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Invalid Women

ENGL 290.401
MWF 9

This course traces the radical entanglement of women's writing and women's illness from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present. Historically, clusters of symptoms and creative synthesis go hand in hand when it comes to women--countless invalid women have been writers, and illness is often seen as a pre-condition for women's artistic creation. Writing itself has been seen alternately as a cause of female indisposition and a cure for it. Women's symptoms were--and sometimes still are--routinely read by medicine as aberrant body language, the spontaneous fictions of unsettled and undisciplined minds; while women's fictions often treat themes of illness, using them to articulate pressing questions about women's capacities for artistic expression and self-determination under patriarchy. The specific manifestations of these patterns have varied widely over time, as models of illness, treatment techniques, modes of writing, and opportunities for women have changed. Over the course of the term, we will chart the invalid woman's progress as patient and artist, beginning with the late Jane Austen's emergent obsession with illness, and ending with Elizabeth Wurtzel's best-selling account of her own depression, _Prozac Nation_. Moving from hysteria to anorexia, dyspepsia to depression, neurasthenia to schizophrenia, we will track actual and fictional invalid women through an endless succession of water cures, rest cures, talking cures, forced feedings, sexual surgeries, electric shock therapies, and pharmaceutical interventions. At the same time, we will attend closely to the language of illness in novels, letters, and diaries by women, as well as to medical constructions of women's illness. Required texts will most likely include Jane Austen, _Persuasion_ and _Sanditon_; Charlotte Bronte, _Villette_; Linda Brent, _Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl_; Sigmund Freud, _Dora_; Charlotte Perkins Gilman, _The Yellow Wallpaper_; Virginia Woolf, _Mrs. Dalloway_ and selections from _The Writer's Diary_; Sylvia Plath, _The Bell Jar_; Susanna Kaysen, _Girl Interrupted_; Elizabeth Wurtzel, _Prozac Nation_; Audre Lorde, _The Cancer Journals_; and the self-help book of your choice. We will flesh out our study of literature by and about invalid women with readings treating various aspects of women's illness over the past two hundred years. They will range widely, from personal accounts of mastectomy, to medical case studies of Victorian hysterics, to contemporary theories of anorexia nervosa. Finally, we will attempt to grapple with the extensive body of feminist work that has been done on the complex relationship between women's illness and women's art.