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Insanity and Criminality in Literature - Book Report/Review Example

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The nineteenth century was a period of socio-political turmoil. Technological advances, rapid cultural changes and the evolution of alternate worldviews all combined to inspire a reconsideration of the human condition and man's status in the world and vis-vis others…
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Insanity and Criminality in Literature
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Download file to see previous pages . . are seen as contestable, but those of science as inconvertible" (6). In earlier times the reverse was true: religion was inconvertible and science was contestable. Although the shift that granted science technical status as "the accurate reading of Nature's book with eyes undistorted by social interest or cultural prejudice'" occurred over a long period of time (Wright and Treacher 4), in the narrow context of insanity and culpability the shift from moral conceptions of insanity to physiological conceptions of insanity occurred during the nineteenth century when voluntarist discourse, with its assumptions of free will, individual responsibility, and self-discipline, conflicted with determinist/fatalist discourse, with its assumption of inevitability and the inescapability of predetermined fate.
The conflict between these different worldviews led to confusion regarding normal versus abnormal human behaviour and, indeed, to debate over sanity versus insanity. The question became whether humans freely chose their path and was their path imposed upon them. Needless to say, the implication here was that man's status in the universe and his role in his society/world were all questioned. In his 1874 treatise Responsibility in Mental Disease, Henry Maudsley maintains that this questioning led to confusion and, in turn to a feeling of loss, in the sense that humans were no loner anchored down by specific sets of beliefs and understandings. This sense of being lost and without anchor led to the evolution of "a borderland between crime and insanity, near one boundary of which we meet something of madness but more of sin, and near the other boundary of which something of sin but more of madness" (36). In this borderland, judgments of insanity involve not only medical distinctions between sanity and insanity but also political distinctions between legal and illegal acts, and philosophical distinctions between moral and immoral acts. Physicians, lawyers, politicians, reformers, poets, novelists, and the public participated in the debate over legality versus criminality, fatalism versus determinism and sanity versus insanity. Among the novelists who participated in this debate were Dostoevsky and Poe, both of whom questioned the very nature of criminality and sanity. Within the context of their respective novel and short story, these question were asked through the actions and thoughts of their monomaniacal protagonists.
Both Poe and Dostoevsky create fictional worlds which are supportive and nurturing of their protagonist's monomaniacal tendencies. These worlds are, ultimately, unreal in the sense that they have been coloured by their protagonists' skewed worldviews; worldviews in which the imaginary and the real merge, prompting actions that, while thoroughly criminal, are expressive of mental suffering. Dostoevsky focuses on the connection between irresponsibility and self-created depression and monomaniacal obsessions. His protagonist abdicates his personal and social responsibilities, withdraw from the immediate and concrete reality in order to focus on the real/imagined insults which society and the political system have inflicted upon him. Poe is also interested in the consequences of isolation, but he delves more deeply into the morbid consequences an individual's "insane" behaviour has on others and on his own self.
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