Date of Award

Spring 2008

Document Type



Languages & Literature

First Advisor

Debra Bernardi

Second Advisor

Kay Satre

Third Advisor

Murphy Fox


In this thesis, I applied a sociological theory of insanity to two short stories written by female authors in 19th century American literature. According to social scientists such as Thomas Szasz, insanity is a form of social deviancy from accepted behavioral norms of society. Like other social non-conformists, such as homeless persons or persons accused or convicted of crimes, people labeled “insane” are discriminated against and oppressed because of their perceived differences. According to this model, insanity is a social situation that can only be solved through close scrutiny and institution revision, not a physical ailment that can be “cured” with medication.

I applied this theory to two 19th century American short stories to better understand the insanity from which both protagonists suffer. By studying this approach, I was able to explore the purpose and symbolic meanings of insanity in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper” and in Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “Her Story.” In both of these short stories the protagonists’ episodes of insanity highlight their struggle against the patriarchal oppression they experience as white, middle class women living in the 19th century. In creating protagonists that resist the patriarchal oppression of their male family members, the authors are purposefully questioning the validity of traditional diagnostic methods of psychology and of traditional gender roles. The reader is continuously forced to reconsider whether the women are actually insane, or whether their madness is just a deviance from accepted societal behavior.