Mental Health

Classic Literature and Mental Health

This article will look at the ways in which mental health issues are presented in literature from Shakespeare to the present day.

Mental health as a theme and character trait in novels, short stories and plays has been, in this article, charted all the way back to Shakespeare’s time.

Mental health has appeared in works of classic literature for thousands of years: from the troubled protagonist to the suffering secondary character, mental health is part of the human experience in both fiction and non-fiction. This article will span hundreds of years of mental health representation in a wide variety of genres.

The autobiographical novel is significant as it details the mental health experience of the author first-hand thus, these works can be quite intense yet insightful.

Personal accounts of mental health in literature

Mental Health


It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini is a brilliant novel based on the author’s own experience. Set in Brooklyn, New York, we follow Craig who, after becoming overwhelmed by the intense pressure put upon him by the prestigious high school he attends.

His depression builds, he experiences intense suicidal feelings and admits himself to a psychiatric hospital. The majority of the novel explores Craig’s life inside the hospital, detailing all the people he meets and their experiences with poor mental health.

Despite the serious topic of the novel, Vizzini manages to infuse the novel with witty remarks and humour. The novel was selected in 2007 by the American Library Association as one of the books on its list of the Best Books for Young Adults.

The novel addresses the dangers of peer pressure, themes of self-discovery, and most importantly, looking after yourself when you most need it.

There is a film adaptation of ‘It’s Kind of a Funny Story,’ starring Emma Roberts and Zach Galifianakis which received positive reviews and stayed close to the original source material.

Unfortunately, Ned Vizzini died in 2013 after a fall from the roof of a building in Brooklyn, but his work continues to raise awareness of mental health and how to treat it.

Mental Health in Shakespeare

Throughout Shakespeare’s plays, particularly his tragedies, it is sometimes clear that the protagonist or the eponymous character is suffering from some kind of mental illness.

It is common in Shakespearean tragedies that the protagonist has one fatal flaw; ambition, greed, jealousy, for example. We will focus on Shakespeare’s Hamlet; one of his most famous plays and a story that has been retold through cinema, theatre and performance art many times.

Hamlet is at the centre of a complex family dynamic when the play opens: his father has recently died so Hamlet is still in mourning, yet Gertrude, his mother, has quickly married Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, much to Hamlet’s annoyance.

Hamlet’s grief, to some, is overwhelming: he spends most of his time by himself and, in one of the most memorable soliloquies, he contemplates his own mortality.

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.”

It is revealed that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father. Thus, Hamlet resorts to feigning madness after witnessing his father’s ghost asking him to avenge his death.

It has been debated for many years by students and experts as to why Hamlet decides to pretend to be mad. One answer is that he pretends to be mad to get closer to Claudius to avenge his father’s death.

However, the narrative becomes more complicated when both the audience and those closest to Hamlet can no longer tell if he is feigning madness or has indeed become insane.

Recent adaptations of Hamlet include the National Theatre’s production with Andrew Scott playing Hamlet in a critically acclaimed performance and a refreshing new interpretation of the ‘To Be or not To Be’ soliloquy.

Early Feminist Literature

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The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story written by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892. This piece of early feminist literature illustrates the attitudes towards mental illness in the 19th century.

Narrated in the first person, The Yellow Wallpaper is a collection of journal entries written by a woman undergoing treatment for ‘temporary nervous depression’ and ‘hysteria’ which were common diagnoses to women during this era.

The story draws attention to the mansion in which the woman and her husband stay in and its yellow wallpaper in the rooms. The female narrator begins to fixate on the wallpaper, convinced that she can see a woman trapped in it.

She then decides that she must strip the wallpaper off the wall in order to free the woman. Some interpret this story as an allegory: the trapped woman in the wallpaper is in fact the mentally ill woman trapped in the mansion.

Many feminist scholars offer a feminist interpretation of this story; perhaps it is a story of female emancipation. Perhaps the story is a condemnation of the dominance of male control of the medical profession in the 19th century and dismissing women’s serious mental health conditions to simply ‘hysteria.’

The story also highlights the concept of the domestic and public space in the 19th century where it was strongly believed that women belonged in the domestic sphere and men in the public sphere.

Another interpretation reads that the story is about women feeling trapped in gendered roles and practices and by seeing herself in the wallpaper makes the female protagonist realise that she cannot live her life trapped and controlled by a man.

Therefore, the resolution of the story is seen as a victory and expresses women taking back control from men who trap them. In many ways, this story is still very much relevant to this day as female emancipation is still not something that has been globally achieved yet.

Contemporary Female Experience

The last work of literature in this article tells the story of a group of teenage sisters in 1970s Michigan. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides is narrated by a group of boys who try to find an explanation for each sister’s death in the novel, this story deals head-on with suicide and women’s issues.

It has been argued that the novel presents a very romantic vision of female death and poor mental health. Additionally, this is not helped by Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation which uses soft filters and long montages of the blonde-haired sisters swaying and giggling together.

Ultimately, the novel is a coming of age story of young women prevented from being overly sexual and free from sexist expectations of how women should act and be. Their choice of escape is suicide which does not provide a positive conclusion to the book, it can actually be seen as harmful to vulnerable readers.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel is a modern classic however considering skyrocketing rates of depression and suicidal ideation amongst teenagers in the 21st century, this novel may do more harm than good.

Mental Health Support 

Mental health as a theme and character trait in novels, short stories and plays has been, in this article, charted all the way back to Shakespeare’s time.

Mental health has been presented as a source of trouble for certain protagonists and perhaps the most interesting aspect is how the authors or characters themselves deal with this illness.

Now more than ever, mental health is a major talking point in contemporary society, and this is very much reflected in the literature we read every day. Mental health is important to talk about and its representation in literature can vary from positive and negative presentations and outcomes.

Please click through on the link below to find advice on dealing with mental illness and contact details to be used in an emergency provided by mental health charity Mind.


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