After experiencing a nervous breakdown in 1940, novelist Mary Jane Ward was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and committed to Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York. From that horrific experience came this landmark novel.
The Snake Pit tells the story of Virginia Cunningham, a young white middle-class woman who finds herself in a psychiatric hospital with no memory of how she got there. It opens with Virginia in a highly confused state of mind, the reader initially as challenged as Virginia to make sense of her surroundings. Virginia's treatments seem a series of cruel punishments inflicted on her for crimes she cannot name, while the penalty for failing to follow the hospital's many seemingly arbitrary rules is transfer to another, even worse ward.
The novel was memorably adapted for the screen two years after it was published, with Olivia de Havilland playing the role of Virginia, its powerful and ambivalent conclusion softened for Hollywood. Together, the book and film had an outsized influence on popular perceptions of mental illness, and The Snake Pit is often credited with setting in motion important investigative journalism and the introduction of legislation at the state level to reform the care and treatment of the mentally ill. Too long out of print, Ward's unforgettable novel belongs in the company of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Joanne Greenberg's I Never Promised You a Rose Gardenthree books it influenced or inspired.
|Publisher:||Library of America|
|Product dimensions:||5.15(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.93(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"Do you hear voices? he asked.
You think I am deaf? "Of course," she said, "I hear yours." It was hard to keep on being civil. She was tired and he had been asking questions such a long time, days and days of incredibly naive questions.
Now he was explaining that she misunderstood; he did not mean real voices. Fantastic. He was speaking, he said, of voices that were not real and yet they were voices he expected her to hear. He seemed determined that she should hear them. He was something of a pest, this man, but she could think of no decent way to get rid of him. You could tell he meant well and so you tried to play the game with him, as if with a fanciful child.
"You can make water say anything," she said. That should appeal to the childish fancy that leaped from pebble to pebble, dancing in the sun, giggling in the sparkle.
And now the water rushed from the quiet pool of his voice to a stone-cluttered bed uneasy for fishes. The song of the brook soared to a rapid soprano and his voice was changing him into a small boy. Dreadful. She tried not to look, but at last her eyes turned irresistibly and, with horror, saw him a girl. She had suspected him of magic and now she knew.
For once he was not asking questions; he was letting gibberish flow from his lips and you would have far more difficulty making sense from it than you would have in imagining words from a genuine stream. Suppose it was not he.
She turned her head. He had a peculiar habit of crouching behind you. Was he in the bushes? And just who was he? You met so many people and they came and went before you got them sorted out properly. A moment ago he was here and speaking seriously of voices that were not real voices and you knew he would be sad if he discovered that you did not know his name. Never mind. The sun is the chief thing.
The sunshine was a warm almost hot bath of thick gold. There had been no intermediate period, no saying, But it really is getting warmer. You were freezing and then you were warm. Does it happen that way in New York too? New York has so many things over Chicago; I hate for it to have Chicago's ability to make a twinkling change from winter to summer. Maybe I am back in Chicago.
But no. He asked where I was and how pleased he was when I said New York. He said fine, fine. I said I was in Chicago recently for a visit and he said fine, fine. It was as if he was the teacher and I, the student, had given the correct answer to a complicated problem. Yes, he did not ask for information. He was testing me, though God knows why.
He was gone now, at least he was out of sight, out hunting voices that are not voices, poor man, and on the bench was a young woman. She was a pretty girl. Her light curly hair stuck to her forehead in baby rings and her lashes were thick. She might be beautiful if she was not so pale. If I knew her I would suggest liver; perhaps she hates it as much as I do. Robert likes it. I should fix it for him oftener. I can eat the bacon. I could suggest shots. Expensive, though, and she looks poor. Only a very poor girl would go to a public park in a hoover apron. For that hoover? No, that would be collars.
Dear Emily Post: Is it proper to go out park-sitting in a hoover apron? Answer: This is a custom entirely unknown to me, but if it is a general practice in your community it would be well not to be conspicuous. I assume the hoover apron is always fresh and that you would not lap the clean side over the soiled side and attempt in that way to maintain a false front.
Complacently enjoying her advice column in the Virginia Quarterly, the Virginia-Drawn-and-Quarterlied, Virginia-the-wit looked down at her own garment. Not this old rag. Virginia Stuart Cunningham, Mrs. Robert P. Cunningham to you and Miss Stuart to a minute section of the reading public—the section of literary persons who get their books for free. . . . This young writer from the very proper and intelligent city of Evanston, Illinois, where intelligence is second to nothing but propriety. . . . Look, Ginger, you wouldn't wear this old thing out to the park, even a New York park.
What was I thinking when I dashed out? I must have been in a rush, but then why sit in the sun? She wore this wreck of a dress only when she was doing the most revolting of household tasks and she certainly had learned by now that you cannot go out on New York streets looking any old way. You were always running into someone from Evanston. Funny how you could go down to the Loop at home and never see a soul but just step out of your New York apartment and the city swarmed with Evanstonians done up in their most proper and intelligent costumes.
However, the fair girl on the bench was not an Evanston person. She was not anyone you had ever seen before. You had not been introduced, but she appeared to be talking to you. This city is full of people who talked to you at the drop of a hat knocked your hat off. Even so, Virginia Stuart Cunningham was not the type to pick up strangers in the park. Oh, these New York parks. What next?
Yesterday or the day before, I saw a cat on a leash. He was walking along as sedately as a Doberman. Probably they had not let him know he was a cat. Like Margaret. Margaret, when I called kittykittykitty. . . . "Stop that, Virginia," she said. "He doesn't know he's a cat." And the day of the cat on the leash there was a dog in a little plaid coat and he had a plaid cap like Sherlock Holmes' and he was carrying a pipe in his mouth. They had not got him to smoke it, though. Good for him. And good for Mag's cat. That one not only caught on to being a cat, he also had kittens. And Mag always so careful to call him He and she even named him Coolidge. After the kittens Robert said she should have taught him to choose to run. Family fun, not funny to anyone but family. I've seen them all recently. No reason to feel this way. Think about that pipe-carrying dog or you'll begin to bellow.
The poor beast hung its head but marching behind him oozing pride were a man and woman. . . . No dogs in this park. You wouldn't know you were in New York, the place all bad dogs go when they die. And spend eternity wearing damnfool coats and caps and carrying pipes.
She stirred her shoetips in the dust that lay thick on the path and secretly, not to disturb Miss Hoover, began to look for her groceries and her pocketbook. It was possible that she had not gone to the store yet but not possible that she had come away from home without her purse.
Her eyes were acting up. From the sun. The park might be familiar but the sun flattened the colors and blurred the shapes. It was as if she hadn't her glasses on.
She put her hands up to her eyes and her glasses were not there. "Is there any danger of her ever losing her sight?" Mother asked the doctor. You were ten then. "Well," said the old coot of a doctor, "well, I don't—think so." For years you felt as if you were committing a crime when you read anything that was not Required. And reading was the only thing you cared much for. Well, softball. Yes. What ever became of all those kids, I wonder. Let me see . . . David is a priest, Fred runs a laundry, Kate teaches school . . . Did Edgar end up in jail? Mother said he would. He was a good ball player, though. So was I, in spite of the bum eyes.
Then as you grew older the lenses were changed less frequently and now that you had reached a great age you bought new lenses simply because the old ones had become scratched. Somewhere you read about the possibility of the middle-age farsight correcting the youthful nearsight. Then you are not middle-aged, dearie; still you can't see a foot in front of your face. What are you doing going around without your glasses? Trying to be pretty?
Didn't wear them much in college. Not at a school where there were four or five girls to each boy. I always had more dates than time, though. From going without glasses? Sitting here on this bench she could think of six girls who never wore glasses and who never had dates, except for the political kind got through fraternity blackmail. It is a fine thing for an almost middle-aged woman to sit in the sun and feel smug about having had a lot of dates in college. Where are my glasses?
Where was her pocketbook? Where—this was the real question that gnawed through the artifical frivolity—where exactly was she?