The Creation of Hysteria: Objective Documentation or the Creation of a Spectacle?

When did hysteria become an outbreak? How did it become a spectacle for others, an epidemic characterized by women in the late 19th century? This paper seeks to answer these questions, tracing the re-emergence of hysteria during the fin-de-siècle culture. It begins by discussing the new culture of spectacle. The effects of Haussmanization, the widening of Parisian streets and creation of an accessible city ultimately led to the increase of the phenomenon of spectacle. Streets became hotbeds for observation, thoroughfares for entertainment and excitement. Hysteria re-emerged amid this culture of the age, an “epidemic” that confused patients and physicians alike. To explain the re-emergence of hysteria, this paper focuses on the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. A mental hospital for hysterical women, the Salpêtrière was a house where these “madwomen” dramatized their hysterical symptoms in front of the lens of the camera. This paper analyses the reciprocal relationship between over-dramatized symptoms of hysteria, fledgling photographic quality, and the physicians desire to understand and disseminate information on hysteria to the masses. The culture of spectacle heavily influenced these scientists. Ultimately, the patients and practitioners together created the spectacle of hysteria through photography. In the paper, I feature one character in particular, “Augustine”, in whom Charcot took a particular interest. She played her role well, and is just one example of many of women who created their own hysteria. The asylum was a bit of an oxymoron as an institution. It was a safe-zone for the women, a place to escape the conventions of normal society and be placed in an environment with similar women. However, it was also a glass cage; it was an institution that was a means of categorizing and stereotyping these ill women. I also briefly touch on several newspaper articles published at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, to show how mass media aided the creation of the spectacle. To conclude I theorize that this encampment in the Salpêtrière was ultimately oppressive to women, and may have ultimately been an impetus for the women’s rights and feminist movements that resulted in the years following the emergence of hysteria as a spectacle for the public.

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