Neurosis and Recovery in Margaret Drabble's The Waterfall

by Sherry Lutz Zivley

August 30, 2012



The protagonist of Margaret Drabble's The Waterfall, Jane Gray, fits Karen Horney's definition of neurosis in that she feels entitled to special treatment. Jane suffers from enormous anxieties, which she attempts to alleviate by withdrawing from the world, being submissive, and seeing affection. But an automobile accident forces her to abandon her neurotic behavior. During and after the crisis she acts like a capable, thoughtful woman making the best decisions she can. The Waterfall interleaves a third-person neurotic narration that reads like a superficial and self-justifying romance novel with a first-person narration in which she attempts not only to understand but to overcome her neurosis.



Published in Proceedings of the Fourteenth International Conference on Literature and Psychoanalysis, Las Navas, Avila, July, 1997

Neurosis and Recovery in Margaret Drabble's The Waterfall

            Margaret Drabble's  novel, The Waterfall, traces the severe neurosis and gradual recovery of a young woman, Jane Gray, who, although married, pursues an affair with the husband of her cousin--a cousin who is the only person who could be called Jane's friend.  Drabble's novel is fragmented; it is comprised of two narrations which are interfoliated throughout the novel.  One narration, in the third person, is a selective omniscient, chronological presentation of the neurotic Jane's thoughts.  The other narrative, told by Jane in the first person, is not limited to chronological order, but includes many analepses, repetitions, and reinterpretations.  In this first person narration, Jane is striving to understand herself--pursuing precisely the kind of self-analysis which Karen Horney calls "work," a work that although "hard and upsetting" is ultimately "liberating" (Neurosis 356).

            Certainly, Jane's childhood fit the pattern Horney describes for neurotics.  Her parents were certainly "too wrapped up in their own neuroses to be able to love [her]" and she never had, therefore, a "feeling of belonging" but rather experienced a "basic anxiety" which Horney defines as "a profound insecurity and  vague apprehensiveness" (Neurosis 18).  Jane's parents were hypocrites for whom keeping up appearances for the neighbors and the parents of the students at the private school of which her father was headmaster were far more important than attending to the emotional needs of their daughter  (53-57).  Jane knows that her mother, who regularly said "'I can't imagine .  .  . how people can have favorites amongst their own children," had "rejected me at my sister's birth  and had disliked me ever since."  And Jane admits that she "never knew how to respond to lies, lies uttered not with confident ignorance but with a kind of desperate unease that forced me to pretend to believe them, because I knew that if I showed my disbelief I would be hitting at something too fragile to sustain even my puny, childish attacks" (56).

            From the opening page of Margaret Drabble's The Waterfall, it is clear that Jane Gray fits Karen Horney's description of neurosis, in that she "feels entitled to special attention, consideration, and deference" from others (I, 41).  Jane demonstrates neurosis in the three general ways Horney specifies.  First, the neurotic "establishes a title which exists in his own mind only , and he has little, if any consideration for the possibility of the fulfillment for his claims" (Neurosis, 47). Second,  the neurotic manifests "egocentricity" (Neurosis, 48).  And, third, the neurotic expects "things [to come] to him without his making adequate efforts"  (Neurosis, 49).

            Fulfilling Horney's explanations of neurosis, Jane's  behavior is clearly a "deviation from the normal,"  and she has what Horney calls "two characteristics .  .  . [of] all neuroses .  .  .  : a certain rigidity in reaction and a discrepancy between potentialities and accomplishments" (Personality 20).  Jane is clearly driven by what Horney calls the "one essential factor common to all neuroses and that is anxieties and the defenses built up against them" (Personality 22)--anxieties which obviously make her "suffer .  .  . more than the average person" (Personality 24).

            Jane suffers from enormous anxieties.  When alone with her cousin Lucy, whom she has known all her life and who has come to sit with her because it is about time for Jane's second child to be born,  "[p]anic rose in her," and Jane admits that "[s]uch unease had come in the past so near to killing her."  She says, "hot waves of it [the unease], uncontrollable, poured through her" (19).  When James comes to replace Lucy, Jane she perceives his being there as "a massive social problem" (23).  Jane "felt herself to be nothing, nebulous, shadowy, undefinable" (141). 

            Jane also manifests three of the four primary behaviors in which Horney explains the neurotic participates to allay anxiety:  withdrawal, submissiveness, and seeking affection (Personality 82). 

          Jane has withdrawn almost completely from the world.  In the opening section of the novel she admits that "she had retreated already so far that there were few further places to go to, and no one with the discernment to follow or measure whatever further acres she might cross" (38).  When her toddler is invited to visit another child and the hour for the visit neared, "she sat in her own house, paralyzed, unable to move" (138) and "immobilized" (130.  She lies awake at night worrying about the other toddler's mother and "fe[lt] her throat dry up and her knees weaken" as she approached the child's house (139).  She felt "she had to withdraw herself," and "[s]he wept when she irritated telephone operators or bus conductors " (139), just as she wept at her own " indecision, duplicity, [and] lack of confidence" (142).  When she tries to take Laurie to the zoo, she is so traumatized by the thought of going out among people that she calls herself an "agoraphobe" (161).  Jane, herself,  is, as Alan Goldstein says of most agorophobics, "convinced that [her] case is hopeless" (9).

            Second, she is so extremely submissive that she is both helpless and will--less.   She thinks of herself as a victim (26).  In the first section of the novel, Jane has become as isolated and emotionally dead as the dead potted plant which symbolizes her life  (41).  Jane even believes  "that because [her son] was hers he was doomed" (79)).  As she becomes more aware of James's obsession with fast cars, she is cannot even generate any jealousy; instead she is so "subdued" that she feels "no resistance" (74).  Jane is so will-less that she describes herself as having a "total lack of volition" (152) and believes that she is "fated" (41).  Jane emphasizes the extent of her will-lessness in the opening sentence of the novel, when she says, "If I were drowning I couldn't reach out a hand to save myself, so unwilling am I to set myself up against fate" (7).  She is also helpless.  Although she had been a professional writer, she no longer does any writing (24).  She is "amazingly careless about most aspects of her domestic life," even though she feels guilty about "neglecting.  .  .[these] jobs" (143). Consequently, there is "bread lying around" that is "stale" and "hard as a brick,"  and there are "biscuits going soft, and cakes drying up" (144).   In fact, one of the things that she likes about being with James is "the feeling that nothing at all is expected of me:  .  .  .  I don't have to do anything but stand here" (75)  She admits to living in "some ice age of inactivity" (7) and claims that she finds the "emptiness" in which she lives "comfortable" (8). 

            Third, and most important, Jane's primary actions throughout most of the sequence of events about which she writes reveal her deep need to secure affection.  As James continues to visit her, she experiences a dramatic "diminution of anxiety" (27), and in a few days she wonders "what he had done to the unease that had so wracked her so few nights ago" (32).  She tells him she expects him "to rescue me" (37).  By the end of the first section, she simply says to him, "I want you" (45), not so much because she is in love with him, but because he allays her anxieties.  Even after they have been together for several weeks, she candidly admits to him, "It is so easy, to love a person that one doesn't know" (73).   She even attempts to account for the previous nothingness of her life, saying that "perhaps.  .  . she had emptied her existence, for th[e] lovely, insatiable anguish" of her love for James (132).

            She also believes that she is "special" with respect to her love affair:  "[s]he vainly believed, with the arrogance of all lovers, that she was the only woman who had waited as she waited" for James (132).  In describing the specifics of her love for James, she sounds like an adolescent experiencing a first crush.  She says,  "While waiting for him, .  .  .she would feel her knees start to tremble, [and] her hands to shake" (133).  She "thought of nothing else" but James (135), and was overwhelmed by "[w]eariness and desire" (136).  And when he is away, she marks off each day on the calendar as she waits for his return (156).  All she could think was, "I loved him, I loved everything about him" and believes of this love "that there was nothing to do but endure it" (152), even though she sums up the experience by saying, "I was in bondage" (153).  She truly believes it when she says to James, "I can't get on without you" (166).  Clearly Jane is doing precisely what Horney says a neurotic person does.  She is "expecting more of love than it can at best give"; she is indeed expecting "the perfect love" (Neurosis 300).  Jane makes absolutely no attempt to change or to recover from her neurosis.  Instead she believes that such a condition is "predestined" and that "[o]ne is not saved from neurosis, one is not released from the fated pattern, one must walk it till death" (161).

            Nevertheless, Jane , who has shown no desire to change her life, is forced to abandon her neurotic behavior by a major trauma--an automobile accident.  As she is riding with James and her children just before the accident, she says, "I could die now, quite happily," giving no thought to her children.  Then their car hits a brick with "a violent explosion which threw the whole car up in the air" (184).   The car then careens across oncoming traffic and smashes into a tree, throwing James out of the car.  Jane's first conscious awareness is that James is missing, but what she thinks is "I did not begin to care:  all I cared for was the survival of the children" (185).  And after determining that they are all right, she thinks, for the first time in the story, "of significance" (186).  Then Jane, who has been almost catatonically passive up until this point, begins to act.  Thinking James dead, she runs toward him, "wanting to get there first" in order to "cover him up" (188).  Learning that he is alive, she again acts; she takes his hand.  And then Jane, who asserted on the first page and demonstrated for 180 pages of the novel that she was completely will-less, rediscovers her will power, announcing "I would refuse to let him die" (190). 

            During this crisis, she acts, not like a helpless neurotic, but like a capable, thoughtful woman making the best pragmatic decisions she can.  She searches for and finds the baby's bottle.  Then, knowing she will need money, she "abstract[s James's] wallet from his.  .  .pocket."  She comforts the children.  As she explains, "I did what was necessary" (191).  Once at the hospital, she "[h]ad the presence of mind to see the advantages of being taken for James's wife," and gives her name as Lucy Otford (191).  And for the first time in the novel, she claims that she is telling the truth.  When the authorities deduce from the smell of alcohol in the car that James had been drinking, she immediately tells them that "all they needed to do was to go and test" his breath or take a blood sample (192).  At the hospital she locks herself into a closet in order to check the amount of money in James's wallet, then "calmly" asks the matron to ring a hotel for her (194). 

            More importantly, Jane understands the significance of these changes in her behavior.  She admits,   "If it hadn't been for the children I probably would have taken refuge in insensibility or hysteria:  but as it was I pulled myself together" (193).  She recognizes that when she decided to leave the hospital, "I was so insistent and so collected and so evidently determined to have my way--so evidently, in fact, shockproof" that the matron agreed (194).  And, once at the hotel, she realizes, "I could tell that I was entering into something permanent, a way of life that was like a whole lifetime" (195).

            Of course, Jane's behavior during the period of acute crisis--from the accident until James is delivered to the hospital and she and the children are safely ensconced in the hotel (185-190)--is no guarantee of permanent change.

            But, during the weeks after the immediate trauma is over, she continues to act responsibly.  She admits her guilt in her adultery, saying "I could no longer evade the dreadful assessments that crowded upon me, the comparisons, the judgements, the knowledge" (196).  And, although inept at mechanical things and afraid of electricity, she assembles and reassembles a toy electric car for Laurie until it runs perfectly, at which achievement she is "filled with achievement" (197).  She recognizes that "I had done nothing for so many years, for some many years I had withheld myself from action" and admits that in the past "I .  .  . had chosen to play the victim" (200).  She even realizes that "I should have kept myself from loving" James (201) and asks, "For what, after all, in God's name had [she and James] been playing at?  Fast cars, card tricks, kisses, sighs, vows, the lot.  And those other things which she could not bring herself to name?  What on earth had they thought they were doing.  It had been some ridiculous imitation of a fictitious passion, some shoddy childish mock-up" (202).

            Jane no longer focuses all her attention on securing James's affection.  As Jean Wyatt says, Jane has reached "a more comprehensive view of love" (42), which "can encompass mixed motivations.  .  .  , like the admixture of need in their love" (43).  Jane can admit,  "Romantic love, that was what he had died for," and asks, "how could she have let herself accompany his suicidal fall" (202).  Putting it bluntly, she says that what they had told one another were "lies," a "delusion," "[t]he emperor's new clothes,"  "[n]othingness, shadows, [and] mockeries"(202).  She says, "Such a shallow, transient, selfish affair, their so-styled love had been" (204) and realizes that it "was Malcolm [her estranged husband] that had endured her and paid for her in cash and sorrow" (204).  As she "looked  back on the past and saw it crumble to dust," she admits "[d]esperation had thrown them [Jane and James] together: past failures had held them there" (205).  She realizes that not real love, but "need and weakness bound us" and that "we were starving when we met" (208).  And, as if having an intuitive understanding of what Erich Fromm has called "egotism a deux," she admits that she had acted out of the "depths of selfishness" (209) and that as a result she has "come to dislike myself so much" (215).

            Nevertheless, she is grateful for her experience, probably because it was the precipitant to her growth, and she continues to give James credit for her growth, saying, "He changed me forever and I am now what he made" (229).

            By the time Jane finally returns home, she no longer exhibits symptoms of  neurosis.  First, no longer helpless, she cleans up her filthy house--a house that had become symbolic early in the novel for Jane's own disintegration.  In her absence, pipes had burst, cardboard had fallen from a broken window, and, consequently, cats ran in and out.  Like Jane herself during the early days of her affair with James, "It had rotted so quickly: it had become so quickly derelict."  Seeing it, she "decided that there was nothing for it but to try to clear it up" because, as she asks, "how could she live any longer in such decay" (224).  She even acquired an au pair girl (235).  Second, she is no longer devoid of will.  She "remembered the poems that [she] intended still to write" (217), and begins writing again--apparently successfully, because she says, "I took up publication again" (233).  By the time James is beginning to recover, Jane herself can say, "I felt so strong" and "I could measure my own change" (223).  Third, she no longer considers the well-being of only herself and James.  Instead, in her attempts to tell the truth, she puts their love affair in the context of its effect on other people.  She provides long expositions in which she gives a more nearly honest explanation of how her affair with James began.  She also presents full and fair descriptions of James, Malcolm, Lucy, and their respective marriages (947). And although she is not virtuous enough to give James up entirely, she is honest about the kind of relationship she and James have.

            Finally she realizes that "[n]one of it [the love affair] mattered," and decides to call Lucy and tell her the truth (206).  By  the end of the novel, she is no longer describing the affair in romantic hyperbole, but can call it what it is.  She says, "One might as well face it.  Particularly when one sees it in black and white.  Adultery with James Otford" (226).  She realizes that had she been more honest should would have "said more about guilt .  .  .  .  But instead, I wrote about love"  227).  In retrospect she sees her previous motivations clearly.  She says,

The more I emphasized my sorrow, I must have thought, the more claims I made for my love, the better I would emerge.  Damaged before birth, I think I described myself.  A curious plea for acquittal.  In fact there probably wasn't much wrong with me at all.  Looking back with the wisdom of my present knowledge, I could well claim to have been perfectly well adjusted all the time:  merely waiting, I might have said, for an opportunity to prove it.  What, after all, was I complaining about.  Nothing very significant, surely.  An unhappy childhood, an unsatisfactory marriage, my own laziness.  I had been perfectly all right all the time, and in trying to claim that there had ever been anything wrong with me I was merely trying to defend myself against an accusation of selfishness.  Judge me leniently, I said, I am not as others are, I am sad, I am mad, so I had to have what I want.  I cannot be blamed, I said.  Let me off lightly.                                                        (227)

            But the most powerful evidence of Jane's psychological growth can be seen in her own writing.   Jane's narration is presented alternately in two separate voices.  Although Caryn Fuoroli assumes that one story is "literary" and the other "true" (118), Jane's two narrations demonstrate the quite different attitudes--both true--that she held at the two different stages of her life.  The third-person narrative, with which the novel opens, which dominates the first half of the book, and which Gayle Green describes as "stylized and conventional" (52), is little more than a superficial, chronological romance novel that attends to nothing but the lovers and their loving and considers neither nor the moral implications nor the effects of that affair on other people.  Even the style of much of this narration sounds, as Fuoroli claims, like a "trite romance" (114).  Three examples will suffice as evidence.  Jane writes,

She began to live for his coming, submitting herself helplessly to the current, abandoning herself to it, knowing then at the beginning things that were to be obscured from her by pain and desire--knowing it could not end well, because how else could it, what good ends were there to such emotions?                                                                                                                                                          (38-30)


            'You're beautiful, you know.  I've always thought so, I always thought you were beautiful, I thought so even before I loved you, when I didn't know you .  .  .'--and she flinched and sighed, listening to him, alarmed and yet hopelessly moved by his willing blind suicidal dive into such deep waters.                                                                                                                                                         (36, ellipsis Drabble's)


            And she started to cry, not violently or painfully , but softly and warmly, and through her tears, which flowed down her cheeks quietly, rising unchecked in her eyes and slowly overflowing like a fountain, brimming over like a mild fountain."       


            In contrast, the post-neurosis Jane has created a sophisticated narrative with none of the excesses of romance-novel prose.  And the honesty and maturity of Jane's style in these portions demonstrate not only Jane's own developing honesty and maturity but also that she is overcoming her neurosis.  Whereas Jane's purpose in her third person narration seems to have been to tell a love story in a way which would glean sympathy for herself, the purpose of her first-person narrative is to try to discover the truth.  The first segment of the first first-person narration begins,

            It won't, of course, do:  as an account, I mean, of what took place.  I tried, I tried for so long to reconcile, to find a style that would express it, to find a system that would excuse me, to construct a new meaning, having kicked the old one out, but I couldn't do it, so here I am, resorting to that old broken medium [of the doubly-presented narrative].  Don't let me deceive myself, I see no virtue in confusion, I see true virtue in clarity, in consistency, in communication, in honesty.                                                                             (46)

In this passage, even the stops and starts and repetition sound like the language of someone struggling to discover the truth.  And she admits "it's obvious that I haven't told the truth about myself and James."  She had in the third person narrative, she says, "omitted everything .  .  . except that sequence of discovery and recognition" that she called love (46).  She had omitted her "feelings for the baby" (47), omitted James's wife Lucy, omitted the fact that she herself had chosen the isolation and loneliness which led to her depend so totally on James.  But as she develops her first-person narration, she grows stronger.  By the beginning of the second first-person segment, she can denounce her previous third-person, romantic version of the story as "Lies, lies, it's all lies.  A pack of lies" (84).  And she can now describe their love as "[a] passion, a love, an unreal  life, a life in limbo, without anxiety, guilt, corpses .  .  .  , the pure flower of love itself, blossoming out of God knows what rottenness, out of decay, .  .  .growing out of my dead belly like a tulip" (84).  And she begins to try to "tell some of the truth" (85).

            Writing about it in retrospect, Jane shows how trite their romance had been.  She sums up her previous foolishness by sighing and saying, "Ah love" (59).  She realizes she had been "faint with love,"  admits, "I loved him.  I was faint with love for him," and says "I loved him so much that it seemed I must always have loved him" (60)--all of which she now recognizes to be hyperbolic and pathetically superficial claims.

            She realizes that she had been comparing herself to various literary heroines who were overwhelmed by love.  She admits to having been reared in the tradition of Jane Austen novels.  She quotes Jane Eyre, ironically, saying "Reader, I loved him."  She even compares herself to Tennyson's hopelessly depressed "Mariana," whose refrain was

                                                            "My life is dreary,

                                                He cometh not," she said;

                                                .  .  . 'I am aweary, aweary,

                                                I would that I were dead!"

and who was bent on mourning herself to death.  And Jane realizes that she had thought of herself as a "Maggie Tulliver" or "Sue Bridehead" and admits to being haunted by "[t]hose fictitious heroines" (153).  And Jane herself describes her earlier narration as a "schizoid third-person dialogue (130).

            In her attempt to tell the truth, Jane presents a self-conscious first--person narrative which comments on itself.  She had begun the first-person narratives admitting how hard it is to find a kind of discourse which will present the truth.  Yet near the end of the novel, she is honest enough to recognize that she has failed, saying,

            I was hoping that in the end I would manage to find some kind of unity.  I seem to be no nearer to it.  But at the beginning I identified myself with distrust: and now I cannot articulate my suspicions.                                                                                                                                                                                             (207)

Apologizing for the disjunctions in her narrative, she asks of her reader to "Forgive me.  It is no less than the truth that I try to express" (217).  At this point in her recovery, Jane prefers to present a disjointed and sometimes self-contradictory narrative that attempts to tell the truth rather than a unified one which is false.

            In the last pages of the novel she admits to searching for the best way to end her narrative discourse.  She admits, "A death would have been the answer, but nobody died.  Perhaps if I should have killed James in the car, and that would have made a neat, possible ending" (230).  She also considers "[a] feminine ending," saying, "I could have maimed James so badly in this narrative that I would have been allowed to have him, as Jane had her poor blinded Rochester" (235).  And she even considered "the idea of ending the narrative not so much with James's death as with his impotence" (238).  Instead she and James both keep their respective spouses and intermittently continue their affair, but with a much more realistic view of their love.

            Perhaps Jane's almost instantaneous recovery after the accident is not psychologically believable.  Drabble is not, of course, a psychiatrist.  Nevertheless,  Drabble does a fine job of portraying the thoughts and behaviors both of a severely neurotic woman and of that same woman as she is recovering from her neurosis.   If anyone had the qualifications to successfully perform self-analysis and to guide herself from neurosis to health, Jane  did.  After all, Jane had always been an intelligent, well-educated (at Cambridge, no less), introspective, and highly verbal woman.    Horney herself, in Self-Analysis, says that "certain gains are beckoning to those who are capable of self-analysis" and recognizes that writing can be a useful tool for self-analysis, because it provides "an honest recording of conscious feelings, thoughts, and motivations" (171).  And Horney concludes that for those who are successful, "[s]uch achievement gives rise not only to a justifiable pride but also to a well-founded feeling of confidence in one's capacity to meet predicaments and not to feel lost without guidance" (34).

            Jane herself certainly believes she has recovered.   She asserts, "I learned to swallow neurosis" (235) and she realizes that  compared to her previous self-delusions, that she can now face life realistically.  And the final sentence of the novel. "I prefer to suffer, I think" (239), indicates her willingness to embrace life and its inevitable pain, which can lead to growth, rather than retreating into neurotic delusions and enduring unproductive neurotic suffering.  She has achieved a remarkable degree of what Horney calls "self-realization," which Horney defines as involving three achievements.  First, "[w]ith regard to [her]self it means striving toward a clearer and deeper experiencing of [one's] feelings, wishes, and beliefs."  Second "[w]ith regard to others it means.  .  .striving toward relating [one]self to others with.  .  .genuine feelings" and "toward respecting them as individuals in their own right and with their own peculiarities."  And, third, "[w]ith regard to work it means that the work itself will become more important.  .  . than the satisfaction of.  .  .pride or vanity and that [one] will aim at realizing and developing [one's] special gifts and at becoming more productive" (Neurosis 364). 

            Most importantly, Jane has embarked on what Horney  insists has been advocated by wise people "throughout human history .  .  . [--]the road to reorientation through self-knowledge" (Neurosis 341). 

Works Cited

Drabble, Margaret.  The Waterfall.  Middlesex, England:  Penguin, 1971.  Rpt. from Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.

Fuoroli, Caryn.  "Sophistry or Simple Truth?  Narrative Techniques in Margaret Drabble's The Waterfall," Journal of Narrative Technique 11 (1981): 110-24.

Goldstein, Alan, and Berry Stainbeck.  Overcoming Agoraphobia.  New York: Viking, 1987.

Horney, Karen.  Neurosis and Human Growth.  New York:  Norton, 1950.

__________.  The Neurotic Personality Of Our Time.  New York:  Norton, 1937.

__________.  Self-Analysis.  New York:  Norton, 1937.

Wyatt, Jean.  "Escaping Literary Designs: The Poetics of Reading and Writing in Margaret Drabble's The Waterfall," Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 11 (1985): 37-45.


To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Sherry Lutz Zivley "Neurosis and Recovery in Margaret Drabble's The Waterfall". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available December 5, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: August 4, 2012, Published: August 30, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Sherry Lutz Zivley