Madness in Nineteenth-Century Literature Introduction

Start Your Free Trial

Download Madness in Nineteenth-Century Literature Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,035 words.)