Mental Institutions in Shuttlecock

Barry J. Fishman '89

Institutions for the mentally ill and mental illness itself play a role in each of Swift's novels and some of his short stories. In Shuttlecock, however, the institution forms a central and integral part of the tale. Prentis' father, code-named "Shuttlecock" as a British spy in World War II, is a permanent resident of a London institution. The cause of his illness is unknown, a mental breakdown robbing the old man of the power of speech and all other forms of expression. Sitting in the institution with a blank expression on his face, this man is one of Shuttlecock's central figures.

Prentis describes the hospital as "an old red-brick country house of another age, set amidst trees. ŠThere are rose beds, yew walks, ornamental ponds and the sort of sculptural trees that you associate with private estates. All this is surrounded by a high brick wall; and the hospital rounds themselves are set within fields and woodlandŠ it's a strange thing that we put mad people in these walled-in parks, as if we recognize that though they have to be confined they need to rub against nature." (p.44) These institutions are nice places and their descriptions make them sound as if a pleasant holiday could be spent there.

The mental institution that is home to Shuttlecock is a microcosm of outside society. There is even a caste system of a kind, with five different wards, all named for trees. A patient enters the hospital in ward A (Acacia) and as his case becomes more and more hopeless progresses downwards to ward G (geranium), which the hospital staff jokes stands for "Gone Completely" (p.125) Prentis' father is in Eucalyptus, more than halfway along the downward progression. Even so, none of these people seem that crazy. Once inside the hospital, Prentis feels as if it could be a cleaner version of the outside world, "But then, as I've said, the people in mental hospitals aren't mad, no -- or if they behave like mad people, this is only what you'd expect in such a place -- so there seems nothing abnormal about it." (p.44) In this company, Prentis even begins to doubt his own sanity, "I go to Father [in the institution] to say things I would never say anywhere else. (Perhaps I am the deranged one, after all.)" (p.43) The hospital even has its own police, the attendants, who keep a careful watch over their community to make sure that no one commits any action out of keeping with the rules of their society, which are appropriately different from those of nearby London.

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