When I was sixteen years old, I made my first foray into the world of Sylvia Plath when I read The Bell Jar. Never before had I felt so connected to a single book. Though on a more superficial level, I had little in common with protagonist Esther Greenwood, the way she described her fixations and obsessions and feelings seemed to put into words so much of what I had felt throughout my life. Deep passions and melancholia and so many other emotions were finally articulated. Over a half century separated the publication of the novel and the first time I read it, yet I saw parts of myself in Esther, in her depression, passions, friendships, and jealousies and romances. Stories about mental illness and versions of it have, in some form or the other, existed as long as stories themselves have. I think some form of suffering exists at the heart of many, if not all stories. The desire to alleviate pain, take our mind off things, have our emotions validated, bring catharsis, or even just learn to empathise with others is what drives us to read. Depictions of mental illness have changed over time, yet many can still find a connection to works from many ages before they were born.
Early portrayals of mental illness in literature come in the form of Greek tragedies. Sophocles and Euripedes both wrote plays of characters who were overcome with madness. Madness lies in the centre of many stories, providing a degree of depth that beckons the audience closer and drives the narrative further. Of course madness as a term is now considered outdated, a blanket word for a variety of mental illness or a vague descriptor for those who are socially deviant. Many ancient Greek tragedies portray fits of madness as sudden uncharacteristic fits of anger and malice being the will of the gods, something done to humans as opposed to something innate. Euripedes’ trio of Herakles, Orestes, and Hippolytus, and Sophocles Ajax (~400 BCE) all feature characters being overcome with madness by divine intervention, and committing acts of violence as a result. They see terrifying visions and experience fits of despair, wishing themselves for death. In Sophocles’ Antigone King Creon’s impulsive actions result in tragedy, with madness being seen as something that needed to be restrained and contained. However, in following centuries, there was a shift. Socrates and Plato both describe the need to care for both body and soul (399-380 BCE) Mental illness was described as a disease, complete with a list of symptoms.
Mental illness was no stranger to the works of William Shakespeare. Many of his tragedies featured characters suffering from madness, grief, and other complex emotions. Hamlet is one of the most famous tragedies to have come from Shakespeare's canon. His descent into madness in his grief following the death of his father serves as the basis for most of the play. One discussion that has always polarised people is whether Hamlet himself is a hero or a villain. Hamlet's attempts to avenge his father result in his own death. Shakespeare gives a level of depth and passion to Hamlet's emotion, as well as complexity. Hamlet exists as both a hero and a villain.
A much-discussed character in literature is Ophelia, perhaps one of the most famous 'mad women' of literature. Ophelia's death is a scene that has been depicted many times in art.
I would be amiss to talk about depictions of mental health in fiction without mentioning Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper. Told through a series of journal entries by an unnamed narrator, The Yellow Wallpaper is a story of a young woman who has recently given birth suffering from “a temporary nervous depression –a slight hysterical tendency”. She is prescribed bedrest, a then-common remedy for women of the time. Forbidden from working or writing, and confined in an upstairs nursery by her physician husband, the woman is eventually driven to madness after developing an obsession with the yellow wallpaper of her room. Her insanity comes about as a direct response to the treatment. While suffering from postnatal depression, Perkins Gilman herself was given a strict ‘rest cure’ regime for three months. Her confinement left her on the verge of a mental breakdown, and when she was able, she got a second opinion from a female physician who was a strong opponent of the rest cure, instead encouraging stimulation through physical and mental activity. The Yellow Wallpaper is most frequently remembered as a strong condemnation on the lack of agency afforded to women by the male-dominatred medical profession at the time. The narrator’s insanity is a protest against the males in her life supposedly acting in her best interests. Some interpret the ending as triumphant for the narrator, as to a certain extent, she was right, what she was prescribed was bad for her and caused her harm, and her insanity liberates that diagnosis.
The Bell Jar follows nineteen-year-old Esther through anthe summer of 1953, an internship at a ladies magazine, her return to her Massachussetts home and desire to write a novel, her suicide attempt and subsequent treatment for depression at a private institution. The 1963 novel drew heavily from Plath’s own experiences at a similar age. Plath’s portrayal of depression and it’s treatment was groundbreaking. The novel remains popular to this day, with many still identifying with it. Esther is relatable to many, with her polarising desire to be both like the rebellious Doreen and wholesome Betsy, her failed romances, and her spiral into depression. Presented with so many opportunities yet feeling so limited, Esther’s authenticity came about as a result of Plath’s willingness to portray her experience accurately.
Contemporary literature has no shortage of a variety of portrayals and works that discuss mental health and illness. Oftentimes, it simply is a part of a character’s life, as opposed to the defining aspect of it. Sally Rooney’s critically acclaimed canon features many characters dealing with mental health struggles. It is simply a facet of their story, they exist as complex and interesting people outside of their mental health in her works.
A lot of my personal favourite modern depictions are translated works of Japanese fiction. Sayaka Murata's Convenience Store Woman is a unique portrayal of an unusual thirty-something-year-old woman and her deep affection for her job at a convenience store. Many reviewers attempted to diagnose protagonist Keiko with some type of disorder, yet the novel itself refuses to do so, instead telling her story and how she goes about her life and her attempts to fit into the world around her, a world she doesn't fully understand. It was refreshing, and a charming portrayal. Also at sixteen years old, I read Haruki Murakami's translated novel Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage. It is about a railroad engineer attempting to find answers many years after being abruptly cut off from his close-knit friend group. The novel alternates between the past and the present, with dreams interspersed between. In the aftermath of his ostracism, Tsukuru falls into a deep depression, close to suicide. Many might be more familiar with Murakami’s depiction of depression in Norwegian Wood, but it was Tsukuru Tazaki that left a mark on me. In my mid-teens, I entered a period of deep loneliness. Much like the protagonist, I struggled to understand my isolation, and reconcile my feelings surrounding it. In his attempts at closure, I myself was able to learn to let go of some of my own pain, and understand that not everything makes sense or has answers.
In recent years, I think mental health and mental illness have become mainstream, commercialised even. There are constant reminders to 'take it easy' and 'mind your mental health' peppered at us. Though I am glad to see attempts to be made to destigmatise mental illness, especially in my home of Malaysia, at times, I've found the lack of nuance in the way many discuss the issue frustrating. If it was so simple as doing the generic wellness recommendations an Instagram post reminds us to, why do so many of us struggle? It's been at times like this I've found the most comfort in my books, in seeing depictions of mental health issues with all of their complexities and intricacies. Maybe sometimes one needs to see a character make their mistakes, and feel less alone in their own suffering. More than anything though, there’s such comfort to me in seeing characters I relate to ultimately thrive, in lifting up their bell jars and stepping out into the world. It reminds me to have hope.