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Three Generations of Women Writing Mad Women in French: Simone de Beauvoir, Emma Santos, Linda Lê

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

This thesis examines the evolution of the trope of the madwoman in women-authored narratives in French from the early twentieth century until the present day. Given the misogyny inherent in much of the discourse of women's madness as written by male writers over the centuries, the project asks why this ambivalent figure should appear so prevalently in the narratives of three generations of women authors during this time. The thesis explores whether the madness featured can be read as a metaphor for crisis, or rebellion, or both, and asks to what extent, when read through a feminist optic, madness is effective or self-defeating.
Using the post-Lacanian psycholinguistic theory of Julia Kristeva, I argue that the madwoman stands as a signpost for an anxiety of authorship at the intersection of crisis and liberation for women authors seeking to inscribe themselves into a male-dominated socio-linguistic system. This attempt at inscription entails a process of autogenography – (re)generating the self through writing – that is productive for the authors involved in terms of literary output, but does not always produce unequivocally positive outcomes on a personal level.
The project also examines the motif of female sacrifice – often presented as self-sacrifice – recurring prominently alongside the figure of the madwoman in the texts discussed, to ask what function this sacrifice fulfils. Does it represent an abjection of the feminine for authors who have internalised misogynistic literary standards and traditions in relation to female authorship, or does it represent a process of sublimation for the woman author as part of an attempt to assert linguistic and literary autonomy?
I conclude that the madwoman and the leitmotif of female/feminine sacrifice are intimately bound up with questions of female authorship, and the continuing evolution of these tropes reveals some marked differences between the challenges facing women writers at different moments of the past century, and also some interesting similarities.
Original languageEnglish
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Award date2015

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