Mental Illness in Fiction

There’s a lot of mental illness in the world, and there’s a lot of mental illness in literature.

And why not? Fiction frequently reflects real life (albeit often in a heightened way) and many readers have suffered from depression, bipolar disorder, etc. — or have family members, friends, and coworkers with various such conditions.

Mental illness — which of course ranges from mild to severe — can also help give literature the important elements of drama, heartbreak, curiosity-evoking content, cliffhanger situations, etc. Will characters with mental illness harm themselves or others? Can they function well in society, perhaps with the help of medication and/or therapy? How much does income level determine how people with mental illness are treated? Do the characters live at home or in a facility? Are some of them misdiagnosed? Do characters who know characters with mental illness act resentfully, compassionately, or both ways in their interactions? Heck, people with mental illness can’t help the fact that their brain chemistry has wired them differently — yet the resulting behavior is still not easy for family and friends.

One of the most famous novels dealing with mental illness is Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, set in a psychiatric ward. Known to many for its movie version, the book includes the sobering scenario of ward residents being treated harshly by Nurse Ratched.

Indeed, literature has many examples of the mentally ill not getting much compassion. For instance, the far-from-affluent Connie Ramos of Marge Piercy’s part-sci-fi novel Woman on the Edge of Time is institutionalized despite probably not being mentally ill at all — just legitimately angry at, and stressed with, what life has dealt her.

But there are other instances of characters being treated kindly by mental-health professionals — often in cases where the family has the money to pay for superior care. One example is in Jamie’s Children by Susan Moore Jordan, whose Niall character gets some darn good help that might help him save a relationship and create a music career.

Other literary works containing characters with mental illness, possible mental illness, depression, severe social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. — or who are “eccentric” or “slow” — include Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (“madwoman in the attic” Bertha), Jean Rhys’ Jane Eyre prequel Wide Sargasso Sea (a more sympathetic Bertha as a younger woman), Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (comically delusional title character), Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (despairing title character), Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (psychologically sick Raskolnikov), and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (reclusive Boo Radley).

Also: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (shell-shocked war veteran Septimus Smith), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (had-a-breakdown Nicole Diver), Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (spacey Sylvie), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (dual-personality title character), Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor (beleaguered Lucy Ashton), Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (depressed/suicidal Esther Greenwood), Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (schizophrenic Deborah Blau), Shakespeare’s Hamlet (possibly psychotic title character), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (hallucinating/patronized-by-husband female narrator).

Several of the above fictional works were semi-autobiographical.

One of the most famous examples of an author who struggled with mental illness was Janet Frame, whose scheduled lobotomy was canceled when a collection of her stories won a prestigious literary prize in New Zealand.

Then there are works featuring characters on the autism spectrum — a neuro-developmental condition, not a mental illness. One such person is Christopher of Mark Haddon’s novel-turned-play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

What are your favorite novels featuring characters who are or may be mentally ill? Any thoughts on the way that’s depicted in literature?

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I’ve finished and am now rewriting/polishing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.