Women and Madness- A Response to Shoshana Felman’s Essay
In the essay “Women and Madness: the Critical Phallacy”, Shoshana Felman asserts the woman voice by giving a feminist reading of the short story “Adieu” by Honore Balzac: “With a ‘revised’ way of looking, ‘educated’ by the ‘change of terrain’ brought by the feminist interrogation, let us now attempt to reread Balzac’s text and to reinterpret its relation to the woman as well as to madness”(6).
Shoshana Felman accuses two traditional male critics, who wrote a preface and a “notice” to the new French edition of the story, of being biased. They concentrate only on the middle part of the story, the war scene, and commend Balzac’s poignant realism while totally ignore the more complex issues of the first and last parts of the story (6). Felman in her alternative reading focuses on those neglected parts. She regards the hunters and the uncle doctors who “know” and “tame” the mad woman as three members of the oppressing class who “by virtue of their profession…have the power to act upon other’s reason, in the name of the law, of health, or of force”(6,7). Philipe de Sucy’s efforts to restore Stephanie are viewed as merely “Narcissistic” attempts to objectify the woman (9).
Felman’s compelling interpretation of “Adieu” almost convinces the reader as being the only possible reading, and the strong symbolic imagery in the story of hunting, madness, animal, dumbness and death do support her case. However, one should bear in mind that it is just another interpretational approach. Similarly to the traditional critics whom Felman rejects, she ignores part of the story; she does not mention the despair, the hunger, the chaos, the madness and the confusion that preceded the crossing of the Berezina River. She does not elaborate on the heroism and the sacrifice that Philippe displayed in saving Stephanie. Moreover she does not acknowledge the strong connection between the trauma of the war and Stephanie’s madness, and the total repression of that impossible memory, which is replaced by that madness.
It is unclear whether Felman has encountered people who suffered trauma associated with the horrors of war, a topic that is still very much on the mind of her European colleagues. “Adieu” brings to mind the Holocaust survivors who found refuge in madness, as reality was no longer bearable. In a recent interview Christopher Szpilman, the son of Wladslaw Szpilman, the pianist, said that he strongly believes that his old father who, was in excellent health, died suddenly because he could not bear to see his memories relived on screen (Newsweek , March 24th ,2003). In my opinion, a more comprehensive approach to “Adieu” should have focused on the link between madness and memories of trauma as well; it is unfortunate that Felman’s orthodox feminist approach ultimately renders her as blind as her counterparts across the Atlantic.
Felman, Shoshana. “Women and Madness: The Critical Phallacy.” Diacritics 5 (1975): 2-10.
בלזאק, אונורה דה. סיפורים נפוליאונים. הספרייה החדשה ת הוצאת הקיבוץ המאוחד .1999. 201-234
“The Last Word” Newsweek. March 24,2003. P.58