Hysteria in 1898

I wrote this after reading The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a wonderful ghost story published in 1898.

In his address to the American Medical Association in 1898, Dr. James E. Moore offered advice on female surgical patients suffering from hysteria:

“When a neurotic female presents herself for surgical treatment, and the subjective symptoms are out of all proportion to the objective, we should be upon our guard, for operations under these circumstances are seldom of more than temporary benefit. These patients … by careful observation, the surgeon may satisfy himself that their sufferings are purely imaginary.”

He later adds:

“An hysterical joint occurs, as a rule, in an hysterical patient. The pain is not that of an inflamed joint, but is an hyperaesthesia [excessive sensitivity]. The deformity may resemble very closely that of tuberculosis, but there is a difference. The symptoms are all exaggerated, and the whole condition gives the experienced examiner the impression that the patient is playing a part.”

Thus, while female surgical patients may suffer from excessive sensitivity, their hysteria should, as a rule, be treated, according to Dr. James E. Moore in 1898, skeptically, for they are neuroses, read: ‘purely imaginary.’

This cultural text reveals a very specific prognosis for women suffering from post-operative complications. The speech Dr. Moore gives is about the complications suffered after an operation, as he begins discussing the symptoms of several of his male patients, which describes as “splendid specimen of physical manhood,” in all but their symptoms. He moves on, however, to a discussion of the risks surgeons have when treating “neurotic female[s]” who have the same or similar symptoms, which he claims are “purely imaginary” (Moore).

There is circumstance to believe not just that Dr. Moore would be classified in 2017 as a sexist, but that there exists a distrust in 1898, or at the very least a skepticism, about the ability of a female post-operative patient to recognize abnormal symptoms in her own body. There is, in other words, a questioning in the validity of a female patient’s statements regarding her own experienced symptoms. This skepticism may drive, Dr. Moore warns, surgeons to be aware these patients may “fall into the hands of unscrupulous, would-be surgeons” (Moore). The fear is not necessarily that females are lying but that they may fall victim to surgeons looking for any reason to up-charge and perform surgery on unneeding, naïve patients.

However, despite this performative concern for the well-being of female patients, Dr. Moore still makes clear the skepticism that exists over the autonomy of the female body, namely that she may not understand it regardless of it being her own. This stigma, I argue, regardless of its legitimate place in observance to mental incapacitation that may occur in some patients, exists nonetheless to further alienate a female subjectivity from itself.

The same year Dr. James E. Moore gives his prognoses to a group of male medical practitioners at the American Medical Association, Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw is published. In the novel, a governess is constantly haunted by the ghosts that exist in the house in which she is taking care of two beautiful children. These ghosts, she believes, are manifestations of the evils within the children and their reluctance to let her raise them.

Half a century after Dr. Moore’s speech and Screw‘s publication, the novella had become perhaps the most influential piece of short fiction ever written for the New Critics. Edmund Wilson, writing for the Hound & Horn at Harvard, is the first to question the sanity of the governess in James’s novella: “Observe that there is never any evidence that anybody but the governess sees the ghosts” (Wilson 385). He goes on: “The Turn of the Screw, then, on this theory, would be a masterpiece…as a study in morbid psychology” (Wilson 386).

It is my argument that Wilson’s questioning of the mental fitness of the governess is not only predated by the Moorean medical notion that a female autonomy must be met with skepticism when she presents as ‘neurotic’ and ‘hysterical,’ but that it in fact is a part of a through-line of criticism that questions the autonomy of the female body. In other words, I question how much “The Ambiguity of Henry James” relies on his protagonist in The Turn of the Screw being female. (Read: Would critics ask about the integrity of the first-person narrative in James’ novella were the protagonist male? Would Mrs. Grose, whose name Wilson erases and is called simply “the housekeeper” in his essay, be questioning the legitimacy of the ghosts in the story were the governess to be the governor?).

These questions may come as some to be an ahistorical angry rant, I nonetheless point out that other ghost stories may themselves also be looked at as “ambiguous” “[studies] in morbid psychology” yet they are most often not, read instead as legitimate horror tales about the physical detriment a ghost can commit against the living. We must evaluate the through-line that exists of criticism of female autonomy from at least Moore, a doctor of James’s contemporary America, to the first placement of this skepticism onto James’s protagonist. Until then, we are ignoring the ghosts that exist in criticism itself.



Works Cited

Moore, James E., M.D. “Hysteria From A Surgical Stand-point.” American Surgical Association, 27 April 1898. Special Address. AMA 1898 James E. Moore speech.pdf

Wilson, Edmund. “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” Hound & Horn, vol. 7, no. 1, 1934, pp. 385-406. Wilson on James.pdf