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Hysteria, a History

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Amber Thornton

on 17 October 2012

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Transcript of Hysteria, a History

Hysteria, a History Amber Thornton
October 17, 2012 The term "hysteria" is derived from the Greek word for uterus.
Physicians claimed hysteria was the result of pent-up sexual energy. Nuns, widows and spinsters (redundant women) were particularly susceptible.
Late 19th century physicians estimated that 3/4 of all women suffered from the disease. The Hysterical Narrative in Ellen Wood's East Lynne A Hysterical Disease Good Vibrations The most popular treatment for the illness was manual stimulation into a "paroxysm"
Joseph Mortimer Granville invented a device which would help physicians with the tiring process of inducing a hysterical paroxysm. He called it a vibrator.
The technology caught on quickly and soon many spas offered the treatment.
By the turn of the century the vibrator was sold in needlework catalogues making it the fifth appliance to arrive in the home. Symptoms weakness
anxiety
nervousness
fatigue
mood swings
melancholia
Doctor George Beard wrote 75 pages on all the different symptoms he said were a result of the disease. Hysteria, 2011 Not Enough Hands A Feminist Retrospective Feminists argue that hysteria was a way for European culture to make sense of women's "changing roles" in education, the public sphere, and employment.
They argue that the "diagnostic category of hysteria was simply a way of keeping women in the home" (Briggs 246).
Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that hysteria was a fictitious disease used to "denounce women's agitation for expanded social roles" (247). Hysteria in East Lynne Barbara Hare suffers a fit of "strong hysterics" on her walk with Archibald at the end of chapter 16.

"On it came, passion, temper, wrongs, nervousness, all boiling over together...Barbara struggled with her emotion, struggled bravely, and the sobs and the hysterical symptoms subsided; not the excitement or the passion" (164). Hysteria in East Lynne Isabel has multiple bouts of hysteria in the text. The instance I focus on occurs years after her marriage to Archibald when she decides to visit Boulogne to rest and improve her health. She suffers from a bout of "weakness--" one of the tell-tale symptoms of hysteria. Isabel is perhaps not receiving the affection and sexual satisfaction she requires from Archibald. It is in Boulogne where Isabel meets Captain Levison again.

I argue that Captain Levison acts as a cure for Isabel's hysteria by embodying the sexual fulfillment often provided by manual stimulation. Though he does not explicitly bring her to orgasm, his very presence arouses her and seems to cure her of her chronic weakness.

A Catch-all Disease The clip above suggests, as does Rachel Maines in her book, The Technology of Orgasm, that hysteria was a catch-all disease used to pathologize women who did not meet the Angel-of-the-House ideal.

If women did not reach orgasm during intercourse, or if they overindulged in sexual pleasure, they were labeled hysterical. Peter Gay notes that "deny[ing] women native erotic desires was to safeguard man's sexual adequacy. However he performed, it would be good enough" (Maines 47).

Whatever the case, blame is placed on women rather than their husbands, who apparently had no responsibility to sexually satisfy their wives. Thus, neglect and repression seem to be a more legitimate cause of the symptoms associated with hysteria. In the Next Room Isabel continues to get better in Captain Levison's presence:

"As the days passed on, Lady Isabel improved wonderfully." (208)

"She knew that the sky, that the grassy plains, the leafy trees, the brilliant flowers were but as they ever had been; she knew that the sunny atmosphere possessed no more loveliness, or power of imparting delight, than of old: and she knew that the change, the sensation of ecstasy, was in her own heart. The change from listless languor to her present feelings brought the hue and contour of health to her face sooner than anything else she could have done." (209)



One final instance at the end of chapter 22:

"As [Francis] receded from Isabel's view, a sensation of relief thrilled through her whole frame, causing it to shudder, and involuntarily she clasped the hand of Mr. Carlyle...
'But you are surely shivering?' [said Mr. Carlyle]
'At the thought of what I could have done with myself, had you come away and left me there still, all alone." (219) "I shall be gone, and leave him, I hope, for ever. But meanwhile, she felt this prolonged intercourse with him was bringing its fruits; that her cheek blushed at his approach, her heart beating with something too like rapture." (214) Lady Isabel's Cure Three pages into chapter 21:
"Her eyes fell upon him; and-- what was it that caused every nerve in her frame to vibrate, every pulse to quicken? Whose form was it that was thus advancing, and changing the monotony of her mind into a tumult?" (205)

Two pages later on their first walk together, Isabel already feels stronger:
"A week ago I could not have walked half so fast." (207) "She was aware that a sensation all too warm, a feeling of attraction towards Francis Levison, was working within her; not a voluntary one; she could no more repress it than she could repress her own sense of being." (212)

Isabel's recovery clearly stems from the sexual fulfillment she gains from Captain Levison (even if that fulfillment isn't physical) especially in light of the neglect she suffers at the hand of Archibald.

"'I am so dull without you,' was the best argument she could offer, but her voice faltered, for she felt that it would not be listened to. Neither was it. Mr. Carlyle left the following day, and when he was departing, commended his wife to the further attention of Captain Levison." (213) Works Cited Briggs, Laura. "The Race of Hysteria: "Overcivilization" and the "Savage" in Late Nineteenth-Century Obstetrics and Gynecology." American Quarterly 52.2 (2000): 246-73. Print.

Hysteria. Dir. Tanya Wexler. Perf. Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal. BIM Distribuzione, 2011. DVD.

La Vida Electric Vibrator. Advertisement. The Syracuse Herald. 7 Sept. 1919: n. pag. Print.

Maines, Rachel P. The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria", the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. Print.

Mukherjee, Ankhi. "Introduction." Introduction. Aesthetic Hysteria: The Great Neurosis in Victorian Melodrama and Contemporary Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2007. ix-xii. Print.

Newitz, Annalee. Antique Vibrators. N.d. Photograph. Gizmodo. 20 Aug. 2007. Web.

Wood, Henry, and Elisabeth Jay. East Lynne. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

YouTube. Dir. Sarah Ruhl. Perf. Laura Benanti and Maria Dizzia. YouTube. YouTube, 25 Nov. 2009. Web. 12 Oct. 2012.
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