University of Tasmania
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Charles Dickens and the idea of madness

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posted on 2023-05-27, 08:14 authored by Betts, David John
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.


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

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