11 of the Most Realistic Portrayals of Mental Illness in Novels

There is a great tradition of mental illness in fiction. The Victorians loved stashing mad women up in towers or attics, where they could slow-w-wly peel the wallpaper from the walls or moan and groan with such abandon that it would frighten the young governesses trying to catch some sleep down below. Later, books would introduce readers to evil nurses, forced lobotomies, and botched attempts at electro-shock therapy. Needless to say, mental illness was even less understood in the past than it is today.

The last few decades have brought improvement in the way mental illness is treated and the way it is portrayed in literature. Characters are allowed to come down from the attic and tell their own stories. In memoirs, authors share their experiences in raw, first person accounts. Girl, Interrupted, Prozac Nation, and Running with Scissors are just a few examples — check out this list of the 20 Greatest Memoirs of Mental Illness for more suggestions.

The 11 novels listed below talk candidly of mental illness, too. Sometimes the veil of fiction permits authors to tell even truer stories — they can write without worrying about their own reputations or the reactions from their family members. Their books give us a deeper understanding of mental illness and the way we deal with mental illness in our culture. They also do what all great literature should do — let us get to know and care about the characters as people.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

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A day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a high society English woman. Through the character of Septimus, a shell-shocked veteran of World War I, this book criticizes the treatment of the mentally ill. Woolf used her own struggles with bipolar disorder to inform Septimus’s character.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)

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F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this novel while his wife, Zelda, was in the hospital being treated for schizophrenia. Set on the French Riviera in the 1920s, Tender is the Night is the story of psychoanalyst Dick Diver and his wife Nicole... who also happens to be his patient.

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951) 

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The quintessential tale of disaffected youth, The Catcher in the Rye still sells around a quarter million copies a year. Holden Caulfield, our young hero, first appeared in a 1945 short story in Collier’s called “I’m Crazy.”

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963) 

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Originally published under a pseudonym, The Bell Jar is the semi-autobiographical account of Plath’s own clinical depression, a sensation she describes thusly: "Wherever I sat — on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok — I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air."

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg (pen name: Hannah Green) (1964) 

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Deborah Blau, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, spends three years in a psychiatric hospital. Her story echoes the author’s experiences, and the doctor in the story was based on her real-life doctor, the German psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. 

Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates (1975)

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This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of John C. Wilder, an adman-turned-screenwriter who spends some time in a mental hospital and suffers (as Yates did) from alcohol-induced delusions.

Ordinary People by Judith Guest (1976)

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Conrad tries to commit suicide after the tragic death of his older brother, so his parents send him to a psychiatric hospital. After his release, with help from his psychiatrist, Conrad examines his depression and attempts to understand his frosty relationship with his mother. The movie adaptation of Ordinary People, starring Mary Tyler Moore, won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1980.

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb (1992)

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Delores Price slowly unravels after dealing with a traumatic event as a young teenager. As a twentysomething woman, she spends years in an institution after a suicide attempt. She eventually quits therapy and attempts to rebuild her life on her own terms. Lamb continues to write about mental illness in his next book, I Know This Much is True.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)

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Inspired by the first book on our list, Mrs. Dalloway, the story reveals a single day in the lives of three women from three different time periods, including Virginia Woolf herself. The Hours won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1999.

The Passion of Alice by Stephanie Grant (1998)

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One of the lesser-known novels on this list, The Passion of Alice is a moving, unflinching portrait of a 25-year-old woman who is admitted into an eating disorders clinic after she almost dies of heart failure.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)

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Leonard, one of the main characters in this novel, lives with manic depression, which affects his work, his friendships, and his romantic relationships. In an interview with Slate, Eugenides squelches the rumor that Leonard is based on David Foster Wallace.


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