Asylums and the Theme of Insanity in Waterland

Barry J. Fishman '89

The threads of insanity are woven into each of Swift's works and they manifest themselves in many ways. The concept of being "mentally unfit" appears in his first two novels (The Sweet Shop Owner, Shuttlecock) and his fourth novel (Out of This World) in unique examples. Waterland introduces the subject as a far-reaching problem and hints at definable causes. Insanity in its many forms is a pervasive element of Waterland, an important facet of the work that cannot be overlooked in attempting greater understanding of Swift's writing.

There are three mental institutions in Waterland, two constructed by the Atkinson family. These are Wetherfield Asylum (82-83), the Kessling Home (193), and the London mental hospital where Mary Crick is treated after stealing the baby ( 247). The three entities represent a progression of a sort from the Victorian asylum through the home created to care for the shell-shocked to the modern institution designed specifically to deal with those that cannot cope with modern society.

The Victorian model, Wetherfield, was created by the Atkinsons in response to Sarah's loss of her sanity after she was struck by her husband Thomas ( 65-67). Wetherfield is funded by shame, using family money to cover up and correct a family problem. The Atkinsons attempt to keep their troubles within the family. The Kessling Home has its genesis not in family problems as much as in response to the trauma created by World War I. Soldiers like Henry Crick get sent to the hospital in order to recover and readjust to life in a peaceful world. The stress of war in Swift's novels takes its greatest toll upon the human psyche, and his emphasis on the institutionalization of war veterans reflects Swift's view of the logical effects of war. The final institution is built upon much broader implications. As a mental hospital in the center of London it has an antiseptic atmosphere, "protective bars. . . institutional asphalt" (247) that is a response to victims of modern society. Mary Crick has gone "mad," that is, her action in stealing the baby failed to correspond with societal norms. Thus she must undergo "treatment," in the hopes of being cured.

There is very rarely a cure for Swift's patients. The problem may actually lie with society. As the main character of Shuttlecock points out, society's definition of insanity may be at fault. The 'insane' may in the end be much better off than the rest of us. There are many times when those who are thought to be mad (Sarah A. for example) become something more than that. To Swift, they may even be prophets of a sort.

It is an interesting feature of Swift's works that with each successive novel the mental institution becomes colder, more inhuman, and more modern until in Out of This World he does away with the "institution" altogether, sending Sophie Beech to see a private psychiatrist. Can anything be implied by this progression?

How should Dick Crick ("The Saviour of the World") be viewed in light of this question? Is he a "potato-head?" If so (and it probably is so), then was Ernest Atkinson 'crazy' for predicting such a role for Dick? How is insanity related to drunkenness in Waterland?

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