Sherry Cheatham British Literature Professor Donna Nixon-Walker All A Little Mad Erasmus, in his book In Praise of Folly, conjectures that there are “two types of madness”. One is destructive and creates war, lust, and thirst for riches, while the other is good and desirable and creates satisfaction and happiness without anxiety and worry (Hamilton, Adams & Co, London, 1887). These two types of madness are depicted through the actions of protagonists such as J. Alfred Prufrock, King Lear, and Stevens. All three characters seem to have a skewed sense of reality in some way that leads to Erasmus’ definitions of folly and madness.
For example, J. Alfred Prufrock’s reality lies only in his sphere of thinking which leads to his inability to communicate to others. He is fixated on his appearance and his awkwardness, which results in his lack of communication skills and interest in others. Prufrock struggles with the reality that is in front of him, which is the fact that he is aging and he is living with regret. Throughout the poem, he consistently thinks about holding conversations with women to the point that it drives him into a state of madness.
Erasmus might define this as a sort of self-inflicted, destructive madness “which to be so awakened in their conscience as to be lashed and stung with the whips and snakes of grief and remorse” (Hamilton, Adams & Co, London, 1887). Another example of this destructive madness is exposed in King Lear’s actions as he falls from the throne, which initially stems from pride and lust for power. This was a result of his inability to recognize the reality of Cordelia’s love and his hunger for more power and flattery. Even the Fool in the story constantly mocks King Lear’s sanity and rebukes his behavior.
However, King Lear finds some clarity in his madness and humility unlike the protagonist, Prufrock. Erasmus defines the good kind of madness as men who hunt, build, gamble, and keep themselves busy in these states to avoid destructive behavior. The protagonist in Remains of the Day, Stevens, fits into this category of a nondestructive madman. Stevens’ reality may be skewed in that he constantly strives to be a dignified and great butler, yet he chooses not focus his energy elsewhere in spheres of his life such the pursuit of love. His madness is nondestructive, but he realizes that his obsession with his work roves unfulfilling at times. After his epiphany, he embarks on a journey for answers and happiness. This is what Erasmus defines as a good madness in order for the protagonist to learn to achieve greatness and productivity like the hunter or gambler, yet the key is to learn to not be consumed with pure madness but also to achieve full happiness and satisfaction. Prufrock’s statement that he has “measured out his life with coffee spoons”(51) shows his perception of reality in life is uneventful and dull and he thinks himself the “Fool” at times.
He realizes he should change, which drives him into a constant state of madness and questioning his own abilities. He even paints his world as if he was “a patient etherized upon a table” (3) He madness is created by himself in that the self-destructive behavior is due to lack of courage and constant anxiety. He feels as if he is surrounded by routine and feels the need to just hold one conversation, yet he thinks he will “disturb the universe” (46) if he does. This kind of madness drives grief and patterns of lust.
Prufrock is ultimately lustful for a different life with women, love, and happiness. Yet, he never achieves this and never departs from his mental state. This poem exemplifies the character’s tragedy in that he knows what he should do, but lacks the power and grasp of reality to do so. Prufrock searches for a way of escape from his feelings of self-pity and self-destructive behavior, but he sadly stays a poor madman throughout his life. Another example of a destructive madman is the character of King Lear.
Initially, his foolishness is derived from his view that power, money, and appearances are keys to happiness, which causes his reality to be faulty and detrimental. His banishment of Cordelia and abandonment of the throne drives him further from reality into a state of madness and confusion. Even the Fool in the story criticizes King Lear by stating, “All thy titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with” (1. 4. 145-146). The Fool becomes an ironic voice wisdom throughout Lear’s destruction, since King Lear does not take responsibility of his own kingdom.
King Lear’s madness truly unfolds when he rips off his clothes and the Fool states “thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal” (103-104). This irony in the juxtaposition of a wise Fool and a foolish King serves to place further emphasis on how mad the King has become. This destructive type of madness stems from the love of power, greed, and flattery. King Lear’s love for appearances instead of reality causes his self-inflicting madness and depicts that even a powerful king can be swayed so easily by the lies of flattery.
However, King Lear does differ from Prufrock in that his madness actually brings him some modicum of clarity. For instance, even when Lear still appears to be mad (during his rant about cheese, for example), he realizes the truth that Goneril and Regan had been “flatter(ing) him like a dog” (4. 6:97). Though he has occasional lucid moments, King Lear does not appear to completely break free from his state of madness even though he realizes his folly and gains humility.
He does is not conscious of his own madness, and even when Cordelia passes away he insists that she is resurrected. Again however, Lear does gain some insight into the madness of his thoughts and ways and eventually pleads for forgiveness and redemption towards Cordelia despite his mad state. This contrasts with Prufrock, who never redeems himself and stays a destructive madman. The protagonist, Stevens differs significantly from King Lear and Prufrock in that he starts his journey in what Erasmus would define as a good state of madness.
Steven’s perception of reality differs in that his focus is for the good rather than to gain money or lust. Stevens continuously strives to be a dignified and honorable butler that drives him to this state of mental exhaustion. Anything that distracts from his duties is considered “offensive and foolish” (25) such as bantering, love, and death. Stevens’ madness seems productive and honorable, as Erasmus states that there is “another sort of madness, proceeding from Folly, that is so far from being any way injurious or distasteful as to be thoroughly good and desirable.
And this happens when by a harmless error in judgment the mind is freed from those cares which would otherwise gratingly afflict it, and is smoothed over with a contentment and satisfaction it could not in any other way so happily enjoy” (Hamilton, Adams & Co, London, 1887). Steven’s obsession with perfecting his skills, as a butler may seem good at first, but he ultimately lacks satisfaction and happiness. Steven’s journey throughout the book depicts what he is missing to complete his change from the mad state to a clarified and happy state.
Also, the state of madness disrupts Steven’s ability to make his own decisions and rely on his master’s “wisdom” which compares to King Lear and the Fool. However, Stevens realizes that his perception of reality is skewed in that he must think clearly and start making his own decisions. He even completes his transformation by an understanding of bantering in that it “lays the key to human warmth” (245). This small change is significant in that Steven escapes his obsessive mad state and is on the right path to satisfaction and happiness, which is what Erasmus’ view as a form of good madness.
The common perception is that madness is not beneficial and is destructive, however Erasmus conjectures that this is not always the case. One type of madness he outlines is crucial for human growth and development as shown to some degree in each of these three protagonists. Madness can result in clarity and happiness in certain instances such as the protagonist Stevens being consumed by his work, then learning to enjoy life as a result of lessons revealed through this madness. Characters may also be consumed by a form of destructive madness, as was the case in Prufrock and King Lear.
Prufrock demonstrates that madness can consume the mind and result in failure to change, but King Lear gains some insight even though he does not completely change his sanity. The point of madness is not to destroy humans such as Prufrock, but rather to provide the means of looking at things from a different perspective and using this perspective to derive lessons in life. Humans are all a little mad at times yet it’s how humans respond to and learn from this madness that separates the destructive madness and the madness that proves fulfilling by providing perspective.
Works Cited “1. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. T. S. Eliot. 1920. Prufrock and Other Observations. ” 1. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. T. S. Eliot. 1920. Prufrock and Other Observations. N. p. , n. d. Web. 26 Oct. 2012. <http://www. bartleby. com/198/1. html>. Hamilton Adams & Co. “Erasmus. ” N. p. , 1887. Web. 26 Oct. 2012. <http://www. humanistictexts. org/erasmus. htm>. Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. New York: Knopf, 1989. Print. Shakespeare, William, Louis B. Wright, and Virginia A. LaMar. The Tragedy of King Lear. New York: Washington Square, 1957. Print.