World Mental Health Day: Mental Health in Fiction

Today is World Mental Health Day. Call me morbid, but I’ve always been fascinated by mental health issues both in real life and in fiction. I seem to have quite a few friends with different mental health conditions, have suffered from depression on-and-off myself and have always read research papers on the topic. For a while, I was tempted to become a psychiatrist, except I couldn’t face going for so many years to medical school.

I find the self-help books often surprisingly unhelpful, and it’s a bit hit and miss with memoirs. I appreciate the honesty and find them inspiring in small doses. But, somehow, fiction describes it best – and there certainly is no shortage of such fictional treatments (pardon the pun). From Dostoevsky’s Idiot (who really only suffers from epilepsy and a good heart) to that well-known Victorian disease, hysteria in women, in The Yellow Wallpaper, from the graphic descriptions of electro-shock therapy in The Bell Jar to the horrific wards in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it seems that we are endlessly fascinated by the unpredictability of the human mind.

Now that I’m out of the danger zone myself, I’ve read more books on this topic in recent months. Books that I might have avoided 18 months ago. Although never explicitly diagnosed, in Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill we probably encounter (spoiler alert!) schizophrenia or paranoia, and various other conditions in the secondary characters. Meanwhile, Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen describes a horrific slo-mo fall into depression and self-destruction – exact diagnosis is not always possible or useful.

The most recent book I read on this topic also has a woman struggling with mental health issues (in all three of these books, it is the woman who suffers – hmmm), namely The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer. This was also my contribution to the #NYRBFortnight. [There is another excellent book published by NYRB which relates to this subject and which I might tackle next: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, a non-fiction book by psychologist Milton Rokeach, who brought together three paranoid schizophrenics who each believed they were Jesus Christ.]

The unnamed narrator of the the Mortimer novel (or named only as Mrs Armitage, thus being denied of any identity of her own that does not relate to hear role as daughter, mother or wife) is a woman who can’t stop getting married and having children. We never quite find out the exact number of her brood, nor any of their names, except for the oldest daughter Dinah. We do know that she is in love or believes she is in love with Jake, her current (fourth) husband, who has become a successful and well-paid film director. But clearly there is something missing in her life, a gap that she tries to fill through babies, although she is somewhat ambivalent about them once they are there. They tear her apart with their ceaseless demands, yet she clearly would do anything for them.

She sees a therapist but finds it less than useful (he wants to talk about her previous husbands and her father, which she doesn’t believe to be relevant). Most of the book is constructed on dialogue, which prove to be hugely revealing of character.


“Do you like children, Mrs. Armitage?”
“How can I answer such a question?”
“Could it be a question that you don’t wish to answer?”
“I thought I was supposed to lie on a couch and you wouldn’t say a word. It’s like the inquisition or something. Are you trying to make me feel I’m wrong? Because I do that for myself.”
“Do you think it would be wrong not to like children?”
“I don’t know. Yes. Yes, I think so.”
“Why?”
“Because children don’t do you any harm.”

Except, of course, indirectly they do. A year before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, Mrs Armitage expresses all the boredom and frustration, being slowly stifled by domesticity and colluding (sometimes quite happily, sometimes feeling she has no choice) in her own oppression. She is given some ‘happy pills’ but still has a breakdown in the linen department at Harrods. Her husband, the insufferably self-absorbed Jake, convinces her to have an abortion and sterilisation, but she discovers almost immediately afterwards that he has been having an affair with an actress. This was one of the most angry and poignant parts of the story and I was devastated to hear that it was autobiographical. But with what admirable control Mortimer takes real life and transforms it into fiction!

Penelope Mortimer, from the National Portrait Gallery.

This all sounds terribly depressing, but the book refuses to be self-indulgent and self-pitying. Instead, it is just the right proportion of fierce and funny, ironic and devastating. Reading it can feel a bit surreal, particularly at the beginning, when you wonder just why the heroine makes so many marriages and children. I particularly enjoyed the  pitch-perfect non sequiturs, whenever Mrs Armitage replies to anyone. She refuses to allow herself to be defined or questioned or pinned down by her victim. She refuses to be a victim, although she sometimes seems in danger of getting crushed by raw emotions. Her revenge is often sly, indirect, simply by ridiculing the men in her life. A woman’s weapons at a time when there were few other weapons available. But at other times, she explicitly calls out for women to rebel… although that letter (significantly) never gets sent. Still, this passage resonated particularly at this moment in time:

You have a vote, Mrs Evans. Now, why don’t you take advantage of it? I have a vote. Really, anyone would think that the emancipation of women had never happened. Dear Mrs Evans, let us march together to our local headquarters and protest in no uncertain terms. Let us put forward our proposals, compile our facts, present our case, demand our rights. The men – they are logical, brave, humanitarian, creative, heroic – the men are sneering at us. How the insults fly. You hear what they are saying, as we run the gauntlet between womb and tomb? ‘Stop trying to be a man! Stop being such a bloody woman! You’re too strong! you’re too weak! Get out! Come back…’ When we were young, we said the hell with it and used our breasts as shields. But the tears fall so easy when they take away love.

Peter Finch kisses Anne Bancroft on the forehead in a scene from the film ‘The Pumpkin Eater’, 1964. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

If this be insanity, then perhaps all women (at that time) were insane. To me, it seems like a perfectly reasonable response to difficult external circumstances. Yet, although it encapsulates a certain time period, it also feels very modern (and also quite American, so that I often was startled when I came across references to London in the text). Perhaps I say American because it reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s home life. I think the two of them would have got along very well.

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24 thoughts on “World Mental Health Day: Mental Health in Fiction”

  1. Now I want to read The Pumpkin Eater 🙂
    Alex Pheby writes brilliantly on the reality of living with serious mental health issues, creating fiction from the lives of real people. If you haven’t already, I recommend you check out Playthings and Lucia (both published by Galley Beggar Press).

  2. I know what you mean about fiction being the most effective means for exploring mental health. I seem to be drawn to it more than memoirs on the same subject. I really enjoyed The Pumpkin Eater and totally agree its not depressing despite not shying away from all that Mrs Armitage is going through. Great review!

    1. Your review was one that got me fascinated by this book as well – you really addressed the gender battle in it so well. That scathing dialogue between husband and wife, especially about his affairs!

  3. Not morbid at all. I wish more people would be interested in mental health and educate themselves on them!
    I agree about self-help books. I’ll start reviewing books about what I’m suffering from and I hope to find things that can help others, but from my experience this kind of books can do more harm than good.
    Fiction can really make a difference and let readers know what some mental issues are like, but only if the authors do their homework, so I’m always a bit wary. Great post! x

    1. Well, it did lead to a period as a teenager when I thought that I had every psychosis and neuroses in the world when reading the symptoms… Yes, it can be a tricky balance for authors to achieve, but most of the fictional examples I’ve read come from some personal experience of mental health conditions, so I suppose they are a way of processing that.

  4. My background in mental health nursing has always given me a great interest in this topic. The Bell Jar is one of my all time favourite books and I have Zero on my bookcase ready to read. Great post, as always.

    1. Yes, I can imagine it must be quite a wrenching job, often heartbreaking. I often think the line between what we define as ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ is such a fine one!

  5. You’re not along in your fascination with mental health and mental health issues, Marina Sofia. And I don’t think it’s morbid at all. Thanks for your comments on The Pumpkin Eater, too. I was especially drawn to that scene with the therapist. What a depiction both of what it was like for women at that time, and for the way it portrays the profession.

  6. Ooh, have you read Faces In the Water by Janet Frame? Fiction, but based on her experience in an institution, and pretty incredible, apparently.

      1. I’ve actually never read any of her work, but it sounds super relevant. (Plus, Faces In the Water is one of the pretty new Virago 40th anniversary reprints…)

  7. I’m working on a review of another NYRB classic that fits with your theme – Keep Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar, full of humour with understated darkness and despair. And, of course, I shall be adding The Pumpkin Eater to the TBR.

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