The Unified Theory of Ophelia: On Women, Writing, and Mental Illness -The Toast

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B.N. Harrison’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

When I was nineteen, I made an astonishing discovery that was going to revolutionize the field of Shakespeare scholarship: Ophelia is the unsung hero of Hamlet. I was so certain that I understood Ophelia better than anyone else who had written about her in the last 400 years that I wrote a purely elective research paper about my theory. It wasn’t for a class; I didn’t even get extra credit. All I got was ten hours of being crammed into a van next to the dean of the Honors College on a trip to Whitewater, Wisconsin, so I could spread the good news about Ophelia to five bored and sleepy strangers during a Sunday morning presentation at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research.

Edgar Allen Poe, Natalie Merchant, Sofia Coppola, Ingmar Bergman, Sylvia Plath: what do they all have in common? If you’re me in 2001, the answer is Ophelia. Everywhere I looked, I seemed to glimpse her in poetry, art, music, and films. In my eyes, she was the most startlingly original character of Shakespeare’s most popular play. But my fervor was as much of a stumbling block as an inspiration in my efforts to do her justice. The paper I presented at the conference fell far short of my aims. My advisor called it “fascinatingly close to being convincing”, which was as much as to say that I had failed to convince.

The problem was that I saw myself in Ophelia, and my passion to explain her was equally a passion to understand my place in the world as woman, a writer, and a person with mental illness. At nineteen, I had thoroughly internalized the idea that to be a great writer, I had to overcome the handicap of being female, and develop a voice that was “universal”—that is, a voice unencumbered by any of my lived experiences that weren’t easily relatable to the experiences of the men in my writing classes. (I would specify “white men”, but we were all white. It was that kind of school, and at nineteen, I was the kind of white person who barely even noticed.) But as much as I wanted to compete on the level of the boys, I couldn’t fake their enthusiasm for Hemingway or Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy.

I found a precedent for girls like me in the work of confessional poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. They represented a respectable compromise between “real literature” and my irrepressible tendency to let the personal creep into my writing. I related intensely to the ferocity and focus in their work, but I soon felt the hinges of a trap closing around me. To identify with Plath and Sexton was to take up the mantle of the mad female poet, madness being what they were chiefly remembered for. Hemingway’s suicide was just a footnote to his biography; Plath and Sexton’s suicides defined them. I wanted more for myself, as a person and an artist. But there were a limited number of luminaries that a young writer in a university English department could safely emulate and still be considered mature and serious about their craft. Plath and Sexton had blazed a trail I felt I could follow. So I began to grapple with women’s “madness”, as both a personal and a literary conceit, trying to discover why it both allured and repelled me.

My unsettling devotion to Shakespeare was born from a slightly different set of interests. I started college fresh from an abrupt and traumatizing de-conversion experience, following eighteen years of devout belief in Christianity. Atheism had descended on me almost overnight, sweeping the cathedral of my mind bare of its enshrined occupant, but leaving the structure intact. I was ripe for acquiring a new idolatry. As it happens, the field of Shakespeare scholarship is full of borderline mystics who consider Shakespeare’s time on earth an event little short of a messianic visitation. No greater writer will ever exist, or ever need to exist, because everything important that can be observed about the human condition is depicted in the body of Shakespeare’s work. Confronted with evidence to the contrary, like the misogyny of Taming of the Shrew or the anti-Semitism of The Merchant of Venice, these critics will react a bit like a serious scientist who believes in intelligent design, folding the fabric of reality around their need to keep believing in Shakespeare as the apotheosis of literature. I’m not mocking those people. I fell under the same spell. Honestly, deep in my heart, a very small part of me still believes Shakespeare was everything Harold Bloom said he was. It’s the same part that still slightly hopes I’ll go to Heaven when I die.

My Unified Theory of Ophelia germinated in the intersection between the twin literary obsessions that defined the first half of my college career. (The second half was more defined by my turning twenty-one and discovering red wine.) One afternoon, early in the fall semester of 2001, I was sitting in the university center, reading Plath while eating a Chick-fil-A sandwich, when the following lines from “Tulips” caught my eye:

I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books

Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.

I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted

To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.

How free it is, you have no idea how free—

The peacefulness is so big it dazes you…

AirthevirginsuicidescoverI wonder if you can see Ophelia in those lines as clearly as I could that day thirteen years ago? Granted, my making the association was undoubtedly speeded along by the fact that I had a giant poster of John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia hanging on the wall behind my desk in my dorm room. My interest in the Pre-Raphaelites had started in high school, before Ophelia meant anything special to me; the fact that I collected art of dead girls was just a coincidence of my temperament. In any case, the Millais painting was what I pictured when I pictured Ophelia, and in that painting, she’s floating with her hands turned up, dead eyes open and staring. “Tulips” is an autobiographical poem about Plath’s stay in a hospital after an appendectomy, but I didn’t know that at the time. I assumed she was describing her stay in McLean Hospital, the psychiatric institution famous for treating people like Plath, Sexton, Robert Lowell, and David Foster Wallace. Between the references to flowers, nuns, and drowning—and most importantly, the big red stamp of MADNESS superimposed on everything Plath has ever written—I was convinced I was seeing a conscious allusion to Ophelia.

For an undergraduate poetry analysis paper, such an assumption doesn’t push things too far. It’s even a bit clever. But what followed is the surest proof that, despite my teenage ambitions of getting a Ph.D., I don’t really think the right way for academia. I make huge intuitive leaps and am too lazy to back them up with meticulous research. Once I’d spotted Ophelia in “Tulips”, I started seeing her everywhere. She was on the cover of the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film The Virgin Suicides. She was in each of Poe’s stories about beautiful women who died young. Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring invoked her through imagery. Psychologist Mary Piper and musician Natalie Merchant both treated Ophelia as an essential archetype of women’s experience. She seemed to haunt the consciousness of western art and literature; and the reason was easily understood if you accepted the basic premise of Shakespeare’s divine powers. In Ophelia, he had given shape and voice to a new and incredibly important idea. She might as well be a goddess from classical mythology, so enduring was her influence.

Unfortunately, the paper I wrote on this subject wasn’t so much a piece of research, or even analysis, as it was an overly-excited Tumblr post written a decade before the advent of its proper medium. I can’t even really reconstruct my hypothesis at this point. I don’t think it was very coherent, though to be fair, it isn’t easy to be coherent when you’re nineteen and trying to make sense of misogyny for the first time.

The title of my paper was “The Aesthetics of Female Suffering”, which owed a great deal to Poe’s line from “The Philosophy of Composition”, in which he states that “the death…of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” I was trying to make sense of the different ways men and women related to Ophelia. Women seemed to invoke her like a patron saint; men seemed mostly interested in fetishizing her flowery, waterlogged corpse. I tried to argue that Ophelia resonated because Shakespeare had made an extraordinary discovery in writing her, though I had trouble articulating the nature of that discovery. I didn’t want to admit that it could be something as simple as recognizing that emotionally unstable teenage girls are human beings. It would be depressingly close to admitting that a male writer would have to be as gifted as Shakespeare in order to come to a conclusion like that.

About a year ago, I made a post on Tumblr that went viral: it was a photo set of eight portraits of Ophelia, with text from the play. I’d never had a post go viral before, and it reminded me that I wasn’t just imagining things back in the days when I was seeing the face of Ophelia in my breakfast cereal. She is incredibly popular, and she resonates with people in a powerful way. I think it may be for the same reason that I reacted to her so intensely: she explodes the incredibly harmful myth of the melodramatic teenage girl.

When Ophelia appears onstage in Act IV, scene V, singing little songs and handing out imaginary flowers, she temporarily upsets the entire power dynamic of the Elsinore court. When I picture that scene, I always imagine Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, and Horatio sharing a stunned look, all of them thinking the same thing: “We fucked up. We fucked up bad.” It might be the only moment of group self-awareness in the whole play. Not even the grossest old Victorian dinosaur of a critic tries to pretend that Ophelia is making a big deal out of nothing. Her madness and death is plainly the direct result of the alternating tyranny and neglect of the men in her life. She’s proof that adolescent girls don’t just go out of their minds for the fun of it. They’re driven there by people in their lives who should have known better. I think Shakespeare probably understood that better than most people do today.

Back when I was still wrestling with my imagined destiny as a writer stamped in the mold of Plath and Sexton, I felt a huge ambivalence; I sensed that in donning the mantel of the mad female poet, I would become something that was easily dismissed. But if I wrote what I wanted to write, there was no escaping the label. At the same time, I felt an intense attraction to women’s writing about mental illness. They wrote the kind of words that could burn the page they were inscribed on. The insipid male darlings of the literary establishment were limp as windsocks on a still day compared to them.

I don’t think I quite managed to make this connection when I was in college, but it’s perfectly clear to me now what Ophelia and the confessional poets have in common. It isn’t that their madness makes them powerful—mental illness doesn’t make you anything but sick—but when they find their voice and articulate the experience of their madness, they become devastatingly powerful. That is why I both longed and feared to walk in their footsteps. At nineteen, the idea that the more powerful a woman becomes, the harder society will work to dismiss her, was a paradox I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. But it accounts beautifully for why Ophelia means so much to so many people, and why critics of Hamlet have ignored her so studiously over the centuries. A girl like Ophelia, abused, abandoned, and stripped of options, is supposed to fade away quietly. But why should she? What has she got to lose? No one has more power to terrify than a person who is desperate enough to embrace madness and death. Just ask any young woman who has ever had to deal with people’s reactions to her self-harm, or her eating disorder.

A few years ago I did a line-by-line analysis of Hamlet on my old LiveJournal, and when I came to Ophelia’s first scene, it struck me that her first line in the play is a question that no one answers. Not so in her final scene. When she is interrupted, she interrupts right back. Laertes watches her sing and dance and name the properties of flowers, and observes that “she turns to favor and to prettiness.” Would Ophelia resonate the way she does if Shakespeare hadn’t turned her death into a beautiful picture, adorned with images of flowers and streaming hair and billowing gowns? In Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher describes anorexia as an attempt to wrestle bodily autonomy back from a society with punishing standards for women’s bodies: “You want me to be thin? Fine. I’ll be as thin as I want, and you can’t stop me.” Ophelia uses the outward forms of beauty and femininity to articulate her devastating grief, and in doing so, transforms herself from an object that is pleasant to look upon, into a person with a story that condemns and reproaches. She embarrasses, horrifies, and discomfits onlookers. She is impossible to dismiss; the only way to avoid confronting the indictment in her words is to turn your back on her completely.

Anne Sexton found that her confessional poetry about her struggles with mental illness produced similar embarrassment and distaste in her writing teachers. She responded by writing the poem “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further”:

And if you turn away

because there is no lesson here

I will hold my awkward bowl,

with all its cracked stars shining

like a complicated lie,

and fasten a new skin around it

as if I were dressing an orange

or a strange sun.

It’s not romanticizing mental illness to feel that the poetry or art or songs that you manage to produce in spite of it is a triumph of Herculean proportions. There is a special beauty and power and strangeness in the testimonies of survivors. And Ophelia was a survivor up to the moment she died.

Ophelia, by John William Waterhouse Ophelia, John William Waterhouse, 1910.

In 2001, my dormitory walls were plastered with art prints of every Ophelia painting I could get my hands on. For Christmas that year, my roommate gave me a gift bag containing a small Tupperware container full of water. Floating in the water was a little doll with red hair and a long dress, unmistakably reminiscent of the Millais print that hung over my desk. Doll Ophelia was later transferred to a larger bowl, where she floated serenely atop my bookcase for the rest of the school year. I still have her, though I’ve since let her dry out and retire to the shelf with my other dolls.

I no longer worry that having a distinctive personal voice as a female writer will make people dismiss me. The path I chose for my career means I don’t have to worry that much about being measured against the standards of people who dehumanize me. As a student, frustration and a sense of urgency drove me to write a fifteen page research paper, not for a grade, but because I thought it needed to be written. Nowadays, I no longer have to go to such extremes to make myself heard when I want to speak in defense of young girls. I don’t have to be Ophelia anymore; I left Elsinore, and I’ve never looked back.

In my opinion, the most tragic thing about Ophelia is that she didn’t have that option. When I think of her now, I like to picture her in the life she could have had, far away from the royal court, in the company of people who valued and respected her, with a garden of her own. It’s full of rosemary, pansies, columbines, daisies, and violets—hundreds of violets—not one of them withered.

Brittany Harrison writes fiction about scary children and blogs about faith, memory, and survival. You can read more stuff she's written at Language and Light or follow her on Twitter @bnharrison.

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