The Real Mad vs. the Literary Mad

Mr. Dick flies kites for therapy.

Mr. Dick flies kites for therapy.

I empathize with the mad. They suffer.  “I have suffered more than Jesus Christ,” a  friend said during a bout of madness.  Shocking, but I understood.  The mad not only do mad things, but remember their madness and suffer. My cousin was escorted by the police from a grocery store for singing in the aisles about poisoned air. After her meds were adjusted she was humiliated by the memory, even though her psychologist assured her the air IS poisoned and she had told the truth during her mania.

Fritz Eichenberg's illustration of Heathcliff.

Fritz Eichenberg’s illustration of mad, suffering Heathcliff.

If only, my cousin said, she had literary madness.  It is easier, we agree, to understand the Literary Mad than the Real Mad.

For instance,

  1. Mr. Dick, Betsey Trotwood’s lodger in David Copperfield, cannot concentrate on writing his “Memorial” because  King Charles I’s head keeps popping up in his own head. He flies a kite for therapy.  He’s a sweet mad character.
  2. Mrs. Bertha Rochester, the mad wife of Rochester in Jane Eyre, is one of the most violent of literary madwomen.  She lives in her husband’s attic, bites a visitor, and, during an escape from the attic, sets fire to Rochester’s bed curtains.  Jane’s discovery of the mad wife destroys her wedding, but gives Jane ample time to reflect on her love for Rochester and for Rochester to repent. In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling of Jane Eyre, Bertha is not mad at all.
  3. The unstable Linda in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City has been on meds for years and lives in pain in the basement of her husband Mark’s house.  Gradually Linda realizes the pills are killing her psychic knowledge.  When she is off the pills, she is able to use her powers.  She’s a good witch!  Only more realistically presented.
  4. Miss Havisham in Great Expectations lives in tatters and chaos because she was jilted decades ago.  She raises her ward Estella to hate men.  Monomania!
  5. Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights  will do anything to get revenge.  Rescued by the kind Mr. Earnshaw, he was a member of the family until Mr. Earnshaw’s death. Then  Hindley Earnshaw trampled him under and made him a servant, and Catherine Earnshaw married Edgar Linton even though she loved Heathcliff because it would “degrade” her to marry him now that he was fallen so low. Heathcliff goes so far as to kidnap  Catherine’s daughter Cathy and force her to marry his son.    Madness!

With the exception of Mr. Dick,  Linda, and Bertha in Jean Rhy’s novel, these are thoroughly unpleasant characters.  And we meet some of the unpleasant mad in real life.

Fritz Eichenberg's woodcut illustration of Bertha examining Jane.

Fritz Eichenberg’s woodcut illustration of Bertha escaped from the attic examining Jane.

I love my mad cousin, but then she is so pleasant. Not all are so  kind.  When I taught an Adult Ed Latin class for three terms, I had students who loved languages, students who never cracked a book but came to socialize, and one megalomaniac student who had simply run out of people to annoy.   Today I ran into him/her at a coffeehouse, and after ten second’s conversation fled. He/she pretends he has found errors in Wheelock’s Latin, the highly respected first-year textbook he/she never mastered. (It’s complete nonsense:  he/she knows nothing.)  My husband copes by glaring at him/her and not speaking. Why oh why can men do that and I can’t?

In a literary novel, would this student would be one of the Bad Mad or one of Dickens’ mere addled characters?

4 thoughts on “The Real Mad vs. the Literary Mad

  1. I find that the question is often: what is madness and what is not? Now that we use different names for different categories of mental illnesses, where is madness? Is mental illness madness? If I am depressed, suffering from depression, under French law, I am considered as mentally ill and mentally handicapped, with the ensuing legal paraphernalia. I can be put in a psychiatric ward with other people mentally ill. Am I mad?
    Perhaps, it is easier to consider Literary Madness because it is rather clearly defined by the author. It may be more complicated in real life.


    • I use “madness” as a literary term: there are no words for these illnesses. Yes, literary madness is more clear-cut. We know what Dickens thinks of his characters; Doris Lessing writes about complications.

      Liked by 1 person

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