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Madness and Melancholy: Abnormal Psychology in the Works of Charlotte Brontë (Shirley) Part IV

Updated on June 13, 2014

Another strange aspect of Shirley is that the narrator remains unknown. For the majority of the novel, the narration appears to be in the third person, but “the satirical, consciously ‘masculine’ voice in which Brontë speaks in the preface and opening paragraphs of Shirley does not remain consistent throughout the novel” (Miller xvii). Sometimes, the reader is only a spectator to the surface of events, but other times, the reader is given access into the minds of the characters. Caroline Helstone is the character to whom the reader is given the greatest amount of access, and she is shown as having “intense emotionalism” (Miller xvii).

Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley is different from her other novels in that it is less of a personal novel and more of a social novel. It has a wide range of characters, and it can be difficult to pick out a main protagonist. While Shirley does focus on the emotions of its characters in some respects, it has a tendency to be more concerned with the characters as a whole and their place in society as a bigger picture rather than the deep, inner workings of the mind, like in Jane Eyre (Miller xi).

Michael S. Kearns describes Charlotte Brontë’s approach in this novel by saying, “In Shirley, Brontë turns her attention more toward surfaces but still attempts to connect them with depths. She takes on a new task in this novel – creating a rural society with a variety of characters and social interactions – that requires her to attend more to the subtle variations of human behavior” (149).

Caroline Helstone: Social vs. Psychological Selfhood

Caroline Helstone is similar to William Crimsworth, Jane Eyre, and Lucy Snowe because of “their position as orphans and their craving for love” (McCurdy 118). Like Charlotte Brontë’s other central characters, Caroline is not a stranger to loneliness and emotional trauma. She is raised by her uncle, who does not give her the attention that she needs, who refuses to allow her to become a governess in order to occupy her time, and who “frowns upon marriage in general” (McCurdy 119); his interference in Caroline’s life has a negative influence on her psyche, and it brings her down considerably. With the “painful . . . [suspicion] . . . that her best . . . [friend] . . . Shirley, is in love with the man [Robert]” (McCurdy 119), and with her uncle’s banning her from visiting Robert Moore, a darkness descends upon Caroline’s mind in the form of intense depression.

Throughout this time, she is not only struggling with her alienation from the man whom she has come to love and from her lack of action, but with her place in society as a whole. As a largely social novel, Shirley certainly emphasizes the matter of the importance of a person’s place within their society.

Caroline’s situation is unique in that she wants to be able to work and believes that “single women should have more to do – better chances of interesting and profitable occupation" (Shirley 369), and she essentially resigns herself to the destiny of becoming an old maid. In this way, Shirley is able to present the idea of finding oneself and the concept of selfhood in general, not only in a personal, psychological, and emotional context as Caroline struggles to find happiness, but also in a social and political way as well, as she tries to come to terms with the idea that she might never achieve what society says she needs to be happy.

If “the proximate cause of Caroline’s collapse into illness is the apparent loss of any hope of Robert’s love and, with that the closing off of any means of self-definition” as Miriam Bailin suggests (266), then it is not only Caroline’s loss of love that causes her depression, but it is also a fear of losing herself, which demonstrates yet again the importance of Vichy’s idea of the importance of selfhood in the human mind.

The terrible sickness that Caroline falls prey to is certainly brought on by her nerves, and in Shirley, Caroline’s “illness serves . . . as . . . a metaphorical equivalent to . . . [her] . . . state of mind” (Bailin 255). It is only after an astounding revelation is made – that Mrs. Pryor is actually Caroline’s mother – that Caroline is able to find a way out of the dark place that she is in. As she realizes that she is not alone and that she has “my own mamma . . . who belongs to me, and to whom I belong! I am a rich girl now: I have something I can love well, and not be afraid of loving” (Shirley 418). It is not long after Caroline finds out the truth about Mrs. Pryor that she begins to recover some of “mental tranquility” and although her “physical convalescence could not keep pace with [it]” (Shirley 414), she does begin to recover physically when the cloud of depression over her lifts, for now she has something to live for, and she knows that she does not have to be afraid of losing the love of her mother like she believes that she has lost Robert’s.

The Physical Toll of Depression

In the same way that Jane was stricken physically faint and weak with grief after her interrupted wedding, Caroline’s psyche is not the only part of her that is affected by the melancholia. She begins to weaken, and eventually falls very ill because of her depression. Caroline “had native strength in her girl’s heart” (Shirley 179), however, and as she feels the melancholy come upon her, she resists its effect on her by keeping herself busy.

It is interesting that the narrator seems to contribute her strength of heart and mind to her loneliness, which is one of the main factors in her desperation: “Men and women never struggle so hard as when they struggle alone, without witness, counselor, or confidant; unencouraged, unadvised, and unpitied” (Shirley 179). Because Caroline has essentially been alone for the majority of her life, despite having lived with her uncle, it is implied that she has learned to be strong out of necessity, because no one else is going to be strong for her.

Caroline’s determination is very similar to that of Jane’s after she has left Thornfield and is living on her own and working in the school for a living. And, like Jane after her imprisonment in the red room, Caroline’s “sufferings . . . roused her spirit keenly” (Shirley 179), causing her to question her unhappiness and to try to do something about it. Despite her attempts to keep her mind active and distracted, however, her situation of being stuck at home most of the time without a sufficient amount of social interaction begins to overwhelm her.

Charlotte Brontë exhibits the toll that depression can take on a person’s everyday life, and because of the uncustomary third person narration, the reader has the unique privilege of not only seeing what is going on inside of Caroline’s mind, but also how her state of mind is affecting her physically from an outside point of view. Caroline finds herself weak in mind and body; she cannot sleep, and she is in a constant state of sadness. The narrator gives a detailed account of the lonely, depressed nights that Caroline suffers through in order to show how the ordeal changes not only her mental state, but her quality of living and deteriorating physical condition:

Day by day she came back in the evening, pale and wearied-looking, yet seemingly not fatigued; for still, as soon as she had thrown off her bonnet and her shawl, she would, instead of resting, begin to pace her apartment: sometimes she would not sit down till she was literally faint. She said she did this to tire herself well, that she might sleep soundly at night. But if that was her aim it was unattained, for at night, when others slumbered, she was tossing on her pillow, or sitting at the foot of her couch in the darkness, forgetful apparently of the necessity of seeking repose. Often, unhappy girl! she was crying – crying in a sort of intolerable despair; which, when it rushed over her, smote down her strength, and reduced her to childlike helplessness. (Shirley 179)

Through this passage, it is easy to see that despite Shirley’s being a novel with mostly social concerns, Charlotte Brontë is still able to demonstrate her keen understanding of the workings of the mind and the power that it and a person’s emotions can hold over a person’s life and health This creates a very personal aspect to a novel that is not, perhaps, meant to be read as much on a personal level (Kearns 149).


Bailin, Miriam. “‘Varieties of Pain’: The Victorian Sickroom and Brontë’s Shirley.” Modern Language Quarterly. 48.3 (1987): 254-278. Web. 22 April 2013.

Brontë, Charlotte. Shirley. 1849. Ed. Jessica Cox. London: Penguin Books, 2006.

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.

Miller, Lucasta. “Introduction.” Shirley. Ed. Jessica Cox. London: Penguin Books, 2006.

It is remarkable and a testament to Charlotte Brontë’s understanding of the mind that she is able to present a story like Shirley with its social issues and still portray an accurate portrait of a person’s psyche and its effect on the rest of their life.

Part V coming soon: Madness and Melancholy: Abnormal Psychology in the Works of Charlotte Brontë (Villette) Part V

What about you?

Do you believe that mental and physical wellness are strongly linked? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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    • Elizabeth Bowers profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth Wilson 

      4 years ago from Tennessee

      Thank you both very much for your kind comments! I'll admit that Shirley wasn't my favorite of Charlotte's works, but the psychological and social insight is well worth noting! I really enjoyed Jane Eyre the most too!

    • wordswithlove profile image

      Neetu M 

      4 years ago from USA

      I haven't read "Shirley", Elizabeth, but I enjoyed reading your analysis of the book. There is no doubt in my mind that the physical and mental are so intertwined that they are inextricable in human beings. Charlotte Bronte has a wonderful capacity and ability to bring to life the inner workings of her characters, which has drawn me to her books. Thank you for sharing this.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

      4 years ago from Philippines

      The only work I read of Charlotte Bronte was Jane Eyre, and I only vaguely remember Villette. Your insights into her writing make me feel like looking for her other books as well so that I can understand them better. I've read Jane Eyre three times, so that's about done.


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