Books with Mentally Ill Characters: Depression & Insanity

These novels have characters who are coping with some form of mental illness, including depression. Often we will be shown how their condition affects their thinking and actions. Usually we will see how their condition affects those close to them.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden | Joanne Greenberg

Deborah Blau is being taken by her parents to a mental hospital. She has created the imaginary Kingdom of Yr to escape from the tensions of life. Deborah adjusts to the routine of the hospital. She has many sessions with Dr. Fried, a psychologist renowned for her ability to speak to the mentally ill.

The Hours | Michael Cunningham

The narrative moves between the stories of three women–Virginia Woolf, the famous writer, as she works on Mrs. Dalloway; Clarissa, who is giving a party in honor of a friend for winning a literary award (he also suffers from a serious illness); and Laura, an unfulfilled housewife who takes solace in reading. Virginia experiences mental instability, and Laura copes with an increasing sense of desperation.

Of Mice and Men | John Steinbeck

George Milton and Lennie Small are transient farm hands in California during the Great Depression. They are en route to a new job after abruptly leaving their last farm due to a misunderstanding over something Lennie did.

Lennie, a large and strong mentally handicapped man, loves stroking soft things and dreams of living “off the fatta the lan’”. George is a small man and a quick thinker who takes comfort in Lennie’s company and looks out for him, and also dreams of having his own farm.

Jane Eyre | Charlotte Bronte

As a child Jane lives with her aunt, Mrs. Reed, who treats her badly. Jane is sent away to a school for orphaned girls where conditions are uncomfortable and the food is insufficient. The authority figures are callous and unfriendly, with the exception of the head teacher, Miss Temple. When Miss Temple leaves the school, Jane looks for a job as a governess. She is hired by Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper for her new employer, Mr. Rochester. The estate is comfortable but sometimes unsettling, and Mr. Rochester is aloof.

Read “Jane Eyre”

Wide Sargasso Sea | Jean Rhys

Antoinette lives on her family’s plantation in isolation on a Caribbean island. The slaves have recently been emancipated, and there is tension among the population. She tries to make connections with people, but has difficulty. Her mother marries Mr. Mason, a man with money who engenders hostility from the black population. The clash builds to a breaking point. The story continues from the perspective of Antoinette’s husband.

This novel is a prequel to Jane Eyre. Antoinette is Rochester’s first wife, better known as Bertha.

Mrs. Dalloway | Virginia Woolf

The present action of the story (there are flashbacks) takes place in a single day as Clarissa Dalloway prepares to host a party that evening. The narrative point of view shifts between several people who will be attending the party. Among them is Septimus, a man similar to Clarissa in many ways who returned from World War I shell shocked and unaware of the best treatment for the condition.

“What does the brain matter compared with the heart?”

Heart of Darkness | Joseph Conrad

Marlow is a riverboat captain working for a company that trades in the Congo. On his journey to meet with Kurtz, a chief in the company’s Inner Station, he finds the company’s practices are inefficient and brutal. Kurtz is a successful ivory dealer, and feelings about him are mixed. Kurtz’s isolation has had a profound effect on him.

“But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.”

Tender is the Night | F. Scott Fitzgerald

Rosemary Hoyt, a seventeen-year-old actress, is in a French coastal town. She meets Dick Diver, an older married man, and she falls in love with him. Abe North, a friend of Dick’s, gets mixed up in a scheme that leads to violence, prompting a hysterical scene between Dick and his wife, Nicole. The narrative continues with the history of Dick and Nicole’s relationship, including her abusive past.

Read “Tender is the Night”

Don Quixote | Miguel de Cervantes

Influenced by books of chivalry, a man decides to become a knight. He finds a squire and sets out to fight injustice and uphold what’s right. His imagination runs wild as it fills in the gaps in his adventures and often leads him to make absurd decisions and misread situations.

“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”

Read “Don Quixote”

As I Lay Dying | William Faulkner

Addie, the matriarch of the Bundren family, is on her deathbed, while her oldest son Cash is building her coffin. She dies soon after. The family is going to respect her request to be buried in her family’s burial ground, so they prepare for the forty mile journey. Friends and neighbors are advising against this difficult trip, but the family goes anyway. It’s narrated by many different people who each give their perspective.

Surfacing | Margaret Atwood

The narrator is traveling with her married friends, David and Anna, and her boyfriend, Joe, to look for her father. At her family’s cabin, she finds some drawings by her father that cause her to question his sanity. She is also dealing with the mental strain from an abortion she had. Her friends’ marriage is troubled, and her relationship with Joe isn’t warm.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | Ken Kesey

Chief Bromben tells the story of a few weeks from his insane asylum. Randle McMurphy is admitted to the asylum, feigning insanity to avoid a work camp. Nurse Ratched runs the institution strictly, exerting control over all the residents. McMurphy proves to be a disruptive influence and challenges Nurse Ratched’s authority.

The Sound and the Fury | William Faulkner

The three Compson brothers each narrate a section concerned with their sister Caddy, who inspires strong feelings in them. Benjy, thirty-three, can’t speak and has a mental problem, giving him a limited understanding of the events he witnesses. Quentin is a Harvard student whose thoughts are dominated by his sister and her marriage. Jason is focused on money and is angry about his sister’s decisions.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Robert Pirsig

The unnamed narrator is riding his motorcycle from Minnesota to California with his son and two friends. He philosophizes about classicism and romanticism and relates motorcycle maintenance to an individual’s spiritual health. His son, Chris, has been diagnosed with a possible symptom of mental illness. The narrator hints that he is inhabited by an alternate personality, explaining what it is and that it might be reemerging.

The Corrections | Jonathan Franzen

Alfred Lambert is the aging patriarch of the family, suffering from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. He and his wife Enid go to New York to visit their son Chip. He is trying to write, working for little money; he lost his job as a college professor because of a relationship with a student. The Lambert’s other son, Gary, is an investment banker focused on material success. He is very concerned about his mental health. Their daughter, Denise, is in line to be hired as head chef at an acquaintances restaurant.

Humboldt’s Gift | Saul Bellow

Charlie has just graduated from college and loves literature. He moves to New York to become friends with Humboldt, a manic depressive poet. Later, Humboldt’s career falters while Charlie writes a popular play. Humboldt dies years later. Charlie has problems with the I.R.S. and his ex-wife. His life continues to be affected by his former friendship with Humboldt.