‘The madwoman in the attic’: Mental health in literature

Cait Findlay 9 May 2017

Most of us will be familiar with the grand twist towards the middle of Jane Eyre – if you aren’t, I wouldn’t consider this a spoiler, because it’s a shocking book, and not worth wasting 400 pages of your time on. Handsome, dashing, mysterious Mr. Rochester was married before he met Jane! And worse, his wife is still alive and terrorising Jane with howling, ghostly noises from her attic prison! And this is where we’re all supposed to gasp – not because he committed the apparently entirely forgivable crime of locking a woman in an attic against her will, but because poor Jane can’t marry him now. This trope is named after Bertha Rochester herself, the original ‘madwoman in the attic’. Whatever she may or may not be suffering from, she is more often than not set up as a foil for Jane herself – the wild, animalistic, West Indian woman, versus the white, genteel, English Jane. Her distress is utterly refuted in the face of Jane’s distress at having to encounter her, and this kind of victim-blaming when it comes to mental illness only alienates the person’s struggle from the reader. Trying to make herself heard in the face of such extreme abuse makes her appear to be hysterical and violent, rather than brave, and I think we need to ask ourselves why that is. 

Whether you’ve already read Jane Eyre or if you’re suddenly curious about it, I would highly recommend reading Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea alongside it. Rhys cuts to the heart of the colonial entitlement that seems to have seeped into our consciousness without necessarily being questioned, and dissects the trope of the ridiculous, hysterical woman whose perspective is rendered null and void by her classification as ‘mad’. This madness, whether it is the rightful outrage of a non-white woman or a bona fide mental health issue (and honestly, who wouldn’t be suffering after ten years’ forced confinement in their own house?) is therefore not seen as worthy of representation, or, at the very least, help. Jane and Rochester are made victims before Bertha is, and that, sadly, is a position many people suffering from mental health issues nowadays still find themselves in. 

In a similar vein, the ‘hysterical woman’ trope is not only applied to Bertha (as if any hysteria on her part wasn’t entirely warranted), but also in today’s media. A woman cannot speak up in public, or even run for President without being accused of being shrill and irrational, often even having this supposed hysteria attached to mental illness. Genuine mental health issues are trivialised by making them the same kind of social taboo as an indignant woman’s voice.

And there are so many more appalling tropes that mistreat victims of mental health problems even now, including the demonisation and parodying of neuroses such as OCD and anxiety disorder, and the glamorisation of serious psychoses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Symptoms of the latter are often given to two-dimensional villain characters, whose sole motivation behind their deeds is often simply ‘insanity’ – ‘insanity’ which remains perpetually untreated, as well as somehow the fault of the character. 

There are no two ways about it. We need to get better. It does not suffice to simply keep away from these tropes – we need to remove the stigma behind talking about mental illness. Above all, we must listen, and not invalidate the experiences of those who live with mental illness every day. By perpetuating the culture of glamourising, fetishising, and demonising mental health issues in our media and literature, we not only keep the ‘madwoman’ locked in the attic – we throw away the key.