Spaces Turning into Places: Mental vs. Institutional Places and Spaces in Colin Thubron’s A Cruel Madness

  • Cornelia Wächter Bielefeld University


Psychiatric hospitals by and large fulfil a dual function: historically, they derive from societies' need to isolate those individuals not conforming to the established morals (Foucault, Madness 61). In the eighteenth century, conceptions of madness had taken on notions of contagion and disease, which society allegedly needed to be protected from (Smart 22). Even nowadays, the protection of society remains a factor, albeit on the basis of the unintentional threat posed by potentially violent mentally ill individuals (Goffman 4). On the other hand, the purpose of psychiatric hospitals is to care for individuals who, due to their mental illness, are incapable of caring for themselves (Goffman 4). This double function is also reflected in the word asylum, which can not only refer to a "lunatic asylum" ("Asylum," def. 4.), the predecessor of the psychiatric hospital, but can also denote a "secure place of refuge, shelter, or retreat" ("Asylum," def. 2).

Whether to protect society or to provide a place of retreat, mental hospitals need to delimit and control contact with the outside. Hence, their barriers to social intercourse are "often built right into the physical plant" in the form of locked doors and windows and surrounding walls (Goffman 4). These boundaries can symbolise both aspects of asylum: they can provide protection from a dangerous outside and may also be experienced as restrictive and confining. Michel de Certeau's conception of places and spaces can be usefully deployed for an analysis of how psychiatric patients make do within these institutions. The same pertains to representations of such patients in literature. This paper will analyse Colin Thubron's A Cruel Madness in light of the questions of how Daniel Pashley, the narrator, perceives and negotiates the boundaries of the institutions he finds himself in; how he creates spaces of his own; and what exactly the boundaries that delimit this creation of individual spaces are.

How to Cite
Wächter, Cornelia. 2010. “Spaces Turning into Places: Mental Vs. Institutional Places and Spaces in Colin Thubron’s A Cruel Madness”. FORUM: University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture & The Arts, no. 10 (June), 1 - 15.