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“A Hideous Torture on Himself”: Madness and Self-Mutilation in Victorian Literature

Chaney, SJ; (2011) “A Hideous Torture on Himself”: Madness and Self-Mutilation in Victorian Literature. Journal of Medical Humanities , 32 (4) 279 - 289. 10.1007/s10912-011-9152-6. Green open access

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Abstract

This paper suggests that late nineteenth-century definitions of self-mutilation, a new category of psychiatric symptomatology, were heavily influenced by the use of selfinjury as a rhetorical device in the novel, for the literary text held a high status in Victorian psychology. In exploring Dimmesdale’s “self-mutilation” in The Scarlet Letter in conjunction with psychiatric case histories, the paper indicates a number of common techniques and themes in literary and psychiatric texts. As well as illuminating key elements of nineteenth-century conceptions of the self, and the relation of mind and body through ideas of madness, this exploration also serves to highlight the social commentary implicit in many Victorian medical texts. Late nineteenth-century England, like mid-century New England, required the individual to help himself and, simultaneously, others; personal charity and individual philanthropy were encouraged, while state intervention was often presented as dubious. In both novel and psychiatric text, self-mutilation is thus presented as the ultimate act of selfish preoccupation, particularly in cases on the “borderlands” of insanity.

Type: Article
Title: “A Hideous Torture on Himself”: Madness and Self-Mutilation in Victorian Literature
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1007/s10912-011-9152-6
Publisher version: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10912-011-9152-6
Language: English
Additional information: Full text made available under the terms and conditions of Springer Open Choice
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of Arts and Humanities
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1354077
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