospects for matrimonial success are enhanced by Rochester's blindness, a fictional device for placing him in the female position of dependency, thus making the two more nearly equal politically. Psychologically, Jane, with her hard-won self-discipline and self-knowledge, will prove to be more powerful.

Nineteenth-century women characters, like their flesh-and-blood sisters, found few socially condoned means of self-assertion and creative endeavor. Although women in twentieth-century novels are often depicted struggling to open wider spheres of action for themselves, the limits of the culturally acceptable {129} continue to narrow their prospects and the old fears remain. Esther Greenwood, the adolescent heroine of Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, is presented at precisely the moment when the most choices seem open to her. A prize-winning college student, Esther is arriving in New York to spend the summer working as a guest editor for a popular magazine. Yet, instead of glorying in her success, Esther becomes increasingly unsure, increasingly reluctant to assert herself. Her problems stem chiefly from her response to society's hypocritical double standard of sex-role behavior which she perceives as operating in all interactions between men and women, whether husband and wife, doctor and patient, or any other.

Therefore, Esther perceives every choice a woman makes as demanding a painful renunciation, the splitting-off and loss of a part of herself. All of the women she knows have had to sacrifice either their intelligence -- the creating self -- or their femininity -- the relating self -- to survive. The flirt, the ingenue, the ugly editor, the prolific mother, the self-effacing mother, all are victims of society's double standard which keeps women locked in partial lives. For Esther, the roles these women play are not open possibilities, but traps. Unable to choose any of these unacceptable alternatives, she is deadlocked. Stalemated, she tries to kill herself with a massive dose of sleeping pills, to leave her psychic impasse and escape into death.

Upon recovery in the hospital, she calls for a mirror, but throws it away, not recognizing herself. The description of the face she sees is particularly grotesque:

You couldn't tell whether the person in the picture was a man or a woman, because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head. One side of the person's face was purple, and bulged out in a shapeless way. (p. 142)
Esther's mother warns darkly that her subsequent transfer to a mental hospital is punishment for breaking the mirror. While literally false, this analysis is symbolically correct: Esther is committed to the mental hospital to be treated for the failure of self-knowledge and self-acceptance represented by throwing the mirror away.

Embodying this self-distancing, the narrative voice of the novel is that of the ironic observer, the censuring self-consciousness. Repeatedly, seeing her mirrored reflection, Esther does not identify her own image, or she perceives it as freakish: "The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian," "I looked yellow as a Chinaman," "I felt gawky and morbid as somebody in a sideshow." In addition, there is a related strand of imagery evoking physical diminution, {130} disappearance. These grotesque images reflect Esther's conflict between her opposing selves. Esther sees no possibility of resolving the dichotomy. Rebelling against the narrow confines of woman's role, she refuses to choose any one limiting option. Consequently, her only escape from the dilemma seems to lie in the blissful nullity of infancy or death, the extreme situations of passivity and powerlessness. Although she does leave the hospital, relinquishing the mad role, she continues to perceive herself as monstrous, and so remains trapped.

Plath's poetry gives striking expression to this sense of entrapment. "In Plaster"16 dramatizes the conflict between antithetical warring selves, the smiling "angel" and the inner "monster" as the struggle of an ugly, yellow self with her white plaster body cast:

I shall never get out of this! There are two of me now:
This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one,
And the white person is certainly the superior one.
Struggle between the two selves intensified. Each wishes to eliminate her rival. The cold, white "saint" hopes to kill the inner self:
Then she could cover my mouth and eyes, cover me entirely,
And wear my painted face the way a mummy-case
Wears the face of a pharoah, though it's made of mud and water.
The narrator realizes that such a victory would indeed be a hollow one, for it is the untidy, yellow, inner self that is real and vital. However, here, as in The Bell Jar, there is no hope for synthesis of the two selves, no chance for compromise: "Now I see it must be one or the other of us." The inner, yellow self anticipates gaining the courage to reveal and assert herself, to break out of the trap of conforming to others' expectations of proper feminine behaviour:
She may be a saint, and I may be ugly and hairy,
But she'll soon find out that that doesn't matter a bit.
I'm collecting my strength; one day I shall manage without her,
And she'll perish with emptiness then . . .
This theme of entrapment and split self is frequent in Plath's poetry. Such poems as "Daddy," and "Lady Lazarus" use even more outrageous imagery, the imagery of the macabre, the grotesque, the Nazi holocaust, vampires, suicide, sideshow freaks to depict the condition of women as prisoner, as victim. The only escape lies in violence, most often turned against the self. {131} Plath's heroines are unable to resolve the tensions between conflicting needs; consequently, from their viewpoint death seems the only wholeness attainable. The heroine of The Bell Jar, unable to find a method of reconciling her opposing selves, succumbs to a paralysis of indecision and incapacity; while the narrator of "In Plaster" is locked in struggle.

Some recent writers of Female Gothic, however, see madness as a heroic inner journey, a way to integrate the self. Releasing their anger directly and giving vent to their madness, these new heroines discover that rage and insanity may be ways of reestablishing links with lost or suppressed selves. This vision of insanity as a means to self-knowledge and psychic integration is a development of the Romantic world-view. Madness is seen as insightful, a plumbing of the depth of emotional intensity. The contemporary resurgence of the Female Gothic is part of this new romanticism. Notable among these new Female Gothic writers are Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood. Their heroines experience madness as part of their growth toward self-knowledge. Accepting their assertive, creative impulses, they take responsibility for the possibilities and burdens of selfhood, and find a new power from using these formerly unrealized attributes. In the later works of Doris Lessing, women actively exercise control over their madness, choosing insanity as a tool of self-awareness. Tracing this theme in Lessing's work reveals some of the changes in the Female Gothic.

Lessing's first study of a madwoman, in the short story "To Room Nineteen,"17 is an almost clinical account of the breakdown of a suburban housewife who cannot find a way to reconcile her relating and creating selves. Susan Rawlings leaves a promising career to become a wife and mother, but, finding herself smothered by these two all-demanding roles, commits suicide to gain freedom from the demands which have encroached so devastatingly upon her. In Lessing's more recent works, madness is no longer a dead end, but becomes, for those who can read it, a roadmap, an indicator of new directions, a learning experience.

Anna Wulf, heroine of Lessing's novel The Golden Notebook, struggles with her separate roles of mother, single woman and writer: the splitting and "real" and "fictional" characters (from Anna's novel) carry out the motif of the divided self. Confessing her fragmentation, Anna keeps four notebooks to record separately her emotional and political experiences, her everyday life, and her attempts at fiction. Writing is Anna's method of "naming," of understanding and bringing order into life's chaos. But the sheer weight of this formlessness threatens to overwhelm her: she begins to doubt the efficacy of words to control. Rereading earlier journals, she is surprised at the self she sees there, feeling very remote from her. The intelligence which she {132} trusts as the crux of her identity seems very precarious. This loss of faith in the ordering ability of her intelligence is bound up with a growing sterility and despair that Anna feels after the loss of her lover, Michael. Much of her sense of self-worth is dependent upon having fulfilling relationships with men. After Michael leaves her, Anna becomes involved in a series of petty, unpleasant affairs.

Anna, her friend Molly, and their fictional counterparts -- Anna's characters Ella and Julia -- despite their claim to being "free women," allow themselves to be defined by men, chiefly in sexual terms. They find themselves repeatedly, out of kindness, embarrassment, motherliness, or boredom, accepting the sexual overtures of men they do not find attractive. These encounters often end with the men berating them, out of their own guilt or sexual inadequacy. Aware of this behavior, the four women express their deprecation of themselves and their sexual partners in dry, mocking sarcasm. Seeing through the male dichotomizing of women into boringly respectable wives and excitingly immoral lovers, they feel trapped in the roles men have cast for them. Yet they see no way out.

Although Anna thinks that there is a new type of woman evolving, a woman better equipped to deal with new social conditions, she is still locked into stifling old patterns. While she has not yet seen any of these new women, or new men, she meets people who seem to be "cracked across, . . . split, . . . keeping themselves open for something." Thus, the new consciousness Anna hopes for seems attainable only through profound psychological upheaval, "crack-up," "split." Anna is frightened to feel herself heading for such a crack-up, but at last gives up her control and lets herself enter into the experience fully.

To undergo this exploration of madness, Anna must consciously relinquish the most salient facet of her identity, the role of mother. Although she frequently feels torn by the tensions between her motherhood and other aspects of her life, Anna is always ready to reassure and respond to her daughter Janet. Breakdown is permissible for her only after Janet has gone off to boarding school. When Janet leaves, Anna feels liberated from the pressures of planning and responsibility, the rigidly confining structure of time. With Janet away, "an Anna is coming to life that died when Janet was born." Yet her commitment to nurturant motherhood remains paramount:

She knew that on the day Janet came home from school, she would become Anna, Anna the responsible. . . . She knew that Janet's mother being sane and responsible was far more important than the necessity of understanding the world; and one thing {133} depended on the other. The world would never get itself understood, be ordered by words, be "named," unless Janet's mother remained a woman who was able to be responsible. (p. 651)
Thus, the breakdown is seen as a means of exploring a part of Anna that has been submerged by her need to be sane, rational, responsible. This exploration is essential in order for Anna to arrive at an understanding of the world and of herself, for personal integration demands the fusion of the rational and the irrational, the achieving and the nurturing selves.

In The Golden Notebook, as in The Bell Jar, the experience of madness is rendered more poignantly than the process of returning to sanity. Incurred jointly with one of her lovers, Anna's madness is manifested by acute anxiety, a dissolution of the boundaries of self, time, and space. With her controlling intelligence at bay, she is prey to extremes of emotionality. Scenes from her life appear in distorted forms, like a film that has been edited and rerun for her to watch. During the latter stages of this crack-up, Anna claims to be gaining significant insights which she cannot formulate directly into words:

During the last weeks of craziness and timelessness I've had these moments of 'knowing' one after the other. . . . These moments have been so powerful, like the rapid illuminations of a dream that remain with one waking, that what I have learned will be part of how I experience life until I die. (p. 633)
With her return to sanity after the turbulent upheaval of madness, Anna is able to unify all components of herself. She writes all her experiences in one notebook, gets a job, overcomes her artistic sterility and writes the novel, Free Women. Her friend Molly gets married. Although both women take action to resolve central questions in their lives, they retain their mocking cynicism, and the ironies of the book's conclusion undermine the optimism.

In The Four-Gated City the process of insanity and the painful accumulation of insight is developed in greater detail. Although for most of her life the heroine, Martha Quest, drifts with little conscious decision from one situation to another, her self-exploration through madness is a deliberate choice. Leaving her "normal" life behind, Martha embarks on her "quest" for identity. Her subsequent integration, while more far-reaching than Anna's, is more accessible to the reader. This novel contains Lessing's most radical presentation of madness as a means to a higher consciousness. The chaotic, fragmented society is destroyed, and the mad women become the builders of a new world. {134} In all of her relationships with the other characters in this book, Martha Quest tests out modes of being-in-the-world. But it is the mad woman Lynda Coldridge, who becomes her model, because Lynda grows from the exploration of self made possible by her breakdowns. By taking care of Lynda during one such period, Martha partakes of her heightened awareness, and begins a process of self-development of her own. She decides to leave her employer-friend-lover, Mark Coldridge, so that she can live with his estranged wife Lynda and grow with her, sharing her madness. This is the first time in the five-volume Children of Violence series that Martha seeks actively to define herself; before this she had accepted the definitions and behavior patterns imposed upon her by the men who were important to her. Now Martha aligns herself, not with the world of men and male definitions of female behavior and sanity, but with the madwoman herself; in this reversal of Jane Eyre the heroine goes off with the mad wife.18

Because she opens herself to breakdown, Martha, more successful than Lynda, is able to achieve greater self-awareness and integration. Those who cannot explore the fullest reaches of their minds are locked into the more limited world of sanity. Such is the case with Phoebe:

If only she had been able to hold the "breakdown," to explore it, develop it, use it; turning her back on it, she refused a chance to open and absorb. She became, instead, more rigid, more controlled. (p. 394)
Martha makes better use of her time, and turns breakdown into self-exploration and growth. She makes notes of her experiences to act as guides for continuing development. In this process she is given a richer awareness of the depth and complexity of the many facets of self. The many selves which Martha has been conscious of throughout the novel are now seen as fragments of a larger being which she can control by moving beyond the dangerous, destructive stage of self-hate:
If all these subhuman creatures are aspects of me, then I'm a gallery of freaks and nature's rejects. . . . Fool. Don't you ever learn. These things are there. Always. I can choose to be them or not. (p. 551)
Redefining madness, Martha Quest rejects the labels of both madwoman and monster. Like Anna Wulf, Martha emerges from her period of madness to assume adult responsibility, in this case, to take care of a young woman, the daughter of an old acquaintance who is coming to visit.

{135} The book ends with an appendix which describes the life of Martha and Lynda in a post-holocaust world. After the devastation, Martha and Lynda live together on a peaceful island. Their "madness" has been transformed into a new power of psychic transmission. This power is a development of the "feminine" capacity for "relating." Additionally, they are deeply involved in nurturing the "new" children of this world, many of whom share their unique psychic abilities. Lessing thus suggests that full personhood is possible only in a culture that values the "feminine" qualities of responsibility and nurturance more than the "masculine" traits of assertiveness. Only in such a society will human beings be able to grow without the self-hate that breeds fear, war and madness.

Lessing's themes of women's tensions between surface appearance and inner reality, and of madness leading to larger vision reappear in The Summer Before the Dark. During a period of separation from her family, the heroine, Kate Brown, takes a job, travels, has an affair with a younger man, and becomes ill. Through these experiences, and through a process of intense introspection which verges on insanity, she realizes that she has based her life on trivial superficialities, and determines to change what she comes to view as her insane behavior, her conformity to patriarchal standards of demeanor.

Lessing uses the mirror-identity symbol explicitly here. A beautiful, well-groomed woman, Kate grows gaunt and unkempt after her illness. Shocked and humiliated to find herself ignored now, Kate parades past construction workers, making minor adjustments in posture and dress each time. The results, alternating cat-calls and indifference, convince her of the insignificance of such evaluations of appearance. She judges her need to find affirmation and approval in admiring glances as self-destructive and "mad," seeing that a society which gives such importance to surface qualities of youth and beauty is damaging to both old and young, women and men.

Kate's insights extend to an analysis of her nurturing, maternal behavior. Feeling rejected by her family now that her children have grown, she realizes that she has devoted most of her life to helping and placating others, at the expense of her own needs and desires:

All those years were now seeming like a betrayal of what she really was. While her body, her needs, her emotions -- all of herself -- had been turning like a sunflower after one man, all that time she had been holding in her hands something else, the something precious, offering it in vain to her husband, to her children, to everyone she knew -- but it had never been taken, had not been noticed. But this {136} thing she had offered, without knowing she was doing it, which had been ignored by herself and by everyone else, was what was real in her. (p. 140)
Her experiences enlarge her awareness of life beyond the confines of comfortable middle-class suburbia. Kate returns to her family by conscious choice, not out of habit or unthinking expectation. Because the world now seems a more complex place, Kate is no longer sure of her actions and can no longer continue in her former role of comforter. Planning to make more deliberate choices, she chooses her appearance as the symbolic first area of change; she will no longer dye her hair. This will be the first statement to her family that she will now begin to define herself in her own terms.

Kate Brown, like March Quest and Anna Wulf, and in contrast to Susan Rawlings, refuses to remain trapped in the madwoman role. No longer succumbing to insanity as a loss of power, the enactment of a "devalued female role," these Lessing heroines use madness for growth, for self-knowledge and visionary inspiration. It is significant that in these novels the return to sanity encompasses both independent self-assertion and deliberate choice of the maternal, nurturing role. In control of the terms on which they will return to, and function within society, the heroines attain a personal power based on affirmation of their sexuality. They become whole women, and because they affirm both their conventional, daytime selves and their inner, darker selves, they are able to function in society with expanded awareness and freedom.

Monsters and madwomen, the Gothic emblems of the fearful hidden self, remain powerful figures in the work of women writers, expressing profound conflicts between aspects of the self. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein envisions the conflict between the monster and the scientist, the feeling self and the thinking self as totally destructive of both. In Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, the darker, monstrous, more sexual, angry self, Bertha, is killed in order that the more moderate, more controlled self, Jane, can live within the limitations imposed by society. In Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, and in much of her poetry, death and/or complete loss of self seems preferable to the half-life that results from compromise. Doris Lessing, by contrast, grants her fictional characters a greater measure of personal expression. In her works, the imagery of the Gothic novel is integrated with the structure of the heroic. Lessing's re-vision of ancient myths of woman's role allows her characters to attain complete identities, to move beyond the Gothic world of terrible monsters and madwomen into the heroic realm of the journey and of personal redemption.

Turning the Female Gothic to new forms, modern women writers like Lessing are creating new heroines who grow into complete personhood through {137} their quest for experience and knowledge. The speaker of Robin Morgan's poem "Monster" turns the accusatory label into prophetic warning. Similarly, these new writers are changing the Female Gothic symbols of victimhood and persecution into new sources of strength. Undergoing journeys that lead to personal integration, the heroines rejoice in the exploration of their full human potential, and transform social stigma into personal power.


1. Ellen Moers, Literary Women (New York: Doubleday, 1976), pp. 90-91.

2. Robin Morgan, Monster (New York: Random House, 1972), pp. 81-86.

3. See: Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949; rpt., New York: Bantam Books, 1953); Karen Horney, "The Dread of Women," in Feminine Psychology, ed. Harold Kelman (New York: Norton, 1967), pp. 133-146; Wolfgang Lederer, The Fear of Women (New York: Grune & Stratton, 1968); Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur (New York: Harper & Row, 1976); Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976); Katherine Rogers, The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1966).

4. R. D. Laing, The Divided Self (1959; rpt., New York: Pelican Books, 1965).

5. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (1847; rpt., New York: Dodd, Mead, 1944); Silvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963; rpt., New York: Bantam, 1972); Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (New York: Ballantine, 1968); Doris Lessing, The Four-Gated City (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969); Doris Lessing, The Summer Before the Dark (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973).

6. Shirley Angrist et al., Women after Treatment: A Study of Former Mental Patients and Their Neighbors (New York: Appleton-Century Croft, 1968).

7. R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 79.

8. Barbara Hill Rigney, Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1978). Rigney's study is an attempt "to reconcile feminism and psychology in the area of literary criticism." (p. 3)

9. Phyllis Chesler, Women and Madness (New York: Avon, 1972).

10. Joanna Russ, "What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can't Write," in Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives, ed. Susan Koppelman (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State Univ. Popular Press, 1972), p. 9.

11. Russ, p. 16.

12. An informative discussion of this male heroic pattern is found in Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968).

13. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818; rpt., New York: E. P. Dutton, 1912).

14. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977); Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977).

15. Helene Moglen, Charlotte Bronte: The Self Conceived (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 128.

16. Crossing the Water (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 16-17.

17. A Man and Two Women (1963; rpt., New York: Popular Library, 1975).

18. Showalter, p. 124.