Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/May 1899/Insane Characters in Fiction and the Drama


ONE of the things that most strikes one who compares the ancient theater, and even the theater of a few years ago, with the modern theater, is the enormous difference in the character of the personages, and particularly the curious frequency of insane as principal personages in the modern theater. We have come to such a point that one may be almost sure that in reading over a new play, by Ibsen, for example, he will find three or four insane personages in it, if the characters are not all so. These madmen have characteristics so particularized as to seem as if they might have been depicted by an alienist. If the protogenists are not mad, they are agitated by such violent and strange passions as the ordinary world never meets in life; which it therefore refuses to accept when they are described in a scientific book, but nevertheless receives them when it sees them in the scenes or meets them in the romances of the great modern novelists.

Ibsen, for example, has made a most exact picture of the progressive general paralysis which arises, precisely as he depicts it, in men of genius, of great mental activity, who have wasted their hereditary power in pleasures or excessive work; and there is in them both impulsiveness and want of will power, complete perversion of all the instincts, and mental confusion, alternating here and there with genial flashes; but he is wrong in accumulating in a single subject the maladies of a large number of diseased, and therefore exaggerating their eccentricities—as he exaggerates atavism and heredity of disease when he makes the morbid son repeat the same incoherent phrases as the father from whom he inherits his disorder used.

Just and true, however, is that other form of heredity under which from a father corrupted by licentious indulgence and by alcohol, and criminally vicious, is born, besides a paresic son, a lascivious and criminal daughter, who throws herself into prostitution at the first opportunity without any special cause.

So, too, that love of art existing now as only a dream, and that egotistic good nature which enjoys the advantages of a mother's care without gratitude, those short accesses of genial eloquence followed by fury which burst out from the midst of apathy, and which are drowned in the intoxication of alcohol with a complete, immediate forgetfulness of everything, are specific traits of paralytic dementia.

Ibsen, in Hedda Gabber, describes to us a neurotic woman who, being pregnant, and therefore suffering more acute attacks, avenges herself, though married, upon her former lover, who had left her, by burning the manuscripts which he expected to make him famous. Virile, like all criminals, she nursed her resentment from youth.

In the Pillars of Society the great political characters are rogues and neurotics.

In Berkmann the true criminal banker comes into play. He does not kill or ravish, but appropriates the money belonging to his bank under the illusion that he will be able to make great gains with it through the accomplishment of wonderful things that will secure to him his single joy—power; and that he can then restore the sum with redoubled interest.

This case is of a kind of very frequent occurrence, and shows a complete absence in the banker of affection and of moral sense. He sacrifices the woman who loves him to further the desires of an accomplice. He has a faithful friend who, robbed by him, continues to visit him every day and give him the solace of admiration even when all despise him; and he repels him when he fails to absolve him and to believe in the possibility of his return to power. Later the defaulter pretends that he has studied his own case, and has probed it in every way, with the result of a complete acquittal of himself. And why all this? Because he has used the money of others for great purposes: to connect seas, to excavate the millions that are shut up in the bosom of the earth and are crying out to be brought into the light. Thus it is that with the combined genius and delirium of megalomaniacs he hears the call of the minerals and the groaning of the ships longing to be set free. Conscience, duty, and probity do not exist for him. He believes that his quality as a man of genius permits him everything; therefore he sacrifices to his chimeras the beings who love him most. "I am," he says, "like a Napoleon disabled by a shot in his first battle"; and he does not perceive that he has grown old, that he has a mortal heart disease; and he dreams of returning to power and of hearing men ask the benefit of his advice, and no longer talks with anybody, because there is nobody but his old lover who does not believe him guilty.

Finally, repulsed by all, he plunges into the whirl of life and the torment of the mountain, and dies at last of syncope; while his equally egotistical son deserts the mother who adores him to go to the south with the wealthy Amasia, daughter of his father's enemy.

In Dostoievski, madmen, especially epileptics, constitute the absolute majority of the characters; or else they are born criminals, such as my school has attempted to identify by the figures on the hand.

"This strange family," he writes in The House of the Dead, "had an air which attracted notice at the first glance." All the prisoners were melancholy, envious, terribly vain, presumptuous, susceptible, and formal in the highest degree. Vanity ruled always, without the least sign of shame or repentance or the least sorrow over the commission of an offense. Nearly all the convicts dreamed aloud or raved during sleep. Most usually they spoke words of abuse and slang, talked of knife and axe. "We are a ruined people," they said; "we have no bowels; therefore we cry out in the night."

This impossibility of feeling remorse or penitence, along with vanity and exaggerated love of pomp, are characteristics well known to all observers. But other traits were manifested perhaps more conspicuous, and such as are common to children. On feast days the more elegant ones dressed gorgeously, and could be seen parading themselves through the barracks. Pleasure in being well dressed amounted to childishness in them.

Reasoning has no power upon men like Petroff, because they have not any decisive will. If they have, there are no longer obstacles to it. Such persons are born with an idea that moves them unconsciously all their lives hither and thither. They are quiet till they have found some object that strongly arouses their desire; then they no longer spare even their heads. "More than once have I wondered to see how Petroff robbed me in spite of the affection he had for me. This happened to him at intervals, when he had a strong desire to drink. A person like him is capable of assassinating a man for twenty-five soldi, only to drink a litre; on other occasions he would scorn thousands of rubles. He often confessed his thefts to me, lamenting that I no longer had the objects, but showed no penitence for having stolen them; bore reproofs because he thought they were inevitable, or because he deserved to receive them; because I ought to punish him to compensate myslf for the things I had lost, but thought within himself that they were trifles that one ought to be above speaking of."

Further on the novelist speaks of the smuggler by profession, a pleasant fellow, condemned for life for his offenses, who could not lose the instinct for smuggling brandy into the prison. He received only a ridiculous profit, was greatly afraid of the rod, although he had rarely passed under it, wept, swore that he would not offend any more, and then fell down.

Zola also reproduces my epileptic moral madman in La Bête Humaine, in the alcoholic in L'Assommoir, the paranoiac in Work, and himself confesses to having taken the brief of his immortal chain of romances, Rougon, from a study made by Aubry in a provincial family celebrated for its richness in degenerates, criminals, and insane, all derived from a dull, neurotic Keratry.

Daudet depicts in Jack a series of mattoidi, that particular species of insane which I first discovered, that occupies a position between paranoiacs, geniuses, and imbeciles.

Ancient Romance and Theater.—We turn now to the ancient theater and romance. All the Roman novels of Petronius and Apuleius are rich in obscene, mythological, and magical adventures, most improbable and satirical, without ever defining a character or including a real madman.

In the ancient Greek theater, while the idea of heredity is discernible under the form of fate, while violent passion is every now and then depicted under marvelous forms, while anomalies strike us, and furies of Ajax and Dejanira, of Orestes and Œdipus, and the melancholy of Philoctetes, they all still have a common type, which is not perceived in ordinary life. They are madmen who do not exist in any asylum, who seem symbolical, and have little correspondence with the men of the mythological and heroic epoch to which they all belonged; they never, except in Euripides, present a specific personage, nor ever, unless with rare exceptions—as in the Persians of Æschylus and a few other lost works, like the Siege of Miletus—deal with contemporary historical facts.

These poets were concerned with the symbol, the moral, the tradition, and, if I may be permitted the term, the blasphemy, the declamation, rather than with depicting the person. This is further seen in the comedy of the Greek decadence, and still further in that of the Romans, in which, except in the political squibs, the same personages nearly always appear, as well as showing out of the masks intended for the common people—and these figures have come down to us. There are nearly always the old miser or rake, the go-between slave, the braggart soldier. The plots were likewise the same: changed children, reconciled lovers, except in the Greek political satires, in which the demerits of the adversary were exaggerated into the most atrocious caricature, and which became like real humorous journals of the political trifles of the day.

Yet these highly cultivated peoples, agitated by grand public passions, had absorbing, moving controversies—the struggles of the Gracchi, the banishment of Themistocles and Aristides, and the varying fortunes of Marius, of which no trace is found. Nor, for the rest, did the Latins, who were our masters, and were, as we are after them, copyists, followers in the footsteps of their Greek predecessors, readapt contemporary events to their dramatic lines. We in our turn, down to Goldoni and Molière, and even to this very century, have copied those ancient comic and tragic writers, warming them up afresh from Orestes and Clytemnestra, and from events which had not the least echo among us. Trissin, Maffei, and Alfieri delineated more or less, on one side tyrants, on the other tyrannicides, which have little to distinguish them from one another. So in Schiller and Goethe, all the passions are of the scene rather than of personages. Thus Faust, for example, and Margaret, are not persons who have a special character. They are, in fact, personages who cover a symbol, who would tell the story of literature, the story of the beautiful, the skepticism of knowledge, but they tell it with a number of interesting, moving facts, without delineating an individuality. Faust is neither very good nor very bad, since he with his easy way of speaking commits rogueries of every kind till finally he is redeemed. He is a scientific student with a passion for investigation, but in his enthusiasm, instigated by the devil or by doubt, he too often deserts the search for the truth for that of pleasure, too often forsakes the studies that had ennobled his life from youth, and as a man to enjoy the nights of the Brocken, and worse, the favors of Margaret, of Helen, till the moment when he redeems himself by saving a people; but he does this at the last instant, when he is about to die, and has nothing more to enjoy. Margaret, too, is a child like other children, who, like so many others, suffers herself to be beguiled by manly beauty, and has no good qualities except that of being able to die with fortitude, hoping with the penalty to expiate the sin, which is, in fact, more the devil's than hers.

The elder Dumas invented an immense diverting confusion of facts, but his personages are always the same, and are the occasion, the instrument, the setting of the adventures.

The Reasons for this Absence.—The inquiry into the reasons of this absence of insane persons in the older romances and dramas is a curious one. The first cause lies evidently in the law of proceeding in every organism as in every work from the simple to the complex. As in penal law, not the criminal but the crime was studied at first, while now both are studied together; as in primordial medicine only the disease was studied, while now the patient is studied first of all; so in the drama and in comedy, in the measure that the thought has become discriminating, it has substituted or rather associated with observation of the fact per se, that of the author of the fact. The study, of course, exacts more acumen, but it also better satisfies our reinvigorated culture and opens broader horizons to us.

We have thus done more than abandon the pedantesque scale of the old time and the mere study of the fact; we have introduced characters into the personages, which, while they correspond to living and real characters that we have under our eyes, attempt to resolve a problem and teach us a moral, and go so far as to represent to us a symbolical idea which is a pure abstraction of the author's, reaching thence the maximum of complication.

Naturally, such salient characters as madmen, eccentrics, and criminals would not be likely to escape the notice of the dramatist, who finds in them motives for great effects without departing from truth and probability.

But there is another more material reason for the recent introduction of insane characters into the theater, and for their greater frequency and participation in real life. It has been remarked that insane persons have multiplied a hundredfold with civilization, to such an extent that where a few years ago one madhouse was enough, now five hundred and six are needed. Taking, for example, the statistics of the most progressive country in the world, those of the United States, furnished by its invaluable census report,[1] we see that the number of insane persons, which was 15,610 in 1850, 24,042 in 1860, and 37,432 in 1870, rose in 1880 to 91,994; while the population, from 23,191,876 in 1850, increased to 38,558,371 in 1870, to 50,155,783 in 1880—that is, while the population doubled in a little more than thirty years, the insane increased sixfold; so, in the last decade the increase in population was thirty per cent, and that of insane one hundred and fifty-five per cent.

In France[2] there were 131.1 insane per 100,000 inhabitants in 1883, 133 in 1884, 136 in 1888. These figures indicate that the number of insane is larger in the most civilized countries, and is increasing every year. It may indeed be said that many of these insane are not produced but are only revealed by civilization, and that the opening of the large asylums has caused a considerable number to be brought into the light who were not known of before. It is true that the greater care we give now to the insane, as well as to consumptives, makes them longer-lived. And it is true that as the mind grows enlightened criminals come to be regarded as insane and thus increase the apparent number of such. But all this is not sufficient to explain a doubling in a decade, a tenfold increase in twenty years.

We know, too, that civilization has brought on the development of new forms of disease, which hardly existed before. For example, general progressive paralysis was formerly so rare that no special name was given to it till our time, while now it forms the larger quota of the maladies of the wealthy, of thinkers, and of military men. Epilepsy has greatly increased in its psychical form, so that what are called psychical and obscure epilepsy are a revelation of our times, and that its close association with crime (which I believe to be one of the sure facts of modern psychiatry) is still accepted by only a very few alienists, not to say that it is rejected with indignation, and, I will remark, with profound ignorance, by most modern jurists.

Alcoholism, too, has taken on enormous proportions. Not that the ancients did not drink, but rather that pure alcohol had not yet been introduced; while in the middle ages it passed for one of the most efficacious remedies—aqua vita, living water. Dr. Beard has made a most judicious observation in America which I have been able to verify in Sicily—that there must be a very advanced degree of civilization, or rather of degeneracy produced by civilization, for inebriety to be transformed into that aggregation of disasters, especially of the nervous system, which is called alcoholism. Now we have not alcoholism only, but morphinism, cocainism, all stimuli of the nervous system, which are used by barbarians as potent excitants, but not to the point of producing stable alterations except in rare cases, like the amuck of the Malays.

And now, we all of us, at least in the capitals and the great centers, find ourselves consumed by a feverish activity which makes the mind labor much more than Nature intended it should, under which is produced all this mass of neurasthenics, hystericals, besides the multitudes of moral insane, profoundly egotistical persons, without affection and wholly directed by a powerful passion for gold, for which they sacrifice everything, even salvation!

And, finally, we have that group of semi-insane, which I call mattoidi, and who are known as détraqués in France and cranks in North America—that is, those who have the livery of genius with a substratum of weakness and the practical cunning of the average man, who betray their errors only when they write, who hardly exist save among males (with a few exceptions, like Michel) and in the great centers. I have never seen them in the country. Civilization is now depopulating the country and building up the cities, as it is also augmenting physical excitants with alcoholism, morphinism, etc. Civilization emblazons the baton of the marshal, and not only of the marshal but of the president of the republic, in the eyes of everybody who can read and write. Why, then, should we not suppose that civilization can further derange the equilibrium of mental labor and, indirectly, therefore cause an increase of insanity?

Not only has the number of insane increased, but their importance in society has multiplied fourfold; for which reason we can not fail to give them attention. The morally insane in politics and the megalomaniac insane in the bank who inspired Ibsen are to be found walking around in every country. The blood-criminal, transmuted into the forger and the bankrupt, penetrates into our houses, and we suffer from him every day; while the insane man at first was not regarded, or was adored under the form of a saint or hated as a wizard, possessed of the devil always, or seemed a phenomenon strange to society, a species of extraplanetary meteor. If we add that the degeneration provoked by the abuses of civilization has begotten a multitude of forms akin to madness which afford a field for combinations now tragic, now strangely comic—like the phobia by which one is afraid to cross a room, or avoids a certain group of words, or refuses to know how many doors and windows there are on the street, or can not be at ease without saying sexual pacifying formulas; a class who with their perverted tastes form a real new world apart; and they all may inspire new dramatic settings forth.

As a third cause we add that in our age psychology has penetrated into all departments. There are psychologies of the senses, of the sentiments, of the will, the psychology of the crowd, of the insane, of criminals, and finally the psychology of the cell, or at least of the infusoria (Binet). Therefore, as statistics is applied to history, to politics, to religion, in the same way psychology has at last entered into romance and the drama, and has taken the lion's share. And, far from being repelled by the public, the authors who use it or abuse it, like Euripides and to a certain point Shakespeare, win the admiration of the public; and we are proud to see Zola taking from L'Uomo delinquente the Jacques of his Bête humaine to make an immortal figure of him, and Dostoiewski depicting innate criminals in his House of the Dead, and the criminaloid in his Crime and Punishment; and we do not despise Bourget when, making more a caricature of psychology than a psychology, he assumes to apply it to the toilets of women and the Parisian cocottes under the form of a psychology of love.

It may at first sight seem a contradiction that we have shown that there were also found in antiquity at great intervals dramatic poets and romancers like Shakespeare, Dante, and Euripides who, led by the observing and creative instinct, did not confine themselves to events, but studied characters too, and, keenly perceiving the dramatic potencies in the character of insanity, treasured it up in their works. Thus Euripides depicts Helena, vain even into her old age, saving a part of the hair she was offering at the tomb of her sister so as not to lose what remained of her former beauty; and Orestes has not the simple bestial fury depicted by Æscbylus, but has choreic movements, genial intervals, and a tendency to suicide, which show that the author had attained a true conception of the maniac.

In the Mahabharata the maiden Damaianti is described as made insane by love (Book II, st. iii) and Nalo, who, possessed by the demon Kali, stakes his kingdom on the dice, and, denying his wife, abandons her in the wood:

"And with soul slave to the thought, discolored face, and all absorbed in sighs, now lifting up the head, now musing, bereft of sense, you would say; a sudden pallor came on. With mind occupied with one desire, nor sleep, nor the table, nor the sight of familiar friends afforded pleasure, nor day nor night gave repose. Ah! poor miserable one! thus exclaiming and bursting into tears, by that lament, by those soul-sick acts, she was recognized by her friends."

Niceforus has shown how Dante in his Inferno has delineated in the damned the characteristics which my school gives to the born criminal. Shakespeare has done better, and has divined many criminal characteristics through the greater intensity of the crime in the criminal woman. Virile even when compared with the criminal man, Lady Macbeth is cruder than her husband, and, more than that, has many of the characteristics of men:

"Bring forth men-children only,
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males."

And Macbeth, as cool in the crime as the artful contriver of it, is hysterical and hypnotic, and in the accesses reproduces the acts and words of the tragedy, showing that the author knew that hysterics and somnambulists often repeat the acts and the emotions which mark the climax of their malady.

Hamlet has the folly of doubts and hallucinations, simulates the ravings of a madman, but in his suspicious cunning discovers and anticipates what is contemplated to his harm, is homicidal through fear, and is yet often discreet, and a good lover, save that his love vanishes before the fixed idea.

In Ophelia, disappointed love, the contact with a madman or a pretended one, the death of her father almost under her very eyes, provoke a species of madness which would now be called mental confusion, with vague ideas of persecution, dim recollections of love betrayed and of her father, incoherent and confused expressions ending in automatic suicide. This confirms our conclusions.

Genius has also anticipated an epoch in the use and abuse of lunatics, just because time is canceled for genius, because genius anticipates the future work of centuries. But on this subject the inquiry is pertinent why, while in the complaisant literary world such creations as the Argenson of Daudet, the Jack of Zola, and the Eliza of Goncourt find, if not an immediate, a kindly and ready acceptance—while all the great artists, even the most ancient ones, have given the type which I assign to the born delinquents to executioners and criminals—the world has refused to accept the existence of the criminal type of insanity in genius, and the relations in criminals between epilepsy and crime which are nevertheless received in romance and the drama. It is because when we are in the presence of true figures, made to move before us under a strong light by the great artists, the consciousness of the truth which lies dormant in all of us, smothered and broken under distortion by the schools, reawakens, and rebels against the conventional forms which they have imposed; all the more so because the charm of art has vastly magnified the lines of the truth, has rendered them more evident, and has thus much diminished the effort required to master them. If, on the other hand, we base our conclusion upon cold statistics and what I should call a skeleton study of the facts, we find the old views rising in confusion with those of sentiment and the artistic sense, and we arrive at nothing.


  1. Compendium of the Tenth Census of the United States, Part II, p. 1659. See documents in the new statistical laboratory, the only one in Italy, of Professor Cognetti, recently published at Turin.
  2. Bodio. Bulletin de l'Institut international de Statistique, 1889, pp. 112 and 123. See some Sanitary Statistics in Italy and other European States, by Dr. Rasori.