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Madness in literature has a long and colourful history. While its representation varies significantly in different literary periods, madness is nonetheless a consistent theme responding to inherent conflicts of civilisation. Thus, in the eighteenth-century novel, madness is subdued and forced to express itself in the language of rationality, while in the nineteenth century the theme becomes increasingly subversive. In the form of the madwoman trope (Gilbert and Gubar 1979), madness is simultaneously a reaction to restrictive patriarchal norms, and a frame in which the gender conflicts of the time can be safely and effectively played out. In the twentieth century, madness narratives increasingly focus on the conflicts between individual and (sickling) society. Characters who are branded as social outcasts abound in the fiction of the time; unlike in previous periods, however, this label is now often embraced as a sign of unique genius and creative inspiration, like in the works of the Beat generation. Furthermore, the theme of madness responds to racial tensions, e.g. in Toni Morrison’s novels. Lastly, in contemporary narratives, madness sees a turn from outer to inner conflict. It is themes of depression and anxiety that mark the fiction of the time, and which wrestle to reconcile images of progress with deeply seated personal feelings of socio-cultural disconnect and pessimistic visions of doom. It thus becomes obvious that in the course of many centuries, madness in literature has been a response to different, inherent conflicts of civilisation, the specifics of which I will outline in my article.



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