Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Canadian women's writing illustrates a pathology that, while not of nationalist origins, is gender-specific. Female characters in works such as the eerily similar Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, and The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence, suffer in fact, from feminine depression, an often debilitating condition which women today experience in epidemic proportions.
Current reseal"ch into women's depression focuses on Self-in-Relation theory. This theory departs from traditional theories of developmental psychology deriving from the work of Freud and his followers, theories which were developed by, for and about men and subsequently adapted to accommodate women. Self-in-Relation researchers reject the Freudian focus upon separation and autonomy, particularly from the mother, as developmental goals. They favour a model which proposes that a woman's identity and subsequent state of mental health depends upon the dynamics that occur within all significant relationships. Self-in-Relation theory, unlike object-relations theories which highlights feminine "otherness," emphasizes growth and continued existence within relationship. It identifies patriarchy and its devaluing of emotions and feminine economic skills as catalysts to depression in women. Self-in-Relation researchers suspect that depression in women, is, in fact, a normal reaction to abnormal social conditions. Depression, according to this view, is part of the feminine experience.
Theories of depression, based on the Self-in-Relation model, describe its four elements as follows: loss, not of an object/lover, but of relational potential; inhibition of action and assertiveness; inhibition of anger and aggression; and low self-esteem. The first three elements contribute to the fourth which then increases the likelihood of further loss. Depression in women involves an ongoing cycle.
Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel suffers from dysthymia, a long-term, low-grade form of depression. Rather than being a Hecate-like figure as she is often described, Hagar is a victim of relational and, therefore, social circumstance. Her motherlessness contributes to her depression only in that it deprives her of a positive relational context and commits her to a growth-stifling relationship with a puritanical, domineering father whose influence she internalizes. Hagar exhibits the four elements of depression in her relationship first with her father, then with her husband and her sons Hagar's capacity for caring, which is really a feminine strength, becomes a liability when both she and others deny its value. Only after meeting Murray Fernley Lees, who acts as a narrative therapist, is Hagar able to experience the kinds of relationships with others that can alleviate her depression. Although she is not really "cured," the novel's life-affirming ending suggests that, had she lived longer, she might have been.
Like Hagar, Shields' Daisy Goodwill Flett suffers from depression. Hers, however, is characterized by one major and two lesser episodes. The narrative style of the novel reflects Daisy's mental state which is one characterized by chronic disconnection from others, a disconnection which Daisy, attributing to her loss of her mother, describes as "orphanhood." Daisy's plunge into depression following the end of her self-fulfilling career as a gardening columnist speaks to the "separation of home and workplace," a condition which contributes to feminine depression. The remainder of her life evinces the Self-in-Relation theorists' contention that depression is part of the experience of being a woman in patriarchy.
Despite Hagar and Daisy's similar conditions, events at the end of Hagar's life suggest that she meets with more success than Daisy in dealing with her depression. An examination of their fathers' spiritual influences upon them suggests an explanation for this difference. Hagar's unfortunate relationship with a hard, unbending father arguably provides her with a strategy for making sense of her life. Her Calvinist heritage figures in both the cause and the "cure" for her depression. Daisy's chronic disconnection and the influence of an eccentric, self-centred father leaves her, on the other hand, virtually defenceless.
Despite their differences, Hagar and Daisy's life stories exemplify a condition common to women in our patriarchal society. Depression is the result of women's attempts to survive, not in the wilderness of which Atwood's 1972 book of criticism, Survival, speaks, but in a society which is in many ways, a wilderness for women. Just as Self-in-Relation is a work in progress, so too should be the study of feminine depression which is prevalent in Canadian women's literature.
Davies, Carol Megan, "Graven Lives of Hagar and Daisy: Images of Feminine Depression in Laurence's The Stone Angel and Shield's Stone Diaries" (1998). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 5933.
McMaster University Library