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This paper is dedicated to an analysis of representation of mental illness in 19th-20th century works of Russian writers: Fyodor Dostoevsky (The Double), Nikolai Gogol (“Nevsky Prospect”, “The Overcoat”, and “The Diary of a Madman”), and Vladimir Nabokov (Despair). My analysis is primarily focused on the approaches these authors employ to represent mental illness. When I began my research, I also set out to trace the evolution of portrayals of mental illness in Russian literature, from one of its founders, Alexander Pushkin, to Nabokov as an émigré writer living in Germany during the 1930s and representing the literary tradition in exile. Underlying these approaches, my goal was to discover whether characters with mental illness were portrayed as completely shut in from the world around them, or whether the representation of their existence within society was determined by how Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky perceived the cultural, ideological, and social conflicts of their time. I have also attempted to answer questions about the peculiarities of narrative structures in works depicting mental illness. Does a story about “madness” told by a first-person narrator (Despair) differ from one told from the third-person point of view (The Double; “The Overcoat”)? By examining storylines, images, motifs, characterization, and dialogue, which aided Russian writers in mapping out behavior patterns of mentally ill characters as well as their social circumstances, I was able to effectively study Russian literary representations of mental illness as the effects of “poor folk’s” living in a socially repressive, unforgiving environment, such mid-19th century St. Petersburg. At the end of my project, I have created a summary of a literary trajectory, from Gogol to Nabokov, which points out the types of characters who faced “death by delusion” in 19th and 20th century Russian prose.
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Reed, Bryan, "Death by Delusion: Representations of Mental Illness in Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Nabokov" (2023). Senior Projects Spring 2023. 202.
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