Sanity is a relative term. In classical Japan it was quite rational to plunge your own sword into your stomach than die by another man’s hand. In America, it is considered logical to buy multiple houses with little to consideration of your ever mounting debt. For this reason, a constant definition of sane cannot be achieved as the evolving realms of medicine, religion and social standards have a large bearing on this term. This largely subjective term is ambiguous for any society that relies strictly upon conformity and their method of dealing with such an uncomfortable situation is one of silence. The insane, throughout history, have been separated from their right to speak, their right to live freely, and their right to be taken credibly. For this reason, authors who attempt to overcome and combat this silence have an extremely arduous task. They not only encounter society’s stifling stigma towards the insane, but a mysterious realm of literature. Artists take extreme care with portraying the silenced, attempting to become immune to society’s preconceived notions and standards. Whether the artist mentions the insane for a sentence or entire book, their characterizations are incredibly different from one another. Leaving the well traveled road of the heroic protagonist, and cunning villain, we encounter a character that represents a bit of reality in a largely fictional world.

The film shaped after Ken Kessey’s groundbreaking novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, represent one of the first courageous attempts to look at the insane from their own eyes. The protagonist Chief Bromden or Chief “Broom” is a mute Native American who suffers from frequent delusions and other forms of psychosis. The movies setting takes place largely inside a mental hospital in Oregon. Chief Bromden refers to this setting as a “combine”, which using harmful technology attempts to control and incapacitate its prisoners. In this particular scene of the movie, a patient, Cheswick, attempts to procure his cigarettes in session of their weekly group meetings. Although this request is seemingly insignificant, cigarettes were seen as a commonplace item to many during this time period, the situation quickly devolves into chaos. The first observation the viewer can make is that the personal freedoms are nearly absent at the mental hospital. Nurse Ratchet controls cigarettes much like adults control children’s allowances, and it is insinuated that she abuses this power. When Cheswick politely asks for his cigarettes, Nurse Ratchet simultaneously avoids the request and exerts her power by demanding him to sit down with unnecessary rage. This situation deteriorates further as the inmates taunt both Harding and Cheswick as they childishly play keep away with Harding’s cigarettes. This portrayal of the inmates reduces them to grade-schoolers on the playground rather than middle aged adults, equating their insanity with immaturity. Finally, Cheswick has a tantrum over his cigarettes and another man is hauled out of the room with brutal force as he vigorously protests. This outburst makes the viewer deeply uncomfortable. While Nurse Ratchet sits icily on her stoop, the inmate’s infantile behavior is reminiscent of preschools as the offending “children” are hauled out of the meeting. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’s portrayal attempts to reveal something deeper about society’s treatment of the insane. Their judgment is questioned the same way as a child is deemed too irresponsible to guide their own life. Instead both groups are given a parenting force, attempting to guide them into being normal, capable members of society.

In Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, we get a very different perspective on the insane or outcasts of society. Okonkwo, the protagonist of the story, briefly mentions the plight of the osu when they’re frantically converting to Christianity. Although very little is said, it is insinuated that their separation from society is a result of a profound difference to others in society. Although the term insane is not used here, Okonkwo gives a candid description of the osu and their treatment in a world where the insane were demonized and forgotten.

He [an osu] was a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart – a taboo forever, and his children after him. He could neither marry nor be married by the free-born. He was in fact an outcast, living in a special area of the village, close to the Great Shrine. Wherever he went he carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste – long, tangled and dirty hair. A razor was taboo to him. An osu could not attend an assembly of the free-born, and they, in turn, could not shelter under his roof. He could not take any of the four titles of the clan, and when he died he was buried by his kind in the Evil Forest. How could such a man be a follower of Christ?” (Ch 18)


The description used by Achebe is shockingly blunt. In a realm where many authors skirt over societies unfit treatment of the insane, Okonkwo honestly tells of their punishment and seems to have little sympathy for them. The Ibo custom of forcing the people to mark the osu with “long, tangled and dirty hair…” shows society’s desire to force a permanent separating characteristic on these people. Even more so, it is a demeaning requirement and allows people who would largely be inseparable from society, to be equated with dirty, undesirable members of society. Furthermore, Achebe speaks about the osu as belonging to a caste. In a seemingly caste-less society, he parallels the osu with the Hindu representation of the untouchables. The similarity of their treatment is unmistakable; both receive no acknowledgement in society and are shunned as a result. Although, many readers would venture that modern society’s treatment of the insane is different, Achebe hints at the many similarities between the two groups of people. While the osu lives “in a special area of the village” the insane live in asylums far from public centers. While modern hospitals forces the insane to don scrubs and other distinctive uniforms to separate them from other members of society, the Ibo people force the distinctive “long, tangled and dirty hair” to be donned. This demeaning portrayal of the insane hints at a tragic aspect of society, that even in fifty years the treatment of the insane isn’t better, but worse. Instead of being publicly acknowledged, they are now removed to the far corners of the country and remain largely hidden to society. In a world where superiority over African cultures was once relentlessly taught, Achebe hints at some of western cultures hidden flaws.


In the media, the insane are often portrayed as harmless oddities or dangerous psychopaths, or even both, as in the video above. In reality those classified with mental disorders -insane is only a legal definition- are surprisingly normal. Bipolar disorders, for example, are much more common than one might think, and are easily controlled with medication. Even Dissassociative Personality Disorder (multiple personalities), which is exceedingly rare, can be made livable if the person with the disorder knows they have it, although it may be disconcerting for the people around them.


Throughout history, Americans have prided themselves as being the powder keg of revolutionary literature. Americans claim to speak for the silenced and to bring them irrevocable justice and liberty as they are thrust into the gracious public eye. However, the falsity of the statement is laughably apparent. The plight of the insane is far from solved, and each example of literature involving this group of disadvantaged people consistently points this out. Even though remarkable amounts of literature, research, music and film have attempted to bring justice and acceptance to the insane society has been largely unresponsive. Perhaps it is the overwhelming majority of unaffected and uninvolved Americans that prevents any change, or perhaps it is a more insidious form of silence. In a society which prides itself on making the poor rich, healing the sick and cheering up the depressed, the insane provide a collision in which our bettering culture faces a discrepancy. We cannot cure the insane, or normalize them in any way. There is often little hope into transforming them into a “traditional member” of society. However, despite this social frustration, literature, film, and art continue advocate their existence. This unrelenting bit of hope proves that even in an instance of unlikely change, there is hope of bringing truth to society through fiction.