May 8, 2009
By Brette Ehalt
Photo by Mark Ferguson
Heathcliff, Bill Sikes, the Marquis St. Evremonde, and John Claggart – these are the infamous “psychopaths” of interest to PhD English student Maureen Mulligan.
Over the next two years, Mulligan will study four Victorian novels—Wuthering Heights, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and Billy Budd—which feature characters who “are intractable to socialization, often causing damage to those around them.” In general, she hopes to demonstrate “the ways in which literature can model ideas of psychological difference and express the cultural attitudes and preoccupations of its audience towards these differences.”
But more specifically, she wishes to show the ways that mental aberration, which can sometimes be pathological or violent, manifests itself in novels.
“I will study the way Bronte, Dickens, and Melville portray these characters who have what we would consider an identifiable lack of conscience. One of the terms we currently use to describe this sort of character trait is ‘psychopathic.’”
While the term psychopath was not in use during the Victorian era, both authors and doctors were struggling to categorize certain types of destructive behaviour, Mulligan explains. In the 19th century, psychiatry as a field of medicine was just coming into being, as was the link between psychiatry and literature.
“Early psychiatrists found English literature a very useful and practical way to explain and
discern mental illness. According to author Benjamin Reiss, in the first three decades of American psychiatry, William Shakespeare was cited as an authority on insanity and mental functioning more frequently than anyone else.” She adds that early psychiatrists were particularly concerned with the nature of manie sans délire, or “insanity without delirium,” and they debated whether this disorder was moral or neuro-biological.
“Psychiatrists wondered if their patients were acting out of moral corruption or whether there was a scientific cause for their tendencies and actions,” continues Mulligan. “This debate can be traced in the literature that was being produced during the period.”
Mulligan’s examination of these texts is important, she says, because “the intersections between medicine and literature are increasingly being realized and tested.” She notes that many medical schools are now including literature – short stories and novels – as part of their students’ training to become more patient-friendly and communicative doctors.
Mulligan recalls her own participation in an inter-disciplinary class last year at the U of S. Taught by reproductive sciences researcher Roger Pierson and 18th century literary expert Ray Stephanson, the class focused on the connections between modern reproductive technology and science, and reproduction as exemplified in literature. Mulligan believes the class was an indication of future collaborations between the humanities and sciences disciplines.
“It was a watermark. The class made us feel like we were treading new ground. I think there is amazing potential for new discovery when medical and humanities researchers work together.”
Brette Ehalt writes profiles of grad students for the College of Graduate Studies and Research.