The University of Wisconsin Press

Literature & Criticism / Feminism / Psychology

Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel
Studies in Brontë, Woolf, Lessing, and Atwood
Barbara Hill Rigney

“Rigney skillfully leads her readers on this literary journey toward women’s spiritual health. At journey’s end, readers, like the novels’ protagonists, can affirm ‘a superior sanity based on personal order and the discovery of at least the potential for an authentic and integrated self.’”
International Fiction Review

A greater part of the feminist movement has considered traditional psychology to be both a product and a defense of the status quo, a patriarchal society. Here, Barbara Hill Rigney explores emerging feminist psychology by applying it to literary works by women who have depicted the relationship between madness and the female condition. The result is a fascinating and illuminating exposition, certain to be welcomed by students and scholars in literature and women’s studies, as well as those in sociology and psychology whose interests include feminism and problems of women and society.

Among the works Rigney considers are Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, and Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, all of which depict insanity in relation to sexual politics. These authors portray a patriarchal social system which, in itself, manifests symptoms of collusive madness in the form of war or sexual oppression and is thereby seen as threatening to female psychological survival.

Each of Rigney’s author subjects sees her protagonist as tragically divided between male society’s prescribed roles for women and a sense of an authentic self. Thus emerges a pattern, common to all works, in which the divided self is reflected by the inevitable juxtaposition of the protagonist to a doppelgänger, an “insane” self, an extension of the protagonist who herself can be regarded as sane only by degree.

A return to “true” sanity is traced through the patterns found in the selected works. Rigney explores the literary metaphor of the return of Demeter or the Amazon mother to restore the alienated female protagonists. In order to begin the return from psychosis, Rigney concludes, they must find the mother within themselves in the form of a feminist consciousness of self-worth.

Barbara Hill Rigney was, at time of publication, assistant professor of comparative literature at Ohio State University. Her class on women writers was the first such class offered by the University, in 1972. She received an OSU Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1974.

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September 1980
LC: 78-053291 PR
128 pp.   5 1/2 x 8 1/2
Paper ISBN 978-0-299-07714-3
Cloth ISBN 978-0-299-07710-5

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