Madness (insanity) is a central theme in Gothic literature, although certainly this is not a Gothic invention. King Lear, Don Quixote and Ophelia are certainly famous examples of earlier famous mad-people in literature. In the Gothic, characters are subject to an onslaught of sensational and macabre events, and Gothic writers seem to delight in their descriptions of the mind's breaking point. One example of this is in Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, in which the wanderer himself describes the sensation of insanity in fine detail, saying "You will echo the scream of every delirious wretch that harbours near you; then you will pause, clasp your hands on your throbbing head, and listen with horrible anxiety whether the scream proceeded from you or them." Although it was written long before the term was coined, this seems to be a brilliant depiction of a dissociative state. Melmoth also closely links madness and criminality, telling the sane man Stanton that "Experience must teach you that there can be no crime into which madmen would not, and do not, precipitate themselves; mischief is their occupation, malice their habit, murder their sport, and blasphemy their delight."
In 1824, James Hogg addresses similar concerns in his Gothic crime story Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Hogg's narrative is startling for the Gothic reader because rather than becoming more and more clear, Justified Sinner becomes less; truth is so obscured that by the end neither the narrator nor the reader is able to discern fact from delusion. It is, however, clear that like Melmoth, Justified Sinner correlates evil, crime, and madness. Hogg adds to the list, however, by also linking madness to the development of the mind and the influence of proper (or improper) upbringing.
Gothic narratives also contain their fair share of lesser types of mental distress, such as depression and dissipation, although they are not termed as such. The hero of the Gothic tale is often so burdened with the distance of his heroine that he falls into dissipation or depression. Gothic explorations of mental illness are consistent with the slippery nature of Gothic meaning, in that some affected characters are viewed with sympathy, while others, such as the mad scientists, are viewed as a special type of villain.
Over the course of the development of the Gothic, theories concerning the causes and nature of madness changed. At the beginning of the Gothic novel in the late 18th century, scholars were considering new ideas about human nature that considered a person in terms from his her her distance from the 'normal person', and used the term 'madness' flexibly to indicate a person's varying degrees of departure from the 'normal'. For example, a madwoman in the French prison Sapetriere in 1788 could be detained for four distinctly different categories of madness; she could be dissolute, 'not considered hopelessly depraved,' condemned by the order of the king (probably for political purposes) or held by order of the court (for social reasons). These four primitive categories of diagnosis reflect the mad-woman's distance from the 'normal' person. Irrationality and madness in this period were thought to be caused by the rapid changes in the social environment; by physically removing humans from close proximity to nature and placing them in cities, sometimes a 'deranged sensibility' would be awakened in them. Madness was simply the obverse of progress. Like any theoretical system that assumes a 'normal' figure exists, this concept of madness very easily shifted all mad-people into the 'other' category, which the Gothic so often exploits to create sinister, threatening scenes.
The Victorians embraced the idea of the self in relationship to what is considered 'normal', then gradually changed their ideas about madness as a result of their expanding knowledge of science and evolution. Madness became less a moral or social failing than a biological regression, in which the person slipped back in evolution to a state just before the most recent advancement, which the Victorians held was the ability to reason effectively. The physical mechanism of the body was linked to the formation of the mind, especially in women, children, and the 'lower races'. It wasn't until the 1870's that scientists began to consider the notion of a psyche that could develop somewhat independently of the biological condition, and the very roots of our modern study of psychology took hold.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
MacAndrew, Elizabeth. The Gothic Tradition in Fiction. New York : Columbia University Press, 1979. Print.
Rosen, George. Madness in Society : Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness . Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1968. Print.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York : Facts on File, 2005. Print.
OAKCLIFFE HALL OR THE FATAL EFFECTS OF FEUDAL QUARRELS. A Tale of the Fifteenth Century [Transcript], Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson