On the Historical Depiction of Madness in American Literature

On the Historical Depiction of Madness in American Literature

Dylan Howarth

The Thread
Back to Issue

I should really like to think there’s something wrong with me – Because, if there isn’t then there’s something wrong, or at least, very different from what it seemed to be, with the world itself – and that’s much more frightening!

T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party (1949)

Few subjects captivated the nineteenth-century mind quite like madness. In a century obsessed with reason, deeply fearful of irrationality, and fascinated by the unknowns of the mind – the century of alienists, psychiatry, hypnosis, and psychoanalysis – it is perfectly understandable that madness would occupy such a vital spot within the cultural zeitgeist. For Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), the quintessential American Gothic writer, unveiling the dark fires of the human soul was a lifetime endeavour. His ghoulish tales of deranged killers and of psychological collapse have captivated readers ever since they were first published. The descent into madness that so fascinated Poe is perhaps best captured in his short story The Black Cat (1843). Half a century later, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) would put out her own triumphal examination of madness in the form of a short story: The Yellow Wall-Paper (1892). Via a first-person narrator (The Yellow Wall-Paper takes the form of a Journal while The Black Cat takes that of a confession), both short stories give us a vivid glimpse into the mind of their respectively deranged protagonists. Madness, the breakdown of personal identity, and the existence of the monster within are all standard elements of Gothic and Fantastic literature. Both stories play around with these tropes in their own ways to produce their own vision of madness.

As a basic reading of both short stories makes clear, not all madnesses are the same. Madness plays an ostensibly different role in each: in The Yellow Wall-Paper, the mad narrator is the victim of oppression; in The Black Cat, the mad narrator is the oppressor. Yet these two different perspectives are perhaps not as exclusive as it may initially seem, and are, in fact, intrinsically interconnected; the subjectively destructive potentialities of Gothic madness, whether oppressive or oppressed, are a likeness of the social, mental, and moral spoliations brought about by despotic societal “madness”.

At its core, The Yellow Wall-Paper presents a case of mental illness which is provoked by societal oppression. More specifically, the story is a tale about the repression of Woman’s liberty in a phallocratic and patriarchal society, and of the consequences this repression has on women explicitly, and more generally on society as a whole.

While perhaps not always recognised as a conventional example of Gothic fiction, The Yellow Wall-Paper makes extensive use of key Gothic literary themes and conventions. The idea of the Gothic double (made most famous by Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and identified by Tzvetan Todorov as one of the key components of Fantastic literature) underpins the entire story. In this case, the duality is not, however, focused on good and evil, as it so often is in Gothic fiction. The duality of man—the angel and the beast—is conspicuously absent from The Yellow Wall-Paper. Rather, the woman trapped within the eponymous yellow wallpaper is a reflection of the trapped narrator and her voyage across the border of reason into the wilderness of madness. This descent into madness closely resembles that of the narrator in Guy de Maupassant’s Le Horla. In both stories, the “Monster” (the trapped woman in this case) is but the manifestation of a hidden and usually unexplainable madness that resides inside all of us, and of the breakdown of identity that follows its discovery. The existence of the double makes the character question who they are as the perceived limits of the subject collapse. In fact, the merging of the narrator and the woman is made explicit at the end of the story. After locking herself in the room, she asks herself if the creeping women ‘all come out of that wall-paper as I did?’ before creeping around the room herself and telling her horrified husband that, ‘I’ve got out at last’, ‘in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’. The ‘sickly’ yellow colour of the wallpaper that bears the woman inside mirrors the state of mind of the woman so captivated by its decay from the outside.

The theme of imprisonment underlined by the Gothic double is at the heart of The Yellow Wall-Paper. The description of the house and the room hints at it having previously been used to keep mentally ill children or adults. The narrator informs us that, ‘the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things on the wall’ and that the bed is “nailed down”: she is literally being held captive by her husband, who wants to cure her depression. The scratched, gouged, splintered floor, the dug-out plaster and the torn wallpaper all indicate that the rooms’ previous occupants have tried to escape and possibly succumbed to an even deeper madness. They are a previous recurrence (perhaps eternal) of the narrator herself. They are all the women who are imprisoned, not simply in rooms, but within this patriarchal society. The husband, a physician obsessed with ‘reason’ and that which can be demonstrably observed—he has an ‘intense horror of superstition’ and ‘scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt’, and ‘knows that there is no reason to suffer’—symbolises a phallocratic order that does not or will not understand women’s needs (the narrator’s depression appears to be a case of postpartum depression), and instead wants them to abstain from intellectual enterprise, perhaps for fear that women would rebel if given the tools to emancipate themselves. The husband’s diagnosis is itself the root cause of the wife’s disease ; madness is a manifestation of the unfulfilled desire for freedom that results from the medicalisation of the wife’s “hysteria” and of the cure prescribed for it. This ends up destroying not only the wife, but also the husband, who faints in horror – by extension dismantling the whole relationship, symbolically painting the damage such an order has on society as a whole.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself was subjected to just such a ‘rest cure’ by the physician Silas Weir Mitchell and decided to write her short story to expose the destructive effects such a ‘treatment’ has. Gilman stated that her work was ‘not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy’. The narrator’s desire to rip down the yellow wallpaper and to burn down the house reflects her desire break down the social order that keeps her socially and intellectually—and even physically!—repressed. She becomes mad because she is held back by a mad society. The yellow wallpaper thus also becomes a metaphor for women’s discourse: confusing and strange to the patriarchal order, and which expresses that which this order fails to perceive and fears once freed. The story’s contribution to the shaping of feminist discourse firmly entrenches it as a monument of 19th-century feminist literature.

Much like in The Yellow Wall-Paper, Poe’s eponymous black cat, Pluto, can be viewed as a double of the narrator, reflecting his dark (literally) proclivities and desires. The name of the cat itself (or cats, if we consider the second to be a different one), Pluto, alludes to the dark and gloomy realm that this Greco-Roman god of the underworld rules over. The black cat, his ‘favourite pet and playmate’, follows him throughout the story, unable to be shaken off even in death. The white mark in the shape of a gallows that the narrator sees on the second black cat—the symbol of his recurring desire to kill—also reflects his philosophy. As an omen of his approaching execution for the murder of his wife, the white mark raises the subject of fate: everything is predetermined by outside forces (‘very natural causes and effects’); he is but a cog within a cosmic machinery. This effectively absolves himself of any blame (much like an insanity defence would do). His justifications for his crimes are suspect, and he continuously blames other things or beings for his behaviour. At first it is because of ‘the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance’, but the story later changes, and he claims that he hung Pluto ‘because I knew that it had loved me’, and that the cat’s fondness for him, as well as his wife’s ‘humanity of feeling’, lead to ‘feelings of disgust and annoyance […] bitterness and hatred’. Never once does he truly accept the blame for what he has done. The narrator’s reliability throughout the story, especially regarding the motives for his own crimes, is questionable. Although he asserts that his account is ‘nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects’, that he is ‘detailing a chain of facts’, and that he isn’t mad, he also tells us from the very beginning that we shouldn’t believe him. This paints a picture of a manipulative lunatic who will say anything to escape the hangman’s noose.

Along with his deceptiveness, we should note the narrator’s total lack of remorse, his feigned sense of empathy and repentance, and his narcissism (his hubris and need to boast to the police is what leads to his eventual arrest). His condition fits, as Vicki Hester and Emily Segir have demonstrated, the description of what would now be recognised as psychopathy, a type of personality disorder. All the textbook traits of a psychopathic criminal type are present. This fact is remarkable given that the currently accepted definition of psychopathy was only agreed on in the 1990s and is a testament to Poe’s uncanny understanding of human behaviour.

A gradual escalation in the nature of the narrator’s crimes also accompanies his descent into madness. This perfectly mirrors the progression of deviant behaviour that is frequently observed with serial killers: sadistic acts are first committed against animals, progressing to the killing of animals and the physical abuse of fellow humans, before finally escalating to homicide. All four developments are found in the story, and it is entirely likely that the narrator would have continued to kill people had he not been caught. The recurring, unbearable urge to kill requires satisfaction and suppression. Poe’s ability to so accurately describe a serial killer in an age when the phenomenon wasn’t yet defined or understood is noteworthy. It makes sense that Poe’s serial killer characters have therefore served as the basis for many of those encountered in 20th- and 21st-century fiction. This desire for death, destruction, and pain brings to mind the later psychoanalytic concept of the “Death Drive”.

Tying into the character’s psychopathy and “Death Drive” is the idea of transgression. The theme of transgression is brought forward multiple times in The Black Cat. At the start of the story, the narrator asks us:

‘Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgement, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such?’

On the next page, he tells us that he hung Pluto ‘because I knew that in doing so I was committing a sin’. For the protagonist, the soul longs to vex itself, ‘to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only’, and this leads him to ‘consummate the injury’ and murder Pluto, the ‘unoffending brute’. This idea of taboo and transgression is similar to that expounded by the French philosopher and writer Georges Bataille (1897-1962) throughout his work. For Bataille, the refutation of the brutality and violence of nature, and the framework of reason and work that human societies have adopted, are what set humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. This ascent therefore presupposes that certain acts are forbidden; they are taboo. The transgression of the taboo is not the negation of the forbidden nature of the taboo, but its violation, and therefore affirmation. By violating the taboo, the transgressor reasserts its importance, and maintains the prohibition of the act to gain from it (spiritually, sexually, artistically, etc.) through the very experience of the horror of the transgression of the taboo. This is much of a muchness to the narrator’s own rationale for his ghastly acts. Transgression of the taboos of death can serve as a means of attaining a limit-experience, which, through its intensity, allows one to reach the edge of the abyss that separates living beings and to peer into the continuity beyond. Divine ecstasy and extreme horror marry at the limits of experience, where identity breaks down and the certainty of the self is challenged. In a sense, this is perfectly compatible with the murderous psychopath’s urge to kill, which can be viewed as an urge to reach the borderlines of subjectivity and being, the drive towards total destruction.

The protagonist of The Black Cat is fundamentally a tyrant. A phallocrat, a psychopath, and a serial killer in the making, he embodies the upper-class sadean delinquent for whom the determinism and fatalism of nature are sovereign, and who chooses nature’s cruelty over culture’s domesticating qualities. His alienation from human society through his being essentially raised by animals (his supposedly gentle nature and love for animals as a child made him the jest of his companions and likely the target of bullying), can be seen as a potential root cause for his transformation and future actions. A man raised by animals ends up resembling animals. His welcoming of the primal darkness within him can potentially be seen as a revolt against his peers and society for the persecution he endured at their hands. In any case, nature’s sovereignty means that the roles of culprit and victim become justified. The narrator himself acknowledges that perverseness is ‘one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—‘one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man,’ and he fully embraces this fact, whether out of a desire for revenge or because of an inherent moral depravity. Fatalistically, this downward spiral of debauchery and violence leads the narrator to the ultimate limit-experience: his own death.

These two outlooks on madness seem fundamentally antagonistic. Yet, in spite of this, there is a further possible reading of the Black Cat that may in fact bring the implications of the deranged narrator’s crimes closer to the reading presented here of the patriarchal social oppression found in The Yellow Wall-Paper. It is perhaps no coincidence that the eponymous cat is black, and that the protagonist is a white man: we are faced with an allegorical representation of the treatment of slaves and women by the white and male hegemon of the Antebellum South. The quasi-Hegelian struggle between the desire to eliminate the other to realise the self as objectivity itself and the unfulfillable recognition from the other that arises within this master-slave relationship, paralleled by the physical struggle between the protagonist and the “other” – taking here the form of a veritable fight to the death between the white male protagonist and the tyrannised black cat (African-American slaves) and wife (women) – is striking. In this sense, the narrator is conceivably but an extension of the white, male, slaveholding, supremacist order that dominated the South at the time, a reality that Poe would have been extremely familiar with. Such a reading would intimate that the story’s real function is to subtly unveil the fundamental corruption of the society which birthed it – a society where black slaves are bought and sold like cattle; a society where a black man’s worth is lesser than most animals’; a society where women are practically property; a society where white men hang defiant black men; a society that claims the love of your fellow Man as its highest virtue, yet where half of its constituents are despised simply for being; a society that says thou shall not kill, yet where the State and the slaver have a right of life and death over their subjects; a society where every cruel excess and atrocity is justified by a fallacious appeal to nature; a society where the tyrants absolve themselves by blaming their victims – through the narrator’s own madness, much like Charlotte Perkins Gilman does so powerfully in The Yellow Wall-Paper. The book isn’t merely a key to the unknown chambers within the castle of the self, as Franz Kafka put it: it is also by extension a mirror held up to the world and to mankind, reflecting both fully in all of their beauty and ugliness.


Primary sources

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wall-Paper”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1865 to the Present, edited by Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 511-523.

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “Why I Wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”?”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1865 to the Present, edited by Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 523-524.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Black Cat”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to 1865, edited by Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 766-772.

Secondary Sources

Bataille, Georges. L’Érotisme. Les Éditions de Minuit, 1957/2011, Paris.

Brennan, Matthew C. The Gothic Psyche: Disintegration and Growth in Nineteenth-Century English Literature. Camden House, Columbia, 1997, South Carolina.

Busfield, Joan. “The Female Malady? Men, Women and Madness in Nineteenth-Century Britain”. Sociology, Vol. 28, No. 1, Sage Publications, Ltd., 1994, pp. 259-277.

Cleman, John. “Irresistible Impulses: Edgar Allan Poe and the Insanity Defense”. American Literature, Vol. 63, No. 4, Duke University Press, 1991, pp. 623-640.

Hester, Vicki, and Emily Segir. “Edgar Allan Poe: “The Black Cat,” and Current Forensic Psychology”. The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Penn State University Press, 2014, pp.175-193.

Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist Criticism, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and the Politics of Color in America”. Feminist Studies, Vol. 15, No. 3, Feminist Studies, Inc., 1989, pp. 415-441.

Renner, Karen J. “Poe and the Contemporary Serial Killer Narrative”. Psychology in Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Gerardo del Guercio, Logos Verlag Berlin, 2019, pp. 13-40.

Semple Spiegel, Jennifer. “Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Fiction “with a Purpose” and the Need to Know the Real Story”. CEA Critic, Vol. 59, No. 3, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, pp. 44-57.

Showalter, Elaine. “Victorian Women and Insanity”. Victorian Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2, Indiana University Press, 1980, pp.157-181.

Todorov, Tzvetan. Introduction à la Littérature Fantastique. Éditions du Seuil, 1970.

Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in “The Yellow Wallpaper””. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 3, No. 1/2, University of Tulsa, 1984, pp. 61-77.

Van Scoyoc, Stephen L. “Le Grand Mort: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”. CEA Critic, Vol. 63, No. 2, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, pp. 26-33.

Wolter, Jürgen. ““The Yellow Wall-Paper”: The Ambivalence of Changing Discourses”. Amerikastudien/American Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2, Universitätsverlag WINTER Gmbh, 2009, pp. 195-210.

Zimmerman, Brett. ““Moral Insanity” or Paranoid Schizophrenia: Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart””. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2, University of Manitoba, 1992, pp. 39-48.

Dylan Howarth

Dylan holds a BA in History from King's College London and an MA in Medieval and Viking History from the University of Oslo. He currently works at the Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen (the Stasi Prison Museum) in Berlin. In a previous life, he trained with the Belgian Kendo National Team, and in his spare time, he collects ancient coins.

The Thread
Back to Issue