Comparative Analysis of Mental Illness Portrayal Techniques in the Novels the Wasp Factory and Shutter Island

Essay details

Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.

The following essay compares the effectiveness of similar techniques used by Iain Banks in ‘The Wasp Factory’ and Dennis Lehane in ‘Shutter Island’ in order to make the reader feel fearful, exploring mental illness as a major theme. Both novels can be characterised as fictional horror, and so, the essay discusses techniques that the authors have used to create a narrative that invokes fear in the reader; in particular by putting the fictional characters in psychologically provoking situations. The essay discusses and explores how the characters behave in response to each of the situations they have to face, and the effect of this on the readers’ feelings.

Essay due? We'll write it for you!

Any subject

Min. 3-hour delivery

Pay if satisfied

Get your price

As the reader progresses through each novel, they experience an array of feelings. Each of these feelings is influential to how effectively fear is created. I argue that in the context of the novels fear is built up of three main components; Paranoia, Anxiety, and Empathy. Lehane and Banks create each of these feelings in the reader by putting their characters in psychologically disturbing situations, and making them face emotionally difficult challenges.

The psychologically provoking situations that are to be discussed are; Forced Seclusion, Mental Illness, and Delusion of Identity. Both ‘The Wasp Factory’ and ‘Shutter Island’ follow their main protagonists through each of these situations. A close relationship is built between the reader and the main protagonists as the characters develop. This is essential to how effectively the novels convey their message.

The ideas put forth are supported by academic journal entries, websites, books, and research papers which discuss Psychology and English Literature. Some articles that I have made reference to, such as ‘The mask of sanity’ by Cleckley and "Schizophrenia." by Walker, Elaine, and Kevin Tessner, are in a scientific format and discuss the effect of specific mental illnesses such as schizophrenia on human behaviour. Other articles made reference to, such as "The Bushwhacked Piano and the Bushwhacked Reader: The Willing Construction of Disbelief." by Gerrig, Richard J., and Giovanna Egidi, discuss the effect of specific literary techniques on the reader.

Forced Seclusion Invoking Empathy

One of the methods used by both Lehane and Banks in order to create a psychologically disturbing narrative for the reader is almost entirely alienating the main protagonists from mainstream society. Both narratives are set on secluded islands; ‘Shutter Island’ is set in 1954 in a mental hospital for the clinically insane off the Boston shore on the remote island named Shutter Island. The main protagonist US Marshal Teddy Daniels is completely disconnected from the outside world, due to a drawn-out storm that has cut off all communications to surrounding civilization. 'The Wasp Factory' is set in 1981 on a remote island off the Scottish shore which is connected to the mainland by one small bridge. Nevertheless, our main protagonist Frank Cauldhame has very limited connections to outside society. He only occasionally visits the mainland and other than that his father does not allow him to leave the island. He goes to the local town to buy various miscellaneous weapons or to go to the pub with the one friend he has, a dwarf named Jamie. The lack of peers or friends with similar backgrounds to himself further alienates him from mainstream society.

Frank and Teddy can both be considered patients in one way or another. Frank has been subject to his father’s physical and psychological experimentation throughout his life, constantly being monitored and receiving medical treatment in the form of male hormones. It is unclear whether Teddy is a patient or a detective in the context of the plot as there are two realities present at the same time. Still, Teddy receives cigarettes, aspirin and the cafeteria food from the island staff which have all supposedly been laced with medication. When Teddy met the lady claiming to be Rachel Solando, the missing patient he was investigating, she brought to light this conspiracy; "And you've eaten in the cafeteria, I assume. Drank the coffee they've given you. Tell me, at least, that you've been smoking your own cigarettes."

These examples show us quite clearly that Banks and Lehane have forced their main protagonists into very isolated and secluded situations. "Patients are often detained involuntarily and they are often acutely disturbed." , this can be said about both Frank and Teddy. Studies have shown that involuntary detention can not only prevent but can also lead to aggressive behaviour in patients. “Aggression and violence are common occurrences in inpatient psychiatric settings worldwide” , this explains the irrational and disturbing behaviour we see in Teddy and especially in Frank. Therefore, their aggressive and violent behaviour can be accredited to the fear they felt from being secluded. This makes the reader feel empathetic towards the characters in order to understand what to potentially expect in terms of Teddy’s and Frank’s behaviour in the context of the entire novel. It can be interpreted as a form of foreshadowing, adding to the intended element of fear in these two narratives that can be classed as gothic horror stories.

The fear that the reader feels is closely related to how empathetic they feel towards the main characters. A suspension of disbelief is necessary in the reader in order for them to feel this empathy, "people have two classes of processes that guide their life experiences: judgements based on intuition and judgements based on reflection". When the reader bases their judgements on intuition, elements such as the implausible drawn-out storm in Shutter Island, or the unlikeliness that Frank and his father are the only inhabitants of the island in The Wasp Factory, become unbelievable. This is when the reader’s suspension of disbelief becomes necessary; "a shift from intuitive to reflective processes may prompt readers to reinterpret the relationship between characters' goals and their actions." ; the way the reader connects the characters goals and actions is fundamental to how empathetic they feel towards them.

The characters forced seclusion and the reader’s necessary suspension of disbelief are two fundamental components that influence how empathetic the reader is towards the main protagonists. In order to make the reader feel empathy, Banks and Lehane have both put their characters in secluded unnerving situations, and so empathy is one feeling that affects fear. The characters feel fear and as a result, so do the readers.

Delusion of Identity Invoking Paranoia

The main protagonists of both novels, Teddy and Frank are both faced with an uncertainty about what to believe. They have both been deceived and it becomes unclear to them which reality is legitimate nearing the closing chapters of the books.

Frank discovers that from as early as he can remember, his identity has been a lie. He was attacked by his pet dog as a child. In the attack, Frank circumstantially lost his genitals. Frank’s father saw this as an opportunity for an experiment and from then on, he gave Frank male hormones in an attempt to change his gender, as Frank was born a female. Frank is torn between the truth and lies upon discovering his father’s deceit. He realises that he is his own greatest enemy “My greatest enemies are Women and the Sea. These things I hate. Women because they are weak and stupid and live in the shadow of men and are nothing compared to them”.

Teddy believes that he is US Marshal Teddy Daniels investigating missing mental hospital patient Rachel Solando who drowned her 3 young children. He is also personally searching for Andrew Laeddis, the man that he believes murdered Dolores Chanal, his wife. The staff of the hospital all conspire against him, playing mind games and giving him medication. Their motive is to delude him into becoming a subject of the secret lobotomies performed in the lighthouse on the island. This is one of two possible realities occurring in the novel in which Teddy is victim to lies and deceit.

The second possible reality is suggested by the staff claiming that Teddy is a patient they are trying to help overcome his mental illness. Teddy is, in fact, Andrew Laeddis himself, and he has created the first possible reality all in his own mind as a coping mechanism to deal with the guilt of murdering Dolores Chanal, his wife, in an act of passion after she drowned their 3 children.

Frank and Teddy both have to question their true identities nearing the end of the narratives. They are both faced with the realisation that everything that they believe is a lie. Each of the main protagonists become their own worst enemy, making them also the main antagonists. Teddy is searching for the man that he believes killed his wife, but the reality is, he killed her himself. Frank has spent his entire life truly despising and holding a grudge against all women after his mother left him, but he learns that he is actually a woman.

This uncertainty of identity means that Frank’s and Teddy’s most base instincts are a lie in their minds. This causes Frank and Teddy to question all other aspects of their lives, constantly believing that everything is a lie, lacking trust in others. Lack of trust is the starting point of paranoia for both Frank and Teddy. Paranoia leads them to believe that forces and people around them are constantly acting against them. One of the emotions invoked in the reader is paranoia. Paranoia is closely associated with fear and so, paranoia is essential to creating a truly fearful narrative.

Mental Illnesses Invoking Anxiety

Many significant characters in both novels can be perceived as being mentally ill. Frank and Teddy, the main protagonists, show signs of psychopathy and insanity. Close people around them such as Frank’s brother Eric and Teddy’s wife Dolores show signs of insanity and schizophrenia. This is significant when creating a fearful atmosphere for the reader.

A psychopath is difficult to define; “the following criteria is generally agreed on by clinicians and researchers: (1) beguiling; (2) guiltless; (3) manipulating; (4) cynical; (5) primitive egocentricity; (6) unempathetic; (7) profess conventional values; (8) unperturbed; (9) restless; (10) oriented in present.”. The first and most obvious way in which the characters display signs of mental illness is in the murders they commit. One significant motif present in both novels is 3 murdered children, who were murdered before the present tense in the novels.

Teddy murders his wife, but it is clear that he feels remorseful afterwards and so he may be ruled out as psychopathic. Whereas, each of Frank’s murders is planned, which means that his kills are well thought out and intentional. This indicates that Frank may be portrayed in a more psychopathic manner by Banks than Teddy is by Lehane. Although both Teddy and Frank have their own justifications for committing murder, Frank’s justifications are generally illogical. Such as, he killed his “young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.”. Not only does Frank kill three children, throughout the book, Frank kills animals to create sacrifice poles. He justifies his killings as he uses the poles as a warning for intruders approaching the island. “One of the Poles held a rat head with two dragonflies, the other a seagull and two mice.”. He also terrorises and kills rabbits by putting home-made bombs inside their bodies and burrows. “I felt good” stated Frank after gruesomely terrorising the rabbits. He is therefore very clearly portrayed by Banks as guiltless, manipulating, cynical, unempathetic and unperturbed; many characteristics of a psychopath.

Frank’s brother Eric is one in whom we see character development, helping the reader to understand him. “He always was a bit sentimental, always the sensitive one, the bright one; until his nasty experience everybody was sure he would go far.”. Although Eric is not present in a large amount of the plot, he is a very significant character in delivering the fear and detachment from reality in the novel. Eric does not live on the island with Frank and their father. He was sent to a mental hospital after he would reportedly “go giving people presents of burning dogs, or frighten the local toddlers with handfuls of maggots and mouthfuls of worms.”. The only interactions Frank has with him until he returns to the island are a few brief phone calls that Eric makes on his way back to the island after escaping from the hospital. Once Eric manages to return to the island, he attempts to burn down the house. Banks uses the brief phone calls with Eric and Frank’s descriptions of him to portray Eric as a very troubled individual. He shouts and bangs the phone repeatedly when he is frustrated. He is constantly swearing, with an aggressive tone. He is paranoid that their father will inform the police of his whereabouts. “I don't burn fucking dogs! What the hell do you think I am? Don't accuse me of burning fucking dogs, you little bastard! Bastard!” , “'You little shit!' he screamed” , “I'll kill you! You-' His voice disappeared, and I had to put the phone away from my ear again as he started to hammer the handset against the walls of the call-box.” These examples show the reader that Eric is irrational and unable to be calm. This foreshadows his aggressive behaviour. He behaves similarly to someone who is schizophrenic, which is “a distortion in the apprehension of reality that is so severe it compromises the person’s ability to function.”.

One can be considered insane when they are so detached from reality to an extent that it causes them to think and behave irrationally. Throughout Shutter Island, Teddy’s wife Dolores showed many signs of being mentally unstable in the alternate reality in which Teddy is really Andrew Laeddis. As Lehane described Dolores’ fears he explained, “what terrified her most was inside of her, an insect of unnatural intelligence who’d been living in her brain her entire life, playing with it, clicking across it, wrenching loose its cables on a whim.”. Similarly to Frank, Dolores is not present in a large portion of the plot. She too is a very significant character in creating the feeling of fear and detachment from reality in the novel.

She had harmed herself on previous occasions, including a failed suicide attempt when she tried to burn down the house along with herself inside it. “Dolores was rubbing the scars on her wrists and… looked like she was about to punch herself in the face with both fists.”

Dolores drowned their three children in cold blood because of her mental illness. When Teddy discovered Dolores after she had drowned the children, she wanted to sit the corpses of the children at the table as if they were dolls. This further portrays how detached she had become from reality. "Let's sit them at the table, Andrew…They'll be our living dolls. We'll dry them off.". This was the climax of her actions, as the consequence was the loss of the lives of her three children and then after, her own. Dolores’ insanity led to Teddy’s insanity. This is why Dolores is a significant character.

Teddy was ridden with guilt even before he killed Dolores, “he'd failed her. Failed his children. Failed the lives they'd all built together”. He blamed himself for failing to recognise her insanity after the many signs she had shown, and so he felt that it was not her fault but his own. This is what lead to Teddy’s insanity. Falsely constructing a new identity and reality inside his own mind to cope with the guilt he felt for taking his wife’s life.

“Psychopaths are thought to make up as much as roughly 1 percent of the general populace and up to 25 percent of the prison population.”. This means that a majority of the readers are unlikely to relate to Dolores or Frank in understanding their justifications for their actions. As the reader progresses through the plot, they begin to make connections. They make connections between the characters’ actions and reasons for those actions, and also connections to the results of those actions.

These connections give the reader a basis for making predictions. This is simply rational thought. Lehane and Banks portraying their characters as mentally ill forces the reader to think in an irrational way, mimicking the characters. This creates unpredictability. The readers do not know what to expect and this causes anxiety, leading to further fear in the reader, and adding suspense to the atmosphere.

In both novels, the 3 children were murdered before the present setting and are referred to in flashbacks, giving background information to the plot. This sets the scene for the reader and also creates a further understanding of the characters. As the reader learns about the experiences that the characters have been through, they are more able to empathise with them. The murders are indispensable to the plot. The fact that the victims in both novels are young children and not adults also has an effect on the reader. Children are seen as more vulnerable than adults. Lehane and Banks making their characters murder children further portrays them as psychopathic.


Lehane and Banks used very similar methods in order to slowly instill fear in the reader. Each of the situations that they have forced their characters into invokes a different feeling in the reader. Both authors have successfully created a narrative that creates fear in the reader, but not with just with sudden scary changes or exceedingly frightening scenes, as per most horror novels. Instead Lehane and Banks psychologically torment the reader by slowly building up a mixture of feelings that as a whole, create long lasting fear.

Each novel explores societies view on mental illnesses, how they are dealt with, and the effect they have on surrounding people. This creates a message that reflects and explores some of societies major flaws including, how people with mental illnesses are responded to and whether or not we should sympathise with them. The message in both novels is reinforced by the fear that Lehane and Banks created intentionally.

The reader is left with questions about their own identity, their actions and justifications for those actions, and their future treatment of other people.

Get quality help now

Prof. Carstensen

Verified writer

Proficient in: Management, Psychiatry & Mental Health, Movies

4.8 (459 reviews)
“ Excellent! She is very professional, meet all the requirements, fast turn around time, communicates, and an overall 100/10. ”

+75 relevant experts are online

More Mental Illness Related Essays

banner clock
Clock is ticking and inspiration doesn't come?
We`ll do boring work for you. No plagiarism guarantee. Deadline from 3 hours.

We use cookies to offer you the best experience. By continuing, we’ll assume you agree with our Cookies policy.