Mount Alvernia High School, Newton, Massachusetts


Olivia Zabachta 

Mental Health Treatment in the Nineteenth Century

Eleanor Catton: Society’s Distortion of the Individual’s Identity

Eleanor Catton’s narratives focus onthe reluctance of human beings to accept any reality that conflicts with their desires, and, rather than facing this conflict head on, theylose trust in others as well as themselves.In this way, Catton illustrates that when we are alone, we are blinded, but when we surround ourselves with others, we feel validated and are able to graspreality. One of her characters, Anna Wetherall ofThe Luminaries,is stereotyped by society as a hysterical female because of her career as a prostitute and her drug addiction.Because mainstream society disapproves of her lifestyle, it labels her as a mad woman, thereby invalidating her perspective. Catton emphasizes that sometimes people, especially Anna, tend to manipulate others in order to find their own true identity. Anna ultimately takes control of people around her, including her lovers,in order to feel more confident and powerful. Society is capable of distorting someone’s identity by making them believe that their grotesque standards are the only ones people must abide by, which in turn reveals society to be corrupt and discriminating.

Just as Eleanor Catton describesone of her characters as apparently hysterical in the eyes of society, nineteenth-century physicians diagnosed their patients with fictitious mental disorders and prescribed outrageous treatments in order to separate their madness from the rest of society. They did this to prevent the insane from contaminating the rest of society with their incurable and poisoned minds. Through these brutal treatments, patients found themselves living out realistic nightmares due to clinicians diagnosing sane people as insane and even neglecting those with the most severe disorders. Physicians eventually became fearful of the mentally ill and came up with a simple solution, to isolate them in asylums so they could not disturb the rest of society. But with the help of several dedicated activists, Dorothea Dix and Phillipe Pinel, harsh treatments used on the mentally ill were eventually exposed. Stigmatization of the mentally ill existed for centuries,stereotyping them as dangerous, irresponsible and immoral, and these punitive attitudes persisted throughout the twentieth century.

Major Works Consulted:

Catton, Eleanor. The Luminaries. New York: Little, Brown, 2013.
---. The Rehearsal. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.
Eghigian, Greg. From Madness to Mental Health. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 2010.
Torrey, Fuller. The Invisible Plague. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 2007.
Photo Credit: “Eleanor Catton.” Digital image. The Man Booker Prize.N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.