Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Mary O'Connor


This thesis investigates nineteenth- and twentieth-century medical discourse in treatises and texts written by doctors, and women's resistance to it in novels by Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, and Margaret Drabble. My analysis involves what is said and not said in medical texts; what other discourses influence medicine; the authority of the medical writer; and the power of the institution of medicine. I extend Foucault's theory of the formation of medical discourse by looking beyond madness to physical pathology, and by including issues of gender.

Women's novels, particularly in the nineteenth century, must do all the work of the larger canon of writing available to men. Until recently, women could not write back against medical discourse in text books or scientific journals: fiction was their primary genre. Patricia Yaeger suggests that much American feminist work has encouraged acceptance of "the inevitability of women's disempowerment" rather than revealing "the woman writer's powers of protest and change." Building on Yaeger's work, I explore the discursive possibilities of Bronte, Woolf and Drabble rather than their limitations.

I investigate the narrative strategies which enable both an outward silence which sounds like acquiescence, and an inward voice which actively resists the social constructions of medical discourse. The novels all feature doctors as imposing characters, all portray the power medicine wields, and all address the social implications of medical discourse on the construction of women. There is a progression in narrative methodology moving from apparent silent acquiescence to medical power in Villette, through couched derision against medicine in Mrs Dalloway, to open verbal resistance to medical authority in The Millstone. My analysis concentrates on the discourse of resistance formed by women writers against the discourse of medicine. This response slowly moves from an emphasis on silence towards the acquisition of voice.

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