I must admit that these last few days this statement has been going around in my head, but not only this specific question, but the meaning of the word “madness” itself. I have always been curious about the subject of madness and how it is represented in art, indeed, I must confess that my first choice for the topic of my final degree thesis was the study of madness in the character of Bertha Mason in the novel Jane Eyre, but I discarded the idea as it is a rather studied subject and as there is already a rather famous essay called The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979) by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, so I settled on analyzing the novel Jane Eyre from an ecocritical and ecofeminist perspective.
However, this interest persists, because, above all, the literary world is full of “mad women” both in fiction and in the writers themselves (Sylvia Plath, Virgina Woolf, Anne Sexton and a long etcetera). Madness has always been associated more with the female sex, as presumably the various stereotypes that have emerged throughout history have contributed to this. I thought of all this again during my reading of The Woman in White (1860) by Wilkie Collins, since the character that raises all the questions is Anne Catherick, a woman described as mentally retarded and mad, besides pointing out that she is always dressed in white (the very name of the novel makes this clear). Anne herself justifies this by saying that Mrs. Fairlie (who was a mother figure to her) told her that she favoured that colour. But, we as readers and consumers of horror films, quickly associate these clothes with insane asylum patients and terrifying women in horror stories, such as the protagonist of The Ring or the one in the urban legend The girl on the curve. When reading this novel, one cannot help but think of the Spanish work called Los renglones torcidos de Dios by Torcuato Luca de Tena Brunet (1979), which presents a woman who voluntarily enters an asylum under the pretext that she is an undercover detective. This woman is presented to us with a sickly appearance (as described by Anne Catherick) and dressed in white, but what surprises me most about these “crazy” characters is that they always end up making the reader or viewer doubt: are they crazy or are they much saner than we think they are? In both cases, the characters possess vital information and their testimony is essential to help other characters.
In the case of Anne Catherick, it is argued throughout that the young girl has had some kind of mental deficiency since she was a child, claiming that she has a hard time learning. But she does not end up in the asylum because of her condition, but because someone wants to silence her. We have, then, a woman who does not have the level of madness (so to speak) that the other characters insist on showing us and, in addition, Anne is silenced because she has information that can harm other people. It is important to add that she is cunning, for it is not until near the end of the novel that she is discovered, for she acts in an ingenious way.
With the protagonist of Los renglones torcidos de Dios , we have a story with similarities, but with some differences. Alicia, the protagonist, is locked up in the asylum (to enter she pretends to suffer from paranoia) of her own free will alleging that she must investigate a crime (she is a private detective), but little by little the viewer doubts whether she is really a private detective or if she is really a woman who suffers from paranoia. What cannot be disputed is that she is an extremely intelligent woman capable of dividing the medical staff (between those who believe her to be ill and those who do not), what is more, she manages to convince the medical jury that she deserves to be discharged. She cannot help but think of Hamlet and his feigned madness, the duty to draw a line between truth and lies, to bring to light the truth about her uncle’s crime. The same happens with these two women, they themselves draw a line on the edge of what is true and what is not (although they are not aware of it) and create in the eyes of others a blurred reality in which people end up doubting its veracity.
With this small reflection I want to emphasize the role that madness has played in our culture and how it tends to fall on women. But what I certainly find interesting is the fact that in the end it is always the madman who is saner, who sees things more clearly, how they really are and how they try to warn others of what is about to happen. We see it in Bertha Mason, in her attempts to scare Jane away or we see it in Anne Catherick who risks her life to warn Laura Fairlie of the man she has married. As the Cheshire Cat would say: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”