2014 Edith Wharton Undergraduate Essay Prize
Lindsay Wrinn, The Custom of the Country: Male Hysteria, Virginity Loss, and Patriarchal Upheaval at the Turn of the Century
Scholars and doctors have written extensively about the nineteenth century medical phenomenon “hysteria,” the misdiagnosis of women’s sexual displeasure, post-partum depression, and more. For centuries, medical discourse focused entirely on female hysteria, ignoring the possibility that men could also suffer from the disease. Doctors have disagreed on whether or not men could suffer from hysteria, since many believed that hysteria came from a broken womb. However, around the late nineteenth century, some physicians argued that hysteria was not just a female phenomenon. Critics interpreted medical accounts of male hysteria in different ways. Some historians argue that male hysteria was created by a stressful economy during the industrial age. Others argue that male hysteria only began after World War I, when soldiers suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and shell shock. Some doctors believed that male hysteria existed, but that it was caused by environmental injuries or brain malfunctions whereas female hysteria was innate. None of these interpretations addresses how patriarchal sexism played a role in the diagnosis (or lack thereof) of male hysteria.
Literary and medical scholarship needs a feminist paradigm through which to interpret male hysteria. In this paper, I identify how the emerging women’s rights movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries threatened the patriarchy. As divorce legislation expanded, wealthy women could divorce and remarry more easily, and their aristocratic husbands felt emasculated and unnecessary. Women who remarried dismantled mens’ expectation to marry a virgin, which further weakened mens’ sense of identity and dominance. To demonstrate that these men became hysterical when faced with sexually liberated women, I analyze Edith Wharton’s 1913 ‘divorce novel’ The Custom of the Country.
In this paper, I first introduce the history of female and male hysteria and the transhistorical challenges that prevented a proper diagnosis. Then, I present Phillip Barrish’s exchange paradigm to establish how remarriage, a form of exchange, becomes a catalyst for male hysteria. The crux of my argument is in Sections IV and V, where I demonstrate how women reclaim virginity from the patriarchy to empower themselves and take advantage of a changing social climate. In doing so, women threaten patriarchal identities and cause men to become hysterical. Finally, I demonstrate how even though women were blamed for male hysteria, they embraced their newfound power and security, arming themselves to fight against the patriarchy for the following several decades. From a feminist perspective, male hysteria results from patriarchal resistance to women’s sexual and political elevation, particularly the implications that divorce and remarriage have on patriarchal values of virginity and purity and the exchange between a husband and wife.
I. FEMALE HYSTERIA THROUGHOUT TIME
From the ancient Greco-Roman period to the early twentieth century, doctors used the term hysteria to refer to a medical phenomenon when psychological stress manifests as physical symptoms, such as dizziness, fainting, and other erratic behaviors. As doctors and philosophers debated the source of these symptoms, their ideas evolved considerably as they learned more about human physiology, especially reproductive anatomy in women. Ancient Greek and Roman doctors attributed hysteria to a broken or migratory womb; the term hysteria even comes from the Greek word for uterus. A 1900 BC medical papyrus describes how Egyptian doctors “believed [the uterus] to be an autonomous, free-floating organism that could move upward from its normal pelvic position” (Micale 8) and cause havoc in the woman’s body. These doctors note symptoms such as dizziness, fainting spells, depression, and, most interestingly, sexual dissatisfaction (9).
In the fourth century, Plato connected the “wandering womb” with unfulfilled sexuality in Timaeus, arguing that
The animal within them [women] is desirous of procreating children, and when remaining unfruitful long beyond its proper time, gets discontented and angry, and wandering in every direction through the body, closes up the passages of the breath, and by obstructing respiration, drives them to extremity, causing all varieties of disease (Micale 9).
Plato believes that unnatural prolonged abstinence gives rise to the “restless animal” and causes hysterical symptoms like shortness of breath, loss of voice, sense of suffocation, anxiety, and depression (5). Like Hippocrates, he advises women suffering from these conditions to marry immediately.
Even though the “wandering womb” hypothesis eventually became scientifically unstable, physicians in the second century BC continued to associate hysteria with female reproduction. Roman physicians, like Galen of Pergamon, argued that women became hysterical when they retained excess menstrual blood. Even though Galen clung to a female-only hypothesis (Micale 10), his writings determined gynecological care until late into the modern medical period. After the Roman Empire fell, physicians adopted the Galenic approach despite a cultural shift towards anatomically accurate medicine.
By the emergence of Christianity in 400 AD, scholars and physicians adopted supernatural perspectives in medicine, beginning the first paradigm shift in treatment of hysteria. Hildegard of Bingen, the German abbess and mystic, attributed women’s melancholy to original sin and argued that women suffer from hysteria because of their physiological inferiority to men (van Bingen 16). St. Augustine famously conceptualized hysteria as a sign of demonic possession, which began the “demonological” model of hysteria treatment. Pharmaceutical practices were replaced by violent supernatural interventions, some of which were even fatal (Micale 10). The religious and medical community, synonymous by this time, tortured and killed thousands of depressed and mentally ill women under the demonological model.
II. HISTORICAL EVIDENCE OF HYSTERICAL MEN
However, by the end of the sixteenth century, some physicians challenged the assumption that hysteria was women-specific. A growing awareness of human anatomy made it impossible for serious physicians to uphold the “broken womb” theory or believe that the uterus caused hysteria. The first doctors to reject the “wandering womb” theory “also defended the possibility—in fact the undeniability—of hysterical breakdown in men” (Micale 18). In 1680, Thomas Sydenham, an English physician, was the first to hypothesize that men could also suffer from hysteria. He argued,
Both hysteria and hypochondria designate disorders of the abdominal viscera with an erratic array of mental and physical symptoms released upward toward the body cavity. The main difference between the two…[is] that hysteria afflict[s] women and hypochondriasis men (Micale 18).
While Sydenham’s arguments made waves in the British medical community, American doctors still perpetuated the idea of female-only hysteria. Dr. Sigmund Freud argued that hysteria resulted from women’s cognitive dissonance with the “primal scene” of male sexual dominance. The women who resisted male domination found themselves locked in medical hospitals and erotically probed by medical practitioners who reasserted male-female power dynamics for the sake of preserving the patriarchy (Wrinn 3). Believing hysteria to begin in the womb, most physicians treated hysteria with manual genital massage to elicit “paroxysmal convulsions,” a misnomer for orgasms. Nineteenth century society did not believe women capable of experiencing sexual pleasure, yet the medial management of hysteria led to the invention of the vibrator (Maines).
It was not until the nineteenth century that advocates for male hysteria’s supported their claims with evidence. Jean Martin Charcot (1825-1893) argued that hysteria resulted from a hereditary degeneration of the nervous system, eventually demonstrating that more men suffered from hysteria than women (Bannour 32-36). In the 1890s, Charcot’s student Gilles de la Tourette declared, “the uterus has been stripped of its status, its role has now been played out, the nerves now dominate the field” (Link Heer 204). Once Charcot’s ideas took hold, most American physicians accepted male hysteria’s existence and sought to find a treatment.
In the nineteenth century, treatment of hysteria “seemed to depend entirely on the perspective of the doctor, who was able to privilege it as well as cause it to disappear” (Link Heer 197). Sigmund Freud suggested that hysterical women took advantage of their disease to deceive and control men. Arguably, this deception may have motivated medical practitioners to punish women by continuing to diagnose hysteria as a female-specific disorder. They sought to treat the root of the deception, which they (once again) believed was innate femininity. The medical community’s conjoining of women and hysteria would have maintained traction had they “attempted to posit a neurosis of mind that could not also occur in men” (198).
Despite his own revolutionary theories about male hysteria, even Sydenham believed that male and female hysteria had different roots and manifestations. According to his theory, men suffered from hypochondriasis, not hysteria. The only difference between the two disorders was their gender attributions. Once physicians set aside their preconceptions about gender and hysteria, they realized it was not that hysterical behavior in men did not exist; on the other hand, it was rampant. From a feminist perspective, the patriarchal medical community misdiagnosed male hysteria to protect patriarchal assumptions about gender and power that guided society.
Doctors hesitated to diagnosis men with hysteria for social and political reasons. If men also suffered from hysteria, it meant that women were not the frailer sex and hysteria could not be attributed to their gender or anatomy. Even though men suffered from convulsions, nervous fits, depressive periods, and emotional breakdowns, the medical community preferred to attribute their behavior to other causes. Additionally, doctors tended to treat male patients from upper-class families in private offices and often did not print cases about hysterical men as they would about those men’s wives and daughters. Despite the lack of high-profile publication, there is evidence that some doctors acknowledged male hysteria before it was an accepted diagnosis. Male hysteria appears in some early literature even though it is not identified as hysteria because the male authors lacked a medical paradigm through which to make sense of their symptoms.
Arguably male hysteria’s earliest literary appearance, Shakespeare’s King Lear registers his personal and political discontent with an “animal” swelling towards his heart, just as physicians believed the uterus did in women. He laments, “O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!/ Hysteria passio! down, thou climbing sorrow/ Thy element’s below” (Shakespeare 2.4). While theologians were writing treatises on female exorcisms and following the demonological model, other religious writers, including men like Robert Burton, were questioning their own experiences of melancholia, for which they had no medical reason or diagnosis. In the early 1600s, Burton published “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” a sprawling discourse on the relationship between the human mind and the affliction “melancholy.” Despite admitting to his own “bachelor’s melancholy,” Burton ruminates, “but where am I? Into what subject have I rushed? What have I to do with nuns, maids, virgins, widows? I am a bachelor myself, and lead a monastic life in a college; it is certainly very foolish of me to speak of this” (Micale 13). Neither Shakespeare nor Burton had a medical or social paradigm to categorize their emotional experiences.
In the eighteenth century, however, it became acceptable to acknowledge symptoms of male hysteria as “nervousness.” Even more so, it became popular among upper-class men in England and Scotland to be a hysterical male. Society did not emasculate men who felt emotional while watching a play or tired out easily from physical activity. Rather, it was believed that upper-class men had more delicate, refined nervous systems than their working class counterparts. Still, social acceptance of nervous men declined when war or national conquests demanded virile men and submissive, supportive women. During the Napoleonic conquests, nervous disorders in men became signs of weakness, not proof of a refined personality (Micale). Later on, that attitude shifted to include Charcot’s theory of nervousness as signs of biological degeneration.
During the industrial age, doctors noted that railway accident victims (all male) suffered from spinal concussions that manifested themselves in moments of anxiety, nervousness, dizziness, and “diminished sensibility” (Link Heer 207). Once again, Charcot’s theories were important in the medical interpretation of the “railway spine” and “railway brain” phenomenon. He argued that the symptoms could only be addressed if doctors approached the cases without preconceptions about hysteria and sexuality. To both correctly treat their patients yet maintain distance with hysteria, doctors argued that male hysteria “originates in the extrahuman environment,” like technology or nature, not within the male himself. This means “the stereotypes and representations of gender and sexuality that characterize the concept of hysteria within…[a] relationship to the industrial machines, vehicles, and poisons that called forth these neurotic manifestations” (207). In other words, although men had suffered from anxiety and depression for decades, the industrial age allowed doctors to blame male hysteria on something other the men themselves—namely, the industrial revolution.
This interpretation evolved slightly in the midst of World War I, when male hysteria was redefined as “shell shock” following the influx of returning veterans suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In this case, sexist views of hysteria reemerged from the past to suggest that male hysteria resulted from honorable male activity whereas female hysterics had no cause other than their innate womanhood. It is
“Striking that the phenomenon whereby a man becomes neurotic is viewed within…[a] relationship to mechanical and chemical stimulation, while the body of woman requires no external push—rather, she can, so to speak, produce hysteria and its symptoms from out of herself” (Link-Heer 214).
Still, this phenomenon suggests that the differentiation between male and female hysteria is not medically based, but instead, socially motivated. The definitions of both male and female hysteria (and the ways in which they were seen to be different) depended on the majority in power at that particular time in history.
I have identified several common explanations that physicians, sociologists, and historians have given for male hysteria. Physicians like Sydenham and Charcot attributed hysteria to weak nervous systems, and in turn, eighteenth century society claimed that weak nervous systems were a sign of class sophistication and personality. Aside from medical and sociological reasons, economists argued that the evolving monetary landscape during the industrial revolution threw upper-class men into a hysterical panic. Since most documented cases of male hysteria occur in middle and upper class men, economists and historians believe that male hysteria resulted from the startling influx of nouveau-riche competition in the marketplace, which threatened to replace the wealthy patriarchal families. In the Custom of the Country, Ralph is an obvious example of a wealthy young man who struggles to maintain his sanity and sense of dignity in the emerging business world. Other historians argue that male hysteria did not manifest until after World War I, when men returned home from combat “shell shocked.” While these explanations are solid and well documented, they fail to address women’s role in the formation of male hysteria, if they played any role at all.
In this paper, I will demonstrate how the emerging women’s rights movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries affected society’s patriarchal structure and, relatedly, fostered combative patriarchal reactions to female sexual and economic freedom. From a feminist perspective, male hysteria has more to do with changes in women’s rights than just with the evolving economic climate of the late 1800s and the wartime climate of the early twentieth century. Male hysteria results from patriarchal resistance to women’s sexual and political elevation, particularly the implications that divorce and remarriage have on patriarchal values of virginity and purity. Specifically, I look at the male characters in Edith Wharton’s 1913 ‘divorce novel’ “The Custom of the Country” and analyze how remarriage, a mechanism of “exchange,” is a major catalyst of male hysteria.
III. THE REMARRYING WOMAN & EXCHANGE
The process of exchange that occurs in remarriage is a beneficial lens through which to look at male hysteria and The Custom of the Country. In the process of exchange, or the act of giving one thing and receiving another, both parties must believe that they are giving and receiving items of equal value. At the same time, however, each person must believe that the object they possess has a unique value and identity that makes the object—and himself or herself—special. Simultaneously, each person wants what the other has, rendering their own object of a lesser value and the others’ of a higher. According to critic Phillip Barrish, this paradox must be ignored for the participants to not feel the sting of exchange. Each person must believe in the “unique particularity” of their object to uphold their powerful self-identity as the keeper of such a particular object. Barrish argues that exchange occurs on two levels—the agreement that both parties have something of value to give, and the agreement’s promise that the change of place does not mean a change of value for both the object and its owner.
Exchange produces male hysteria when men experience the painful paradox of exchange. For nineteenth century men, the remarrying woman embodies exchange’s “leveling action,” which attacks the man’s sense of identity and uniqueness. In the changing economic and political landscape of the turn of the century, society began to value a man’s economic prowess—his ability to make wealth—more than his ability to earn wealth. For upper class, aristocratic men who had to find “real” jobs, this threatened their self-esteem and patriarchal identity. In The Custom of the Country, Ralph laments how “his life had come to be nothing but a long effort…[with] the sacrifice of his literary projects, the exchange of his profession for an uncongenial business…” (Wharton 132). Unable to rely on his inheritance as he used to, Ralph needs Undine to reaffirm his self-esteem and identity. Even before he learns of her remarriage, “Ralph has tried to use Undine as a means of having experiences of unique particularity…[he] marries Undine as much to preserve her from the wrong influences as to mark her with his own” (5, emphasis mine). Marking Undine as his own gives uniqueness to his role as husband and patriarch; as a result, if he was not actually the first to “mark” his wife, then Ralph loses that uniqueness. Divorce and remarriage threatened to undercut the husband’s belief in the “unique particularity” of his object; that is, his wife and by extension, his self-identity.
Remarried women triggered male hysteria in their husbands because their remarriages embodied the fear that “exchange involves at least a temporary obliteration of identities” (15). When Undine lies about resetting the family jewels, Ralph focuses not on the deception, but on the “destroyed identity” of the jewels (Wharton 130). According to Barrish, “if the jewels can appear in a new setting…then their aura of uniqueness…no longer exists” (6). A remarried woman is reset into a new setting multiple times, and thus loses her “aura of uniqueness.” Patriarchal families, like those of the Marvells and de Chelles, suffered from a paradox of exchange that, when embodied in a woman like Undine, undercut their self- identity. When Undine regards the de Chelle’s tapestries as salable, “she indirectly brings up the possibility that whatever is most central to [their] sense of their own distinct identity as an ancient family could be literally dissolved” (Barrish 8). This catalyst for male hysteria was only possible in a changing political world that allowed divorce and remarriage—even multiple remarriages—to occur and, thus, threatened the patriarchy’s sense of identity and uniqueness. At the heart of this issue is patriarchal obsession with virginity and men’s reactions when women used their virginity to empower themselves.
IV. THE POWERFUL VIRGIN & SEXUAL EXCHANGE
The virgin has power because her status suggests infinite sexual potential (Wolstenholme 94). To maintain this power, the virgin uses it as a bargaining chip for marriage. She wields her sexual power in a way that both scares and entices the patriarchy. Wharton’s description of Undine highlights this paradox when Mrs. Heeny asks,
“Ever been engaged before, Undine?”
A blush rose to the face in the mirror, spreading from chin to brow, and running rosily over the white shoulders from which their covering had slipped down.
“My, if he could see you now!” Mrs. Heeny jested (53).
In this scene, Undine encapsulates the virgin’s paradoxical power when she is both embarrassed and seductive. She blushes and has “white shoulders,” yet she symbolically reveals her bare skin. If her white shoulders represent her virginity, she sexualizes her virginity by uncovering her skin. Her power, or her virginity, becomes her most powerful sexual play. However, difference between a virgin crushed by the patriarchy and a powerful virgin is that the former loses her “bargaining chip” when she marries; the latter can resuscitate it when she remarries.
When societal attitude towards divorce and remarriage shifted, unhappy wives and disempowered young women remarried as a way to reclaim their “bargaining chip.” The remarried woman adopts a “secondary virginity” in that she has the power of single, supposedly virginal women even though—as she has already been married—she is not an actual virgin anymore. Patriarchal men like Ralph Marvell could not handle the paradox of the “powerful virgin,” much less the idea that they did not take the virgin’s power in the first place. This notion is at the center of my argument regarding remarriage, virginity, and male hysteria.
Different sectors of society viewed divorce and remarriage differently, depending on a number of factors. Undine explains to the shocked Marvells that in Apex, “if a girl married a man who don’t come up to what she expected, people consider it’s to her credit to want to change” (Wharton 58). Mrs. Marvell disagrees, “I believe in certain parts of the country such—unfortunate arrangements—are beginning to be tolerated. But in New York, in spite of our growing indifference, a divorced woman is still—thank heaven!—at a decided disadvantage” (58). In “certain parts” of the country, the public opinion on divorce reflected societal views of courtship in general, particularly parental involvement. Undine explains to Moffatt that, “girls are looked after here [in New York]. It’s all different. Their mothers go round with them” (69). Understandably, the patriarchy often blamed a rebellious girl’s sexual exploits on her mother.
There was a widespread belief that flighty mothers and rebellious daughters were the cause of a general societal breakdown in the twentieth century (Wolstenholme 92). In the words of Princess Estradina, “there were so many things our mothers never found out” (Wharton 235). The patriarchy combated the “breakdown” with odd social rules, and “it [was] the thing in the best society to pretend that girls can’t do anything without their mother’s permission” (Wharton 7). As divorce rates rose around the country, wealthy, patriarchal families yearned for the “old society” that valued submissive women and passive, virginal daughters. They masked their disgust for female liberation with an outspoken concern for women’s innocence and well being.
Before marrying Undine, Ralph “worries that her ‘virgin innocence’ will be corrupted by another…Ralph wants to initiate her himself” (Ammons 333). Initiating Undine to the sexual experience is his way of possessing her. Even though Ralph frames his desire for her as concern for her innocence, it comes from the selfish motive to build up his own identity as possessor. Before marrying a man like Ralph, a virgin has power because she alone is able to give him the identity of dominance that every patriarch desperately wants. Her virginity becomes a bargaining chip; she gives him the sense of power and dominance and, in exchange, she owns her sexuality. However, once married, the virgin loses that bargaining chip and the power that comes with it. The “exchange”—the virgin relinquishing her sexual power to her possessing husband—reaffirms masculinity and patriarchal domination. What begins as a way for women to reclaim their sexuality) ends with the patriarchy claiming sole control. Unless, that is, the virgin remarries.
According to Susan Wolstenhome, male psychosexual fear of women’s procreative power manifested when the “ virgin” disappeared from American culture at the turn of the century (94). The virgin herself did not disappear—rather, she reclaimed her power from the old culture patriarchy and harnessed it herself. A woman who reclaims her “power”—her virginity, or the “bargaining chip” for exchange—dredges up male psychosexual fears of powerful women. A remarried woman simultaneously reclaims her virginal power while yielding seductive and sexual prowess. She is the sexually liberated “virgin” who defies patriarchal control.
V. SECONDARY VIRGINITY AND MALE HYSTERIA
The remarried woman may defy patriarchal control, but that defiance alone does not cause male hysteria. Rather, it is when the patriarch becomes hysterical when he realizes that he is not the sole possessor of the object. Ralph could handle Undine’s rejection of motherhood, her flighty spending, and crass approach to marriage—those anti-patriarchal behaviors did not cause him to become hysterical. Ralph becomes hysterical only upon learning that he was not Undine’s first husband and that he had not conquered or possessed her. While the patriarchy warned women of the dangers of remarriage, women like Undine realized that they became more powerful as their husbands became weak and hysterical.
Although the patriarchal Marvels predict the opposite, Undine’s offers of marriage and purse strings thrive from her accumulation of divorce papers. Her success is what is so traumatizing about Undine and the “exchange” process for a patriarchal society. As society changed, women profited more from the exchange process than men. Whereas Ralph and de Chelles work diligently to not lose their family’s uniqueness in the exchange process, Undine embraces it wholeheartedly. As a woman living in a (more) liberated society, this is possible for her. For Undine, “exchange [must] involve at least a temporary obliteration of unique identities” (Barrish 15)—and she likes it this way. Think of how she delighted at the idea of becoming an Ambassador’s wife in the same way she envied the “identity” of the wives of the rich. She regrets that she cannot easily “reset” and become an Ambassador’s wife after marrying Moffat for the second time; she laments, “there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her” (Wharton 364). Here, the exchange process fails her because she cannot get a new identity from it. It is not something that she is after; it is after a new someone; that is, a new Undine Spragg.
Wharton’s other works have a place in the “exchange” paradigm of male hysteria, providing fascinating context in what exchange looks like in different women (and implies that each method leads to the women’s demise or, in Undine’s case, demoralization). The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart “helps to repress what is traumatic in exchange’s underlying structure by embodying a fantasy that exchange might somehow occur without involving any loss of uniqueness” (Barrish 15). Additionally, her role is to demonstrate that “things don’t have to change even as they change places” (14), something that Undine fails to do (and it even appears that she refuses to do so maliciously).
The painful exchange process of remarriage did not affect some men as much as it did others. Savvy entrepreneurs like Elmer Moffat did not belong to the same patriarchal structures as other wealthy New York families, and for the majority of them, remarriage’s implications on virginity were of no importance, especially if the new wife brought a fortune with her to the new marriage. Men from wealthy, upper class, patriarchal families experienced the brunt of this version of “male hysteria;” that is, the painful realization that in the marital exchange process, the man failed to assert his identity and control. Before his final scene in Custom, Ralph had undergone many other stressors that threatened to induce a hysterical breakdown. However, it was ultimately the realization that he had not “conquered” Undine—that there was no exchange of virginity, and thus, power—that ruined him.
The central scene of male hysteria in The Custom of the Country occurs when Moffatt reveals that he was married to Undine before Ralph. Feeling “the whole archaic structure of his rites and sanctions tumble down above him,” Ralph loses his identity as possessor—of both his unique identity and Undine—in a moment. He realizes that Moffatt must have taken Undine’s virginity, and is horrified that “such a hand should have touched it!” (286). His memories assail him and Ralph is “seized with another dumb gust of fury; but it died out and left him face to face with the uselessness, the irrelevance of all the old attitudes of appropriation and defiance. He seemed to be stumbling about in his inherited prejudices…” (287) that a vulgar, crass man like Moffatt “possessed” his wife before he did.
At this realization, Ralph falls into a trance-like stupor and becomes hysterical. As he wanders aimlessly down Wall Street,
“The blindness within him seemed to have intensified his physical perceptions, his sensitiveness to the heat, the noise, the smells of the disheveled midsummer city; but combined with the acuter perception of these offenses was a complete indifference to them” (287).
Ralph dissociates and slips into his home undetected, “the blinds…all drawn down, and the freshness and silence of the marble-paved hall laid soothing hands on him” (287). He thinks about having lunch at the club and taking a cab; reminding himself of such luxuries is an attempt to reinstate his now-stolen identity. Ralph tries to let his wealth soothe him, but once in his bedroom, “all the old stale usual things in it confronted him, and he longed with a sick intensity to be in a place that was really strange” (288).
He wonders aloud, “how on earth can I go on living here?” and “drops his head on his hands to shut out” Undine’s memory (288). Still,
“The vision was swept away by another wave of hurrying thoughts…then they became as unreal and meaningless as the red specks dancing behind the lids against which he had pressed his first clenched, and he had the feeling that if he opened his eyes they would vanish, and the familiar daylight look in on him….”
Ralph’s suicide is a final attempt to regain possession of Undine, and with it, his identity. Holding the revolver against his skull, he whispers, “My wife…this will make it all right for her….” (290), claiming Undine as his wife even though he had not “possessed” her for years at that point. He treats his death as an exchange between Undine and himself; if she can be “his” again, for one final moment, then he will surrender. According to Phillip Barrish, “when Ralph shoots himself, he is literalizing how Undine’s remarriage—her replacing one husband with another—has seemed to [Ralph] to destroy his sense of being a unique individual” (4). That loss of uniqueness, coupled with the embarrassment of Undine’s deception, makes Ralph become hysterical. Meanwhile, Undine becomes more powerful.
VI. WOMEN—THE SYMPTOM OF A GENERATION
If female empowerment is a byproduct of hysterical men, it is no wonder that a patriarchal medical community attempted to shield numbers of male hysteria. Still, those attempts do not conceal evidence that as divorce rates increased around the country, more men became depressed, anxious, and suicidal. It became more difficult for doctors to mask the rising numbers of male hysteria when it became obvious that just as many men as women were suffering. If we treat Ralph’s hysteria—and Undine’s sexual and economic liberation—as a microcosm for society in 1913, we can see that there is certainly a connection between women’s empowerment and patriarchal disillusionment. Despite such empowerment, however,
We have yet to ask what it means for Undine herself that she functions as a symptom of exchange’s traumatic effects…Undine’s role as hysterical symptom seems to carry with it a certain power, even invulnerability. At the very moments when she evokes in others the most excruciating sensations of exchange’s leveling effects, Undine herself ‘grows inaccessible, implacable.’ Perhaps because she functions as a symptom, Undine does not suffer symptoms (Barrish 17).
Undine symptomizes remarriage’s “mechanism of exchange” that threatens the identities of those around her; in doing so, “Undine achieves a power and security that—although by no means positive for her—must be respected” (17). This achievement is the crux of my feminist paradigm through which to analyze male hysteria. Undine represents all women who became empowered through remarriage and, unknowingly, incited a gross patriarchal reaction to their power and security. As men reacted hysterically, unable to make sense of their changing world and growing lack of power, doctors placed the blame for hysteria—once again—on women. Rather than becoming “punished scapegoats”, however, these women became even more powerful and secure in their feminity and sexuality. It is ironic that female hysteria used to be connected with unfulfilled sexuality, since male hysteria has obvious connotations with unfulfilled sexuality of another sort—the patriarchy’s inability to sexually possess and conquer women like they had for centuries.
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