How are the insane portrayed in literature?

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Insanity: in literature
The pariah of modern society, on an echelon with lepers and untouchables, insane people are usually neither seen nor heard of by the rest of us. These crazies are usually condemned to a life of pills, procedures, and prisons (or as we like to call them: asylums); but this essay is not meant to be a public service announcement, or even a call to action. No, the reason for my writing this essay is to analyze to what degree does the story of the insane character get told, and when their story is told, is it even worth listening to.
I’m sure that you can see how this analysis ties into our essential question: “whose story gets told?”, but you must be wondering “how on earth does an essay on crazy people tie in to one of our two books”-Things Fall Apart and Heart of Darkness. Well wonder no more, young lad or lady, because I am here to tell you how insanity plays a role in Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.
Kurtz, the man of myths and legends who presides deep in jungles of ivory country, has been dubbed by the other Europeans, including Marlow who know him or know of him as “off of his rocker”. And of course Conrad does not give the perspective of the natives who surround Kurtz, so for all the reader knows Kurtz is crazy. Kurtz went from being a man who was well revered in European society, to one whom placed heads on sticks in his front yard. What had caused this upstanding citizen to go completely loco? The cause of this shift in Kurtz away from sanity, although not certainly, is due to Kurtz’s distancing himself from society, thus distancing himself from reasonable thinking.
So does an insane character, like Mr. Kurtz, truly get his/her story told. It is my belief that these men and women who are dubbed as clinically insane, do not get their story told. Sure someone, who has no idea of the inner workings of their brain, can tell a story about them, just as a district commissioner can tell the story of an African dangling from a tree. But since the story teller does not know or understand the mind of the crazy person, they have no more right to judge or comment upon their actions, than a colonizer has a right to comment upon the actions of an African tribe’s culture that they do not understand or care to understand. Just because someone is different from society, does not necessarily make them wrong. Sure their acts can be heinous and disgusting, but that does not allow us to stick our noses up in the air and completely disregard anything they say as crazy.

Let us move on to insanity in other works of literature.
One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.
Kesey’s novel is the most in depth look at insanity and how society deals with the clinically insane that I have read in my eighteen years. This book breaks the tradition of the outsider (either analyzed by another character in the story, or the biased narrator) perspective on insanity, just as Achebe broke the tradition of colonizing storytelling from the western perspective, and takes on the perspective of one of the patients in a Psychiatric ward in a hospital in Oregon. The Narrator is a long time patient at the ward known as Chief who is assumed to be a mute. But rather than being a mute, he is capable of talking but chooses not to on account of people were not listening to him because of his ethnicity. This sub-story goes along hand in hand with our theme of silenced voices for this unit. Our narrator, the Chief, is a grade A paranoid schizophrenic, being prone to visions and hallucinations of evil robots taking over the bodies of the patients on the ward. So don’t get me wrong when I say that the Chief is normal, he does have some problems, and is probably rightfully dubbed as insane. But the Chief is fairly normal. He has the ability to reason and his brain properly functions (other than the cases when he regresses and becomes very fearful). The Chief has the ability to show “normal” human emotion, but one would not have discovered these good qualities in the chief if they took a purely outsiders perspective. Say if the perspective of this book on insanity was written from the point of view of Nurse Rachart or the Doctor, one would not have known who this man really was. They would not have known the normal and the Crazy aspects of Chief Bromden; they would only have gotten the biased view of an outsider.
The Head Nurse could have written a whole chapter in her book that she planned to write, maybe not a whole chapter, but a good sized paragraph, about the oversized Schizophrenic Indian who smothered another patient to death and ran away into the night. Her book was to be called Insanity in Modern Day America.
Revolutionary Road
One of the most interesting characters that I have come across in literature is Michael Shannon’s character, John Givings, in Sam Mendes’s film adaptation of Richard Yates’s novel Revolutionary Road. To go along with the theme of this essay, John Givings is a man who is clinically insane, and rather than having me describe this character to you, I will allow Mr. Mendes do the honors, and give you a taste of who John Givings is.






Givings is not your ordinary insane character. With most characters that have been condemned to asylum and have received excessive electro-shock therapy, or any other form of “treatment”, the outcome is a gentler, friendlier, sedated being, who seems to not retain any information, or even to think at all. For the most part these patients that have undergone enormous amounts of therapy come out cured. Those who are cured are now fit to go out into the world as mindless drones to eat, work, sleep, and repeat-just like the rest of us who buy into society. But then there is John Givings. The Treatments have not worked to sedate Mr. Givings into a life of normalness. He is still loud, rude, unbending, and as far as society is concerned crazy. But John Givings is still himself, other than being a math genius. He still has his good qualities (such as wisdom and insight) as well as his bad qualities (mentioned before). He has not been beaten by the system, whether the system be the medical system for treating insanity, or society itself. And because John Givings is still himself that makes him better than Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo and Kate) who have been beaten by society. Maybe John Givings truly is crazy, but I like to think that he is more sane than the rest of us who blindly buy into societal norms. And for this reason I idealize Mr. Givings, and hope that I hold out just like he does and not turn into just another Frank Wheeler.

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In addition to the outside depiction and representation of the clinically insane, mentally ill writers add another element to the question at hand. While writing about those with mental disabilities is one route of exposure, but writing through the mind of an insane person is a deeper, more honest method. Emily Dickinson, a nineteenth century poet lived as a recluse in Massachusetts for the majority of her life, rarely leaving her home and sharing conversation with few.
"Dickinson's poetry reflects her loneliness and the speakers of her poems generally live in a state of want, but her poems are also marked by the intimate recollection of inspirational moments which are decidedly life-giving and suggest the possibility of happiness."
-Academy of American Poets
Dickinson was clear headed enough to acknowledge her own insanity and wrote through that lens, offering representation for the countless voiceless people with similar setbacks.

I Never Hear The Word Escape
"I never hear the word "escape"
Without a quicker blood,
A sudden expectation,
A flying attitude.

I never hear of prisons broad
By soldiers battered down,
But I tug childish at my bars, --
Only to fail again!"

In the above poem, Dickinson portays her frustration with the bars of society that hold down the common individual. Yet I believe the greater message is the bars she lays upon herself the keep her from entering the society she harshly indicts.

Edgar Allan Poe also demonstrates as an example of a writer who depicts the insane mind frame through his writing. Both writing about the insane in works like "The Tell Tale Heart", or through an insane perspective in "The Raven", poe does the disturbed justice in his works.


If you were to take anything from my scatterbrained rambling, preaching, and prophesying it would be that just because someone is different from the norm does not necessarily make that person or their ideas wrong. Just because someone is insane does not mean that they do not have anything of value to add to this world. So don’t just disregard the voice of the mentally unstable. It’s too easy, and plus it breeds ignorance. If we judge peoples words before they are even spoken, we are no better than the animals that surround us. Keep your ears open to all different perspectives. And once you hear the words of those you listen to, meditate on them, analyze them, think about them, and once you have truly come up with your own opinion on these words that you hear, share it with the world.



Achebe, Chinua.Things Fall Apart. United Kingdom, William Heinemann Ltd.
1958. Novel.

Enotes.com. Enotes Inc.
Web. Dec 2010. http://www.enotes.com/nineteenth-century-criticism/madness-nineteenth-century-literature
Poets.org. Academy of American Poets.
Web. Dec 2010. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/155
Shmoop.com. Shmoop Inc.
Web. Dec 2010. http://www.shmoop.com/heart-of-darkness/mr-kurtz-timeline.html

Sparknotes.com. Sparknotes LLC
Web. Dec. 2010. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/cuckoo/summary.html