In most of the novels and the works in consideration we see the struggle for expression and the quest to overcome masculine oppression (on the part of the author) finds expression as a deteriorating mental state of the character.
Largely guided by their urge to break off from the shackles of the society and the pining for the freedom that has been sadly denied to them, women exhibit a kind of madness in their effort to restore the balance. This is fairly obvious from the many literary works created by women. These works invariably depict the quest for freedom and very often they end up as the lamenting tones of a deranged personality. In most of the novels and the works in consideration we see the struggle for expression and the quest to overcome masculine oppression (on the part of the author) is expressed as a deteriorating mental state of the character. Let us study the aspect of 'Madness in Women' in context of some of the literary works by women.
Though we have to accept that distinction between men and women existed to a certain level we find it utterly ridiculous to see some women authors in particular stretching it to enormous proportions. In the very first chapter of the essay "Room of ones Own" by 'Virginia Woolf' we find this exaggerated notion of gender discrimination. The whole essay seems to be a mad exaggeration of the problem rather than an objective assessment of the situation. The Narrator looks at the literary situation in the Elizabethan period. She projects the plight of women by creating a fictional character 'Judith Shakespeare'. Here we get a contradictory view of narrator. First she argues that such a talented women would not shine just because she is a woman. In fact 'Judith Shakespeare' finally commits suicide.
From this chapter the narrator gradually disappears behind the discussions of the ideas. What is confusing about the author is the fact that on the one hand she cites the hampered liberties of women as the reason for their failure on the other hand she contradicts this. For example she says, "it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare's day should have had Shakespeare's genius." The Narrator seems to oscillate from objective facts and presumed notions. She extols the quality of a genius and at the same time attributes material considerations as a restrictive factor for the blossoming of a genius. (At the same time she excludes some people from this general categorization, ex-John Keats). The author neatly hides under the pretext of a fiction to compensate for the lack of concrete data to back her interpretations. (We know very little of Shakespeare's life and how conducive the circumstances were for him)
One more point where the confounding nature of the author (Woolf or the Narrator) is made clear is when she discusses the growth of women writers. The Narrator argues that the women's literature growth was largely underdeveloped because of the absence of a precedent literary tradition. She also talks about the role of incandescence in the purity and the integrity of the emotions expressed in the novels by women. For example she considers Bronte's novels to carry the stigma of objections and rejections of the society. The narrator says this about Bronete's writings, "One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of conciliation....She was thinking of something other than the thing itself." Having said this she praises and even wonders at Jane Austen's works, which according to her reflect undiluted, pure emotions. The narrator is not in a position to explain the growth or the development of the genius of Jane Austen (in the absence of a literary heredity). So again we are faced with contradictory interpretations. (That growth requires a precedent heredity and conducive ambience)
Sula' by Toni Morrison is another interesting novel wherein the predominantly women characters fluctuate in their opinions about conventional social values. In this novel again we can find enough reasons to attribute madness to women. For example the whole plot itself abounds in confounding notions as to what is right or wrong. There is a sheer breach of social values. To top it all the author adds a totally unthinkable aspect to mother's love. In the novel we find the Character Eva killing her own son because he is so very deeply addicted to drugs. Now this is an unthinkable action on the part of a mother and it represents the height of madness.
The author's justification for this appalling act is in no way acceptable. It represents the height of madness and ambiguity, which is present throughout the novel. Again there is a comment by Hannah that she loves Sula but does not like her. Here again we see the ambiguity and the author again creates a new dimension to mother's love. In this novel women don't seem to have any respect for social conventions. Women are simply projected madly in that they have indiscriminate sex without any considerations for others. For example Sula the close friend of Nel doesn't hesitate in having an affair with Jude (Nel's husband). This is a totally debasing projection of women. By questioning the social conventions and the ever-changing human relationships this novel presents a picture of madness that has caught the society in its grip.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is again a story about a woman engulfed in her own inner world of depression and her struggle to come out of it. Here the central character (narrator) represents the aspect of madness throughout the story. It is in fact based on the experience the author had with neurasthenia, an emotional imbalance. Gilman found that she was getting to the worse with the doctor's advice of continuous bedrest and medication and eventually stopped the treatment. This saved her and it is this experience that she tries to picturize in her story "The Yellow Paper." The narrator (the woman) becomes afflicted with some kind of paranoid illusion. The tone of the novel switches gradually from sane to insane as the woman develops her own inner world where she begins to involve more deeply with the complex designs of the wall paper. Slowly her condition deteriorates and she begins to feel a woman trapped inside the wall yellow paper. The author symbolizes the wallpaper as a tool to explain the subjugated feminine personality.
Though John her (narrator's) husband is very loving his failure to fully understand and appreciate her problem only ends up in deteriorating her condition. She is confined within the room for a long time. This is symbolic of the domineering influence of male over the female. Finally the narrator tries to release the lady behind the wallpaper by tearing it off. This act is symbolic of the freedom from men. So throughout this novel we see the undertone of the theme of freedom from bondage. The color yellow can be interpreted in a variety of ways each with its own symbolic import. For example we can take it to mean the jaundiced and distorted outlook of society (male) on the role of women. Particularly in context of the early 20th century women were considered inferior and their opinions were not given enough weightage.
This is clear in the novel wherein the narrator asks her husband to take her away from the room but her requests are totally ignored. So the tearing away of the yellow wallpaper represents the tearing away of the wrong outlook and the birth of a new vision. (Where men and women are treated equal). It is in fact symbolic…