Madness in Nineteenth-Century Literature Overview

Start Your Free Trial

Download Madness in Nineteenth-Century Literature Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 absent, in a perpetual retreat where it is inaccessible, without phenomenal or positive character; and yet it is present and perfectly visible in the singular evidence of the madman.2

This attitude ultimately engendered a fear of madness. What was unlike reason, if left uncontrolled, became evil. Earlier, madness had its acknowledged, if eccentric, place in the pattern of social existence, being treated openly. But by the eighteenth century, it had become a feature of human nature to be hidden and confined. The secrecy surrounding madness helped to cultivate the belief that it was a moral pollutant. "Moral condemnation of the mentally abnormal was as strong a component of eighteenth-century rationalist theology as it was of medical thought, or the inarticulate beliefs of the labouring classes."3 Only an age that admired the complete order of the mind through reason could so deeply fear what it had defined as the principal threat to reason. Samuel Johnson was not alone in his belief that madness was occasioned by too great an indulgence of the imagination; nor was he peculiar in his conviction that the exercise of reason was the means to restrain imagination's whimsy.4

Nigel Walker, concerned with insanity in relation to English law, observed that, since there were no provisions for housing the insane in the eighteenth century, madmen were necessarily confined in jails which "was neither as unjust nor as inhumane as it sounds to modern ears. Private madhouses were few until the end of the eighteenth century, and in any case were beyond the means of all but the well-to-do."5 These madhouses were custodial rather than remedial; haphazardly employing old and new techniques for curing inmates such as surprise baths, emetics, and restraints. About 1755-69 notable changes occurred in the treatment of the insane because of an increased public awareness of social problems raised by the mentally disordered.6 The first real successes with pleas of insanity in court trials began at this time, and voluntary subscription hospitals for the insane were founded.

The only official institution for the insane in England, from 1547, when it was given to the city of London as a hospital for poor lunatics, until 1751, when St. Luke's Hospital for Lunaticks opened, was Bethlehem Hospital. Conditions at Bethlehem had been brutal, but St. Luke's, proposed and operated by William Battie, was to be of a new character. In his A Treatise on Madness (1758) Battie defined madness as "deluded imagination," and distinguished two basic forms of the malady; original madness, which he felt was owing to disorders of the nervous substance, and Consequential Madness, which he attributed...

(The entire section is 9,738 words.)