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FR260 Women and Madness in Nineteenth-Century French Writing

Module Code: FR260
Module Name: Women and Madness in Nineteenth-Century French Writing
Module Coordinator: Dr Susannah Wilson
Term 2 Time: Thursday 10:00-12:00 Room: S0.09
Module Credits: 15

Module Description

The European nineteenth century is traditionally viewed as a period of great industrial, economic and medical progress that laid the foundations of society today in a very direct way. Before this time, 'madness' was not considered to be illness in the clinical sense, but gradually became medicalized from the early 1800s. This view permeated popular culture, producing many fascinating depictions of insanity, perversion and rebellion in art an literature. The cultural perception of women’s madness was inextricably bound up with the restrictive sex-role expectations of the era, raising important questions about the link between gender and pathology. We consider literary, medical and autobiographical representations of treacherous femmes fatales, incurable melancholia, hysteria, trauma, and psychosis. Women who were artists, musicians, feminist activists, mothers, or simply those who fell outside society's restrictive 'norms', could find themselves subjected to the male medical gaze. Ultimately, we shall trace the extent to which the culturally perceived link between femininity and mental weakness endures today, in an era of apparent equality.


We examine three short fictional texts alongside memoirs written by French women locked in asylums against their will, who claimed to be sane. We will learn about the process of 'listening' to the voices of psychiatric patients, and consider the validity of their indictment of a medico-legal system that contained and marginalized them without really treating them. We will also ask whether 'madness' and 'reason' are polar opposites, or whether we may detect irrational thought in official medical discourse as well as perfectly reasonable assertions in the stories told by 'insane' or neurotic women.

This module may capture your interest if you took the First Year course 'The Story of Modern France' and enjoyed discussing racial identity and alienation (in Condé); Gender and Sexuality; Foucault, and the theme of self and other.

Please note that some of these texts contain depictions of psychological distress, racism, personality disorder and some allusions to sexual abuse. If you think you are likely to find engaging with such material in an academic context difficult then you are advised not to choose this module.

PLEASE NOTE: You will need to buy the texts below indicated with an asterisk. All page references in lectures and seminars will be to these editions. They are inexpensive to buy and all students will be expected to be in possession of a purchased or a library copy of the text.

Primary Texts

  • Madame de Duras, Ourika (1824): folioplus classiques edition. (for purchase)*
  • Balzac, 'Adieu' (1830): poche edition. (for purchase)*
  • Zola, Thérèse Raquin (1868): Flammarion edition. (for purchase)*
  • Madame Esquiron, Mémoire (1893): scan available via the online reading list.


Assessment Method:

100% assessed essay of 4,000-4,500 words comparing two texts.

Susannah Wilson

Dr Susannah Wilson

The exam paper code for this module is FR2LAX