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Title: The horror of personality : exploring the gothicisation of mental illness in American fiction of the long 1950s
Author: Madden, Victoria Margaret
ISNI:       0000 0004 8509 4615
Awarding Body: University of Edinburgh
Current Institution: University of Edinburgh
Date of Award: 2020
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This thesis examines the gothicisation of mental illness - specifically, disorders of personality - in American fiction, as illustrated through four popular novels written in the long 1950s. In so doing, this thesis aims to demystify not only the complex intersections between American history and literature, but also the nation's ambivalent relationship with psychiatry and its fascination with psychological explanations for deviance and evil. While previous research has explored depictions of psychopathology in literature with limited scope, this thesis offers a detailed study of the ways in which contemporary history, popular culture, and concurrent psychiatric developments within the United States coalesce to shape depictions of personality disorder in fiction with particular consideration to the close-knit relationship between the American gothic and Freudianism and the implications of gender in post-war society. The first chapter explores national anxieties concerning communism and homosexuality, which converge in the figure of the sexual psychopath, embodied within Robert Bloch's novel Psycho (1959) by the Bluebeardian figure of Norman Bates. The second chapter reads Shirley Jackson's novel The Bird's Nest (1954) against Corbett Thigpen and Hervey Cleckley's psychiatric study The Three Faces of Eve (1957) in order to examine the symbiotic relationship between fictional gothic texts and contemporary psychiatric texts centring on what was previously termed multiple personality disorder. Both chapters find that the pervasive use of gothic language in contemporary psychiatric and cultural documents describing psychopathy and multiple personality disorder, respectively, underlines a lack of understanding concerning severe forms of mental illness, resulting in the marginalisation and villainization of those afflicted with disorders of personality. Chapter three examines the depiction of what might now be termed borderline personality disorder in Henry Farrell's novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1960). This chapter argues that the novel's subversion of the Bluebeard gothic offers a counternarrative to the classic Woman in Peril plot that nonetheless underscores the folly of patriarchal culture and concludes that texts like Baby Jane help to expose the gendered nature of concepts such as normality and deviance within western culture. Finally, chapter four analyses the depiction of child psychopathy in William March's novel The Bad Seed (1954). This chapter finds that by focusing on the role of genetics in the formation of psychopathology, March's novel poses a challenge to the dominant psychoanalytic framework of 1950s American psychiatry and exposes the gothic undercurrents of American suburban social structures. By studying these texts as a collection, this thesis confronts the driving factors behind why the gothic remains such an integral part of American culture at large. It ultimately concludes that a long history of female marginalization and androcentrism within both medical and popular culture continues to feed the gothicisation of mental illness within fiction of the United States.
Supervisor: Millard, Ken ; Hughes, Keith Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: personality disorders ; mental illness in literature ; gothic fiction ; Americal fiction ; psychiatric developments ; Freudianism ; American gothic ; Psycho ; Bird's Nest ; Three Faces of Eve ; Bluebeard gothic ; Baby Jane ; 1950s American society ; American suburban social structures ; female marginalization