Wednesday, 8 January 2014

How has the portrayal of illness, including mental illness, changed between Victorian literature and modern literature?

The Victorian era saw a severe rise in the number of people being committed to insane asylums, partly as a result of the great amount of repressive social and historical change which was coming about during this period. At this time there was also a great deal of poverty which led to many physical illnesses because of overcrowding, poor nutrition and low sanitation levels. Victorian literature rarely discusses how the illness was developed, and often only alludes to its development, as it focuses much more on its effects. On the other hand, modern literature often discusses how these diseases are developed and tracks their development explicitly as well as highlighting its effects. This difference results from the fact that in the Victorian era much less was understood medically about both physical and mental diseases, so there was not as much material for Victorian authors to work with without making up untruths.
            Firstly, Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights uses characters which clearly are not mentally or physically stable. Cathy appears to suffer from schizophrenia as her mental health starts to decline from a very early age, resulting in her hallucinating towards her death and believing in her own delusions. This illness is portrayed in a way which makes Cathy seem not only scary, but also devilish. During the Victorian era there was thought to be a link between sin and illness, especially mental illness; this explains why Bronte chooses to expose Cathy’s illness with negative imagery. Similarly, Heathcliff shows signs of depression: he weeps often, he loses interest in eating and sleeping, loses interest in social contact and at one point self-harms. Again, Heathcliff is a devilish figure. Bronte does not highlight the development of these illnesses or expose any reason behind why these characters are acting in this way, nor does she talk about their symptoms in any real detail. This seeming lack of interest in discussing the mental illness and how it affects the character may come out of the fact that mental illnesses were not deemed to be as important then as they are now: contemporary readers would likely not have wanted any greater analysis of Cathy and Heathcliff’s disorders.
On the other hand, modern literature discusses mental illnesses to a much greater extent. This is because the increase in medical work on them over the past hundred years or so has raised greater awareness of their existence as well as raising a greater level of understanding of them in the wider public. Ned Vizzini exposes the intricacies of a variety of different mental illnesses in his It’s Kind of a Funny Story. He was able to write such an accurate portrayal of these as a result of his own time spent in a psychiatric ward because of his severe depression. He was informed a great deal about the illness itself and used his own feelings and experiences to accurately portray what living with a mental illness is like. Unlike Bronte, he openly examines what factors can cause the development of a mental illness, the manifestations it can take as it develops and a variety of outcomes which can occur as a result of it.
Furthermore, there is a high lack of interest in the deaths of characters in Victorian fiction due to physical illnesses. Bronte barely remarks on Cathy’s death: one only knows that she is gone and her daughter is alive, whilst nobody witnesses Heathcliff’s death or knows the true reasoning for it. Moreover, in Gaskell’s North and South Bessy Higgins’ death, which is one of many deaths in the novel is described in a great amount of detail, but only in terms of her actions, thoughts and words during the time; there is only a little description of the convulsions which her body suffers from leading up to her death.

On the other hand, John Green in writing his modern novel The Fault in Our Stars exposes the causes, developments and results of having a serious physical illness. His exposition of how it feels to be a teenager with cancer touches the heart of many teenagers because they can relate to these characters in a way in which the Victorian literature discussed does not allow them to. Not only is the development of this illness portrayed in an accurate way, but the return of Augustus’ cancer (sorry, spoilers) exposes the complications of being a cancer survivor. The clear and detailed description of the decline in his health, written from the perspective of another cancer sufferer exposes the reality of this illness. Moreover, the grim reality of his death in that it does not occur at the end of the novel, but part way through, serves to remind the reader that when one dies that is not the end of the influence their illness has had: it affects many other people for a very long time. 

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