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Madness and Melancholy: Abnormal Psychology in the Works of Charlotte Bronte Part I
Madness and mental illness, whether due to sickness, life circumstances, genetic inheritance, or a troubled past, are motifs that are present throughout the novels of the Charlotte Brontë. Ranging from paranoia to severe anxiety and depression, the different neurological diseases have thematic significance in these novels. In many ways, Charlotte Brontë was a women before her time, and this is evident in her understanding of the human mind and the diseases that can plague it.
Charlotte Brontë's Melancholia and Hypochondria
Charlotte Brontë herself suffered from melancholia and hypochondria (Enomoto 253-255), and as a result, she was able to portray in her writing an accurate, devastating description of what depression can do to the mind, body, and spirit of the person afflicted. William Crimsworth, Jane Eyre, Caroline Helstone, and Lucy Snowe suffer from mental illness, and through these characters and their suffering, the author shows her advanced understanding of the mind. Even though medicine was not as advanced at the time that the Brontës lived and wrote as it is now, Charlotte was still able to delve deep into the recesses of the human mind in her books, perhaps due to her own difficulties and experiences in her own life.
Childhood and Psychology
Another element that is very much present in the books is the idea that a person’s childhood is directly linked to his or her emotional well-being, ability to function in society, and psychological condition in adulthood. Harold Grier McCurdy describes this concept as “a single basic theme [that] runs through the four novels [by Charlotte Brontë],” and he defines this theme as “the struggle of an orphaned young person to secure love in a difficult world” (118). In The Professor, Jane Eyre, Shirley,and Villette, the characters’ childhood plays an integral role in their lives as adults, how they interact with others, and their personal psyches, making it evident that Charlotte Brontë understood just how important a person’s childhood could be to his or her personality and mental state later on in life. We see this in the lives of Brontë’s characters, as their experiences in their youth turn them into who they are.
The study of the mind was vastly different in the nineteenth century than it is today, which makes Charlotte Brontës’s ability to understand and accurately portray the workings of the human mind unique for its time. Many other writers, including Charles Dickens, may have attempted to include the workings of the psyche in their books, but the Brontës, Charlotte especially, were “regarded favorably” not only because of their ability to accurately represent the mind, but also to give their characters “a fuller life” (Kearns 140). Because of the different methods of understanding the mind at the time, it is important to have an understanding of what “Victorian psychology” (Vrettos 69) consisted of, to better understand how the Brontës contributed to it and subsequently broke away from it due to their impressive insight into the human mind.
Athena Vrettos defines the term Victorian psychology as “potentially misleading
. . . insofar as psychology in the nineteenth century was not a coherent discipline, but rather a collection of works by writers who drew upon philosophy, social theory, evolutionary theory, physiology, neurology, alienism, and psychiatry” (69). She goes on to say that not only did these writers compile these ideas, but they also looked to creative works “for insight into human behavior, motivation, and psychological development, and for examples or case studies of insanity and other abnormal mental conditions” (69). This is an interesting concept, for it shows that in the nineteenth century, authors like the Brontës did not only draw upon the works of the “scholars” of the mind, but the experts also drew upon the works of the creative fiction authors as well.
In the latter part of the Victorian period, however, the study of psychology became slightly less dependent upon written works and collective speculations, and more grounded in scientific studies. Vrettos also describes this development in the Victorian field of psychology:
It [psychology] was . . . divided into two very distinct fields of expertise and objects of study that had gradually gained influence throughout the century. The term “psychology” came out of the tradition of “introspective psychology,” or mental philosophy based on self-observation. The study of insanity and other forms of abnormal psychology, or mental pathology, came under the rubric of alienism . . . Both fields confronted concepts such as selfhood, individual and social identity, the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious, and the rational boundaries of the human mind. (69)
Charlotte Brontë wrote her works before psychology’s shift toward science, yet her novels contain elements of all of the concepts mentioned by Vrettos. This further demonstrates the her premature understanding of the mind, an understanding that serves to create more believable characters who are much more modern than those created by their contemporaries.
Enomoto, Yoshiko. “Breaking out of Despair: Higuchi Ichiyô and Charlotte Brontë.” Comparative Literature Studies. 24.3 (1987): 251-263. Web. 21 April 2013.
Kearns, Michael S. Metaphors of Mind in Fiction and Psychology. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1987.
McCurdy, Harold Grier. “A Study of the Novels of Charlotte and Emily Bronte as an Expression of Their Personalities.” Journal of Personality. 16.2. (1947): 109-152. Web. 20 April 2013.
Vrettos, Athena. “Victorian Psychology.” A Companion to the Victorian Novel. Ed. Patrick Brantlinger and William B. Thesing. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 2002. 67-83.
A Woman out of Her Time
Through the lives, experiences, sufferings, sicknesses, and emotions of the main characters of Charlotte Brontë’s four novels, it is made obvious that she had an acute understanding of the mind, the human psyche, and how a person’s emotions and mental state can affect their quality of living, their social life, their sense of self, and even their physical health and appearance. Perhaps because of the tragedies in her own life, Brontë presents the human mind in a way that it had never been seen before, through her intense psychological delving into the recesses of the psyche. William Crimsworth, Jane Eyre, Caroline Helstone, and Lucy Snowe all experience bouts of depression, melancholia, and hypochondria, and their conditions are accurately and deeply portrayed by Brontë’s narration and exploration of their characters and minds through the progression of their respective stories.
Charlotte Brontë proves herself to be a woman out of her time with her impressive representation of the mind in a time when psychology was little more than collected works by a group of novelists trying to explain how the mind worked. It is truly a testament to her insight that she was able to create characters so emotionally complex and yet portray them and their struggles in a way that can be easily understood, and that can touch people going similar situations, even to this day.
Part II: Abnormal Psychology in Charlotte Brontë's The Professor