Interesting piece from a Demi-Mode reader, Claire Loughran …

Recognising Psychological Conditions in Literature

There are a great many novels and works of literature which deal with psychological conditions. Many modern works, such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Girl, Interrupted and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time are attempts to interpret and document psychological conditions suffered by the characters. In these instances, the psychological conditions are among the chief concerns of the piece and the novels are excellent means of understanding characters who are somewhat defined by the conditions which they bare. But what of other characters? Many of the greatest heroes and villains have possess some hint of a psychological condition; it is often what makes them so compelling. More often than not, a subtle facet of character can be an introduction into a psychological condition which is only ever examined in the subtext. Whilst these novels rarely focus on the psychological conditions of the characters, every characterisation and subtlety goes another step towards creating and sustaining a real and functioning personality. So what are some examples of psychological conditions throughout literature?

The First Case

Psychological conditions in literary characters can be traced back all the way to the very first stories and myths. As such, it was these myths which first gave many of the psychological conditions their names. When proposing theories, Sigmund Freud would often use literary characters as a reference point. Freud’s Oedipus and Electra complexes both stem from traits recognises in people which bore some similarity to traits shared by characters in classic Greek mythology. As psychoanalysis was first becoming a formalised medical practice, it was the characters themselves which leant their names to the numerous conditions. In order to define and explain complex psychological conditions, doctors used literary characters as explanative tools; their conditions were thought to be pre-existing and universal as such that the characters themselves could come to define the conditions. Freud’s Oedipus complex is perhaps as famous as the story of Oedipus itself, and to some extent, the relationship which many readers have with the character is viewed through the eyes of psychoanalysis. Whether the theory itself is correct is irrelevant – the theory has had an impact on the manner in which Oedipus as a character is read and understood, and the character of Oedipus now carries a greater cultural baggage.

Infiltration and Understanding

Psychological conditions have existed for as long as the concept of the self, but it was only at the turn of the twentieth century that we began to document, name and investigate these numerous conditions. Once the conditions themselves had names and could be organised away into neat little character holes, they began to emerge in recognisable personality traits in many of the great 20th century characters. Yossarian, of Catch 22, and Holden Caulfield, of Catcher in the Rye, both exhibit notable traits of one of the most scarring of psychological conditions: post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD can emerge in many different contexts and as the result of any number of incidents; learning how to deal with PTSD can be incredibly difficult. What sets these characters apart is the subtlety in which it is woven into the makeup of the personalities. In many respects, both Yossarian and Holden are avatars of 20th century life: Yossarian is a reflection of the horrors and idiocy of war, while Holden is one of the first major examples (however tragic) of that invention of the 1960s, the teenager. That both have experienced tragedies in their past is a key aspect of their character, and the traits of psychological scarring are often made apparent. Throughout both Catch 22 and Catcher in the Rye, we witness the subtleties of psychological conditions make themselves apparent without ever being truly and explicitly mentioned.

An Addictive Plot Device

It is dystopian fiction, however, that has perhaps best incorporated psychological conditions into the framework of literary fiction. William Gibson’s famed novel Neuromancer features a character driven by addiction. Case, the chief protagonist, is a man hindered by addiction. As well as being a drug addict, former hacker Case finds himself cut off from his ability to access the global cyberspace network. Not only is his drug addiction driving him to commit foolish acts, but his addiction to the cyberspace network - and the information and freedom it provides – becomes a compelling character motivation. Gibson uses addiction not only as an understandable aspect of a flawed protagonist, but uses the audiences engendered knowledge of the psychological issues behind addiction in order to drive the plot forwards. Similarly, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World features a society built on the pillars of chemical addiction. Huxley examines and incorporates a great many psychological conditions into the novel, but one of the major plot points centres around an addiction to the hallucinogen Soma. Rather than a single character suffering from addiction, Huxley proposes an entire society suffering, their brave new world built on the back of a synthesised chemical reaction. The society’s addiction, their psychological condition, is one of the key concerns which must be overcome if they are ever to escape the dystopian future. Rather than a single character afflicted by addiction, Huxley allows psychological conditions – and the audience’s understanding of their perils – to be the platform for his social commentary.

What Does it all Mean?

Many novels are written about characters struggling to come to terms with psychological afflictions. But such is the diaspora and dissemination of public awareness when it comes to mental health, we are able to recognise psychological traits in character for whom mental health is not necessarily their driving force. While all character are built on the back of personality and individuality, it is now possible for the audience to recognise - and to some extent diagnose – certain conditions within the world of fiction. Thanks to the heightened public awareness, these facets of characters, and the manner in which an audience will understand and comprehend them, is another tool at the author’s disposal.

 

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