Madness in Literature

Madness in literature can refer to both writers who are known to have been insane and to abnormal characters in literature. Thus there are three major definitions of madness in literature, namely the "mad writer," the "mad characters," and the application of psychological terms to literary madness.

The idea of the "mad writer," introduced by classical writers like Plato, says that these writers' creativity is the result of some irrational, unmanageable and overwhelming forces. Yet the artists are considered interesting and appealing because their madness, according to studies conducted in the 20th century, reveals that schizophrenia, paranoia, depression and addiction can be involved in the creative process.

Writers such as Lucretius, Nathaniel Lee, Count de Sade, Guy de Maupassant, Ezra Pound, Jonathan Swift, Jack London, Spike Milligan and Virginia Woolf were known to suffer from mental problems, yet some of their best works were those created in moments of depression.

The next direction of literary madness concerns characters with mad behavior. Generally, writers attribute some strange traits to their characters, either as a plot device or to generate interest in the character. Many writers are interested in exploring human behavior, contradictions, inner anxiety and pathological actions. Mad characters can become mad during the course of the work's narrative, as in the case of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth and King Lear, or Savannah Wingo in Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides and Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. Or they may show some abnormality like Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

There are also characters who eschew normal societal behavior and norms, who may not become mad, but choose to act as if they were. These include Edgar in King Lear and McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the character memorably played by Jack Nicholson in the movie. Other characters sometime experience some form of anomaly which leads to their separation from the society, as in the case of Emma in Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Shakespeare's Hamlet. In these cases, the author attempts to criticize the society which has created these mad individuals. All "mad," characters are created with the aim to reflect the impact that cultural values have on individuals' lives.

The third approach used to explain madness in literature contains psychological terms, whose definitions are applied to literature. Psychology and literature complement each other as both disciplines deal with understanding of personality. The psychological approach has become the main criticism method since Sigmund Freud (1856 to 1939), the father of psychoanalysis. It concentrates on the author, on the content and construction, or on the reader.

Some of the works dedicated to psychological criticism include Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art by Ernst Kris, Freudianism and the Literary Mind by Frederick J. Hoffman, and Simon O. Lesser's Fiction and the Unconscious. There is also Norman N. Holland's The Dynamics of Literary Response, 5 Readers Reading, which is based on Freud's theory that "literature elicits reader's tensions between fantasies and defenses."

Apart from using the Freudian approach, psychological criticism also relies on Third Force Psychology, which offers an alternative approach to psychoanalysis and behaviorism. An important representative of Third Force Psychology in defining madness in literature is Bernard Paris with his A Psychological Approach to Fiction.

There are numerous works based on Freudian and non-Freudian, Jungian, Lacanian and Third-Force psychoanalytic approaches, but literary madness can be explored on the basis of nationality, region and gender. Many studies examine women's madness in literature, madness in African-American literature or madness in Latin American fiction. Novels like Voltaire's Candide, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July each deal with the madness of war.

Non-conformist, abnormal behavior of individuals, who rebel against the society and its imposed standards, has always been compelling. Setting frames and defining such behavior has engaged many scientists throughout the centuries. Yet, strict definitions are hard to be generated given the complexity of human nature and the changing values over time. Therefore conditions that are classified as mental disorders are still subject to constant discussions and controversies and an ever-evolving issue.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Dionysus in Literature: Essays on Literary Madness
Branimir M. Rieger.
Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994
The Madness of Epic: Reading Insanity from Homer to Statius
Debra Hershkowitz.
Clarendon Press, 1998
The Most Dreadful Visitation: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction
Valerie Pedlar.
University of Liverpool Press, 2006
Love's Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity, 1800-1865
Helen Small.
Clarendon Press, 1998
Dramatizing Dementia: Madness in the Plays of Tennessee Williams
Jacqueline O'Connor.
Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997
Questions of Power: The Politics of Women's Madness Narratives
Susan J. Hubert.
University of Delaware Press, 2002
Madness in Sartre's "The Room"
Jongeneel, Els.
Style, Vol. 43, No. 3, Fall 2009
Insanity as Redemption in Contemporary American Fiction: Inmates Running the Asylum
Barbara Tepa Lupack.
University Press of Florida, 1995
The Silence of Madness in "Signs and Symbols" by Vladimir Nabokov
Hamrit, Jacqueline.
PSYART, January 1, 2006
Madness as a Signifier: A Study of Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell
Akujobi, Remi.
Ife Psychologia, Vol. 16, No. 2, September 2008
A Question of Identity: Women, Science, and Literature
Marina Benjamin.
Rutgers University Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: "'Preaching to the Nerves': Psychological Disorder in Sensation Fiction" begins on p. 192
The Aesthetics of Discontent: Politics and Reclusion in Medieval Japanese Literature
Michele Marra.
University of Hawaii Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Three "A Buddhist Paradox: The Aesthetics of Madness"
Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture
Benjamin Reiss.
University of Chicago Press, 2008
Dream, Creativity, and Madness in Nineteenth-Century France
Tony James.
Clarendon Press, 1995
Literature and Psychoanalysis
Edith Kurzweil; William Phillips.
Columbia University Press, 1983
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Writers and Madness"
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