What are the themes in The Professor and The Madman by Simon Winchester?

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The Professor and The Madman by Simon Winchester was originally published under the title The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words in 1998, in England, and was retitled when released in the United States. A film was made of the book under the title The Professor and The Madman. The work described the interactions between the madman of the title, Dr. William C. Minor (a doctor incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane), and the scholar in charge of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary: James Augustus Henry Murray.

The first major theme of the work is the nature of madness. While Minor was clearly delusional and paranoid, with bizarre sexual and persecution fantasies (which led to his murdering an innocent person), he nonetheless was a careful, balanced, and objective researcher. This suggests that "madness" is not some overarching category that makes all aspects of someone's thought unreliable—just because Minor is considered "mad," this does not negate his potential to contribute to meaningful research (and perhaps to society as a whole).

A second major theme is the treatment of madness. The regime at Broadmoor which allowed wealthy inmates to have servants and live relatively normal lives permitted Minor to make a positive contribution to society while incarcerated. This makes readers consider that "treatment" for madness perhaps should not so much focus on a "cure" but rather on helping people live productive lives with a chronic mental illness.

Finally, and especially important now we live in an age of electronically mediated communication, this shows how lack of knowledge of another person might actually be positive. By initially not knowing the identity of Minor, Murray could develop a productive relationship with him without stigma or prejudice. This suggests that some of the problems encountered by the mentally ill and their difficulty finding employment are due to prejudice and that this book helps readers move beyond such prejudice.

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The story within the book The Professor and the Madman is truly an incredible one about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. William Chester Minor, one of the main contributors to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and the main character of the book, was also a convicted criminal who admitted to first-degree murder.

The main themes are two-fold in this work—the first theme is the duality of man. This brilliant, savant-like individual has the capacity for such evil and destruction, and this contrast is highlighted throughout the book. William Chester Minor was well-spoken and intelligent but also a vicious and cruel murderer, which is a baffling dichotomy.

Additionally, an emphasis is placed on the importance of language and knowledge. William Chester Minor's impact on the English-speaking world was incredible, and his work is still highly relevant today.

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There are several themes in this book, the most prominent of which is the idea of duality. The "madman" of the title is also the professor, one of the most prolific contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary. He was brilliant but had been sentenced to prison for committing murder, which was a direct result of his madness, likely schizophrenia or some other schizotypal illness.

Additional themes are the concept of mental illness, which was incredibly poorly understood at the time, and the importance of language, as the dictionary was just beginning to be developed. William Chester Minor struggled with a very destructive mental illness, but his mental irregularity also made him indescribably intelligent. This is, sadly, a common situation for people with severe mental illness—they have incredible potential and intelligence but are restricted because of their disease.

The development of the dictionary was vital for the improvement of the English lexicon. This was the widest and most comprehensive record ever made of the words in a language, and its development has helped to improve language understanding and acquisition around the world.

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One of the themes of The Professor and the Madman is the thin line between sanity and insanity. William Chester Minor, in an insane asylum for committing murder, became one of the most prolific contributors to the project that would become the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). While he suffered from what was likely schizophrenia and from paranoid delusions, he was also brilliant and had periods of great productivity. Therefore, another theme is the interconnectedness of insanity and brilliance. While combing old books for words to define, Minor showed the careful attention to detail that distinguished him among the many other volunteers that contributed to the dictionary.

Another theme is the importance of a dictionary in standardizing word use and definitions. As Winchester writes, "The language should be accorded just the same dignity and respect as those other standards that science was then also defining.” In other words, a dictionary needed to address the nuances of meanings with the precision of science. While there had been earlier dictionaries, none was yet vast enough to encompass the entire English language. The Oxford English Dictionary was the first dictionary that allowed people to use words with confidence that these words would have a precise shared meaning.

A third theme is the strange interconnections among people of different walks of life. Dr. James Murray, the lexicographer who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary for the Oxford University Press, worked with thousands of volunteers in compiling the dictionary. He had corresponded with Minor for nearly twenty years before he realized that Minor was institutionalized in an asylum. Murray was unaware that he had been corresponding with an inmate until meeting Minor--a meeting that brought together two people from very different walks of life. 

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