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On pathologising fictional characters

July 23, 2011
Jane Austen's Mr Darcy, illustration by CE Brock

Mr Darcy, illus by CE Brock (Presumed Public Domain, courtesty Wikipedia)

Was Mr Darcy autistic? Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer, a Canadian speech pathologist, suggests that he was in her book So odd a mixture.  Her theory has not been taken seriously, but it throws up an issue I’ve confronted before, the pathologising of fictional characters.

Take M.J. Hyland for example. I have read two of her novels and must admit that, as I read them, the word “autism” did cross my mind more than once. I did not, however, define the characters as such in my reviews, though I did footnote my temptation to do so in my post on This is how. I didn’t succumb to the temptation because I’m not sure it is relevant or helpful to ascribe to a fictional character a condition that the writer him/herself has not identified.

And, as it turns out MJ Hyland herself has something to say on the matter, at least as far as her works are concerned. She said in an interview on Slow TV that many people suggest her characters have autism but she does not, she said, want to “pathologise” her characters, she does not want such a neat cause and effect. She explains this further by saying that she does not want to present her characters as victims but rather, she wants them to be “as complicated as we are”. I like that … her characters are highly complex and would become immediately less so if she identified them as having a diagnosed condition.

Book cover for Toni Jordan's Addition

Addition Paperback cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

What is it that makes readers want to “diagnose” characters? Is it a desire to do the opposite to what Hyland wants, that is, to simplify them, to put them in neat explainable boxes rather than allow them all the messiness that make us human? By saying this I am certainly not suggesting that “real” people with these conditions are simple. Far from it. But I am suggesting that making such diagnoses, extratextually, can be used to simplify the fictional world. Labelling Darcy as autistic denies us the challenge of teasing out who he is, and why he does the things he does. Or what about Albert Camus‘ Meursault from L’étranger? Had Camus labelled him autistic, as some critics/reviewers have suggested, would we, could we, analyse the book in the same way? Or Patrick Suskind‘s Grenouille from Perfume? Does it help or hinder our analysis to call him a sociopath? I don’t have an answer to this except to say that I like to proceed with caution when I go beyond the text on the page.

Of course, there are books in which characters are ascribed conditions by their creators. Think Mark Haddon‘s The curious incident of the dog in the night-time in which the protagonist defines himself as having “behaviour difficulties” (though nothing more specific than that) and Toni Jordan’s Addition in which the heroine has OCD. Because these characters admit to their conditions, the focus of their novels is different. They deal more directly with the issue of how these characters face the challenges of their particular “condition”.

Anyhow, what do you think? How far do you think it is reasonable to go in terms of describing fictional characters – and why?

20 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2011 15:30

    You really have enlightened me. This is the first time I hear about diagnosing characters with pathological labels. I’ve read Mark Haddon’s book; yes, unless the author ascribes the condition to the characters, I don’t see how anyone else can do it… not even a medical personnel. In real life, a responsible doctor won’t do any diagnosing unless he/she has seen the patient, done tests and evaluations, interview the patient and family to find out more before concluding. Labelling could lead to oversimplifying complex personalities as you’ve suggested, and also could lead to stereotyping… we don’t want to do that for genders, race, or handicaps, so why would we want to stereotype patients of various illnesses, physical or psychological?

  2. July 23, 2011 16:48

    *chuckle* Oh mea culpa! There are times when sociopath – in its Women’s Weekly everyday use kind of way – seems just the perfect shorthand for describing a character. I have no idea what a real psychiatric diagnosis of sociopathy would mean for a real person, but Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs is the stereotype who introduced most of us to the idea that someone can be literally incapable of knowing right from wrong. (Since I haven’t read the book, I don’t know whether the author labelled him thus or not). The book I’ve just read, Omega Park by Amy Barker, features a character who has no sense of right or wrong and behaves accordingly. I happily labelled him with ‘sociopathic tendencies when I wrote my review, perhaps I shouldn’t have…

    • July 23, 2011 17:08

      LOL Lisa, you should say what you want to say! BTW I wasn’t casting any aspersions your way when I wrote this post! I hadn’t read your Barker review because I tend to save reviews of books I might read until I read them.

      I was thinking as I wrote my post that describing someone as having sociopathic or autistic tendencies would be more appropriate, to my mind, than labelling them AS sociopaths or autistic people. It gives your reader a sense of what you mean when you describe a character but leaves the door open to interpretation about what really makes up and motivates that character. So, *I* think you can withdraw your “mea culpa”!

  3. July 23, 2011 17:29

    I wish you could see me grinning, I *knew* you weren’t having a go at me!
    Seriously, ‘sociopathic’ I think is ok, but autism or autistic is more problematic because there’s a whole spectrum of behaviours that even experts dither over labelling. (We know this to our cost at school where the reluctance to label often means that a student won’t be funded for aide assistance). But sociopathic, in that everyday sense in which I used it, is understood by most people to mean just that the person doesn’t understand the difference between right and wrong. It’s probably more complex than that, but that’s how I used it.

    • July 23, 2011 18:39

      Oh good, Lisa, your comment didn’t sound you thought that, but as you mentioned that you’d used the term in your latest review I just wanted to make sure! I agree re “sociopathic”. And, I certainly understand the issue of labelling and education – it’s almost a case of damned if you do (label) and damned if you don’t eh?

  4. cate permalink
    July 23, 2011 21:08

    It is tempting, but in the long run, as you say, not usually relevant to the work. I cringe a bit in embarrassment when I remember the grad school essay I wrote on Hurstwood (Dreiser’s Sister Carrie) and his clinical depression (I was earnestly considering med school). And I still have a theory that Benjy in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is partially sighted. But at the end of the day, one is left following the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole with diagnoses that don’t add anything to the understanding of the text. 🙂

    • July 23, 2011 21:25

      Thanks for joining the conversation Cate … I rather thought you’d agree! It is tempting as you say … but I like your analogy of following the wrong rabbit down the wrong rabbithole. That’s how it feels to me …

  5. July 23, 2011 21:52

    Oh. My. Heavens. This is one of the most exciting posts of yours I’ve ever read… because I’ve read every single book you mention (actually, come to think of it, I din’t think I finished the Haddon, but shhhh….)

    It’s an interesting reality, though, which you’ve pointed out here, that writing a book where a character openly has an “issue” tends to lead to the plot revolving around, or at least being bounded by, that issue. Whereas if we/the author doesn’t pathologise a character, then we’re able to look beyond and see the broader nature of the story/reality… If that makes sense

    • July 23, 2011 22:02

      Well I’m glad Hannah … though why didn’t you finish Haddon? Yes, you make perfect sense – you’ve said it well.

  6. July 24, 2011 01:11

    Love this post, Sue. I think I am probably one of those guilty ones who tries to diagnose the characters I read about. In my defense, I would never call someone “evil” because I don’t really believe that evil exists — it’s too easy a label to attach to a person who behaves badly and it leaves little room to look at why they might have behaved in that manner. Does that makes sense?

    But I do like MJ Hyland’s approach, because what she says is spot-on.

    I recently finished reading Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here — and the narrator is the type of character who is clearly unreliable and a bit damaged. I decided that he was an undiagnosed psychopath, but perhaps I’ll refrain from describing him so when I get around to reviewing the book 😉

    • July 24, 2011 21:07

      Thanks Kimbofo … glad you enjoyed it. I was a bit nervous about it because I didn’t want to sound prescriptive, but it is an issue that comes up in book discussions that I’ve been involved in over the years. I look forward to seeing what you decided to do with your Henry Sutton review!

  7. July 24, 2011 04:27

    Some of this labelling is BS, but I suppose people have to get their PhD ideas somewhere….

    I’m with Hyland for the most part. Get sick of the bipoplar and the personality disorder thing. Alright to stick labels on characters if there’s a point to it (say a parent with a Down’s syndrome child, for example). But I think some things are best left a bit vague. I prefer that good old catch-all phrase “nutter” or “loony.”

    A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth is a good example.

    • July 24, 2011 21:11

      Ha, Guy, you’re right I think about the PhDs – or, in the case of Austen, just jumping onto the bandwagon! I’ll remember the nutter/loony label in future when I’m grasping for something suitably vague. I’ve never heard of Jenn Ashworth – crime?

  8. July 25, 2011 16:18

    Oh gosh, now there’s some food for thought. I can certainly think of some characters afflicted with Aspereger’s syndrome from books I have read this year – the inability to read other people’s emotions and feelings and am particularly thinking of Henry Sutton’s Get Me Our of Here (which I’ve not had time to review but must do someday).

    Sorry for my absence from comments – this is a very quick look in to see what’s going on in the literary blogosphere while I am having my enforced summer break!

    • July 25, 2011 16:41

      First kimbofo and now you mention Henry Sutton’s book, and I’d never heard of it. No apologies needed … but I’m glad you popped in, partly of course because I enjoy your comments but mainly because it is nice to hear from you while you are having your break and to know that all is clearly well.

  9. July 28, 2011 01:58

    Like you and the other commenters, I can’t see the point of diagnosing a fictional character with an illness the author hasn’t named. It gives us no insight into Jane Austen’s writing, Pride & Prejudice, or the character or Mr. Darcy to label him as autistic. There was no such label in Austen’s time so she would have no conception of what we call autism, therefore how could she possibly, and with any kind of purpose, create a character that was autistic? I think it is the case, as Guy suggests, of academics grasping for something for their dissertations or publications for tenor.

    • July 28, 2011 01:59

      Um, that’s tenure, not tenor.

      • July 28, 2011 10:17

        I got it Stefanie … glad I’m not the only homophone- challenged one! Don’t you sometimes wish you could edit your comments on someone else’s post?

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