The Mad Woman’s Vision: Creation and Destruction from Frankenstein to Housekeeping

The female realm is traditionally imaged as domestic and nurturing; narrative space gives room for a very different perspective. The constriction of female experience as defined by patriarchal institutions may produce anxiety, rebellion and madness. From the 17th -20th century, we find the majority of those institutionalised for mental illness are women. As Elaine Showalter perceptively asks; does this reflect the implicit view of madness as one of the wrongs of women or madness unveiling itself before scientific rationality? Or does the confining role of women in earlier times result in the kind of behaviours that the medical establishment sought to pathologise?

Using works by Mary Shelley, Jean Rhys and Marilynne Robinson, we will explore how female artists explored the limits and extremes of selfhood interrogating definitions of sanity and madness. From my experience with these works, I believe we will find the uncanny interwoven with the empathic. This course will develop ideas and understanding around the domestic and traditional constructs of gender and how this impacts female identity.

There is renewed interest in Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein. The recent National Theatre production  peeled back the layers of the block-headed, bolted monster and gets down to Mary Shelly’s original concern: what is the relationship between the created and the creator? The form of the story also draws the reader into the entangled and unlimited relationship between the Creature and its creator as we move through narrators to get to the frozen final confrontation. We will discuss, among other themes, the question of adult male friendship and how Victor’s tragedy is one of arrogance and solitude. The philosophical questions the book raises continue to be absolutely pertinent to our time.

Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea offers a modernist retelling of a cultural icon. Jane Eyre has always held readers’ imagination: Charlotte Bronte presents her heroine as fiercely independent in a world where there is no place for a free-thinking female. The hidden, voiceless character of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, who even in her silence greatly impacts Jane’s story, has caught the attention of critics and other writers. Jean Rhys, an early Modernist writer, chose to explore Bertha Rochester’s history in her brief but crystalline work, Wide Sargasso Sea. The text is not only a brilliant deconstruction of Brontë’s legacy, but is also a damning history of colonialism in the Caribbean.

In Marilynne Robinson’s haunting first work, Housekeeping, each line is carefully crafted and ice-sharp. Through Ruth’s narration we learn more about the impermanence of things- people, places, home- and watch her struggle to adulthood with the awareness that nothing stays in place. There is a freedom found here- and this book reveals profound possibilities in a spare world.

“There is so little to remember of anyone – an anecdote, a conversation at a table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness not having meant to keep us waiting long.”

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping


  • Three-meeting study
  • Recommended editions:
    • Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Criticism; Norton Critical Editions (Jan 2012); ISBN-13: 978-0393927931
    • Wide Sargasso Sea (Annotated Edition), by Jean Rhys; Penguin Modern Classics; ISBN-13: 978-0141182858
    • Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson; Faber & Faber (2005); ISBN-13: 978-0571230082

If you would like to request this study or have any questions about it, please contact us.




Posted on

July 26, 2018