Madness in Women's Fiction: A Reading of Subversive/Redemptive Strategies in Three Novels by Jean Rhys, Sylvia Plath, and Margaret Atwood

Saba Marwan Suleiman


This article investigates a sample of women’s writing with relation to the depiction of female madness in Wide Sargasso Sea (1968) by Jean Rhys, The Bell Jar (1971) by Sylvia Plath, and Surfacing (1973) by Margaret Atwood. This argument uses feminist theory and focuses on madness as a redemptive strategy for madwomen. The novels under analysis reveal the struggle of the “mad” heroines to have a voice of their own. In addition, the discussion suggests that female writers try to articulate their experiences, which were otherwise culturally muted, through giving madwomen a voice in their texts.  This study thoroughly looks into the three selected novels to investigate their heroines’ language, identities, and hysteria from a feminist point of view. This discussion exposes the ways women are marginalized in their professional—and private—lives and investigates what might lead them to madness—real or constructed. Women can subversively use their image as mad to protect themselves from patriarchal oppression and to react against this oppression through symbolic writing. These novels serve the aim of this study because of their narrative perspectives and their common but nuanced treatment of madness. My contribution is my selection of such diverse novels and my proposed analysis of the theme of madness as an example of the subversive potential of feminine writing. The issue of madness in feminist fiction may not be particularly new. However, this study proves that this trope of the madwoman is a transgressive one in that it resists dominant power structures and threatens an apparently ordered, "rational" patriarchal culture. It has been possible through dissecting the inner psychology of the protagonists of the novels—Antoinette, Esther, and Atwood's anonymous heroine—to ascertain how male domination has a negative impact on the psychological, social, and spiritual lives of women. Although male-domination has a negative impact on the heroines’ lives, their madness sometimes appears as a willed choice against patriarchal oppression. Consequently, in tackling the central issue of madness in women’s fiction as subversive/redemptive strategy through analyzing the characters of Antoinette, Esther, and Atwood's anonymous heroine, this article presents madness as a means to express women’s real being and resist patriarchal oppression from within its own power structures. The discussed novels are written by female writers and have emerged as major narratives of madness in the twentieth century, whereby the figure of the madwoman ultimately empowers women and thus redeems them.


Feminist Theory; Women's Fiction; Madness; Redemption; Language; Identity

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