Creative expression is one of the most sustaining coping mechanisms someone with mental illness can have. It redirects that chaos and messiness into creative energy rather than destructive energy. So, it’s no surprise that some of the greatest works of literature also deal with themes of mental illness.
This is not to perpetuate the harmful myth that genius and madness are intertwined or that great art is only possible through suffering. For many of these authors, the actual work of writing could only be done during periods of relative recovery or mental stability. It’s hard to write about psychological torment when you’re in the midst of it but processing it afterward in the form of creative expression can be essential to the healing process.
One of the greatest comforts I got from these books, was the realization that all the ugly parts—the parts I never saw on TV shows or in books written by unafflicted authors and so always believed were just my own shameful faults—were actually part of others’ experience of mental illness, too. It’s ugly and uncomfortable. It’s messy and weird. It’s laughably absurd. It’s unbearable how monumentally difficult the simplest tasks can be but it also kind of feels like a superpower. It’s endless, often incurable, yet finding a way to hope anyway is the only way forward. It’s a bundle of contradictions that coexist but shouldn’t. That’s what these stories try to capture.
Bartelby, the Scrivener
This short story by Herman Melville can be found in collections of the author’s short stories like Billy Budd, Bartelby, and Other Stories. Bartelby, the Scrivener deals with a low-level clerk in a law office—a scrivener’s job was to copy legal documents, by hand, because copy machines didn’t exist yet.
Tension builds as Bartelby, mysteriously and seemingly without cause descends deeper and deeper into the paralysis of what can only be described as depression. At first, only his work suffers but gradually, he ceases to take lunch, to leave his desk, or even to leave the office, only ever repeating the same refrain when asked why he wouldn’t do anything: I would prefer not to. He is eventually arrested and imprisoned when, even after the lawyer he works for relocates to a new office and new tenants take over the old office, Bartelby still won’t move.
Melville himself struggled with depression, alcoholism, and (some scholars believe) bipolar disorder. Bartelby is far from the only character to show signs of mental illness in the author’s work. Billy Budd (also featured in the collection above) is plagued by impulsive violent outbursts and a speech impediment that worsens when under emotional duress. Ishmael, the protagonist in Moby Dick, is prone to bouts of melancholy so severe that he impulsively embarks on a multiyear whaling voyage to stave off the lure of suicide.
Illnesses are never named in his stories because early 19th-century psychiatry lacked much of the language we use for talking about these conditions, but Melville does frame them as afflictions or diseases, not simply as personality traits.
Save Me the Waltz
While she’s most often remembered simply as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda Fitzgerald was an author in her own right—though her battle with schizophrenia prevented her from completing many of her stories, and Save Me the Waltz was the only book she ever published.
Written over the course of six weeks while receiving inpatient care at a psychiatric hospital for her schizophrenia, Save Me the Waltz is a semi-autobiographical novel about an unstable woman who is unhappy in her marriage to a famous artist and struggles to find acclaim and recognition for her own accomplishments rather than just being the “wife of” somebody important.
F. Scott, who regularly borrowed from their own life and used her as a model for characters in his books, berated his wife for writing the novel and made her revise parts that drew from the same material he wanted to use in what would later become Tender Is the Night.
The two books reference a similar time period in the couple’s life but are both fictionalized, and each has a very different perspective. In F. Scott’s, the husband begins as her psychiatrist, nursing the neurotic young woman to emotional stability and then marrying her. Later, he develops a drinking problem and turns to thoughts of affairs as his once-dependent wife starts to distance herself, growing more self-confident and independent until she ultimately divorces him.
In Zelda’s, the couple meets after World War I, the husband is an army officer who enjoys painting in his free time. They marry and, when his painting career takes off, the couple moves to France where both grow mutually resentful and distant from each other. Feeling alone and tormented by living in the shadow of her husband, she devotes herself to her ambition of becoming a prima ballerina. Ultimately, this pursuit fails, and the couple returns to the states, still miserable, still together.
It’s a much more sensually written narrative, rich with metaphor, lush description, and high tragedy that was not in vogue during the modernist era in which she wrote it, so it met with largely negative reviews. However, as a first-hand account of mental illness and living with an emotionally abusive partner—especially when compared to F. Scott’s own accounts, in which he often imagines himself as a kind of tortured savior, burdened by his love for this flighty, unstable woman—it’s a striking novel and well worth reading.
The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath’s classic (and only) novel, The Bell Jar, might be one of the most iconic stories of mental illness in American literature. The title of the book refers to the distorted perspective of a person suffering a breakdown: the world as seen through the distorted lens of a bell jar.
The novel recounts the descent of a young woman with a bright future into depression, multiple suicide attempts, and a litany of now-debunked psychiatric treatments like insulin shock treatment, in which patients are given massive doses of insulin and then electrocuted.
The story is semi-autobiographical, paralleling her own experience with depression and her six months spent in a hospital being treated with insulin shock treatment. She would receive this treatment multiple times throughout her life.
Plath’s long battle with mental illness ultimately led to her succumbing to her depression and committing suicide in 1963 at just 30 years old. Her story is a tragic one, filled with multiple suicide attempts. Yet, somehow the severity of her condition often escaped attention since, as doctors and those who knew her noted, she was still able to maintain her physical appearance and didn’t speak openly about her mental health until she was already teetering on the edge.
While her work is regarded as a cornerstone of confessional poetry, Plath was not very forthcoming about her depression during her life and most of her work, including the more explicit accounts of her suicidal ideation, wasn’t published until after her death.
Most notably, her poetry tends to take ordinary items or concepts and distort them into nightmarish scenes—mirroring the way a depressed mind can distort the seemingly mundane details of life into something unbearable.
While Stanley Kubrick’s classic film adaptation kind of brushes over the theme, Stephen King’s The Shining features addiction as the central cog around which the wheel of the story turns. Jack takes the job at the hotel in an effort to “stay dry” after multiple drinking-related events that each could have been a rock bottom on its own, including breaking his child’s arm in a fit of drunken rage, getting fired after beating up a high school student, and getting in a car accident in which he almost killed a child.
The carnivorous hotel is a problem, sure, but what really disturbs the Torrance family is the darkness that overcomes Jack when he drinks and his inability to quit. The caring husband and father gradually transforms into a monstrous presence, one that even he is afraid of, over the course of 650+ pages. In the sequel, Doctor Sleep, Danny Torrance, Jack’s son, is recovering from his own struggle with addiction and the PTSD he suffered from that winter he spent in a hotel that wanted to eat him.
Stephen King likewise struggled with addiction throughout much of his early career. The addiction was spurred by a lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression, including troubling nightmares and paranoia that he coped with by channeling them into many of the iconic horror stories that have since made him famous.
Just about every story he’s written can be seen as an allegory on mental health. In It, children must learn to confront their greatest fears or else risk that fear manifesting into a self-fulfilling prophecy (re: freaky sewer-dwelling clown who kills your brother). In Carrie, a lonely teenage girl is both tormented and empowered by an innate mental ability that makes her an outcast at school and the target of abuse in her devoutly religious home—but also grants her the power to get sweet, sweet revenge.
The Metamorphosis, one of Kafka’s most well-known stories, tells the story of a man who wakes up one morning to find that he has mutated into a human-sized insect. The surreal story is about the feeling of being a cumbersome, burdensome, monstrous version of yourself—both helpless and unable to be helped, both in need of sympathy and feeling too grotesque to deserve it.
Franz Kafka’s entire body of work could be read as an exploration of anxiety, depression, and delusions. While psychologists today have retroactively diagnosed the author with conditions ranging from borderline personality disorder to schizophrenia to eating disorders, all we know for sure from his letters and journals is that he was prone to suicidal ideation, and he was convinced that everybody he knew secretly found him repulsive.
Tormented by this paranoia, he set fire to about 90% of his work, and what we have today is what survived that impulse. Much of it centers on themes of intense guilt, psychological suffering, and alienation.
Though not one of her more famous works, The Waves is regarded as one of Virginia Woolf’s crowning achievements in a literary career filled with achievements. The novel follows six characters who were friends in childhood and drifted apart somewhat as they grew up but are all brought back together after the seventh member of their friend group dies in India.
The story is narrated from six different perspectives which, while distinct in some ways, also merge together into a sort of collective portrait of the human mind. All six characters share a similar childhood and are currently experiencing the same loss of a childhood friend. Despite external circumstances being so similar, the subjective experience of each character is profoundly different. The contrast between the more well-adjusted characters and the anxiety-ridden, depression-addled ones helps shine a light on the difference between an otherwise healthy mind that’s experiencing a tragedy and a mentally ill mind that’s chronically plagued with fear and darkness.
Woolf, like Rhoda in The Waves, battled lifelong depression. Psychiatrists today believe she likely had bipolar disorder. However, during her life, she was only ever diagnosed with neurasthenia, a now mostly defunct label that was often applied to upper-class patients, especially women, who showed signs of any mental illness.
The treatment for neurasthenia was the “rest cure” which involved keeping a patient confined to bed without physical exercise, mental stimulation, or even contact with friends and family for days or weeks on end. A famous account of this rest cure can be seen in the short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Virginia Woolf was subjected to such a rest cure for six weeks in 1910. During these six weeks, she was isolated, deprived of literature, and force-fed. Shortly thereafter, she attempted suicide and nearly succeeded.
This negative experience with psychiatric care found its way into much of her writing, most notably in Mrs. Dalloway where Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran struggling with PTSD is involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward and ultimately commits suicide while there.