Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

Toward a New Madwoman Theory

Reckoning the Pathologization of Sylvia Plath

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2020), 14, (3), 317–332.

Abstract

Psychoanalytic criticism has often relied on pathography in order to cast women writers such as Sylvia Plath as “crazed” authors who “suffered” from mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. The critics have used and appropriated these authors’ impairments in order to explain their writing abilities and productivity, arguing that their works were only possible through their mental differences. Particularly in Plath’s case, critics have psychoanalyzed her works using diagnostic language, pathologizing her using the language of the medical model of disability. The article argues that these readings are driven by patriarchal norms and institutions and are a product of an attempt to control and diminish the voices of disabled women. Using a framework of feminist disability studies articulated as madwoman theory, the argument is that scholars of literature should refrain from using diagnostic terminology to describe fictitious characters and their real-life authors. The article interrogates ableist readings of Sylvia Plath and negotiates a madwoman theory analysis of her works, including The Bell Jar and the bee poems in Ariel. A madwoman theory analysis privileges the voices of disabled women writers over critics’ ableist readings. Further, the article argues that analyzing writing about lived experiences with disability enables a future in which the voices of disabled women are privileged over these diagnostic categories.

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Works Cited

Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Da Capo P, 2003. Print. Google Scholar

Alvarez, Al. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. London: Penguin, 1971. Print. Google Scholar

Bell, Chris. Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2012. Print. Google Scholar

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Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. Tucson: Schaffner Press, 1976. Print. Google Scholar

Cain, Sian. “Emily Brontë May Have Had Asperger Syndrome, Says Biographer.” The Guardian. 29 Aug. 2016. Web. 12 Nov. 2018. Google Scholar

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Coyle, Susan. “Images of Madness and Retrieval: An Exploration of Metaphor in The Bell Jar.” Studies in American Fiction 12.2 (1984): 161-74. Print. Google Scholar

Cronin, Matthew. “‘A Wind of Such Violence/Will Tolerate No Bystanding’: Sylvia Plath, Ariel, and Mental Illness.” Plath Profiles: An International Journal of Studies on Sylvia Plath 6.1 (2013): 169-82. Print. Google Scholar

Dolman, Clare and Sarah Turvey. “The Impact of Melville’s Manic-Depression on the Writing of Moby Dick.” Mental Health Review Journal 16.3 (2011): 107-12. Print. Google Scholar

Donaldson, Elizabeth J. “Revisiting the Corpus of the Madwoman: Further Notes Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Mental Illness.” Feminist Disability Studies. Ed. Kim Q. Hall. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2011. 91-113. Print. Google Scholar

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Erevelles, Nirmala and Andrea Minear. “Unspeakable Offenses: Untangling Race and Disability in Discourses of Intersectionality.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2017. 381-95. Print. Google Scholar

Feirstein, Frederick. “A Psychoanalytic Study of Sylvia Plath.” Psychoanalytic Review 103.1 (2016): 103-26. Print. Google Scholar

Gilman, Sander L. “Madness.” Keywords for Disability Studies. Ed. Rachel Adams et al. New York and London: New York UP, 2015. 114-19. Print. Google Scholar

Holbrook, David. Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1976. Print. Google Scholar

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Miyatsu, Rose. “‘Hundreds of People Like Me’: A Search for a Mad Community in The Bell Jar.” Literatures of Madness: Disability Studies and Mental Health. Ed. Elizabeth J. Donaldson. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 51-69. Print. Google Scholar

Mollow, Anna. “Mad Feminism.” DSM-CRIP. Special issue of Social Text. 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2019. Google Scholar

Pereira, Malin Walther. “Be(e)Ing and ‘Truth’: Tar Baby’s Signifying on Sylvia Plath’s Bee Poems.” Twentieth Century Literature 42.4 (1996): 526-34. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. 1965. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Faber & Faber, 2001. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. “The Arrival of the Bee Box.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. 84-85. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. “The Bee Meeting.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. 81-83. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. 1963. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. “Stings.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. 86-88. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. “Wintering.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. 89-90. Print. Google Scholar

Rodas, Julia Miele. Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2018. Print. Google Scholar

Rodas, Julia Miele. “‘On the Spectrum’: Rereading Contact and Affect in Jane Eyre.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 4.2 (2008). Web. 11 Mar. 2019. Google Scholar

Rosenthal, M. L. The New Poets: American & British Poetry Since WWII. New York: Oxford UP, 1967. Print. Google Scholar

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980. New York: Pantheon, 1985. Print. Google Scholar

Slater, Eliot. Review of The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. British Journal of Psychiatry 121 (1972): 100-01. Print. Google Scholar

Stevenson, Anne. Biter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Print. Google Scholar

Sylvia. Dir. Christine Jeffs. Focus Features, 2003. DVD. Google Scholar

Tsank, Stephanie. “The Bell Jar: A Psychological Case Study.” Plath Profiles: An International Journal of Studies on Sylvia Plath 3 (2010): 166-77. Print. Google Scholar

Van Dyne, Susan R. Revising Life: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel Poems. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1993. Print. Google Scholar

Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Da Capo P, 2003. Print. Google Scholar

Alvarez, Al. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. London: Penguin, 1971. Print. Google Scholar

Bell, Chris. Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2012. Print. Google Scholar

Bérubé, Michael. The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read. New York: New York UP, 2018. Print. Google Scholar

Brewer, Elizabeth. “Coming Out Mad, Coming Out Disabled.” Literatures of Madness: Disability Studies and Mental Health. Ed. Elizabeth J. Donaldson. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 11-30. Print. Google Scholar

Burstow, Bonnie. “A Rose by Any Other Name: Naming and the Battle Against Psychiatry.” Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies. Ed. Brenda A. LeFrançois et al. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2013. 79-90. Print. Google Scholar

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. Tucson: Schaffner Press, 1976. Print. Google Scholar

Cain, Sian. “Emily Brontë May Have Had Asperger Syndrome, Says Biographer.” The Guardian. 29 Aug. 2016. Web. 12 Nov. 2018. Google Scholar

Cooper, Brian. “Sylvia Plath and the Depression Continuum.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 96.6 (2003): 296-301. Print. Google Scholar

Coyle, Susan. “Images of Madness and Retrieval: An Exploration of Metaphor in The Bell Jar.” Studies in American Fiction 12.2 (1984): 161-74. Print. Google Scholar

Cronin, Matthew. “‘A Wind of Such Violence/Will Tolerate No Bystanding’: Sylvia Plath, Ariel, and Mental Illness.” Plath Profiles: An International Journal of Studies on Sylvia Plath 6.1 (2013): 169-82. Print. Google Scholar

Dolman, Clare and Sarah Turvey. “The Impact of Melville’s Manic-Depression on the Writing of Moby Dick.” Mental Health Review Journal 16.3 (2011): 107-12. Print. Google Scholar

Donaldson, Elizabeth J. “Revisiting the Corpus of the Madwoman: Further Notes Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Mental Illness.” Feminist Disability Studies. Ed. Kim Q. Hall. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2011. 91-113. Print. Google Scholar

Egner, Justine E. “‘The Disability Rights Community Was Never Mine’: Neuroqueer Disidentification.” Gender & Society 33.1 (2019): 123-47. Print. Google Scholar

Erevelles, Nirmala and Andrea Minear. “Unspeakable Offenses: Untangling Race and Disability in Discourses of Intersectionality.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2017. 381-95. Print. Google Scholar

Feirstein, Frederick. “A Psychoanalytic Study of Sylvia Plath.” Psychoanalytic Review 103.1 (2016): 103-26. Print. Google Scholar

Gilman, Sander L. “Madness.” Keywords for Disability Studies. Ed. Rachel Adams et al. New York and London: New York UP, 2015. 114-19. Print. Google Scholar

Holbrook, David. Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1976. Print. Google Scholar

Hughes, Frieda. Foreword. Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. xi-xxi. Print. Google Scholar

Hughes, Frieda. “My Mother.” Stonepicker and The Book of Mirrors: Poems. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. 100-01. Print. Google Scholar

Johnson, Merri Lisa. “Bad Romance: A Crip Feminist Critique of Queer Failure.” Hypatia 30.1 (2015): 251-67. Print. Google Scholar

Jones, Nev and Robyn Lewis Brown. “The Absence of Psychiatric C/S/X Perspectives in Academic Discourse: Consequences and Implications.” Disability Studies Quarterly 33.1 (2013). Web. 29 Jul. 2019. Google Scholar

Lester, David. “Theories of Suicidal Behavior Applied to Sylvia Plath.” Death Studies 22.7 (1998): 655-66. Print. Google Scholar

Meekosha, Helen and Russell Shuttleworth. “What’s so ‘Critical’ about Critical Disability Studies?” Australian Journal of Human Rights 15.1 (2009): 47-75. Print. Google Scholar

Miyatsu, Rose. “‘Hundreds of People Like Me’: A Search for a Mad Community in The Bell Jar.” Literatures of Madness: Disability Studies and Mental Health. Ed. Elizabeth J. Donaldson. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 51-69. Print. Google Scholar

Mollow, Anna. “Mad Feminism.” DSM-CRIP. Special issue of Social Text. 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2019. Google Scholar

Pereira, Malin Walther. “Be(e)Ing and ‘Truth’: Tar Baby’s Signifying on Sylvia Plath’s Bee Poems.” Twentieth Century Literature 42.4 (1996): 526-34. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. 1965. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Faber & Faber, 2001. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. “The Arrival of the Bee Box.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. 84-85. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. “The Bee Meeting.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. 81-83. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. 1963. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. “Stings.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. 86-88. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. “Wintering.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. 89-90. Print. Google Scholar

Rodas, Julia Miele. Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2018. Print. Google Scholar

Rodas, Julia Miele. “‘On the Spectrum’: Rereading Contact and Affect in Jane Eyre.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 4.2 (2008). Web. 11 Mar. 2019. Google Scholar

Rosenthal, M. L. The New Poets: American & British Poetry Since WWII. New York: Oxford UP, 1967. Print. Google Scholar

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980. New York: Pantheon, 1985. Print. Google Scholar

Slater, Eliot. Review of The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. British Journal of Psychiatry 121 (1972): 100-01. Print. Google Scholar

Stevenson, Anne. Biter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Print. Google Scholar

Sylvia. Dir. Christine Jeffs. Focus Features, 2003. DVD. Google Scholar

Tsank, Stephanie. “The Bell Jar: A Psychological Case Study.” Plath Profiles: An International Journal of Studies on Sylvia Plath 3 (2010): 166-77. Print. Google Scholar

Van Dyne, Susan R. Revising Life: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel Poems. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1993. Print. Google Scholar

Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Da Capo P, 2003. Print. Google Scholar

Alvarez, Al. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. London: Penguin, 1971. Print. Google Scholar

Bell, Chris. Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2012. Print. Google Scholar

Bérubé, Michael. The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read. New York: New York UP, 2018. Print. Google Scholar

Brewer, Elizabeth. “Coming Out Mad, Coming Out Disabled.” Literatures of Madness: Disability Studies and Mental Health. Ed. Elizabeth J. Donaldson. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 11-30. Print. Google Scholar

Burstow, Bonnie. “A Rose by Any Other Name: Naming and the Battle Against Psychiatry.” Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies. Ed. Brenda A. LeFrançois et al. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2013. 79-90. Print. Google Scholar

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. Tucson: Schaffner Press, 1976. Print. Google Scholar

Cain, Sian. “Emily Brontë May Have Had Asperger Syndrome, Says Biographer.” The Guardian. 29 Aug. 2016. Web. 12 Nov. 2018. Google Scholar

Cooper, Brian. “Sylvia Plath and the Depression Continuum.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 96.6 (2003): 296-301. Print. Google Scholar

Coyle, Susan. “Images of Madness and Retrieval: An Exploration of Metaphor in The Bell Jar.” Studies in American Fiction 12.2 (1984): 161-74. Print. Google Scholar

Cronin, Matthew. “‘A Wind of Such Violence/Will Tolerate No Bystanding’: Sylvia Plath, Ariel, and Mental Illness.” Plath Profiles: An International Journal of Studies on Sylvia Plath 6.1 (2013): 169-82. Print. Google Scholar

Dolman, Clare and Sarah Turvey. “The Impact of Melville’s Manic-Depression on the Writing of Moby Dick.” Mental Health Review Journal 16.3 (2011): 107-12. Print. Google Scholar

Donaldson, Elizabeth J. “Revisiting the Corpus of the Madwoman: Further Notes Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Mental Illness.” Feminist Disability Studies. Ed. Kim Q. Hall. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2011. 91-113. Print. Google Scholar

Egner, Justine E. “‘The Disability Rights Community Was Never Mine’: Neuroqueer Disidentification.” Gender & Society 33.1 (2019): 123-47. Print. Google Scholar

Erevelles, Nirmala and Andrea Minear. “Unspeakable Offenses: Untangling Race and Disability in Discourses of Intersectionality.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2017. 381-95. Print. Google Scholar

Feirstein, Frederick. “A Psychoanalytic Study of Sylvia Plath.” Psychoanalytic Review 103.1 (2016): 103-26. Print. Google Scholar

Gilman, Sander L. “Madness.” Keywords for Disability Studies. Ed. Rachel Adams et al. New York and London: New York UP, 2015. 114-19. Print. Google Scholar

Holbrook, David. Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1976. Print. Google Scholar

Hughes, Frieda. Foreword. Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. xi-xxi. Print. Google Scholar

Hughes, Frieda. “My Mother.” Stonepicker and The Book of Mirrors: Poems. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. 100-01. Print. Google Scholar

Johnson, Merri Lisa. “Bad Romance: A Crip Feminist Critique of Queer Failure.” Hypatia 30.1 (2015): 251-67. Print. Google Scholar

Jones, Nev and Robyn Lewis Brown. “The Absence of Psychiatric C/S/X Perspectives in Academic Discourse: Consequences and Implications.” Disability Studies Quarterly 33.1 (2013). Web. 29 Jul. 2019. Google Scholar

Lester, David. “Theories of Suicidal Behavior Applied to Sylvia Plath.” Death Studies 22.7 (1998): 655-66. Print. Google Scholar

Meekosha, Helen and Russell Shuttleworth. “What’s so ‘Critical’ about Critical Disability Studies?” Australian Journal of Human Rights 15.1 (2009): 47-75. Print. Google Scholar

Miyatsu, Rose. “‘Hundreds of People Like Me’: A Search for a Mad Community in The Bell Jar.” Literatures of Madness: Disability Studies and Mental Health. Ed. Elizabeth J. Donaldson. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 51-69. Print. Google Scholar

Mollow, Anna. “Mad Feminism.” DSM-CRIP. Special issue of Social Text. 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2019. Google Scholar

Pereira, Malin Walther. “Be(e)Ing and ‘Truth’: Tar Baby’s Signifying on Sylvia Plath’s Bee Poems.” Twentieth Century Literature 42.4 (1996): 526-34. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. 1965. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Faber & Faber, 2001. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. “The Arrival of the Bee Box.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. 84-85. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. “The Bee Meeting.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. 81-83. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. 1963. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. “Stings.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. 86-88. Print. Google Scholar

Plath, Sylvia. “Wintering.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004. 89-90. Print. Google Scholar

Rodas, Julia Miele. Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2018. Print. Google Scholar

Rodas, Julia Miele. “‘On the Spectrum’: Rereading Contact and Affect in Jane Eyre.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 4.2 (2008). Web. 11 Mar. 2019. Google Scholar

Rosenthal, M. L. The New Poets: American & British Poetry Since WWII. New York: Oxford UP, 1967. Print. Google Scholar

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980. New York: Pantheon, 1985. Print. Google Scholar

Slater, Eliot. Review of The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. British Journal of Psychiatry 121 (1972): 100-01. Print. Google Scholar

Stevenson, Anne. Biter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Print. Google Scholar

Sylvia. Dir. Christine Jeffs. Focus Features, 2003. DVD. Google Scholar

Tsank, Stephanie. “The Bell Jar: A Psychological Case Study.” Plath Profiles: An International Journal of Studies on Sylvia Plath 3 (2010): 166-77. Print. Google Scholar

Van Dyne, Susan R. Revising Life: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel Poems. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1993. Print. Google Scholar

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Rovito, Maria