Dear Mary Jane,
In your autobiographical novel The Snake Pit (1946) you throw us right inside the mind of a woman struggling to recover mental health. You make us feel in the heat of things, trapped in her delusions – to the point where it is very difficult for us to know where exactly, in a spectrum, sanity is to be placed.
The novel revolves around Virginia Cunningham, a young writer newly arrived in New York from the Midwest, who has been committed to a mental hospital after suffering a serious mental breakdown. As the book opens, she seems to be wandering through a dense fog, surrounded by strange people. She believes to be sitting in a park in Manhattan, waiting for a husband who is very late. And she lost her glasses, without which she cannot see a thing. Everything is hazy, and she cannot remember what brought her to this place and who are those people around her.
The story is told from Virginia’s point of view, oscillating from first and third person narration. You depict Virginia’s confused perceptions of her treatment in the Juniper Hill Asylum, as she struggles to make sense of what is happening to her, to regain memory, and to cope with the side effects of shock treatment and medication.
The narration starts off in some hazy way and proceeds in fragments of memory and consciousness that progressively expand – a literary device that mirrors Virginia’s own fragmented memory, her fractured periods of consciousness and her oscillation between sanity and confusion, as well as reflects her process of drifting back to consciousness, the process of taking charge of her own recovery. We follow Virginia’s mind from very close, as she goes through electro-shock, narco-synthesis and hydro-therapy; and, through her flashbacks, we also are thrown back into her past life.
We are held high along with her, when she is told a cure is possible, only to be plunged again into the depths of her inner snake pit, when her mental state grows worse, in vicious cycles that seem impossible to overcome. Sometimes she behaves like a child, and sees and describes the people around her as a child would do; and sometimes she is capable of the sharpest social commentary. She can be disturbingly fun to be with.
The snake pit of the title refers not only to the unreliability and nightmarish quality of her mind, but also to the precarious conditions and the violent treatments the asylum patients are submitted to. Virginia is trapped both from the inside and from the outside. She and the other inmates are submitted to treatments that border on sadism: they endure canvas straitjacket and solitary confinement; they are given electric shock; they suffer forced feeding; they are wrapped in wet, cold sheets, then boiled in a bathtub.
To make matters worse, they are kept in in filthy conditions, in an overcrowded and understaffed institution that resembles a labyrinth, ruled by pointless rules and unfair punishments. They are never given enough explanation, and are treated like cattle by either sadistic or ill-informed nurses. There are far too few doctors, and they are not accessible; there is too little food, not enough beds, poor heating, and even too little toilet paper. On the other hand, there is plenty of forced work (disguised as occupational therapy), which, very conveniently, saves the institution from having to hire people to do all the mopping, laundering, cooking, dishwashing required. And there is plenty of medication, to keep the patients constantly quiet and easier to be managed because constantly drugged.
These elements are enough to “drive a sane person crazy”, and bring about more relapses than improvements in the patient’s conditions. “If this be shelter,” says Virginia, “give me storm away from the hills.” To be admitted in this asylum was equivalent to the medieval practice of being lowered into a snake pit: “Long ago they lowered insane persons into snake pits; they thought that an experience that might drive a sane person out of his wits might send an insane person back into sanity.” Likewise, when Virginia begins to regain her consciousness, the very fact of being painfully aware of the reality around her was like being thrown again into a snake pit. Both sanity and its opposites are dangerous places to be trapped in. “They had thrown her into a snake pit and she had been shocked into knowing that she would get well.”
I am aware that your novel drew widespread critical attention to the conditions of American state asylums, and drove the attention of a wider audience to a subject that had previously been a taboo. It also seems to have played an important role in fomenting public discussion about the reform of mental health care and in tackling psycho-analysis as subject-matter for fiction. It also inspired the more famous novel The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath – a book that, for me, is not so accomplished as novel as your book, my dear.
The main asset of the book, for me, is your sharp, forthright writing style. You tackled a delicate subject by surrendering to its complex structure, and gave voice to a mentally disturbed character without robbing her of dignity. Furthermore, you never resorted to sentimentality nor melodrama; never resorted to lyricism nor flinched from the gruesome details of Virginia’s mental state and hospitalisation. You have a gift for building suspense and for detail. And, many times, you are also witty, satirical, even morbidly so.
The abrupt change in narration – from the first to the third person – makes for a rich reading experience, reflecting Virginia’s disjointed mind. Also interesting is the fact that the third-person is used to reflect both Virginia’s alienation from reality and from herself, as well as Virginia’s ascent into consciousness and objectivity. As if extreme sanity and its opposite were closer to one another than one might otherwise have supposed: both are third person states, different forms of disconnection that function like communicating vessels.
The book’s great achievement is the fact that it focuses on making the reader see things through Virginia’s eyes, advancing in fragments of non-linear flashbacks. Her state of mind is made both palpably real and surreal at the same time. At some points, what we take for sanity reveals itself to be only a deepening of her illness – and we are thrown in this illness further along with her. You throw us right inside, and we are as trapped as Virginia. It makes us feel confused, in anguish, and in pain. And it feels like an exercise in empathy where empathy is in fact most needed.
” The delicacy of one’s intellect, one’s sanity, when it is laid open to the specialists. The tissue quivers as under a knife and you, only partly anesthetized, see the light of recovery and the dark of death that is called living, the happy life, the long happy life of the idiot..” – Mary Jane Ward, The Snake Pit
“Come now, indeed. Come into the deep hole. It was not like falling. First you were not there and then you were there, deep in the dark. She wanted to tell the man where she was. I have always told him everything. He means well. Yes, I must remember that he means well. Robert said so and Robert knows. But how can you speak from the bottom of a deep hole? I’m too tired to shout. And the quicksand is seeping into my nostrils. She opened her eyes to blinding light. She was out of the hole, but the quicksand continued to flow into her nose. She tried to speak, to ask him what in God’s name he was doing, shoving a tube into her nose and forcing mush into it. She strangled and started to cough, but the mush continued to pass through the tube. She could see his hands. Delicate hands for a man. (…) Tottering on the edge she tried to keep her balance but again she sink into the hole. When she came up again the circle of intense light had merged into general paleness and the man was winding up the tube. “There, Jeannie There, there,” he said. “It is over.” – Mary Jane Ward, The Snake Pit
“People used to say I had an imagination. Oh, Gin, what an imagination you have. They didn’t say this so much after they read my writing. Why write about the sordid, they said. What they meant was why not write about them as they imagine themselves. Well, I shall try to remember Juniper Hill for a book and then they will say what an imagination you have, my dear.” – Mary Jane Ward, The Snake Pit
“She turned down the covers of her cot and got into bed. You can bury your aching throat in the flat pillow and you can stuff the rough sheet into your mouth, you can beat your fists on the hard mattress and none of this will disturb the paraldehyde sleepers. And even as you weep you know it will be only a few minutes before you will sink into the paraldehyde emptiness.” – Mary Jane Ward, The Snake Pit
About the book
- Random House, 1946, 192 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1946
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- This book was read in June for the challenge 20 Books of Summer & for the Goodreads group The Mad Woman’s Book Club
- The novel was made into the Oscar-winning film The Snake Pit (1948), directed by Anatole Litvak, starring Olivia de Havilland (IMDb).