Date of Award




Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Department of English


Liberal Studies

Content Description

1 online resource (vi, 105 pages)

Dissertation/Thesis Chair

James D. Lilley

Committee Members

James D. Lilley, Mary B. Valentis


Bronte, feminist criticism, Gothic literature, language, literature, and linguistics, mental illness, Victorian Era, Mental illness in literature, Women in literature

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Women's Studies


This critical thesis explores how three literary portrayals of “madness” in female characters of the mid-to-late 19th century written by women writers (Bertha Mason of Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights, and the Narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper”) operate as instruments within their work to provide commentary on the anxieties, fears, and ideological stereotypes of women and femininity of the era, as well as contradictions and concepts pertaining to confinement, the female body, gendered Gothic tropes, and societal oppression. The significance of this analysis lies in the consistency and endurance of these issues as they withstand modern development, making imperative the study of their literary canonization at marked points in history, particularly when written by those of the gender they concern. Despite their similarities in era, tone, genre, and authorship, these three characters are certainly widespread in their significance and the issues their narratives raise; however, their multiplicity in meaning and diversity in subject, region, and topic are meant to emphasize the breadth of signifiers that female portrayals of mental illness use and signified themes they establish while linked by that troubling commonality. The factors of female characters written by women writers posit that gender is a critical aspect of historical literary portrayals of mental illness, culminating in a criticism of the power dynamic parallel that feminizes the disabled to conflate their culturally imposed inferiority of condition with societally imposed inferiority of the female gender; the forced suspension of personhood and autonomy on the basis of gender (paralleled with disability, race, and other areas relevant to issues of subjugation) is what constructs the concept of “feminized liminality” coined here, a misery which each of these characters experiences in markedly different yet interconnected ways. I intend to assert that the initial cursory view of female portrayals of mental illness being exclusively damaging to the ideological regard for the female sex discounts the intricate mechanisms that constitute the issue as a device when created and recognized by the gender-realized writer. The nature of literary insanity lies in the great gray area of fiction, an enigmatic plane of mirrored human experience where madness haunts the female image as darkly and profoundly as it does the human mind; therefore, it is the prerogative and purpose of a feminist critic to define the method in the madness.