The History of Hysteria Essay

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The History of Hysteria

W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence is essentially a novel about a man’s struggle to free himself from the restrictions of society and to act out his most passionate desire--to paint. However, Maugham’s novel is also a story of its time and therefore reflects popular theories and ideas that were prevalent at the time of its writing. Included in these ideas is Hysteria, mentioned clearly when the narrators describes the doctor’s view of Blanche’s attempt to kill herself as “just a hysterical woman who had quarreled with her was constantly happening. (Maugham 123). The following will describe the development, symptoms and treatment of Hysteria.

Hysteria, considered a “neurotic illness” ( was considered a disorder in which a person, usually a woman, exhibited physical symptoms yet no physical cause could be found. Coming from the Greek for “uterus,” or “hysteria,” Hysteria was thought to be related to the uterus or an altered menstrual cycle.

Hysteria’s symptoms were many, but the most notable included “inappropriate elation or sadness” (, excessive laughing or crying followed by an abrupt return to a normal state, fainting, panic, paralysis, cramps in the body and a “sense of constriction of the throat.” ( The French doctor Jean-Martin Charcot, a pioneer in the field of psychiatry in the mid-nineteenth century, insisted that there were four stages to a “full hysterical attack:” 1. Tonic Rigidity 2. Clonic spasms and grand movements 3. Attitudes passionelles, or vivid physical representations of one or more emotional states 4. Final delirium-...

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...n appreciates” (SOURCE) and Hearst’s magazine urged husbands to purchase them as Christmas gifts to “keep their wives young and pretty and free from Hysteria.” However, as Freud initiated a new type of thinking in the psychiatric world, vibrators fell out of use and were replaced by more “modern” cures such as psychoanalysis.

While hysteria is no longer a medical condition, it is important to note its effect both on the medical world and the steps it took to cure it as well as the effect it had on women and their standing in society.

SOURCES FOR MORE INFORMATION: This web site provides a very complete description of the history, causes, symptoms and cures for Hysteria.

Also, for further reading, try Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Short Stories, available from Penguin Publishers.

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