Madness in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(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 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.