When I wrote last week’s post about fictional characters with disabilities, I mostly focused on physical disabilities. But what about characters facing mental challenges — depression, autism, bipolar disorder, etc.? This post will focus on that.
I’ll first note that depression can be a sort of physical disability — a brain-chemistry thing. In other cases, people with so-called “normal” brain chemistry can feel deeply depressed when going through traumatic life experiences — death of a loved one, a severe personal illness, being in an abusive relationship, getting divorced, losing a job, having major money troubles, becoming the victim of a crime, dealing with virulent racism, and so on.
Earlier this month I read Paul Harding’s VERY well-written, almost unrelentingly downbeat 2009 novel Tinkers. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book stars George Crosby, who is close to death and of course greatly depressed about that. He begins hallucinating about his deceased parents, who we see were also quite morose because of their difficult lives — father Howard had a miserable, low-paying job as a peddler and suffered bouts of epilepsy, and mother Kathleen was extremely dissatisfied with her marriage and the overwhelming demands of parenting several children.
An earlier Pulitzer-winning work, Harper Lee’s 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird, of course features the major supporting character Boo Radley — a recluse with a mental condition that today might perhaps be labeled autism.
There’s also John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, co-starring intellectually challenged migrant worker Lennie. His lack of understanding about certain things is pivotal to the story line.
War can of course do a number on people’s psyches. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, World War I veteran Septimus Smith is suffering from “shell shock” — now often called post-traumatic stress syndrome. And one doesn’t have to have been a soldier to be mentally pummeled by war, as is the case with beleaguered widow, mother, and teacher Ida Mancuso in Else Morante’s novel History — set in Rome during World War II. Another riveting WWII-era novel, Erich Maria Remarque’s Arch of Triumph, includes the suicidal co-protagonist Joan Madou.
Among the many other fictional creations who attempt suicide or contemplate it are Edna Pontellier, who is not happy with marriage and the patriarchal order of things in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; and Martin Eden, who’s depressed about his writing life in the Jack London novel that bears Martin’s name.
Then we have psychotic characters such as the terrifying Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the dangerously crazed Annie Wilkes of Stephen King’s Misery.
There are also situations where a character is seen by authorities as having psychiatric issues, but do they really? Perhaps they’re just battered by life. One example of a protagonist in this situation is the impoverished Connie Ramos, who’s institutionalized during part of Marge Piercy’s sci-fi-ish novel Woman on the Edge of Time.
Speaking of institutionalization, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest famously has its characters in that setting.
Fictional people dealing with mental challenges can make for very dramatic, sobering, and relatable reading.
Any characters and novels you’d like to name that fit this theme? I’ve obviously only mentioned a few.
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about topics such as an appalling opinion piece by a local leader — is here.