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Charles Dickens and the idea of madness

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Betts, David John (1988) Charles Dickens and the idea of madness. PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Abstract

The concept of madness has intrigued authors from classical Greek
times until the present day. In this, the Victorians in general,
and Dickens in particular, proved to be no exception. While this
thesis is primarily concerned with Dickens's use of madness as
a literary device, the first chapter discusses his ideas in relation
both to literary tradition and to contemporary social and medical
views of insanity. From the literary tradition the Victorians
received several conventional uses of madness, together with an
interest in portraying the unusual or abnormal in human behaviour.
However, not only were these literary conventions modified by new medical and sociological developments relating to insanity, but the novelists' portrayal of the more progressive attitudes was
also influenced by the demands of the novel as a form.
The Idiot figure is perhaps the most potent example of a
traditional symbol of madness. The second chapter examines the
characteristics of this traditional figure and the difficulties
that Dickens experienced in attempting to adapt it to suit the
requirements of the Victorian novel. To circumvent these
difficulties, the role hitherto assigned to the Idiot figure was
increasingly transposed to more ordinary characters who could be
embraced within the social framework of the novel. This transposition
worked with varying degrees of success.
In melodramatic fiction before Dickens, madness had been used
chiefly as a form of punishment. Dickens's interest in the criminal
mind led naturally to an interest in madness and criminality:
chapter III demonstrates the ways in which he modified a conventional
approach. This development involved an increasing exploration of the actual mental state of a criminal; an exploration that evoked
sympathy with the criminal's condition and raised questions about
environmental conditioning and criminal responsibility.
Chapter IV examines the ways in which Dickens began to use
madness as a symptom of a society in which much had gone wrong.
Madness acquired a new symbolic status in novels in which it could
be integrated thematically to reinforce social attacks. This resulted
in tentative explorations of the psychotic states of characters
who could not adjust to the social pressures of Victorian society.
The more Dickens's portrayals of madness reflected serious concerns
in the novels, the less conventional their presentation became.
This increasingly serious use of madness in fiction affected
what had previously been one of its simplest uses - the portrayal
of insanity and eccentricity for comic purposes. Chapter V discusses
Dickens's progression from using madness primarily as comic relief
to his using it to express the fundamental alienation of eccentric
characters from the society in which they live. This sharpened
the question of society's responsibility for the madness of people
within it.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Dickens, Charles, 1812-1870, Mental illness in literature
Copyright Holders: The Author
Copyright Information:

Copyright 1988 the Author - The University is continuing to endeavour to trace the copyright
owner(s) and in the meantime this item has been reproduced here in good faith. We
would be pleased to hear from the copyright owner(s).

Additional Information:

Bibliography: leaves 238-253. Thesis (Ph.D)--University of Tasmania, 1988

Date Deposited: 25 Nov 2014 00:44
Last Modified: 11 Mar 2016 05:55
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