Invalid Women: Figuring Feminine Illness in American Fiction and Culture, 1840-1940
Price Herndl, Diane
- Holmes, Martha Stoddard
- Date of entry: Feb-05-2001
- Last revised: Feb-11-2010
This study examines representations of feminine illness in American culture from 1840 to 1940. It argues that the figure of the invalid woman emerged in the 1840s amid significant changes in "American literature, medicine and culture," including the emergence of a specifically American literature, the professionalization and masculinization of medicine, and the "sometimes complementary, sometimes opposed" ideologies of feminism and domesticity (17).
The book discusses mid-nineteenth-century medical theories that articulated women as "biologically inferior . . . given to disease and pain" (34) before analyzing contemporary literary works by E.D.E.N. Southworth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne (see this database for annotations of The Birthmark and Rappaccini’s Daughter) Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and works by twentieth-century authors including Ellen Glasgow, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (see this database for The Yellow Wallpaper annotated by Felice Aull and also annotated by Jack Coulehan), Tillie Olsen, Edith Wharton, F. (Francis) Scott Fitzgerald (see this database for Tender Is the Night annotated by Jack Coulehan, also annotated by Pamela Moore), and Henry James. Art, advertisements, and the film, Dark Victory (see annotation) are other points of reference.
Price Herndl examines compliant and resistant uses of women as invalids; the surprisingly small changes in figures of feminine illness in response to changes in women’s rights; the links literature constructs between illness, money, work, and value; shifting theories of cure (from somatic to psychic); and the rise of germ theory in relation to fictional representations of illness. She argues that male and female fiction writers in the period she studies use feminine illness for different purposes: "What that figure signifies is kaleidoscopic, shifting to suit the political needs of its user" (218).
Invalid figures in literature and culture, Price Herndl asserts, can "divert political dis-ease into an overwhelming attention to the individual body and away from the body politic," locating people’s problems in their individual bodies and selves rather than in the oppressive aspects of their culture (220). Recurrent representations of sick women reflected the extreme unease attached to the position of women in American culture in the years 1840-1940. While her study stops at 1940, Price Herndl asserts that after World War Two and at other points when "masculine privilege seems threatened . . . illness is figured more and more often as male" (220).
Univ. of North Carolina Press
Price Herndl’s book both advocates and embodies "archeological" cultural work that uncovers the historically specific, culturally complex construction of our assumptions about our own and others’ bodies and makes us look critically at our own cultural moment. The work builds on and surpasses earlier studies like Sander Gilman’s Disease and Representation; it is a stimulating counterpart to such feminist works of cultural history as Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s Disorderly Conduct, as well to other studies of cultural constructions of bodily experience such as Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain and David Morris’s The Culture of Pain (for both, see this database). For works that focus on non-fictional narratives of illness, see Howard Brody’s Stories of Sickness; Kathy Charmaz’s Good Days, Bad Days; Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller (see this database); Anne Hunsaker Hawkins’s Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography, and Arthur Kleinman’s The Illness Narratives.
Invalid Women is brilliant in its ability to combine disparate threads of cultural history and to articulate questions about cultural representations’ impact on our lived experiences of embodiment. Price Herndl draws on multiple perspectives on women’s illness, always attending to the complexities of the figure of the invalid woman as deployed in different cultural and historical contexts.
More development of the relationships between representations of ill women and actual ill women, figures of ill women and figures of healthy ones, and "realistic" and "metaphoric" uses of illness, would add to the book’s impact. In addition, Price Herndl’s intelligent emphasis on the impossibility of assigning stable meanings to figures of feminine illness seems undercut by her final claim that representations of "cultural unrest as physical disease" are mostly conservative and damaging phenomena that can make us Foucauldian "docile bodies" and weaken women’s resistance to oppression (219-220).