How Contemporary Literary Fiction Reclaims the Arc of Madness and Humanizes Women

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A hundred years ago, women were silenced by psychiatry under the label of “crazy” whenever they threatened models of domesticity. Any woman who did not conform to social expectations was considered medically deficient. Times have changed, but women, whether mentally ill or assertive or simply people whose opinions don’t align with the consensus, are still often labeled as “crazy.” Literary fiction writers are tearing down this stale mold to give female characters the reverence they deserve, one novel at a time.

In Jerry Pinto’s Em And The Big Hoom, Imelda Mendes, nicknamed “Em” by her two children, is a mentally unstable mother. Her manic episodes create a vortex around which her husband and two children are tossed and turned. She’s “crazy” enough to say “dick and pussy” out loud in front of her kids. She swings wildly between extreme suicidal tendencies and emotionally abusive mania. His uncertain mental state is sometimes punctuated by rare moments of normality.

Although his “madness” is big enough to dominate both his family’s living space and free space, Pinto very carefully created his character much more than that. Em isn’t a nice woman just because it’s more socially comfortable than being rude. Through her son’s desperate attempts to piece together who his mother was before her mental illness took hold of her, we see what she was like as a young woman. Her diary entries and the letters she compulsively wrote but rarely mailed illuminate her entire personality. We find out about her dating her husband and how she had to give up her dreams of going to college and take a job to support her family. Behind all her suicide attempts and frequent hospital stays, Pinto has retained a very human and vulnerable portrait of a woman who had no choice but to give in to her “madness”. He further salvaged the “madness” arc for Em by not believing in a fairy tale to overcome mental illness. Em doesn’t want to be forgiven for being herself, no matter how awful it is to be her naked.

cover of Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason.  A n illustration of a woman with her head against a wall, all on a pink and red background

Meg Mason’s first novel, Sorrow And Bliss, is told in the aftermath of Martha and Patrick’s separation. Our 40-year-old narrator Martha, armed with her biting humor, has been fiercely trying to battle a debilitating mental illness for as long as she can remember. Mason never names his illness and refers to it as ‘- -‘. There’s something exceptionally liberating about this, as it doesn’t end up pathologizing Martha’s illness, but gives her the clarity and understanding she needs to move closer to her big coming-of-age moment. adult. Naming Martha’s “madness” is not important here. Instead, Mason takes stock of how Martha sees herself, reimagines the hurt inflicted on her by witnesses to her “madness”, and confronts the past barrage of misinformation regarding her illness. Patrick’s gentle, self-effacing nature contrasts with Martha’s overwhelming depression and what has been interpreted as her selfishness. While she is sometimes really rude to those around her, she is also one of the naturally nice people who buy glasses they don’t need to make a humiliated optician feel better.

Martha’s “madness” has been twisted and hijacked by others to fit their accounts of her. The way she sees herself has been compromised by misinformation and misinterpretations from her caregivers, professionals and others. To top it off, Martha’s illness, broken marriages, and less-than-ideal childhood cloud her judgment of herself. When she finally receives an accurate diagnosis of her illness, Mason’s clever portrayal of it as “——” prevents Martha from becoming a poster child for a particular condition. She has been the subject of conjecture – someone to decode according to the myopic visions of those who know her and a project to fix or abandon for too long. Ultimately, by making her see his “madness” for what it really is, Mason finally lets Martha participate in her own life, which, even in the 21st century, is an incredible feat for “mad” women.

Whenever women talked about common sense, they were relegated to the realm of “crazy”. Every time they stepped out of their stereotypical caregiver image, they were insulted and reduced to derogatory labels. A lot has changed in our modern world, but when it comes to the position of women in society, there is still a lot to do. Literary fiction depicting flawed female characters fighting their respective battles with mental health is a much-needed social movement. It prompts us to begin to think of women as beings deserving of attention, reflection and affection, and not just as springboards for feeding the male child.


For more thoughts on mental illness, check out these must-read mental illness memoirs and books that demystify mental illness.

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