“Is [he] a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?”: The Influence of Culture Versus Experience on the Brontë Sisters’ Perception of Mental Illness
College of Arts and Sciences
Master of Arts in English (MA)
Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Anne Bronte, Branwell Bronte, Mental Illness, Victorian Literature
English Language and Literature | Literature in English, British Isles
Mehltretter, Catrina May, "“Is [he] a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?”: The Influence of Culture Versus Experience on the Brontë Sisters’ Perception of Mental Illness" (2020). Masters Theses. 614.
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë each presented a different perspective on mental illness within their novels. The primary reason for this difference in perspective can be found in their different responses to their brother Branwell’s poor mental state. As Branwell’s health deteriorated mentally and physically, his sisters ended up becoming his primary caregivers, giving them a unique insight into mental illness that would have been unusual for the time period, given the tendency to send any mentally ill family members away to asylums. Still, this shared experience impacted each of the sisters differently, likely due to the different relationship each of them had with their brother as well as the way they responded to the cultural influences, which then affected the way they portrayed mental illness in their novels: Charlotte, though once the closest to Branwell, held an outdated, unfavorable opinion of mental illness, presenting those afflicted as animalistic in nature in her fiction; Anne took a more religious approach, viewing addiction as a result of a fallen moral state; whereas Emily showed the humanity of the mentally ill and the reasons behind their mental deterioration, all while maintaining hope for rehabilitation.