Let’s Get Personal: Anxiety and Analysis

In their 1979 text, Madowoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar say, “it seems inevitable that women reared for, and conditioned to, lives of privacy, reticence, domesticity, might develop pathological fears of public places and unconfined spaces. Like the comb, stay-laces, and apple which the Queen in “Little Snow White” uses as weapons against her hated stepdaughter, such afflictions as anorexia and agoraphobia simply carry patriarchal definitions of “femininity” to absurd extremes, and thus function as essential or at least inescapable parodies of social prescriptions… It is debilitating to be any woman in a society where women are warned that if they do not behave like angels they must be monsters. Recently, in fact, social scientists and social historians like Jessie Bernard, Phyllis Chesler, Naomi Weisstein, and Pauline Bart have begun to study the ways in which patriarchal socialization literally makes women sick, both physically and mentally” (pg. 54).

Their extensive exploration of feminism in the 19th century, conducted over the course of ten years, effectively shows the ways in which female writers and their fictional characters were either portrayed as the ‘angel’ or the ‘demon’. Therefore it becomes impossible for the woman to exist in all of her complexity, human-ness. She becomes dehumanized. The above excerpt is not only relevant to my study in the cross-section between gender and demonology but, I confess, is the product of very personal factors: agoraphobia—fear of open “public” places—has long been a personal struggle of mine. I have watched afflictions such as anorexia and anxiety take my fellow female class-mates out of school. Like Clara Kahane, who makes a similar observation in the network of gender studies in Gothic Literature, “central to that network is my sex, the gender in which I locate myself and am located by others; and which circumscribes how and even what I see. Yet precisely for that reason, I may be sensitive to an aspect of a text either not yet perceived by others, or given a different configuration” (Claire Kahane, “Gothic Mirrors and Feminine Identity,” The Centennial Review, 24 (1980) 43-64).

When I was younger my parents called me a “worry-wart” and even now I find myself musing over the minute details of day-to-day life. Analyzing other’s dialectics. In a way I suppose adding meaning to insignificant, and seemingly “small” details has always been my strong suit. In social situations, you can imagine, this is absolutely debilitating. In literary criticism, my obsessive overworking of minutiae has found it’s home.

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