Mad men and angry women

TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?

The opening line of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous tale, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ , takes the form of a question to which there is no answer. The narrator so evidently is mad; obsessed with the ‘Evil Eye’ of his elderly employer ,  he is driven to murder and then makes an hysterical confession – because he believes that he can still hear ‘a low, dull, quick sound’, the beating of his victim’s heart.

The creation of an insane protagonist is one of the tropes of gothic fiction.  Edgar Allan Poe seems to specialize in this kind of narrator – the man who kills his wife and her black cat, the very peculiar obsession of the protagonist in Berenice. Then there is the haunting, ambiguous gothic of Sheridan Le  Fanu  : are his characters deluded or insane? Do they truly confront manifestations of evil , or have they simply drunk too much hallucination- inducing green tea?

More subtle than these creations are the unreliable narrators of 19th and 20th century fiction. The most memorable of these is the governess in Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw (1898).  Critics and readers have argued for years over interpretations of this intriguing story. The governess relates her own version of the sinister events at Bly, believing that she tried to save two children from the ghosts that haunted the mansion.  However,  there is plenty of evidence in the text to suggest that Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are not ghosts at all, merely figments of her crazed obsession. Henry James is a master of ambiguity; every incident in his story can be read as either ‘proof’ of a ghostly presence, or as evidence of an insane, unreliable narrator.

‘Mad’ women in Victorian fiction can sometimes simply be very, very angry women. Forced into the role of the Angel in the House, a fragile creature of silence and submission, these women rebel and refuse to make soul-destroying compromises for the sake of conformity. Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley is a striking example of this: she may look small and delicate,  but her determination to keep her wealth and position take her to extraordinary lengths.  Eventually her family arranges for her incarceration in an asylum, on the grounds that only a madwoman would behave as she has done. Similarly, the doctor-husband in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ insists that his wife needs treatment for ‘temporary nervous depression’ – he prescribes rest and solitude, locking her in her room. Deprived of stimulation and company, the unfortunate woman develops far more disturbing symptoms of insanity than she ever showed in the first place. The end of this story is chilling.

I can highly recommend all of these titles – perfect, if unsettling, reading for Mad March!


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