Author Archives: Angela


After reading the selection in Embodied Selves regarding French anthropologist Paul Broca’s 1864 publication “On the Phenomena of Hybridity in the Genus Homo,” it made me curious as to the characters we have been introduced to that may be so-called hybrids.   Hybridity is defined simply as a mixture.  Hybrids often combine both human and animal features.    Two characters that come to mind are Carmilla from Carmilla and Bertha Rochester from Jane Eyre.  Each may be, according to definition considered a hybrid.  Broca claimed that “human hybrids tended to be prone to cephalic deformity.  This logic appeared to validate the attribution of bestial features of mixed race persons in literature of the Victorian period.  According to Broca, hybrids were also supposed to be genetically inclined toward criminal behaviors and desires.”

Le Fanu’s Carmilla tells the story of Laura and Carmilla, portrayed as a nineteenth century lesbian vampire.  A vampire by definition is a mythical being whose existence relies on feeding off of living creatures, usually their blood. Laura has nightmares of an animal that prowls near her bedside in panther form.  “I saw something moving that resembled a monstrous cat, a sooty-black animal.” (p. 39). According to William Veeder, “Carmilla did not resemble the traditional cadaverous vampire.  She is “the prettiest creature I ever saw…’so gentle and nice’…’absolutely beautiful with such a sweet voice and a slender pretty figure.”

Brenda Mann Hammack acknowledges in her article “Florence Marryat’s Female Vampire and the Scientizing of Hybridity” that among the best known images of bestial hybridity from the Victorian era are Charlotte Brontë’s nightmarish descriptions of mad Bertha Rochester.  When Jane Eyre first glimpses the Creole madwoman, she perceives a “clothed hyena” scrambling on all fours, then rising onto “hind feet.”  Unsure “whether it was beast of human being,” Jane fuses the two: although “it snatched and growled like some strange animal…it was covered with clothing: and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.”  Jane is reminded of “the foul German spectre—the Vampyre,” a characterization that seems justified when Bertha attacks her brother with her teeth, threatening to drain the blood from his heart.

In conclusion, one of the novels that I read in a previous class also exemplified the definition of hybrid. Although this novel speaks about hybridity differently than the characters of Carmilla and Bertha, Passing by Nella Larsen tells the story of two friends Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield both of African and European ancestry.  Clare “passes” as a white woman, her mixed race never revealed to her white racist husband, while Irene embraced her African American heritage.  Critics analyze this novel in a number of ways.  Some argue that it is a classic example of the tragic mulatto.  Johanna M. Wagner debates whether their struggle revolves around race as the title suggests in her article “In the Place of Clare Kendry” A Gothic Reading of Race and Sexuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing.”  It is her opinion that Passing may be about security, status, and sexuality as well as the obvious theme of race.

The term hybridity encompasses many perspectives.  Animal and human characteristics, mixed races and genetically altered species, as well as a blending of existing and new cultural ideas may be viewed as examples of hybridity.












What is Hybridity?

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Jane Eyre and the “Madwoman in the Attic”

 The_Madwoman_in_the_AtticAccording to Janet Gezari’s  article “Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic,”  “It took about a century for the angel in the house to join forces with the madwoman in the attic.  Even when this angel occupied the foreground in nineteenth century novels, she was shadowed by her dark twin.  The monster woman rose from the depths of the attic, and her name was Bertha Mason.  While Gilbert and Gubar make it clear that their discussion concerns madness as a metaphor, not mental illness in the clinical sense, this distinction proves impossible to maintain.”

Elizabeth Donaldson wrote about this topic in her article “The Corpus of the Madwoman:  Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness”.  She states that “Gilbert and Gubar argued that the ‘maddened double’ in texts by women writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century function as social surrogates, projecting women writers’ anxiety of authorship in a male dominated literary tradition.   The figure of Bertha Mason is portrayed as violent, dangerous and inhuman.  She represented a powerful model for Victorian readers, including psychiatrists.  This influenced how women were diagnosed with insanity.   Bertha represents Jane’s own feelings of oppression and suppression in a patriarchal society.  The hunger and rage that Bertha demonstrates may actually be the result of the restraint Jane feels as a silent member of society.”    Some may argue that Bronte used this forum to reflect the fantasies of female writers of the time or to perhaps make living during this era more bearable.  Shuttleworth debated  that “Bronte’s ‘mad-wife’ did not only suggest the  clear critique of the Victorian repression of the ‘innate’ forces of female sexuality, but in addition,  Bertha functions to call attention to the tenuous, fragile foundations of Jane’s imperialist claims to self-dominion.”

 According to Donaldson,  “Bertha’s madness comes from the underlying logic of physiognomy, the science or knowledge of the correspondence between the external and internal man.   This science was based on an extension of intuitive understanding, the reading of moral character through facial features.”   There are  many references about Jane as well as by Jane in the text indicating physiognomy.   I have indicated a few.

  St John and his sisters are trying to determine what Jane has been through, “She has a peculiar face;   fleshless and haggard as it is, I rather like it; and when in good health and animated, I can fancy her physiognomy would be agreeable.”  (p 289)

 They say that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.  The eye may also interpret the person’s inner character as stated on page 149.   “Most true is it that ‘beauty is in the eye of the gazer.’  My master’s colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth,–all energy, decision, will,–were not beautiful, according to rule; but they were more than beautiful to me.  He made me love him without looking at me.”

This dual image reminds me of many other stories and or novels that we have read over the years which contain the “angel/devil” heroine.  Does the author use this dichotomy in order to bring to light the inner voice that is not always heard?




 Characters such as Bertha and Jane demonstrate internal conflict.   Our unheard voice can manifest itself as “madness” as Berth’s character embodies.    Does Bertha’s final act, her death,  free Jane of her conflict?  Was it necessary for Bertha to die  in order for Jane to enter into a marriage of equality?  Initially I did not realize this  connection between the two characters, but after this research cannot deny the possibility.

The Hysterical Victorian Female: Angela Moraitis

The first journal article that I read was “The Female Animal:  Medical and Biological Views of Woman and Her Role in Nineteenth Century American”. (1973)  The authors, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Charles Rosenberg write “Since at least the time of Hippocrates and Aristotle, the  roles assigned women have attracted an elaborate body of medical and biological justification.  The Victorian woman’s ideal social characteristics of nurturance, morality, domesticity, passivity and affection were believed to be rooted in a biological basis.”  Physically, women of the nineteenth century were different from their male partners.  Women’s skulls were smaller, muscles  more delicate and their nervous systems more irritable and prone to exhaustion.  Particularly in the Victorian Era, this belief led doctors to discourage physical activity by women.  Doctors argued that physical exertion in women might cause their reproductive organs to become dislodged and wander around the body.  The belief of the “wandering womb” was part of the teachings of Hippocrates.

Another interesting website I discovered in my research stated “Victorian society emphasized female purity, and  supported  the ideal of the “true woman” as wife, mother and keeper of the home.  The home was the basis of morality.  As the guardian of the home, women were believed to be more dependent, emotional and gentle by nature.  This perception of femininity led to the belief that women were more susceptible to disease and illness.  This conclusion was the basis for the diagnosis of insanity in many female patients during the 19th century.

Most women during the Victorian Era carried a bottle of smelling salts in their handbag.  They were inclined to swoon when their emotions were aroused and it is believed, as claimed by Hippocrates, that the “wandering womb” disliked the pungent odor and would return to its place, ultimately allowing the woman to recover her consciousness.  This theory remained a point of reference for centuries.

As stated in the article, “The Race of Hysteria: “Overcivilization”  and the “Savage” Woman in Late Nineteenth Century Obstetrics and Gynecology” written by Laura Briggs, “hysteria we learned from the feminist historical scholarship in the 1970s was never just a disease.  It was the way the Victorian culture, as well as European culture, made sense of women’s changing roles.  These cultural changes were accompanied by an epidemic of ‘nervous weakness’ which forced the question whether the diagnostic category of hysteria was simply a method of keeping women in the home.  The primary symptoms of this hysteria in women were gynecological and reproductive, including prolapsed uterus, diseased ovaries, and long and difficult childbirth.  Physicians saw women as a prisoner of her reproductive system.  Her body and behavior were controlled from puberty through menopause by her uterus and ovaries.”

According to “Hysteria, the Wondering Uterus, and Vaginal Massage”, by Gwen Sharp (2010), women not participating in physical activity combined with heavy clothing and corsets, actually did experience  physical symptoms.  Corsets made breathing difficult, as well as causing backaches and headaches.  Doctors connected not only headaches to uterine disease but ailments in every part of the body.   The following ad appeared in “Modern Mechanix” magazine in their November 1934 Physical Culture issue. See


picture from hysteria blog

After realizing the nineteenth century female experience, my first response is one of gratefulness that I am a woman of the twenty-first century.  If the diagnosis of hysteria was indeed made as a result of  the social and economic changes woman faced, then females would continue to be told this by the medical community.  Thankfully, hysteria is no longer diagnosed and was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder ( DSM). As we continue to explore texts from “Embodied Selves” in the coming weeks, I will end with a comment from the book regarding hysteria.  It was believed that one of the dominant causes was repressed sexual energy.  This led to the business of physicians and midwives  providing vaginal massage which would result in an orgasm and sudden relief from hysteria.  Ultimately, the invention of the vibrator, provided the same service in the privacy of the home.


This ad appeared in 1918 in the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog.