Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2019

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

English and American Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



After the end of World War II, the number of mental hospitals in America rose dramatically, as did national attention to mental illness and its treatment. Caught up in these institutions were not just men returning from war with shell shock and other psychological disorders, but also a growing number of women who were finding it difficult to navigate their changing roles in a persistently patriarchal society. This dissertation examines novels that have been written about women in mental asylums in the last half of the twentieth century to argue that this subgenre of American literature, which I will call “asylum novels,” uses the confining space of the asylum to critique hierarchical and patriarchal societal structures and imagine more inclusive forms of community that can incorporate difficult and even painful lives. My main texts include The Snake Pit (1946), The Bell Jar (1963), Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and The Virgin Suicides (1993), all of which convey a skepticism of psychiatric authority and work towards developing ways of being together that acknowledge mental difference without making “cure” a prerequisite for participating in community.

When many people think of asylums today, they tend to draw up images of gothic-looking institutions full of straight jackets and shock treatments, people locked up against their wills screaming and carrying on, and perhaps even undergoing lobotomies. These terrifying images, many of which come directly from asylum novels themselves (and the films that were made from them), do not seem to be laying the groundwork for a proud identity for the mentally ill. If we look beyond these sensationalized images, however, I propose that we will find that a large, if sometimes ignored theme in asylum-based texts is the envisioning of new forms of community that refuse to leave even their most difficult members behind. While the involuntary treatment of the mentally ill is of course hugely problematic, the isolation caused by institutionalization and the accompanying discourses that promote cure as a prerequisite for participation in community, facilitates a critical examination of “normal” (often hierarchical and patriarchal) ways of relating with friends, family, colleagues, and others.

This project takes a disability studies perspective of mental illness, which sees all disability and illness as being constructed by a combination of biological, social, and relational factors. However, while disability studies has tended to value independence, a consistent sense of self, pride, and happiness in promoting disability pride, my project uses the work of both queer and affect theorists to reconceptualize both disability and community, using the instability of mental illness to question whether any group that promotes these tenets as the ultimate good can survive when suffering and pain are so integral to the human condition. This work is especially important at a time when mental illness is frequently demonized in the media and blamed for everything from mass shootings to the President’s misogynist and racist behavior, creating a hostile environment for people who are perceived as being mentally different. The texts that I examine provide a different vision of mental illness that is not simply broken or destructive, but is rather capable of fostering new ways of being together.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Vivian Pollak

Committee Members

Cynthia Barounis, Melanie Micir, Anca Parvulescu, Corinna Treitel,


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/3njw-k461