Mad men and women in fiction

From Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic to Captain Ahab in Moby Dick and Francie in The Butcher Boy, madness is a recurring and compelling theme in literature

Reviewed by Eileen Battersby in The Irish Times this Saturday, Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto (Viking, £14.99) is a near-perfect account of a psychologically troubled mother and the shockwaves felt by her family in Mumbai. Here is a round-up of some classic portrayals of mental disturbance in fiction.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (1847)

The archetypal 'madwoman in the attic' is Mr Rochester's first wife Bertha, locked away from sight and left for heroine Jane to discover after a series of odd happenings during her stint as governess at Thornfield Hall. Animalistic, violent and vociferous, Bertha Antoinetta Mason is madness personified in Charlotte Bronte's novel and her story can only be related to readers through her husband's voice. While travelling in the colonies, Edward Rochester is introduced to Bertha, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Jamaican family, and is persuaded to propose without the couple ever spending time alone together. Learning after the marriage of a family history of insanity, he feels cheated but nevertheless brings his bride back to the mother land. Once in England Bertha's mental health deteriorates quickly, giving lend to numerous post-colonial and feminist readings of her decline into madness.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville (1851)


'One daft with strength, the other daft with weakness.' The theme of insanity pervades Melville's epic sea voyage, gripping characters such as Captain Ahab and the ship-keeper Pip, but also stretching further to incorporate animals, the sea and the wider universe as a whole. Melville warns readers that having a single-minded obsession is a dangerous thing, an indulgence that can lead to madness, and as Captain Ahab continues his pursuit of a certain sperm whale, he drags his crew towards death and destruction. First published in 1851, the novel was based on the author's own experiences as a whaler and although a commercial flop in its day, it is now considered one of the greatest American novels of all time.

The Trial, Franz Kafka (1925)

Arrested and prosecuted by an obscure authority for a crime that's never made clear, the protagonist of The Trial has more reason than many to veer towards insanity. The arrest on his thirtieth birthday sets doomed hero Josef K on an interminable quest to discover the nature of a crime he fears does not exist. Satirising society's bureaucracy and antiquated legal systems on the one hand, Kafka's unfinished novel also studies the brittle mind of a persecuted man as he's pitted against a nightmarish modernity. The Trial has inspired numerous adaptions, including a screenplay by Harold Pinter and a 1962 film version directed by Orson Welles.

Brighton Rock, Graham Greene (1938)

A thriller set in the seedy underworld of 1930’s Brighton, Greene’s noir novel follows teenage sociopath Pinkie Brown as he tries to cover up the murder of a journalist. With its antihero Brown a mob leader at just seventeen years of age, Brighton Rock looks at the destructive capabilities of adolescence and the impact of gang warfare on innocent bystanders. Roman Catholic Pinkie’s immoral actions are contrasted with the kind-hearted, non-religious Ida Arnold, who takes up the role of detective after a chance meeting draws her into the action. As such, the book is also read as a challenge to the Catholic Church’s doctrine on the nature of sin.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath (1963)

Sylvia Plath’s only novel relates Esther Greenwood’s rapid decline from a high achieving student and hopeful intern at a prominent New York magazine to a young woman plagued by depression and mental illness. Published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963, The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical work that parallels Plath’s own struggles with clinical depression, which resulted in her suicide shortly after the book’s UK release. Stifled by the typical career and life choices available to women in the sixties, Esther longs to be a writer but becomes increasingly depressed as she sets out on the difficult path to achieve her dream. For all its serious subject matter, the novel has plenty of humour and droll observation, from the ‘big cowy family’ of Dodo Conway to the presumptions of Esther’s de facto fiancé Buddy. Plath’s genius as a poet is evident in her descriptions of mental illness throughout the novel: “Wherever I sat - on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok - I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys (1966)

Reclaiming a voice for the 'madwoman' in Jane Eyre was the intent behind Dominica born Jean Rhys' postcolonial masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea, which focuses primarily on the earlier life of Antoinette Cosway before she is shipped overseas to become Mrs Bertha Rochester. Set in various parts of the Caribbean British Empire, the book opens shortly after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and concerns itself with racial and gender inequality, postcolonial legacies and the problems of displacement and assimilation. Traumatic events from Antoinette's childhood are brought to light - the death of her brother, the mental instability of her mother - providing background and depth to a character that Rhys felt had been maligned. A later section of the novel gives a literal voice to the madwoman as Bertha's stream of consciousness from the attic helps the reader to understand her actions in Bronte's original work.

Johnny I Hardly Knew You, Edna O’Brien (1977)

Exploring themes of societal repression, failed loves and female sexuality, Johnny I Hardly Knew You follows Nora as she seeks revenge for her suffering on her younger lover Hart. One of O’Brien’s darkest heroines, Nora borders on madness in her plot to murder her son’s best friend. The surrounding world of broken objects and wild animals mirror the protagonist’s increasingly crazed thought processes and descent into madness. An unhappy childhood lies at the heart of Nora’s desire for ‘a fruitful love’ and her revenge against Hart is a revenge against all men, originating with a father who taught her ‘the gruesome power of the hand that strikes.’

No Country For Young Men, Julia O’Faolain (1980)

An epic narrative relating the lives of four generations of two Irish families, No Country For Young Men was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 1980. Set against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War, O’Faolain’s novel looks at the politics of the ‘national question’ and the negative and far-reaching consequences this had on communities and individuals. Key themes of madness and memory come to light with the character of Sister Judith, banished to a convent by her anti-treaty brother-in-law after a psychotic episode. When Judith is granted release to stay with relatives years later, her fragmented recollections uncover the darkness at the heart of Irish society.

The Butcher Boy, Patrick McCabe (1992)

One of the most memorable unhinged characters in contemporary Irish fiction is Francis Brady, the troubled child narrator of Pat McCabe's The Butcher Boy. Schoolboy Francie retreats into a violent imaginary world to escape from a childhood marked by alcohol abuse, poverty, suicide and neglect. As his home life continues to spiral, Francie loses control over his fantasies and the line between reality and nightmare becomes increasingly blurred, helped along by a small town Irish mentality that seeks to further marginalise the downtrodden. Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize the year it was published, the novel was adapted into a film by Neil Jordan in 1997.

The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry (2008)

The protagonist of Sebastian Barry's Booker shortlisted novel is centenarian Rose McNulty, a woman who has spent half her life incarcerated in a mental hospital in County Roscommon. Part of a novel sequence that follows members of the McNulty clan, and loosely inspired by Barry's personal family history, The Secret Scripture won both the Book of the Year at the Costa Awards and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize the year it was published. Split into two narratives - Roseanne's fictional autobiography and the 'commonplace book' of chief psychiatrist Dr Grene - the novel focuses on the religious and political upheaval in early twentieth century Ireland and the culture of oppression for women this created. A film version starring Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, Jeremy Irons and Jonathan Rhys Meyers starts shooting in Ireland in June.