Mental health is a subject which has become increasingly discussed within our society, but it’s prevalence in media and fiction have existed for a long time. Mental illness can affect anyone, no matter their age, gender or background and is a theme that many authors have concerned themselves with and are still addressing today. The topic is one that is important to be written about, as it can provide comfort and acknowledgement to readers who may have shared those experiences, as well as allowing others to empathise with characters and to better understand what living with mental illness is like. So, if you are looking for novels which cleverly and honestly explore mental health, here are three of my favourites.
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
Mrs Dalloway explores, through a fragmented narrative, an ordinary summer day of one character’s life, Mrs Clarissa Dalloway, who lives in London. Clarissa tackles with her external and internal expectations and her feelings towards the decisions made in her life. The perspective alternates between that of Clarissa and of Septimus, a World War I veteran who with a fragile mental state who is learning to cope with life after the war. The novel addresses the themes of selfhood, gender and sexuality and the contrasting depictions between the portrayal of male and female mental health. Whilst the novel is fictional, there are allusions to Virginia Woolf’s own life experiences which helps build an emotive relationship between reader and character. Although this novel was published nearly 100 years ago, the themes considered are still very much relevant today.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
Salinger’s novel is another classic that does not disappoint. Loneliness is a feeling that many of us have identified with at some point in our lives and is a theme that Salinger composes very well. Holden Caulfield is a young man who has come to realise that the adult world can be a place full of deceit and shallowness. Despite, Holden’s mental state never being made explicit, as a reader you can follow his psychological development and enjoy his witty and colloquial narration. The Catcher in the Rye is a genuine and candid tale of a man’s doubtful view of the world around him.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
Expressed through the ironic lens of the character Esther Greenwood, Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel gives a voice to a young woman’s summer in New York and the false opportunities that are surrounding her which ultimately results in her depression. The novel has been criticised to be an account of Plath’s own involvement with depression and bipolar and, like the previous two novels, she provides a sincere depiction of adult life. Although the general tone is dark, the novel examines the expectations of female identity in America, and is a one that will stay with you for years.