Some of the most memorable characters in classic American literature suffer from severe mental illness — Benjy Compson, Edna Pontellier, Holden Caulfield and Lennie Small. In a way, their illnesses give them a certain charm and realism which more stereotypical stock characters tend to lack. However, it raises questions about what the use of mental illness as a plot point says about American society and readers’ treatment of mental illness.
The portrayal of mental illness in the arts plays a substantial role in how society views it, as literature often reflects the values of its time. In the above four examples, each takes on a different mental illness and represents it in a distinct light.
William Faulkner uses Benjy in “The Sound and the Fury” to narrate the first of the novel’s four sections. By offering us a glimpse into Benjy’s mind, readers can determine he is mentally handicapped and has little conception of real time as it occurs. His thoughts wander to events spread 30 years apart, and he shows little ability to distinguish between the past and present or to articulate these strange thoughts.
But Benjy’s character presents a useful model of someone who can focus beyond the here and now. Maybe Faulkner is trying to show how the novel’s labelling of him as an “idiot” strips him of his agency and of his insight. His ability to recall and relive moments through time stands in stark contrast to our tendency to only focus on the present. Faulkner shows us Benjy’s mental illness enables him to think beyond conventional time and also to have a more acute sense of the happenings around him, making him perceptive in his silence.
Edna Pontellier’s battle with mental illness in Kate Chopin’s novel “The Awakening” is less obvious, but she shows signs of severe depression and bipolar disorder that can’t be ignored. Her impulsivity, bouts of sadness, lack of interest in activities, helplessness and apathy are all signs of at least one of these conditions. Her constant state of doubt and confusion make her easy to relate to and speaks to the internal and little-expressed feelings most humans have. Though we generally view her as a tremendously conflicted character who chooses death over life, she has qualities which relate to all of us. Chopin’s refusal to shy away from prevalent feelings of alienation may be the reason for the novel’s success.
Steinbeck’s beloved character from the pages of “Of Mice and Men,” Lennie Small, possesses limited knowledge and is described as simply “mentally challenged”. Lennie expresses a strong dependence on others — revealing the human desire for companionship. His elaborate ambitions and need for camaraderie differ little from most humans’ desires. Companionship and aspirations are two key aspects to the existence of humanity, and Lennie exemplifies these ideals to the maximum degree. Steinbeck seems to be using Lennie to represent characteristics of humanity we are often resistant to acknowledge, but are relevant across borders of mental states.
Holden Caulfield’s demeanor in J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” shows signs of post- traumatic stress disorder. Two horrific events from his past continue to haunt him, making him exceedingly judgmental of others and apathetic toward many aspects of his life. Though he shows no clear symptoms of a specific diagnosis, it is clear he has some mental instability, particularly shown by his hospitalization and a visit by a psychoanalyst. However, Salinger’s character ponders aspects of life that others would never consider, putting out thoughts that don’t ever cross many’s minds. His ability to make readers relate to him, despite his over-analyzing and harsh judgments, makes it clear that these traits are present, but repressed, in many of us.
These novels all use the concept of mental illness differently to create multiple effects — and the trend in 20th-century American literature to employ main characters with mental illnesses is undeniably present. The question this movement poses is: are we further stigmatizing this minority, the mentally ill, by using their conditions to derive exciting plots? This is a credible concern to address. But what seems more likely is that the use of these characters and plot points serve to shed some broader light on the human experience. They allow readers to gain new perspectives, develop more nuanced ways of thinking, and to learn something about themselves.