Sentimental biopolitics and nineteenth-century American literary representations of female factory work : the power of feeling in Savage’s The Factory Girl, Melville’s “The Tartarus of Maids,” and Phelps’s The Silent Partner AND “It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen” : One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ratched, and the public memory of lobotomy

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Shelby E. Joyce (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Karen Weyler

Abstract: This article explores how sentimental biopolitics manifests in the labor reform efforts of the literary depictions of female factory workers in Sarah Savage’s novel The Factory Girl (1814), Herman Melville’s sketch “The Tartarus of Maids” (1855), and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s novel The Silent Partner (1871). Though purportedly working to establish better conditions for laborers or foster their spirituality, authors like Savage and Melville appear to be writing to maintain and reinforce their social status quo. Furthermore, Phelps’ work most closely approximates true labor reform yet is not altogether altruistic. One factor that accounts for the differences between modern and nineteenth-century American labor reform texts is the authors’ different understandings of the nature and value of human life. These nineteenth-century authors were operating under a different biopolitical regime—one I argue correlates to the cultural movement of sentimentalism. In Savage, we see how the tradition of Republican Womanhood set up and reinforced the gender roles that would form the basis of the neo-Lamarckian bisexual organization of race. Through Melville, we see how a sociobiologically indeterminate understanding of race and evolution merged with and expressed white masculine anxiety, leading to eugenic practices. Lastly, through Phelps, we see the beginnings of the end of gender roles that would cause the sentimental biopolitical framework to disintegrate. Analyzing the mechanisms of biopower throughout these texts augments our understanding of nineteenth-century American society’s intricate and depraved inner workings and our understanding of the apparatuses of biopower in general. AND This article explores the reflection and reproduction of the American public memory of lobotomy and the mechanisms of active forgetting in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the 2020 Netflix series Ratched. The generic conventions of comedic realism and horror in Cuckoo's Nest and Ratched, respectively, work against their historical accuracy. Nevertheless, due to their ability to capture public interest, works like Cuckoo's Nest and Ratched have powerful sway over public memories. By highlighting what has been actively forgotten in the memory of lobotomy, we can call attention to not only who and what has been forgotten, but why and how. I argue that Cuckoo’s Nest’s omission of the stories of female lobotomy victims further obfuscates the inequalities faced by women in America at the time at the hands of psychiatry and society at large. Additionally, I contend that the displacement of blame onto Nurse Ratched is evidence of a patriarchal societal structure that is taken as so normalized that the gender of real perpetrators can be forgotten because it is deemed so normal that it is inconsequential. Furthermore, in Ratched, the burlesque portrayal of Ratched’s character as wholly willful and the failure to logically account for her actions in both stories further reinforces this injustice. The misremembered history of lobotomy and the consequentially negative portrayal of nurses and psychiatry in Cuckoo’s Nest and Ratched is not just a violence to the past; it has significant repercussions for the present. The stereotypes Cuckoo’s Nest and Ratched memory of lobotomy perpetuate about nurses and psychiatry can be harmful and even deadly to those seeking any type of health treatment and those in need of psychiatric care.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2022
Active forgetting, Lobotomy, Nineteenth century, Public memory, Sentimental biopolitics, Women's labor reform
American literature $y 19th century $x History and criticism
Working class women in literature
Biopolitics in literature
Kesey, Ken. $t One flew over the cuckoo's nest $x Adaptations
Collective memory
Frontal lobotomy

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