Mental Disorders Portrayed in Literature Analysis

The Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Literature by and about the mentally ill aids understanding of the mind and society. Depictions of mental illness are like funhouse mirrors—scary, fascinating, and informative. One sees the normal psyche exaggerated and distorted, alien yet recognizable. This is one reason literature has always presented mental disorders. Moreover, some think that insanity and the genius that produces art are related; although this contention is debated, many great artists have had mental problems. What is rarer is people with mental problems who have also produced great art. Even inexperienced writers often produce powerful first-person accounts of mental disorders. Studying historical literature about mental disorders aids in understanding not only universals of the psyche but also specific societies’ views of mental disorders.

Artists and Mental Illness

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Current writers see mental disorders in the lives of many artists, whether or not the artist was diagnosed and treated at the time. English Romantic poet William Blake, known for his poetry’s elaborate personal mythology and for visions he claimed to literally see, has been called schizophrenic. Some identify bipolar disorder in the blisses and depressive depths that may be found in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Either schizophrenic or affective (mood) disorders have been ascribed in the twentieth century to many artists, including writers August Strindberg , Charles Baudelaire, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Joseph Conrad, and Franz Kafka. Many of these writers wrote about mental problems, as in Coleridge’s depressed “Dejection, an Ode” or Kafka’s dreamlike and paranoid works. Researchers have argued that mental disorders are much more common among artists than among the general population.

Others say such conclusions are overstated and caution about drawing conclusions regarding authors’ lives from their work. Many artists, however, have recorded their own mental problems or time spent in asylums. The British poet Christopher Smart, after a fever, was in and out of madhouses and saw himself as excessive in “mirth and melancholy.” William Cowper, another British poet of the eighteenth century, wrote about his difficult mood fluctuations. Nineteenth century British writer John Ruskin, whose grandfather had been psychotic, had a breakdown in 1861 and major depression through 1862.

In the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf suffered a major breakdown in 1904, refusing to eat and hearing voices, which she recorded in fictitious form (attributed to a tropical fever) in The Voyage Out (1915). Woolf experienced depression all of her life and ultimately killed herself. In the United States, a group of poets, called the confessional school, became famous for their mental disorders. Robert Lowell and members of his circle, including Theodore Roethke and John Berryman, all wrote poetry about the experience of mental illness. Although the image of the mad poet has captured the popular imagination, one may recall that such decidedly sane poets as William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, to name two, were also active and influential in American poetry in the late twentieth century.

Fiction and Mental Disorders

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Literature is full of vivid images of mental disorders: the real melancholy and feigned madness of Hamlet, the delusions and obsessions of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre: An Autobiography (1847) by Charlotte Brontë, the obsessives, depressives, and neurasthenics in Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction and poetry, and Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

William Faulkner, Jerzy Kosinski, and John Barth have presented a number of figures with mood, thought, or character disorders. Faulkner’s ability to present a disturbed inner life, as in The Sound and the Fury (1929), is impressive. Kosinski’s hard, objective descriptions in The Painted Bird (1965) and Steps (1968) are chilling. Barth’s The Floating Opera (1956) and Lost in the Funhouse (1968) mix humor and pathos. Peter Straub, also known for supernatural horror fiction, depicts real-life horrors such as sexual abuse, disassociation, and compulsive violence in fiction such as Koko (1988) and The Throat (1993).

Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” uses snow as a metaphor for the self-enclosed world of the schizophrenic. “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, shows a woman’s descent into madness, with strongly feminist implications; Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) and Sue...

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Nonfiction and Fictionalized Accounts

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Some of the best and best-known fiction about mental illness is based on real experiences. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) depicts depression, institutionalization, and suicide. Plath was also associated with the confessional school. Mary Ward’s The Snake Pit (1946) and Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) focus on life in a mental hospital. Ward and Kesey are highly critical of the mental health care system. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964), by Hannah Green (actually Joanna Greenberg), and Lisa, Bright and Dark, by John Neufeld (1969), depict the changes of thought and mood disorders. Robert Lindner’s The Fifty Minute Hour (1955) contains fictionalized case histories from the therapist’s viewpoint. Lisa and David (1961), by Theodore Isaac Rubin, and The Three Faces of Eve (1957), by Corbett H. Thigpen and Hervey M. Cleckley, are also fictionalized accounts by therapists. Chris Costner Sizemore wrote her own story in I’m Eve (1977).

In some of these, such as Kesey’s book, the mental patients are seen more as political prisoners than as ill people in need of help, but the pain and isolation of a mental disorder are always clear. The female voices often indicate a connection between mental disorders and the position of a woman in society—something Plath makes explicit in The Bell Jar and implicit in much of her poetry....

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Claridge, Gordon, et al. Sounds from the Bell Jar: Ten Psychotic Authors. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Studies of important writers who battled mental illness.

Friedrich, Otto. Going Crazy: An Inquiry into Madness in Our Time. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976. A study of what madness is and how it is defined, with examples from case studies, literary works, and authors’ lives.

Glenn, Michael, ed. Voices from the Asylum. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Concentrating on experiences within mental hospitals, this includes first-person accounts by staff and patients, poetry, and a short story by Poe.

Kaplan, Bert, ed. The Inner World of Mental Illness. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. An excellent selection of first-person accounts from published sources; some excerpts are brief or lack context, but are still effective and depict a wide range of illnesses.

Kaup, Monika. Mad Intertextuality: Madness in Twentieth-Century Women’s Writing. Trier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1993. Heavy on some literary terms, but useful study about cultural tendencies and lesser-known novels.

Peterson, Dale, ed. A Mad People’s History of Madness. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982. These first-person accounts go back to the fifteenth century. Excellent bibliography.

Porter, Roy. A Social History of Madness: The World Through the Eyes of the Insane. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987. A study of what madness is and how society defines it, including literary and first-person accounts.

Stanford, Gene, and Barbara Stanford, eds. Strangers to Themselves. New York: Bantam Books, 1973. First-person accounts, fiction about mental illness, and some clinical articles.