Madness in Nineteenth-Century Literature
Madness in Nineteenth-Century Literature
The prevalence of depictions of madness in nineteenth-century literature in England and America paralleled the growth of the scientific and medical study of insanity. Increasingly in the nineteenth century, madness was seen more as a social and medical problem, compared to the eighteenth century, when madness was feared as the absence of reason, and therefore, evil. Whereas eighteenth-century rationalists viewed madness as a result of overindulgence of the imagination, nineteenth-century romanticists embraced imaginative excess. Romantic poets, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, explored the relationship between the creative imagination and madness, and some poets, including John Clare, were thought to be truly mad and were confined to insane asylums. The condition of life in insane asylums was reported in autobiographies by those who had been consigned there. In fiction, madness was treated in a variety of ways. Some authors attempted to portray mental "aberrations" in a realistic manner, while others sensationalized the symptoms of and reaction to a character's insanity. Such sensation fiction often portrayed characters who were wrongfully accused of insanity. The multitude of ways insanity was treated in literature reflects nineteenth-century society's fascination—bordering on obsession—with madness.
In 1867, Elizabeth Packard published her account of life in an Illinois insane asylum. Packard was committed in 1860 by her husband, who claimed that in Bible study groups organized and led by Elizabeth, she questioned Calvinist doctrine and encouraged those in the groups to interpret the Bible on their own. Elizabeth's husband maintained that these activities demonstrated that her mind was unbalanced. Elizabeth was released in 1863. Mary Elene Wood analyzes Packard's The Prisoner's Hidden Life; or, Insane Asylums Unveiled, in which Packard recounts the abuses suffered by the women in the asylum, including beatings and punishment by dunking in cold water. Wood notes the ways in which Packard's account both conforms to and challenges the conventions of the sentimental novel and the slave narrative.
Many Romantic poets explored the relationship between art and madness, and Shelley was no exception. In his examination of Shelley's views on this matter, as expressed in his poetry and in The Defense of Poetry (1821), Ross Woodman argues that while Shelley viewed poetry as a means of mastering the "inner world"—that is, the realm of creativity and of madness—Shelley's poetic career reveals the poet's frustration with art's inability to truly represent the visions of that inner world. Alfred, Lord Tennyson approached the issue of madness from an entirely different angle, not wishing to embrace it as Shelley seemed to want to, but seeking to analyze it and fearing its encroachment upon society, as many of his contemporaries did. Ann C. Colley studies the way Tennyson, in Idylls of the King (1859-85; 1891), uses the madness of Camelot, brought about by excesses of sexuality and ambition, as a metaphor for the madness of Tennyson's England. Colley argues that Tennyson, in Idylls and in Maud (1855), skillfully demonstrated the way madness attacks the mind, and that the poet used this knowledge to further explore how madness attacks the health of the nation. When Tennyson wrote about sexually explicit, "morally insane" themes such as necrophelia, Ekbert Faas explains, it was within an accepted framework in which it was clear that the madman was an object being analyzed. Faas argues that Algernon Charles Swinburne's poetry was condemned as depraved because it lured the reader into sadomasochistic, anti-Christian fantasies, without any objective framing device. Faas observes that many poets were judged in biographies written by "alienists" (physicians who studied mental disorders) as insane or suffering from a "disposition to mental aberration. " While many poets were condemned in this manner, John Clare was actually committed. Frederick Burwick speculates as to the nature and depth of Clare's mental problems, but states there is no way to ascertain whether or not Clare was truly insane. In studying the poetry Clare composed while confined to asylums, Burwick observes a shift from Clare's earlier, Wordsworthian tone to a more ironic, introspective, Byronic tone.
In fiction, there were two basic trends in the way madness was represented: authors strove either for psychological realism, or they sensationalized madness, using it as a tool to bring about a certain effect on characterization or plot. In 1866, an anonymous critic in The Spectator chastized this latter trend, arguing that madness was used to disguise the lack of art in such novels. In 1993, Sally Shuttleworth examined the same trend, maintaining that sensation novels used madness to challenge the male-controlled society of Victorian England by celebrating female "sensation," often wrongly diagnosed by males in the novels as insanity. Several critics have analyzed the representation of madness in the works of prominent nineteenth-century writers. Barbara Hill Rigney suggests that in Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Bronte correlates chastity with sanity. Rigney argues that Bronte continually associates sexuality with death throughout the novel, emphasizing the message that a woman will lose her identity and therefore her sanity by engaging in sexual activity. Edgar Allan Poe's depictions of madness are well known, yet the means by which Poe brings forth the almost tactile quality in his work are less frequently studied. Leonard W. Engel takes a closer look at "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1840), focusing in particular on the way in which Poe uses the language and imagery of enclosure to follow the narrator on his journey from reason to insanity. Donald A. Ringe traces Nathaniel Hawthorne's portrayal of insanity in short stories and in novels. Ringe demonstrates Hawthorne's desire to accurately portray the abnormal psychology of certain characters, noting that Hawthorne's portrayals are supported by contemporary psychological studies. In examining the function of madness in Hawthorne's work, specifically The Scarlet Letter (1850), Ringe indicates that Hawthorne associates madness in this world with damnation after death, and that the author similarly links sanity and salvation. Like Bronte and Hawthorne, Herman Melville attempted realistic psychological portrayals in the characters of his novels. Paul McCarthy studies Melville's achievement in this area in Moby-Dick, or, The Whale (1851). McCarthy finds madness everywhere in this novel—in animals, in humans, and in the universe itself. Examining in particular the forms of madness of the characters aboard the ship, McCarthy studies the way mental aberration is revealed through characters'speeches and traces the development of Ahab's madness.
Lavengro (novel) 1851
Lady Audley's Secret (novel) 1862
Jane Eyre (novel) 1847
Charles Brockden Brown
Wieland (novel) 1798
Edgar Huntly (novel) 1799
The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist (novel) 1840
The Woman in White (novel) 1859
"Hollow of the Three Hills" (short story) 1830
"The Prophetic Pictures" (short story) 1837
The Scarlet Letter (novel) 1850
Moby-Dick, or, The Whale (novel) 1851
The Prisoner's Hidden Life; or, Insane Asylums Unveiled (autobiography) 1867
Edgar Allan Poe
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John R. Reed (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "Madness," in Victorian Conventions, Ohio University Press, 1975, pp. 193-215.
[In the following essay, Reed traces the connection between the growth of the Romantic movement in the early nineteenth century and the changing opinions among the medical community and the public regarding madness.]
Insanity: An Overview
In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault described the signal transformation that occurred in Western civilization's conception of madness as a shift from a philosophical to a pathological outlook; "that is, the reduction of the classical experience of unreason to a strictly moral perception of madness, which would secretly serve as a nucleus for all the concepts that the nineteenth century would subsequently vindicate as scientific, positive, and experimental."1 In Foucault's view, the eighteenth-century attitude toward madness depended upon the assumption that it was "the negation of reason." It is a philosophical paradox which itself would be agreeable to the classical taste for order and balance:
For madness, if it is nothing, can manifest itself only by departing from itself, by assuming an appearance in the order of reason and thus becoming the contrary of itself. Which illuminates the paradoxes of the classical experience: madness is always...
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Mary Elene Wood (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "Elizabeth Packard and Versions of Sanity," in The Writing on the Wall: Women's Autobiography and the Asylum, University of Illinois Press, 1994, pp. 25-47.
[In the following essay, Wood examines Elizabeth Packard's account of her experience in an insane asylum. In particular, Wood studies the parallels between Packard's story and both slave narratives and sentimental novels.]
In 1860, Theophilus Packard forced his wife Elizabeth from their home and committed her to the state insane asylum at Jacksonville, Illinois. According to her own account, she had long been battling with Theophilus, a Presbyterian minister, over the validity of what she considered the outdated and repressive concept of innate depravity. Elizabeth held her own Bible discussion groups, where she encouraged church members, mostly women, to question the traditional Calvinist doctrine and develop personal interpretations of biblical passages. Her husband and certain church elders considered her preaching subversive and indicative of an unbalanced mind. With the signature of a doctor and the corroboration of Andrew McFarland, the asylum superintendent, Elizabeth Packard was separated from her four sons and her daughter and made a prisoner of the institution. She would not be released until 1863, after which she would become an active and successful lobbyer for the rights...
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Ross Woodman (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "Shelley's 'Void Circumference': The Aesthetic of Nihilism, " English Studies in Canada, Vol. IX, No. 3, September, 1983, pp. 272-93.
[In the following essay, Woodman analyzes Percy Bysshe Shelley's views regarding the relationship between artistic creativity and "divine insanity." Woodman demonstrates how Shelley's career reveals the poet's frustration with the inability of art to truly represent divinely inspired vision.]
Since Plato banished the poets from his Republic many have rushed to their defence in an attempt to reinstate them. Among the English poets, Shelley remains the foremost apologist for the divine insanity of which Plato accused the poets and for which he sent them into exile as unfit for citizenship in a rational society governed by logos rather than mythos, philosophy rather than religion. Shelley in his apology, particularly his Defence of Poetry, meets Plato on his own ground. He too rejects the role of religion in society, substituting for it what he calls in his essay, On Life, the "intellectual philosophy" (p. 477).1 More than that, his objection is Plato's: the superstitious acceptance of the probable or mythical account of ultimate reality turns it into a true account supported by institutional and priestly sanction. Plato rejected the poets because as myth-makers...
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The Spectator (essay date 1866)
SOURCE: "Madness in Novels," in The Spectator, Vol. 39, Feb. 3, 1866, pp. 134-35.
[In the following essay, the anonymous critic examines the trend of depicting madness in novels. The critic maintains that in novels such as St. Martin's Eve and The Clyffards of Clyffe, madness is used as a tool to disguise the lack of art in the novel.]
The hint given by Miss Braddon has been very quickly taken. For her purpose it was necessary to strengthen the old machinery of novel-writing, to introduce changes more frequent, acts more unaccountable, catastrophes more violent and appalling. She did not wish, being artist after her kind, to introduce these things absolutely without explanation, and yet where was the explanation to be found? The world, strangely tolerant of supernatural machinery in real life, half inclined to believe in instructions from the dead and messages from above, in people who can float through the air and people for whose sake the souls of the just are willing to proclaim themselves arrant fools, is nevertheless very intolerant of the supernatural in novels. If any young lady kills somebody because an angel told her to do it, which, granted the angelic command, might not be an unnatural proceeding, we simply shut the book, and refuse to read anything its author may subsequently have to produce. On the other hand, the...
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Felman, Shoshana. "Gustave Flaubert: Living Writing, or Madness as Cliché." In Writing and Madness, translated by Martha Noel Evans and the author, with the assistance of Brian Massumi, pp. 78-100. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.
Studies Flaubert's early work, Memoirs of a Madman, demonstrating the ways in which the various readings of the text contradict themselves, but that in doing so, these interpretations "reveal the dynamics of the production of meaning in the text as inseparable from such questions of approach and from a general problematic of reading."
Lougy, Robert E. "The Sounds and Silence of Madness: Language as Theme in Tennyson's Maud." Victorian Poetry 22, No. 4 (Winter 1984): 407-26.
Examines the way in which madness pervades Maud, in terms of content, language, and form.
Martin, Ellen E. "The Madness of Jane Austen: Metonymie Style and Literature's Resistance to Interpretation." In Jane Austen's Beginnings: The Juvenilia and Lady Susan, edited by J. David Grey, pp. 83-94. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989.
Analyzes the juvenilia of Austen, arguing that in these works Austen's narrative does not depend on causation or plot but that the author reduces "causality and common sense into the metonymie...
(The entire section is 537 words.)