Repression and Oppression: A Review of Sarah Wood Anderson's Readings of Trauma, Madness, and the Body

Repression and Oppression: Trauma and Modernism

Sarah Wood Anderson. Readings of Trauma, Madness, and the Body. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 222pp. $59.76 ISBN: 9781137030054.

            Much Modernist literature and criticism is dedicated to the exploration of masculinity, but women’s experiences of trauma are often conceptualized poorly. Sarah Wood Anderson’s Readings of Trauma, Madness, and the Body focuses on how society denies the trauma of women, particularly those in the domestic sphere, and denigrates female experiences of trauma in favour of androcentric understandings of trauma as a product of war. Anderson references many authors over the course of her book, but her main textual focuses are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Hilda Doolittle, and Zelda Fitzgerald. Anderson’s exploration of the marginalization of women’s traumatic experience is laudable and necessary, but — despite the merits of her attempt — issues with focus impede the book as a whole.

            Anderson begins by discussing how the relationship of bodies to trauma has factored into trauma studies since Freud’s earliest contributions to the field. Freud’s theories are quite masculine, and his medically-based discrimination against women led many feminists to reclaim trauma while finding ways to respectfully explore the differences in male and female experiences of trauma. The societal construction of the body’s relationship to madness is exemplified in the way doctors related the female body, and its possession of a womb, to hysteria. Anderson situates herself with feminist scholars and seeks to reclaim female experiences of trauma while addressing the societal biases against those experiences. Anderson’s work fills one of the most glaring gaps in the intersection between trauma theory and Modernism, and that is the female domestic trauma narrative. Though much theory focuses on the experiences of men surviving the battlefront, little theory focuses on the women traumatized on the home front.

            To start, Anderson briefly summarizes Laura Brown and Judith Herman’s challenges to male-based language in definitions of trauma to support her arguments about the imposition of masculine understandings on female trauma. In her exploration of domestic trauma, Anderson analyzes H.D.’s Hermione. Hermione loses her ability to communicate because of her trauma and so becomes a “madwoman” in society’s estimation. The slow loss of Hermione’s ability to communicate shows, for Anderson, that the experience of mental deterioration exhibits an effacement of the boundaries between a traditional linear order and traditional language, both of which she associates with masculinity. Hence, Anderson links change in language in H.D.’s work as an attempt to break out of the “trap of male language” (56). Society privileges war trauma over domestic trauma, leaving the victims of the latter not only responsible but disrespected” because of it (89).

            In contrast, Anderson analyzes a smattering of Hemingway’s machismo protagonists and the loss of masculinity that their injuries often represent. Though much of this section is dedicated to a digression into the relationship between Hemingway and his characters, Anderson comes to the conclusion that, though male traumatic experiences are accepted, the same acceptance does not exist for those suffering from domestic trauma. Hemingway’s Cantwell has outburst and engages in other negative behaviors as a result of the intersection of his masculinity and his trauma. Society, generally, accepts Cantwell’s behaviour; however, society relates women’s outbursts to a break in normal functioning and women’s trauma become the result of flaws and defects with their bodies.

            Finally, Anderson addresses the relationship between women’s bodies and trauma more explicitly. Anderson’s main evidence subject here is Zelda Fitzgerald. Anderson argues that Zelda Fitzgerald’s very life exemplifies valuing male work over female work in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stymying of Zelda’s creative attempts, particularly in writing. Anderson notes that most critical attention to Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night focuses on Nicole’s wealth and not her madness or the narrative bias against Nicole. She also notes that Nicole, like H.D.’s character, resists the use of traditional language in her expression of her trauma. Anderson then transitions to talking about Zelda’s character Alabama and how Alabama’s constant attempts to perfect and transform her body turn it into “the locus of healing” (133). This attempt at perfection is an attempt to mask her emotional and domestic trauma. In attempting to perfect her body, Alabama is trying to deal with her trauma as it relates to her body.

            Throughout her book, Anderson makes a number of excellent points regarding the exclusion of female trauma during the Modernist period both from academic study and from general acknowledgement. Anderson shows a particular cleverness in her analysis of the reason for language effacement and the problems of language that affect the ability of women to articulate their trauma because of the way male language dominates and undermines women. In understanding the degradation of language as an attempt to break away from masculine understandings of trauma, Anderson crafts a strong and convincing argument. Additionally, Anderson’s use of historical and biographical context for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald’s works supports her readings because it provides, and proves adequately, a way F. Scott shaped Zelda’s text. Anderson articulates these points clearly while avoiding jargon and unnecessary theoretical complexity.

            Despite these merits, there are a number of weaknesses that plague the book as a whole. Though her reading of the Fitzgeralds’ biographies seems fitting, Anderson’s reading of Hemingway’s biography seems out of place. Anderson makes the mistake of reading Hemingway the author through a Freudian analysis for no reason that meaningfully contributes to her argument. Digressions, like with Hemingway, occur at several other points causing Anderson’s argument to lose focus.

            Anderson’s broad scope also causes issues of focus. Anderson’s attempt to write about so many prolific authors and important ideas at one time makes the actual attention paid to each cursory. In particular, Anderson occasionally refers to the way that characters do not talk about trauma, or trauma’s absence, are examples of trauma that they are repressing, but she never explores this point fully enough to make it convincing or relevant. Anderson also spends quite a bit of time talking about men and, proportionally, the sections on women seem small for a book attempting to assert the trauma of women. Even the section on Zelda Fitzgerald focuses more on F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hence, though she has many strong points and writes them well, Anderson occasionally digresses into unnecessary and insufficiently supported readings of the text that may benefit from more expansive exploration in the future.

            I do recommend Anderson’s book despite its flaws because it helps to round out trauma theory by contributing an important perspective to the overall discussion of trauma and the body. The book also begins the process of patching a particularly glaring lacuna in Modernist theory. The simple and clear language makes it an adequate entry point into the fields of trauma and Modernism, but I would argue that it is only suitable for those attempting to gain a general understanding of the relationship of Modernism to trauma. The traumatic writings of Modernist women still await a theoretical lens.