As part of my Extended English Project, I chose to write about ‘lunacy in literature’ for my dissertation. This meant spending my summer scouring the internet for novels and articles that either centred around the topic of mental illness or stories that had characters that suffered from a form of mental illness and how the writer portrays or approaches mental illness in regard to the time period they are writing. While I eventually chose to focus squarely on Sylvia Plath’s depiction of mental illness in The Bell Jar for my dissertation, I’d read so many works in the run up to making that decision that I felt like I had to mention them somewhere on this blog.
With the books I’d chosen varying in length, Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper being a mere 26 pages versus Wilkie Collins’ 700+ page beast The Woman in White, I debated doing separate posts of my reviews. However, because I read each at different paces, I didn’t fancy making a new post every time I finished one and then having them scattered about on the blog here, there and everywhere which is the mistake I made with Thriller February. So, this post – while lengthy – is essentially me corralling them all into one simple place for readers.
I’ve tried my utmost to make it as easy as possible for those who only wish to read my selection of thoughts on certain works to wade through, but do let me know if you prefer this format or the one I used for Thriller February with individual posts.
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER BY CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN
The Yellow Wallpaper is one that I’ve always heard mentioned in passing, but never really looked into.
Perkins Gilman’s feminist horror might be a quick read, but it leaves a chilling lasting impression. It scandalised nineteenth-century readers and it’s not hard to see why. Perkins Gilman’s writing is extremely evocative and haunting as we follow this unnamed female protagonist’s rapid demise into madness. I adored the symbolism in the story with the way in which the wallpaper was described, giving an eerie paranormal and gothic vibe to the whole tale.
I was so captivated by The Yellow Wallpaper that I almost did include it in my dissertation, but decided against so I could focus solely on Plath as The Bell Jar had more critical approaches to work off. However, I found the way in which this short story portrays the treatment and attitudes towards Victorian women and the mentally ill extremely profound. Perkins Gilman herself was perscribed the so-called ‘rest cure’ and the story clearly shows how uniformed and ridiculously frustrating these treatments were.
I don’t think I can emphasise just how powerful The Yellow Wallpaper is. Perkins Gilman doesn’t attempt to sweeten the spiral into lunacy nor does she shy away from shining a light on how women were treated as subservient and deemed hysterical quite quickly.
It’s a compelling little short story that highlights the social oppression of the Victorian era and mistreatment of the mentally ill.
THE WOMAN IN WHITE BY WILKIE COLLINS
Perhaps I’m getting old, but man, oh, man, I felt every single one of those 700+ pages of The Woman in White.
It reminded me of reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Sometimes it’s extremely engrossing and unputdownable. Other times it’s a bit of a slog. However, you do get that odd rewarding feeling upon finishing it.
I’ve made it no secret that I generally hate multiple point-of-view novels, but Collins might be the only person I’ll tolerate them for. The array of narratives made it easier to connect with certain characters and added to the drama quite nicely.
I suppose my main qualm was that it wasn’t what it said on the tin. Everything about The Woman in White suggested an eerie, Victorian ghost novel that touched upon lunacy. However, despite Wilkie Collins bringing to light some concerns about mental illness, what I got was essentially a detective novel. With neither of the twists being particularly shocking after many years spent watching crime dramas on the telly.
While I didn’t love it, I do appreciate the sensational gem that it must have been when it was published and I do admire Collins’ mastery in building a foreboding and tense atmosphere where you can’t trust anyone.
THE BELL JAR BY SYLVIA PLATH
Now, for the book that I did do my dissertation on. After spending months analysing the living hell out of The Bell Jar and delving into the depths of Plath’s own life, it feels quite difficult to summarise all that in a short review as I’ve written 12,000+ words on the topic of mental illness in Plath’s novel.
Overlooking the slightly racist and anti-semitic quips Plath makes, I was astonished by the parallels between Plath’s troubled protagonist, Esther, and the author’s own battle with depression that culminated in her suicide in 1963. Plath and Esther seemed to share so much in common from their failed suicide attempts, to complicated family dynamics and even the treatments they were prescribed.
Sylvia Plath is an author that has undeniably become synonymous with her suicide, but I think that takes away from her literary talents. Yes, The Bell Jar is evidently semi-autobiographical, but Plath’s novel also does an expert job in drawing attention to not just the stigmas and lack of understanding towards mental illness patients in the 1950s, exhibited perfectly through the arrogant Dr Gordon and his misuse of ECT, but Plath also showcases the conflicting social ideals of the era ushered in by the Cold War.
Frankly, The Bell Jar is a literary masterpiece, but perhaps I’m biased as I spent thousands of hours immersing myself in all things Plath and the 1950s. It is a formidable piece of literature that, in my opinion, realistically captures how it feels to be mentally ill.
MRS DALLOWAY BY VIRGINIA WOOLF
Another riveting work that I read was Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
While reading, I was struck by how much of an excellent study in people Woolf seemed to be. Her writing is ethereal, flowing from one stream of consciousness to another, invoking empathy and leaving room for consideration.
Similarly to Plath, Woolf portrays her own experiences with manic-depressive illusion through her characters in Mrs Dalloway, depicting the parallel experiences of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, the latter who suffers from PTSD, or “shell-shock” as it is referred to in the novel. Septimus, a double for Clarissa, interestingly highlights the Woolf’s presence in the novel and the different aspects of mental illness.
I found this to be an entirely enjoyable read and it is made even more fascinating by Woolf’s own self-reflection in her characters.
The premise of this one is simple; the divested Edgar aka Master of Ravenswood falls in love with the daughter of his mortal enemy and naturally, madness and murder ensue.
While perhaps it wasn’t what I was looking for when penning a dissertation on lunacy in literature, I cannot deny the amount of fun I had while reading this gothic tale. It’s so over-the-top ridiculous. I mean, characters swishing their cloaks, dudes making dark pronouncements, witches, wolves howling at the moon, ladies going mad and who doesn’t love a good old family feud?
It’s everything I loved about Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights packaged in to one excellent classic. I think I’ve found a new guilty pleasure.