Thesis

Dangerous games: the adoration and persecution of the Victorian madwoman

The general belief concerning the relationship between art and reality is usually that art imitates life. In this thesis, I propose that during the second half of the 19th century, this relationship changed. For a time, men of science based their ideas of women on contemporary art motifs. Stereotypes of women portrayed in novels, paintings and photographs were often mistaken for reality. These images and texts were used to validate and justify behavior towards women. Many of us are familiar with the Victorian notion of the angel in the house vs. the fallen woman. The fallen or undesirable woman was not only the sexual woman, but also the crippled, tormented, mad, angry and opinionated woman. But in the medical profession another defining fraction was made. Not unlike the Madonna/Whore syndrome, there manifested two opposing madwoman archetypes: there was the expired, virtuous woman vs. the monstrous, animal-woman. In addition, there was also the woman-child who was on the dangerous brink of becoming one of these two creatures. In analyzing this phenomenon, I will be examining real-life asylum patients as well as representations of madwomen in Victorian imagery and texts. This thesis consists of two parts: (1) a written text~ and (2) an exhibition of26 photo-based pieces. Part I: While many characters are discussed in this thesis, I have selected three fictional characters who serve as the primary representatives to critique the Victorian archetypes of females: Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Ophelia from Hamlet, and Bertha from Jane Eyre. By exploring the significant images of the woman-child, (i.e. Alice from~ in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass), Chapter One investigates the idealization and manipulation of little girls in Victorian literature and art as well as the treatment of girls both by their families and members of the medical profession who deemed themselves the moral and physical guardians of all women. Especially in terms of representation, I noticed that the more the Victorian girl-child was isolated and adored, the more seductive and womanly her image in art became. The infamous Ophelia, who was by far the most frequently painted character of the Victorian era, represents the virtuous madwoman. With the invention of photography, a strange phenomenon occurred. Art and medicine were suddenly merged in a surreal era where life began to imitate art. Asylums became a place where Ophelias, Isabellas, and Elaines were made. Chapter Two seeks to establish a link between and the literary and artistic madwoman and the role of real life asylum inmates. Bertha from Jane Erye represents the fallen, forgotten and abused madwoman in this thesis. Chapter Three analyzes the treatment that real women received in asylums when they failed to be young, beautiful actresses, or refused to play Ophelia games. It also explores the horrific punishments and "cures," such as genital mutilation, isolation, forced medication, and psychological abuse. Part IT: An exhibition of 26 works of art was installed in the Cal State San Marcos library from April12 to May 17, 1998. The photographic works serve as a link between the fictional and historical 19th century women discussed in Part I and their lingering influences on 20th century women. The memory boxes, mirrors, photographs and cages are my homage to those women, both of the past and present, whose testimonies (both of words and silence), bravery and endurance continue to remind me where we have come from and where we need to go.

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