What Does Woman Want?: The Narrative (de-) Construction of Feminine Psychosis

Scarlet J. Marquette, Harvard University

Russian prose of the nineteenth and early twentieth century is notoriously populated by psychotic characters and themes ( Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades,” Gogol’s “Notes of a Madman,” Chekhov’s “Ward #6,” notable among others). By contrast, critics have cited the relative dearth of psychotic women in nineteenth-century Russian literature (de Scherbinin). As opposed to the novels of Balzac, Dickens, and Shakespeare, full of colorful madwomen, in Russian literature and culture, the spotlight tends to be on the male, with such common tropes as the mad genius (Odoyevsky) or the colorful eccentric (Pyliaev).

Meanwhile, psychoanalysis suggests a clear link between paranoia and femininity. Freud vividly depicts and analyzes his exemplar psychotic Schreber’s delusion of being transformed into a woman against his will, as the latter imagines he is forced to sexually surrender to his doctor, Flechsig, and then finally to God as a woman. Would one not then expect a proportional share of female paranoids in literature? How does one explain this apparent contradiction in the Russian context?

I choose to address this question by focusing on how the existing literature functions to contain and elucidate feminine psychosis, and the particularly potent relation of female psychotics to the regnant philosophical discourse. I analyze the threat posed by feminine psychosis to epistemological stability, through various permutations in the prose tradition, including Dostoevsky’s Idiot, Fyodor Sologub’s “Shadows” and “Hide and Seek,” and Zinaida Gippius’ “Madwoman”

The Idiot’s Nastasya Filippovna, in her efforts to salvage a space for her particularly feminine form of Lacanian jouissance, uses all the tools at her disposal to maintain her subjectivity as woman, opening up the text for the question: What is Woman? What does Woman want? Whereas Bakhtin relegated the Idiot to a subordinate role because of its lack of dialogism, I argue that the lack of a definitive resolution to both the linked questions of madness and femininity support a claim to textual polyphony, albeit in a sense slightly different than Bakhtin’s. This text ends not with ideology, but with an echoing voice, a corpse and a lot of questions.

Sologub’s stories highlight feminine psychosis as a secondary phenomenon. In Sologub’s “Hide and Seek” mother is separated from child, and in “Shadows” mother joins child in madness. While psychoanalysis approaches the developmental process primarily from the child’s point of view, these stories reveal the epistemological peril embedded in the biologically feminine process of mothering.

Gippius’ “Madwoman” playfully deconstructs two famous texts that thematize paranoia, Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata” and Freud’s “A Case of Paranoia Running Counter to the Psycho-analytical Theory of the Disease.” Gippius, through her ironization of the conversation between two men about the absent heroine Vera, leaves us with a most inconclusive ending, and a woman, who, although literally silenced, is the only character we would really like to listen to.