The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a perfect example of late-Victorian Gothic fiction.

Photo by Wendy van Zyl on

Gothic literature was established in the eighteenth century with novels such as Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Radcliffe’s Sicilian Romance. Authors utilised the gothic genre to address contemporary societal fears whilst heightening the reader’s imagination and causing sensation through terror.  From themes such as patriarchal tyranny and religious oppression, the gothic genre evolved alongside its society. The Victorian fin de siècle Gothic fiction altered from its original genre because

‘The turn of the twentieth century [saw] the first merging of the Gothic with […] Victorian realism, under the premise of philosophical exploration’.

Maria Beville,Gothic-postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity (Amsterdam: Radopi, 2009),p.61.

Many fears arose during this period resulting from advancements in psychological theory as well as Darwin’s theory of evolution in The Origin of the Species. This caused heightened concern about the makeup of the human consciousness and counteracted with anxieties of devolution. Whilst class, sexuality, crime and aesthetics became major themes in late Victorian Gothic fiction, authors exploited the narcissistic obsession in society. Furthermore, by exploring the notion of good and evil as a co-existing entity in the human self, authors were able to rationalise the concept through satire. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the embodiment of the fin de siècle and the novel represents many aspects of late Victorian fears. This paper will discuss the ways that Stevenson successfully portrayed the Victorian fin de siècle through the gothic genre whilst comparing the novella to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

Virtue and appropriate behaviour feature prominently in the late Victorian period:

‘Moral uprightness was one of the foundations upon which British society supported itself.’

Dennis Grube, At the Margins of Victorian Britain: Politics, immorality and Brittishness in the Nineteenth Century (London: I.B.Tauris, 2013),p.127.

Both Stevenson and Wilde explore the concept of virtue in their novels by examining the human consciousness. By creating the fictional double, the novels exhibit what the Victorian society attempts to supress, which is the binary opposite of appropriateness. In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde the character of Dr Jekyll is portrayed as an ambitious and friendly man who superficially enjoys his wealth and his friends. However, oppressed by the society in which he lives, and becoming aware of his faltering tolerance, he delves into his inner self to explore the composition of his own consciousness.  His alter ego, Mr Hyde, is the primal version of his self who finds delight in the purity of evil he experiences. Written in the form of a case study, Dr Jekyll confesses his experiment in the form of a letter that his friend receives after his death:

It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness,[…] If each,[…] could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (London: Penguin Books, 1994), pp, 70-71.

Stevenson demonstrates the duality of the conscious mind and its struggle to balance good with evil through the narrator’s stream of consciousness.  Dr Jekyll suggests that in his original form, he has morality, yet he struggles to accept the ‘unbearable’ aspects of life, which his immoral side exposes. Relief, therefore, could only be experienced if they were to be separated into two individual entities. The primitive self is described as ‘unjust’, which suggests that it does not behave in accordance with what society deems as morally correct behaviour, as a result, this causes ‘remorse’ in the morally good conscience. Freedom from the ‘unjust’ is the only way that Dr Jekyll feels able to follow a morally righteous path. The final sentence in the above quotation satirises late Victorian society as Dr Jekyll describes how immorality exposes disgrace and causes feelings of penitence. The word choice ‘extraneous evil’ suggests that evil is external and therefore, created by the hands of society. By connecting sentences with semi-colons, Stevenson forms a union between good and evil as a natural result of societal expectation and, as Lord Henry Wotton suggests in The Picture of Dorian Gray:

People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to oneself. Of course they are charitable. […] But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. […] The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2001), p.18

Wilde establishes the way in which society stifles the self. Lord Wotton suggests that society deflects the primitive nature of man to one that has become morally constructed through fear. Lord Wotton refers to Kant’s philosophy of morality that states,

‘The first principle of duty to oneself lies in the dictum “live in conformity with nature” [and] preserve yourself in the perfection of your nature.’

Immanuel Kant, ed. Mary J. Gregor, Practical Philosophy: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.545.

This suggests that Victorian society oppresses the natural quality of man.

Whilst Stevenson developed the double in Dr Jekyll and My Hyde through Dr Jekyll’s exploration of human consciousness due to his internal dissatisfaction with the world, Wilde developed the double through self-development and a need for sensation. His character Dorian becomes highly influenced by his charismatic friend Lord Henry Wotton who suggests that ‘to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul,’ (Wilde, p.18). This results in Dorian believing that ‘Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him,’ (Wilde, p.125). This clarifies that good and bad influence can pass from person to person resulting in a multiplicity of souls residing within the human body. If this is the reason for a duplicity of the self, it is explored by Dr Jekyll who muses that ‘in the agonized womb of consciousness these polar twins [are] continuously struggling. How, then, were they dissociated?’ (Stevenson, p.71). Freud’s structural theory suggests that personality is split into three parts, the id, the superego and the ego.

‘The id is defined as the seat of drives and instincts […] whereas the ego represent[s] the logical reality-orientated part of the mind, and the superego [is] akin to a conscience, or set of moral guidelines and prohibitions.’

Theodore Millon, Melvin J. Lerner and Irving B. Weiner, Handbook of Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2003), p.121.

This theory as suggested by Million, demonstrates that ‘personality is derived from the interplay of these three psychic structures which differ in terms of power and influence. […] When the id predominates, an impulsive, stimulation-seeking personality style results, (Million, p.121). This trait is found in The Picture of Dorian Gray when the young Dorian determines that his:

time ha[s] come for making his choice. Or had his choice already been made? Yes, life had decided that for him – life, and his own infinite curiosity about life. Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins – he [is] to have all these things. The portrait [is] to bear the burden of his shame: that [is] all, (Wilde, p.85).

Dorian submits to the controlling factor of the id due to the influential personality of Lord Wotton. The balancing aspect of the superego becomes external and represented in the portrait, this allows Dorian to observe a physical depiction of his conscience. Wilde presents the alternating structure of Dorian’s consciousness by presenting his statement followed by a question.  This allows Dorian to submit to his id because he believes that he has no choice. The repetition of the word ‘life’ has a destructive function as the dash and comma create fragmentation in the sentence that mirrors Dorian’s thoughts and suggests his lack of control in the world. Moreover, the sentence is long and uneven which creates an imbalance of the consciousness.  Following this is a list of Dorians desires, the punctuation creates a punchy and fast rhythm representing the frenzy of its character and his grasping of control and is slowed down with a dash once the control is gained.

Late Victorian society developed an awareness of the self through evolutionary theories such as Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, and narcissism compromised by a fear of devolution.  According to Bowler,

‘The Darwinian revolution […] and the emergence of cultural evolutionism were parallel developments that coincided in time […] the two ideas were soon linked by the suggestion that the primitive stone-age humans had evolved from ape-like ancestors.’ [7]

Peter J. Bowler, Charles Darwin: The Man and his Influence (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990), p.191.

Evolution of culture caused society to fear atavism because degeneration could reverse humanity to its primal state, therefore, disintegrate modern life. Stevenson portrayed these fears in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by illustrating the character of Mr Hyde from a public and private perspective. Mr Utterson gives a good example of the various ways in which the character is perceived:

‘God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say? Or can it be the old story of Dr Fell? Or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent? The last I think,’ (Stevenson, p.23).

The beginning of the quotation suggests that Mr Hyde’s inhumanity is because he is prehistoric or primitive. Secondly, Mr Utterson ponders over his perception of the character as a personal dislike because of his rebellious nature. This is suggested through reference to Dr Fell who was openly disliked and mocked by his student Thomas Brown.

This last theory satirises the vanity of the late Victorians and their intolerance of the lower classes. For Utterson ‘The problem he was thus debating as he walked was one of a class that is rarely solved,’ (Stevenson, p.23). His conclusion, however, is that Mr Hyde contains a foul soul that radiates outwardly making his presence unpleasant.

Primitivism in the physicality of Mr Hyde is demonstrated to contrast with the public perception of the character. He is regularly given animalistic form, for example; he took a ‘hissing intake of breath,’ or he ‘snarled aloud into a savage laugh,’ (Stevenson, p.23). Stevenson is illustrating the degeneration of man as not merely a mental but physical phenomenon. The characters of both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde adopt separate physical appearances that demonstrate a desirable narcissistic presence in Dr Jekyll and a degenerate undesirable looking Mr Hyde. Wilde’s approach is slightly different to Stevenson because the character of Dorian Gray remains beautiful. It is only through the portrait that the reader is able to observe the alteration of the characters appearance:

An exclamation of horror broke from the painter’s lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous face on the canvas grinning at him. There was something in its expression that filled him with disgust and loathing. Good heavens! it was Dorian Gray’s own face that he was looking at! The horror, whatever it was, had not yet entirely spoiled that marvellous beauty, (Wilde, p.123).

Dorian’s degeneration is unlike the Darwinian Theory, the characters sinful life does affect those around him yet he is still admired for his beautiful looks and status in society. The ugliness of Dorian is preserved in private and away from the public eyes. This demonstrates the importance of beauty for the late Victorians. What Wilde did do however, was establish the problematic elements of physicality. When Dorian Gray murders Basil Hallward, Wilde illustrates the beast in his character:

The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he loathed the man who was seated at the table, more than in his whole life he had ever loathed anything. He glanced wildly around, (Wilde, 125).

Wilde demonstrates that an evil and monstrous soul can live in anyone, even the beautiful can hide a devious or wicked nature. In a time when the notorious Jack the Ripper roamed free, the public had only the criminology reports to refer to for peace of mind. Dr Bond for example, wrote the murder profile of Jack the Ripper:

The murderer in external appearance is quite likely to be a quite inoffensive looking man, probably middle-aged and neatly and respectably dressed. He will be solitary and eccentric in his habits, also he is most likely to be a man without regular occupation, but with a small income or pension.”

Richard N. Kocsis, Criminal Profiling: Principles and Practices (Totowa: Humana Press, 2006), p.4

Wilde utilised the theme of murder to create terror and fear in his readers. According to Emsley,

‘By the middle of the century the term ‘criminal classes’ was used to suggest an incorrigible social group – a class – stuck at the bottom of society.’

Professor Clive Emsley, ‘Crime and the Victorians’,  BBC History (2011) ≤≥ [accessed 09 December 2014] (para, 8 of  15).

The Picture of Dorian Gray illustrates that crime can be performed in any class in society and just as easily concealed.  Stevenson also used the theme of murder in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but the crime is explored through the reaction of society, ‘London was startled by a crime of singular ferocity, and rendered all the more notable by the high position of the victim,’ (Stevenson, p.29). The sole witness described the victim as an ‘aged and beautiful gentleman’, (Stevenson, p. 29). Mr Hyde, however is described as ‘other’, to whom she ‘conceived a dislike,’ (Stevenson, p.30). Stevenson demonstrates the late Victorians outdated perception of crime and their dislike of otherness as perceived in the murderer.

Murder was not the only crime portrayed in the novels. Homosexuality is illustrated in both novels but more obviously in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Basil explains his love for Dorian in his art, ‘I see everything in him. […] I find him in all the curves of certain lines, in the loveliness and subtleties of certain colours,’ (Wilde, p.12). The Picture of Dorian Gray was being written in 1885, the year that Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act was enforced. This stated that

‘any act of “gross indecency” between men in “public or private” [is] an offence.

Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), p.19.

Subsequently, Wilde was arrested and imprisoned in 1895 for homosexuality and The Picture of Dorian Gray was used as evidence at his trial. Stevenson published Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde a year later although homosexuality is less obvious in his book. Mr Utterson is, ‘the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of down-going men.[…] so long as they came to his chamber, he never marked a shade of change in his demeanour,’(Stevenson, p.9). Stevenson’s subtle but provocative language is hidden amongst the class related subject to demonstrate also, that homosexuality could be found in all societies and all classes.

To conclude, the paper discussed the Gothic fin de siècle as represented in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Stevenson’s novel is the quintessential late-Gothic Victorian novel, because although both Stevenson and Wilde aimed to satirise late-Gothic Victorian society by preying on societal fears, Stevenson’s attempt was more comprehensive. Wilde covered several aspects such as doubling, crime and vanity. However, Stevenson explored a prominent fear in society at the time, which was devolution. Therefore, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde combined all aspects of the Gothic fin de siècle.


Beville Maria,Gothic-postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity (Amsterdam: Radopi, 2009)

Bowler Peter J, Charles Darwin: The Man and his Influence (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990)

Emsley Professor Clive, ‘Crime and the Victorians’,  BBC History (2011) ≤

Grube Dennis, At the Margins of Victorian Britain: Politics, immorality and Brittishness in the Nineteenth Century (London: I.B.Tauris, 2013)

Houlbrook Matt, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Kant Immanuel, ed. Mary J. Gregor, Practical Philosophy: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Kocsis Richard N, Criminal Profiling: Principles and Practices (Totowa: Humana Press, 2006)

Millon Theodore, Melvin J. Lerner and Irving B. Weiner, Handbook of Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2003)

Stevenson Robert Louis, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (London: Penguin Books, 1994)

Wilde Oscar, The Picture of Dorian Gray, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2001)


The posts on this site will always be free but I do accept donations. Please visit my welcome page if you would like to donate. Thank you.

Madness and Hysteria in the Late 19th Century

I said some time ago that I would post some of my academic essays on my website. Please feel free to quote from any of my essays, but do remember to reference them accordingly. Also, please bare in mind that the point of view in the following essay is, like all critical analysis, subjective, meaning it is neither right nor wrong.

black and white picture of a crying child
Photo by Lucas Pezeta on

The number of female lunatics in Victorian asylums outnumbered males toward the end of the Nineteenth century. According to Showalter, ‘the rise of the Victorian madwoman may have been linked to the rise of the psychiatric profession, with its attitudes toward women and its monopoly by men.’ [1] Psychiatrists suspected that female madness was a result of biological problems due to the ‘instability of their reproductive systems [which] interfered with sexual, emotional, and rational control,’ (Showalter, p.55). The subservient female in the late Victorian period was therefore, incapacitated due her male dominated society. Moreover, a woman’s ‘longing for independence [was] socially unacceptable at every phase of the female life-cycle,’ (Showalter, p.132). As a result, the oppression of women within the standardised role of femininity not only maintained patriarchal dominance but reinforced it. This paper will discuss the way that madness and hysteria was represented from both a male and female author’s perspective in late Victorian literature.

Written in 1897 Bram Stoker’s Dracula has a multiple first-person point of view consisting of letters, diary entries, memos, and newspaper articles. This allows Stoker to present a comparative representation of hysteria in both masculine and feminine form. The character of Jonathan Harker experiences a ‘violent brain fever’ [2] because of his imprisonment in Dracula’s castle:

Whilst I live on here there is but one thing to hope for: that I may not go mad, if, indeed, I be not mad already […] feeling as though my brain were unhinged or as if the shock had come which must end its undoing (Dracula, p.32).

Harker’s breakdown is a response to his experience of the supernatural. Stoker portrays the characters madness as a form of post-traumatic stress rather than cowardice. This does not undermine Harker’s masculinity but rather reinforces it due to his intelligence and his bravery. In his journals, for example ‘When […] the conviction had come over me that I was helpless I sat quietly – as quietly as I have ever done anything in my life – and began to think over what was best to be done,’ (Dracula, p.24). The em-dashes in this quotation represent pauses that create a feeling of calm steady contemplation. Stoker was reacting to late Victorian fears of masculine decline, for example ‘In the fin de siècle […] men’s identities were destabilized by the appearance of the assertive new woman.’ Whilst Harker’s masculinity falls into decline due to his breakdown and his temporary removal as a narrator, it is reinforced when his supernatural experiences […] are

verified by a third party, masculinisation and writing; [therefore] Harker can be sure that he was not simply hallucinating [and] he can be confident of his manhood. [4]

Stoker’s assertion of masculinity in Harker re-established the male superiority in the late Victorian period. The author justified Harker’s madness as a temporary reaction toward the supernatural, therefore acceptable. Nordau suggested that madness was a symptom of modern times and quoted that, ‘We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria.’ [5] For Stoker, hysteria is a female illness, he demonstrates this by comparing the character of Harker to his partner Mina Murray.  Mina is an intelligent woman who works hard as a schoolmistress in order to ‘be […] useful to Jonathan,’ (Dracula, p.46), which is a typical representation of the late Victorian woman with ‘her innate qualities of mind [which] complement rather [than] equal [her man],’ (Showalter, p.123). Furthermore, the character appears to be more masculine than her partner Harker and is described as having a ‘man’s brain […] and a woman’s heart, (Dracula, p.195). Mina is, therefore, a threat to the masculine patriarchy of the Victorian period. Although her intellectual skills and courage become invaluable in the investigation of Dracula’s whereabouts, it is suggested by the psychiatrist Dr Seward that, ‘Mrs Harker is better out of it […] it is no place for a woman, and if she […] remain[s] in touch with the affair, it would in time infallibly [wreck] her, (Dracula, p.213). Dr Seward’s suggestion corresponds to Victorian psychiatric thought

that women were more vulnerable to insanity than men because the instability of their reproductive system interfered with their sexual, emotional and rational control, (Showalter, p.55).

Stoker uses this theory of female vulnerability not only demonstrate that women are the weaker sex but also to destabilise the new woman’s desire for feminine independence. For example, when Mina is dismissed from the group, she records her feelings in her journal, ‘And now I am crying like a silly fool,’ (Dracula, p.213). This demonstration of emotional weakness in addition to Mina’s ‘strangely sad and low spirit,’ (Dracula, p.213) are signs of what was known as neurasthenia, ‘a more prestigious and attractive form of female nervousness than hysteria’, (Showalter, p.134). It is therefore unsurprising that Mina should fall victim to Dracula.

Stoker represents an eroticised representation of madness from the perspective of Mina when she first encounters Dracula. Mina uses highly sexualised language in her journal such as, ‘my feet and my hands […] were weighted [and] leaden lethargy seemed to chain my limbs,’ (Dracula, p.215). This language has connotations of sadomasochism, a term used to denote both dominance and submission. In the case of Mina, Dracula is dominating her. Whilst being aware of these emotions she recalls them at a subconscious level as she ‘must be careful of such dreams, for they would unseat one’s reason if there was too much of them,’ (Dracula, p.215). Whilst Mina’s first-person narrative makes her recollections unreliable, her sexual undertones are carefully documented. Stoker is demonstrating Freudian psychoanalytic theory of female madness:

For Freud, hysteria had to do with disavowed sexuality, primarily female sexuality, in the context of the Oedipus complex and its derivatives (unconscious incestuous wishes and penis envy). [6]

Although Mina’s desires are presented as subliminal, Stoker illustrates how women are susceptible to madness due to their sexual repression. Consciously the character shows visible signs of madness as Dr Seward diarises, ‘Mrs Harker […] had drawn her breath and with it had given a scream so wild, so ear piercing,’ (Dracula, p.235). Furthermore, he stated that ‘Her eyes were mad with terror’, (Dracula, p.235). Seward’s analysis of Mina is typical of the male psychiatrist of the Victorian period.

Feminine weakness and madness are also explored in the character of Lucy Westenra. Lucy is Dracula’s first conquest in England. Whilst her symptoms appear to Mina as signs of madness, such as shortness of breath, loss of appetite and lethargy, Dr Seward suggests that ‘there is not any functional disturbance or any malady that I know of’, (Dracula, p.92). Whilst Lucy displays hysterical symptoms, Val Helsing and his colleagues are powerless to help her. After four blood transfusions from four different men, Lucy’s deterioration continues. These transfusions represent masculine power over the female whose unconscious form renders her submissive. However, the men’s control over Lucy is in vain and therefore they attempt to ward off Dracula by giving Lucy a wreath of garlic to wear around her neck while she sleeps. She describes this in her diary as ‘lying like Ophelia in a play, with ‘virgin crants and maiden strewments,’ (Dracula, p.110). According to Showalter, ‘Ophelia was a compelling figure for many Victorian […] doctors seeking to represent the madwoman’, (Showalter, p.90). Madness in Lucy prior to her death is represented as weakness, however, as a vampire ‘The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness,’ (Dracula, p.175). Lucy is not only sexualised but also powerful and dangerous. Stoker is demonstrating the negative effects of powerful women in the character of Lucy who is found to have taken several children to feed upon. Lucy’s vampirism defies woman’s nature and is therefore, presented as madness.

The Darwinian theory of madness suggests that, ‘mental disorder might be passed on to the next female generation, [however] these theories were convenient ramifications of existing social relations between the sexes,’ (Showalter, p.123). It is for this reason that the vampire Lucy is destroyed whilst Mina, still in her human form is protected. Stoker opposes the new woman who attempted to redefine gender roles and ‘overcome masculine supremacy’, [7] thus by comparing Harker’s madness to the character of Mina Murray, Stoker reinforces the traditional societal views of masculine power.

Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper written in 1892 is a semi-autobiographical short story narrated in first person. This allows an intimate perspective of the character’s thoughts and feelings through her writing. Gilman demonstrates the ineffective use of the rest cure that the narrator is prescribed by her husband, who is also her physician, as a treatment for her nervous disposition. The portrayal of the rest cure in the narrative is similar to the Silas Weir Mitchell rest cure of ‘entire rest […] excessive feeding […] confin[ment] to bed,’ and being ‘forbidden to […] read, write or do any intellectual work,’ (Showalter, p.138). Neurasthenia according to Dr. Margaret Cleaves is a result of ‘women’s ambitions for intellectual, social, and financial success, ambitions that could not be accommodated within the structures of late-nineteenth-century society,’ (Showalter, p.136). The narrator admits that her intention was to conform to the role of the stereotypical Victorian wife, and she writes that, ‘I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already.’ [8] The word ‘comparative’ suggests that she is atypical to societal expectations of the wife. In addition, the word ‘already’ suggests that the couple are newly married. Nervousness, therefore, derives from the narrator’s inability to conform to the role of the typical Victorian wife. She explains ‘Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able – to dress and entertain, and order things,’ (TYW, p.34). Furthermore, she struggles to cope with motherhood, ‘It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. […] And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous’, (TYW, p.34). The narrator’s neurasthenia is represented as post-natal depression that is clarified by the italicised ‘cannot’. Moreover, according to Victorian psychiatrists, ‘after childbirth a woman’s mind was abnormally weak, her constitution depleted, and her control over her behaviour diminished,’ (Showalter, p.58-59). Whilst the narrator is fully aware of her depressive state, her husband refuses to believe it:

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do? (TYW, p.31).

In the above quotation, Gilman is demonstrating how mental illness was misunderstood in Victorian psychiatry. The narrator’s husband John, to cure his wife, asserts full patriarchal control over her, he ‘hardly lets [her] stir without special direction,’ (TYW, p.32). Oppression causes the narrator to get angry with her husband and he tells her that she will ‘neglect proper self-control,’ (TYW, p.32). Fear of her husband’s dominance causes her to ‘take pains to control [her]self – before him,’ (TYW, p.32). The em-dash in this quotation suggests that the narrator is allowing her self- control to dwindle whilst her husband is out if sight. This retaliation is due to her husband’s ignorance, ‘John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him,’ (TYW, p.33). The italicised ‘reason’ demonstrates the narrator’s frustration in John’s dismissiveness of her nervous disposition.

Female repression due to male dominance in psychiatry is addressed in The Yellow Wallpaper. Not only does John mistreat the narrator’s madness, but her needs and solutions for recovery are ignored. As a writer, she is ‘forbidden to ‘work’ [until she] is well again,’ (TYW, p.31), moreover she suggests that, ‘Personally, I believe that congenial work […] will do me good,’ (TYW, p.31). The depravity of writing as a form of work and mental stimulation causes the narrator to use imagination in the confinement of her room. Allowing herself to lose her self-control, the reader begins to observe the narrator going insane. Whilst allowing the madness to consume her, the narrator begins to hallucinate. Enclosed in a room with bright yellow patterned wallpaper she slowly begins to see a woman behind the pattern, which introduces Gilman’s use of the literary double. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss the narrative double in their book The Madwoman in the Attic.

She is usually the author’s double, an image of her own anxiety and rage. […] fiction written by women conjures up this mad creature so that female authors can come to terms with their own uniquely female feelings of fragmentation, their own keen sense of the discrepancies between what they are and what they are supposed to be. [9]

The above quotation highlights the technique used by many female writers in the Victorian period and can be found most certainly in The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman uses the double to represent what women really are, whilst the narrator is represented as what women are supposed to be. The narrator studies the wallpaper vigorously to discover that in the moonlight the pattern appears to be bars. Furthermore, she continues to discover that ‘By daylight [the woman] is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still, (TYW, p.41). What Gilman sees as the repressed woman. She is a prisoner in her own society, which pacifies her through societal expectation and law. Over time the narrator begins to experience a realisation of her situation and writes, ‘I don’t want to leave now until I have found it out,’ (TYW, p.42). At this point, in the narration, there becomes a transition and the narrator begins to be consumed by the wallpaper. Over time, she becomes the woman behind the bars, ‘I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?’ (TYW, p.46). By surrendering to her madness and metaphorically becoming the woman in the wallpaper, she is free from her husband’s dominance ‘I’ve got out at last […] in spite of you’, (TYW, p.47). For Gilman hysteria is represented as a misunderstood illness that is wrongly treated, causing madness in women who have no voice. Moreover, the author is demonstrating that because women are so repressed, madness can be an escape from it.

To conclude, at the end of the 19th century, hysteria and madness were represented in literature as a predominantly female malady. This was due to the Victorian patriarchal society that repressed women. For Stoker, male madness was represented as reactionary and could be justified, whilst female madness was represented as typical biological feminine problem. Moreover, Stoker demonstrated how the new woman threatened the patriarchy. Gilman however, represented female madness from a woman’s perspective, showing how it was misunderstood and misdiagnosed, leading to further madness. Gilman portrayed how ironically; this could become a woman’s escape from repression.


Chapman, James, and Matthew Hilton, ‘From Sherlock Holmes to James Bond: Masculinity and National Identity in British Popular Fiction’ in Relocating Britishness ed. Stephen Caunce (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004) [3]

Diniejko,Andrzej, ‘The New Woman Fiction’, The Victorian Web, (2011) ≤ [7]

Gilbert, Sandra.M, and Susan Guber, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination (London, Yale University Press, 1979) [9]

Gillman, Charlotte Perkins, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, in Women Who Did: Stories by Men and Women, 1890- 1914 ed. Angelique Richardson (London: Penguin books, 2002) [8]

Nordau, Max, ‘Degeneration’, in Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, C. 1848-1918, ed. Daniel Pick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) [5]

Pedlar, Valerie, ‘The Most Dreadful Visitation’: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006) [4]

Showalter, Elaine, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York: Virago Press, 1987) [1]

Stoker, Bram, Dracula (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993) [2]

Yarom, Nitza, Matrix of Hysteria: Psychoanalysis of the Struggle Between the Sexes as Enacted in the Body (East Sussex: Routledge, 2005) [6]