Madman with a Cleaver: Women and Mental Illness in Victorian (and Modern) Culture


Women with agency are hard to control, and women who can’t be controlled are dangerous to Victorian ideals. We’ve talked about this in class. Heck, we’ve talked about similar ideas outside of class, since this concept does, to a certain degree, apply to our own culture. Women with agency are hard to control, and that frightens people in power. Even more threatening are people, especially women, with mental illnesses. The mentally ill are seen as difficult, sometimes impossible to control. Even in modern times, we are often written off as erratic, a view that is used to diminish (or at least hide) our role in society and to excuse an unhealthy and unjustified fear of us.


Anne Catherick may or may not have been mentally ill when she was forced into an asylum, but her behavior upon escaping certainly defies any expectations one might have of a proper Victorian woman. As Sr. Percival’s lawyer, Mr. Merriman, puts it, “A dangerous woman to be at large, Mr. Gilmore; nobody knows what she may do next” (154). And he’s right—nobody does! Anne Catherick remains a mystery thus far in the novel, but the danger she poses to ideas of what a woman should be in her society is so strong that it cannot be shrouded, not even by the aura of uncertainty that surrounds her and her past.


The portrayal of Anne Catherick as (potentially) mentally ill reflects Victorian and modern views on mental illness, views that I have more or less covered. Anne’s behavior is unpredictable, which makes her impossible to control. Furthermore, she has been successful in evading Sir. Percival’s reach, signifying escape from a social hierarchy governed by class, gender, and money (three things that place Sir. Percival in power). Because Anne is a woman, and a lower class woman at that, her escape from a hierarchy that would deny her even the most basic power (power over the self) is a threatening one. If more women were like Anne, they could completely upend Victorian society, and where would Sir. Percival be then?


By interpreting Anne as mentally ill, her society minimizes her power as an autonomous woman while also stigmatizing her and excusing her mistreatment. And to be completely honest, this is not solely a Victorian issue. Stigma around mental illness remains a huge problem, and that stigma is sometimes co-opted in order to dismiss women. In modern America, mental illness is often talked about in the context of violence, suggesting that mentally ill people are more likely than people who are not mentally ill to be violent (they aren’t: Take today’s trending topics on Facebook, which actually included the phrase “Madman with a Cleaver.” How does that not strengthen the association between mental illness and danger? On a less sensational level, I suspect that most of us have heard an outspoken woman called “crazy” at one point or another (some of us have even been that woman). What does it say about our society that women who demonstrate power still risk being dismissed as members of an even more marginalized group?


The Woman in White is a product of Victorian society, but it’s hard not to notice its modern connections. Regardless of whether or not Anne Catherick is actually mentally ill, her confinement to an asylum and Mr. Merriman’s later comments both reflect fears of autonomous women and unpredictability. These fears continue to infect in our own society, and while blame can only be placed on us for continuing to promote them, it is interesting to look at their earlier manifestations in Victorian literature.

6 thoughts on “Madman with a Cleaver: Women and Mental Illness in Victorian (and Modern) Culture”

  1. Your commentary on mental illness and its stigmatizations is so interesting, especially in light of how we view women and the words we use to describe them. Anne Catherick doesn’t act like a Victorian ideal, but does that mean she is “crazy”? Women today are often called crazy and other similar derogatory terms when they speak their minds (see horrible things said about Hillary Clinton). Mental illness is stigmatized, but it’s also used to stigmatize other things, like vocal women.

  2. Not only is there stigmatizations of women in Anne’s position, but the lack of father or “masculine” figures (if we exclude Marian) is another reason for concern in Victorian society. In my post I touched on the idea of “moral treatment” for women in asylums, meaning that the doctor needed to run the ward as if he was the father of a strict household. Only by having a masculine presence and treating the woman like a child could she be “cured.” In this case we can almost think of Sir Percival Glyde as the doctor, and what does it mean that neither Anne nor Laura have a strong father figure in their life? In this way they both represent women with mental illness, but two different sides. Anne is the patient who is resistant to “treatment” while Laura, while still being vocal, remains a more docile and accepting patient.

  3. I wonder if we could also connect this to Greg’s argument about the redundancy of women. Is it because Anne has this history of mental illness (maybe) she no longer has a place or a purpose? Therefore she gets shipped away to a mental hospital in comparison to the colonies? It seems as if as soon as Sir Percival rid her of her purpose, she immediately becomes redundant and a burden to the world around her. Not to mention the idea that she practically has the doppleganger of Laura, showing that one of them must go.

  4. Immediately upon reading this post I began thinking of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It has many of the same ideas in it; women being locked up for practically no reason, and it is the act of being locked up that leads to ‘improper’ or drastic behavior. The comment here about having a masculine figure help ‘cure’ the sick woman also is present in “The Yellow Wallpaper” as it is her husband I believe that puts her in the attic for her own good as a means of curing her insanity.
    I also enjoyed your paragraph about people becoming afraid once a woman starts to defy social boundaries. That reminded me of a line from one of my favorite movies, Beauty and the Beast, where the misogynistic Gaston says,”It’s not right for a woman to read! Soon she’s start getting ideas and thinking…” While these are not exactly the same time periods or genres, I think the ideas are connected. Throughout history there has been a subtle fear that the oppressed will somehow get tools to overcome these barriers and alter the hierarchy in society.

  5. This was such an interesting post on how Anne’s entrapment in an asylum harkens to societies refusal for women to be autonomous beings. I’m especially interested in the stigmatization of the mentally ill. In another class I took that focused on criminology, we talked about how the simple act of labeling someone as mentally ill, and the successive treatment towards that person, can in fact make the person believe in the label and act out the stereotypes associated with mentally ill. In sum, the person begins to believe they are crazy and act out the stigmatizations accordingly. Perhaps this can be connected to Victorian women, and how their being labeled as feeble, incompetent, domestic, dependent, etc.. could in fact make them believe they were this. I think Marian is the one person we see who openly addresses these stigmatizations, and though she claims to believe in them through her wording in the text, the fact that she recognizes them as stereotypes is a good first step. We can only hope she does not fall into the cycle of becoming what she is told Victorian women are.

  6. I completely agree! Regardless of her mental state, Anne certainly isn’t a typical Victorian woman. However, by labeling her as mentally ill and putting her into an asylum, she doesn’t pose a threat to men like the ‘all-powerful and charming’ Sir Percival. In some ways, I think we can also connect this to Brother Jacob. Mr. Freely’s confectionery store enables women to bypass their household duties, thus changing the dynamic of traditional gender roles. So, men like Sir Percival might be afraid that Anne could potentially influence other women to “misbehave” in society, affecting current gender roles.

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