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DOI 10.12887/28-2015-2-110-12

Anna BUDZIAK – Reason Alone: The 'Mad Scientist' and the Nineteenth-century Discourse of Mental Illness

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This study regards the major figures that are representative of the motif of the mad scientist in British prose fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries, from Jonathan Swift’s 'mad inventors' to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to late Victorian vivisectionists. The essay has two foci. Firstly, it views literature and the discourses of mental illness as closely related. Thus, it describes the mental and temperamental aberrations of the literary 'mad scientists' with the terminology that was typical for the 19th century (including the notions of 'melancholy,' 'monomania,' 'moral madness,' or 'dementia praecox'). It also seeks to show how writers reflected the changing approaches to madness, by emphasizing either moral or physiological aspects in the literary descriptions of the behaviour that was deemed mad (manic, obsessive, hysterical, apathetic or anti-social). The second focus of this essay is on various literary incarnations of the mad scientist and the cultural functions performed by such stereotypical depictions. The question, thus, is not only how madness was represented in literature, but also why scientists – in particular, doctors and psychiatrists – were presented by writers as mad. With a view to investigating this problem, this essay shows how writers responded to a range of dilemmas arising when medical, physiological and neurological researches were conducted. It proposes to see these problems as grouped within three categories: the concern with loneliness, isolation and cognitive solipsism (1), the problem of cruel curiosity, or 'epistemophilia,' manifesting itself in maniac vivisectionism (2), and the issue of the materialistic explanations of psychological and mental illnesses (3). Taking into consideration the literary tradition from Swift to Wells, and its criticism, this essay shows regularities and links in the development of the motif of the mad scientist. In its conclusion, in agreement with the explanation provided by Anne Stiles, this study stresses that, while seeking to provide a moral critique of science, literature, perhaps inadvertently, stigmatized the scientist.

Keywords: Gulliver’s Travels, Rasselas, Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus, Victorian novel, 19th-century psychiatry in Great Britain, alienists, vivisection, the motif of the mad scientist

Contact: Research Centre for Nineteenth and Twentieth Century English Literature, Department of English Studies, University of Wrocław,
ul. Kuźnicza 22, 50-138 Wrocław, Poland

E-mail: budziaka@gmail.com
Phone: +48 713752439

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» 110_Budziak.pdf

  1. ISSN 0860-8024
  2. e-ISSN 2720-5355
  3. The Republic of Poland Ministry of Science and Higher Education Value: 100.00
  4. Quarterly “Ethos” is indexed by the following databases: EBSCO, CEEOL, Index Copernicus (ICV 2017: 55.26), Philosopher’s Index, ERIH Plus.
  5. DOI Prefix 10.12887