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Women's Madness in Literature

Compare ways in which Miller and Rhys explore the presentation of madness and the responses to madness

One of the ways in which both Miller and Rhys present madness and the responses is as an attempt to oppress women. Miller both displays how madness can successfully control women and how when women take their own control of madness, they gain power and the ability to use it for personal gain. This becomes clear through the presentation of Tituba in who is shown to be incredibly easy to manipulate due to her position as a black slave and her reliance on the family that she serves.

Through her initial appearance and conversation with Hale she is continually fed leading questions and threatened with death in order to make her confess to witchcraft; “when did you compact with the devil?” This contextually links with the red scare and the vigorous questioning individuals would go through as they were compelled to confess who other communists where among them.

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The presentation of Tituba as mentally unhinged is similar to the presentation of Abigail who also is suspected of witchcraft yet experiences absolution and a rise to power as she leaps at the chance to have the will of god in her hands. Miller presents Abigail in as a source of female empowerment instead of allowing her character to succumb to the societal expectations of a women in her position. In professing her guilt, Abigail is absolved, free from sin and the devils influence, her defiance continues and her rise to power undermines the power balance in Salem.

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In act 3, even Danforth, who is in a powerful position, is reprimanded and threatened by Abigail, a mere serving girl; (in an open threat) “Let you beware Mr Danforth, think you to be so mighty that the power of hell cannot turn your wits?” Miller uses pronouns here to show how Abigail can bring the deputy governor down to her level, she fails to use his title instead using his surname and he weakens under her threats. This presentation of Abigail is reflective of the female ability to override male oppression in a superstitious patriarchal society.

In contrast, Rhys presents madness as a successful way to oppress women as shown through Rochester and Antoinette’s relationship and the treatment of Antoinette’s mother. Rhys presents Antoinette as the opposite of the female heroines of 19th century novels, unlike Jane Eyre she is not rational and self-restrained but has a wild imagination and acute sensitivity, her restlessness and instability stems from her inability to belong to any particular community which Rochester uses to his advantage. Rhys makes it evident that Rochester could resonate with Antoinette as he too is essentially an orphan and struggles for some sense of place and identity. Instead Rochester adopts an aggressive and more dominant approach within their relationship as an attempt to progressively refashion her into a mad woman.

This is particularly evident in the changing of Antoinette’s name, Rochester aims to strip her of her identity in an act of complete possessiveness in order to test the limit of control he has over her, Rhys presents Rochester in such a way that the reader can understand how he managed to make Antoinette so mad. Initially Rhys presents Antoinette as questioning “My name is not Bertha: why do you call me Bertha?”, and unwilling to accept her ‘new’ name “Not Bertha not tonight.”

Yet it becomes clear that Antoinette’s desire to be loved by Rochester overrides the discomfort she feels at being deprived of something as personal as a name, it is evident she is willing to change any aspect of her identity in order to be accepted by him: “you must be Bertha”, “as you wish (she said)”. This was acknowledged by Michael Thorpe who recognised the attempt to “humanise Bertha” as “Rhys tries to win the understanding and compassion for those whose mental state · is just the wrong side of a thin dividing line from normality, Thorpe also further links Bertha with Jane Eyre to underline their “common plight as women.” The reception of poor mental health among women during the 1800s in Jamaica acts as an explanation for the way Rhys chose to present the dynamics of Rochester and Antoinette’s relationship.

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Women's Madness in Literature. (2019, Dec 09). Retrieved from

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