Date Approved


Graduate Degree Type


Degree Name

English (M.A.)

Degree Program


First Advisor

Robert Franciosi

Second Advisor

Avis Hewitt

Third Advisor

Michael Webster

Academic Year



This thesis examines the ways in which characters in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and The Bird’s Nest, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces grapple with the concept of “madness” on individual and societal levels. Each of these Post-World War II novels question whether “madness” is a social construct. Is the person mad, or is society? These three novels, written in an era when inpatient psychiatric care was losing its prominence as a method for treating those deemed insane, reflect the growing trend of deinstitutionalization in the 1950s and 60s, which was most fully realized as a movement in the 1980s and 90s. Infused within the works of Jackson, Kesey, and Toole are also sub-layers of perceptions of “madness.” Relational disconnections – especially those between parents and their children and among significant others – create seeming disruptions in the characters’ perceptions of reality and sanity (and the inverses of each). Also, differences in perceptions of gender and sexuality are prevalent throughout each novel, illustrating the power that hegemonic order has in defining and confining those who do not conform. Thirdly, socioeconomic status and race play vital roles in determining who gets trapped by what Kesey terms “the Combine” and who controls it, or at least thinks they control it. Finally, the uniting element of humor in each work demonstrates the importance of laughter in overcoming the repressive ideologies which seek to entrap the “mad.” Despite the humor contained in these works, serious elements pervade as each novel ends with an “escape” – or, at least an attempt at such. However, for the real-life men and women who were either institutionalized or communally ostracized for their differences, there could never truly be an escape from the repressive confines of the society that labeled them as “mad” and, therefore, “other.”