Document Type


Date of Degree Completion

Spring 2017

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


English Literature

Committee Chair

Michael Johnson

Second Committee Member

Steve Olson

Third Committee Member

Liahna Armstrong


The “madman’s” place throughout history has tended to be a mystery on both ontological and epistemological levels. From the perception of the madman as a crazed oracle in the sixteenth century to the perception of the madman as a criminal in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the nineteenth-century madman was even more difficult to define. Because insanity was deemed the inverse of bourgeois normativity and conservative moral standards, those categorized as mad in America during mid-1800s were institutionalized in reformed mental asylums, establishments which sought to homogenize human behavior through moral treatment. Both Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville drew upon the cultural construction of mental abnormality during their time and formulated mad characters that worked to destabilize the medical perceptions of madness as behavioral deviations from social normalcies, and instead portrayed madness as a pathological form of genius or knowledge. Additionally, these fictional depictions helped instigate the literary conversation about insanity by first illuminating the common societal misconceptions of the relationship between the asylum and the madman and by creating characters whose insights into their own insanities prefigured Freud’s psychoanalytical theories on the subjects of the unconscious, repression, pathological grief, and talk therapy.