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Reading the Bronte body: Disease, desire, and the constraints of culture

Beth Ellen Torgerson, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Representations of disease and illness pervade the seven novels written by Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë. While these representations reflect the major role illness played in the lives of the Victorians and its frequent reoccurrence within the Brontës' lives, an analysis of each Brontë's use of representations of illness demonstrates their larger significance. Together, medical anthropology and the history of medicine offer a lens with which to understand the Brontës' literary use of such representations. An application of medical anthropology's central idea that the body is the site for ideological conflict to the novels indicates how representations of illness provide the Brontës with unique ways to critique gender and class constraints inherent in Victorian culture. ^ The “Introduction” develops the Victorian medical context as well as ideas from medical anthropology. Chapter two, “‘Sick of Mankind and Their Disgusting Ways’: Alcoholism, Social Reform and Anne Brontë's Narratives of Illness,” investigates the use of alcoholism in Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. ^ Chapter three, “Ailing Women in the Age of Cholera: Illness in Shirley” develops Charlotte Brontë's use of cholera as a central metaphor for social change which grows out of the contemporary concerns about the 1848–1849 cholera epidemic. Chapter four, “Hysteria, Female Desire, and Self-Control in Villette.” analyzes Charlotte Brontë's use of hysteria in her final novel. Brontë explores the role of illness in the re-shaping of identity, a process which allows Lucy Snowe to rethink her home ideology and challenge the ideology of her adopted country. ^ Chapter five, “Vampires, Ghosts, and the Disease of Dis/Possession,” emphasizes Emily Brontë's metaphorical use of illness which build toward her concept of a larger metaphorical disease, the “disease of dis/possession.” Brontë's three metaphors—illness, vampires, and ghosts—signal her critique of the unnaturalness of a patriarchal cultural system which preys upon the life-energies of those caught within it. The conclusion contrasts the Brontë sisters' use of representations of illness. ^

Subject Area

Women's Studies|History of Science|Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Torgerson, Beth Ellen, "Reading the Bronte body: Disease, desire, and the constraints of culture" (2001). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3022668.