How do we understand what is normal social behavior outside the parameters that are used to define “mental illness”? Terminological clarity is important in ensuring that our perception of mental illness is not just a theoretical exercise but is invariably connected to our day-to-day lives. A person could appear completely normal while displaying abnormal traits in his or her character. Something like that does not necessarily make them social misfits because they could still be perceived as “normal” for all practical purposes. For an instance of the normalization of the abnormal, I selected the novel Jane Eyre. Far from being a simple, captivating romance, Jane Eyre is not just about a girl struggling for self-respect but also someone who is trapped in a struggle for “normalcy” in the face of potential mental illness. The latter part of my paper revolves around two aspects: one is that we cannot conceive of the Realist novel without seeing that the genre of the novel itself is a product of class and gender-based contradictions. Another factor, specific to Jane Eyre, is that in their desperation to be “normal,” the characters display morbid symptoms of a controlled and by extension deceptive behavior that would qualify for an argument that the novel is a study of mental illness, rather than a picture of a society at harmony with itself. The paper is a critique of normalcy in the face of the fear of falling mentally ill – a fear experienced by the narrator and communicated to the reader. In the process, the paper uses some of the literary aspects of the text to talk about characters in a manner that brings them as close as possible to reality. The characters are not just imaginary beings in the author’s mind, but individuals who could be situated in a social and a historical context. In attempting to examine mental illness in relation to Jane Eyre, the paper pays attention to some of the other characters in the novel such as Helen Burns, Brocklehurst, and St. John Rivers. The colonial dimension of mental illness in the colonizer’s world is also explored.
Keywords: Mental Illness, Normalcy, Anxiety, Breakdown, Colonialism, Jane Eyre