Literature & Psychology

“Breaking Bad” and the Willful Suspension of Disbelief


We know that time travel is impossible. Yet when we pick up Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, we don’t stop reading when we see characters moving through time. No, we accept that the story the author wants to tell requires time travel, and we allow it to exist in the world of the story.

Contemporary cognitive scientists and cultural anthropologists tell us that our brain is wired to accept and understand stories because storytelling is the primary method by which a society communicates its history, beliefs, and values. (See, for example, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall.) But poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge recognized our proclivity for making allowances in the world of stories back in 1817. He coined a term for the phenomenon: the willing suspension of disbelief, or just suspension of disbelief.

A recent experience taught me just how powerful our willing suspension of disbelief can be. I had never watched the popular television series Breaking Bad but had heard from several people how good it was. So, around the time other people were discussing the show’s finale, I spent about a week on a marathon viewing of the complete series. At the root of the series is this question: How could a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher turn into a meth-cooking drug lord? The key to our believing this seemingly far-fetched scenario lies in the context. We all know that teachers earn a pittance and frequently have to take on a second job to supplement their income. So in the initial episode of Breaking Bad, we’re not surprised to see Walt moonlighting at a car wash and to hear Walt’s wife explain about the credit card they can’t use because it’s maxed out. Still, though, a lot of teachers in that situation don’t turn to crime to solve their financial problems.

But then Walt discovers that he’s dying of lung cancer. Of course the first thing he worries about is that his death will leave his family with no money. Then he faces pressure from the family to undertake an expensive experimental treatment that could prolong his life but is not covered by insurance. Add to these circumstances the facts that his teenaged son, a couple of years away from college, has cerebral palsy and that his wife is pregnant with a second child, and suddenly we begin to empathize with Walt. In this context Walt’s decision to turn his only real skill, a keen knowledge of chemistry, into a way out of his financial predicament seems perfectly reasonable. In fact, not only do we condone Walt’s plan, but we even begin to root for his success—at least at first.

Eventually events spiral out of control, and Walt’s character changes drastically during the many turns of events necessary to sustain the continuance of the series over several seasons. But after Walt’s initial decision, each plot turn follows logically from what has come before. It was only that first willing suspension of disbelief that the writers had to work at. I think that my marathon viewing made me more aware of exactly how the show’s creators manufactured that willing suspension of disbelief than I would have been if I’d watched the early episodes unfold one week at a time. That skillfully contrived early situation sucked me into the story and made me accept Walter White’s transformation from high school teacher to ruthless criminal. It’s all in the context.

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literature & Psychology

A University Module on Victorian Literature and Psychology


In today’s curation for Literature & Psychology I’ve come across this article:

Escaping ‘Horrible Sanity’: Teaching Victorian Literature and Psychology

Here Serena Trowbridge, Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University in the U.K., introduces the module she teaches on Victorian literature and psychology. The rest of the article, written by one of Trowbridge’s students, describes the experience of this unit of study.

There were no such courses when I was in college back in the dark ages of the 1960s, and this description makes me wish there had been.

Literary Criticism Literature & Psychology

Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey


Have you noticed how similar are the stories of Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, and Harry Potter? All three of these ordinary fellows set out on a long journey, fraught with danger, to undertake a task with a little help from their friends.

When Joseph Campbell examined the mythologies of the world’s major civilizations, he found this pattern of a heroic quest to be universal. Campbell laid out his findings in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, originally published in 1949. Since the book’s publication, this concept of the heroic journey has become the basis for understanding narrative storytelling and is therefore the perfect topic for beginning the conversation on Literature & Psychology.

In the preface to the original edition of Hero, Campbell wrote that his purpose was

to bring together a host of myths and folktales from every corner of the world, and to let the symbols speak for themselves. The parallels will be immediately apparent; and these will develop a vast and amazingly constant statement of the basic truths by which man has lived throughout the millennia of his residence on the planet. (p. xiii)

Campbell’s tool for understanding the symbolic language of the myths and folktales was psychoanalysis.

Campbell broke the hero’s journey down into three parts: (1) departure, (2) initiation, and (3) return. Here is a very abbreviated outline of the entire process. I encourage you to look into The Hero with a Thousand Faces, where Campbell explains how particular myths and tales from several cultures illustrate the heroic journey.

1. Departure, the call to adventure

The beginning of the quest, the call to adventure, is often a seemingly trivial occurrence, perhaps some kind of blunder. For example, a princess playing with a golden ball follows the ball when it rolls away into the forest; there she meets a frog. Campbell explains the call to adventure as “the awakening of the self”:

But whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of life [of the character], the call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration—a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth. The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand. (pp. 42-43)

It is possible for the destined hero to refuse the call, in which case his world deteriorates into a barren landscape representative of his lack of growth. But the character who has failed to answer the call will receive supernatural aid, usually from an old woman or old man who provides amulets or potions for protection against upcoming dangers. With such help from the personification of his destiny, the hero is able to proceed on his journey. He approaches the threshold he must cross, which separates his present, known world from the darkness and dangers of the unknown world beyond. Once he crosses that threshold, the “hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died” (p. 74).

2. Initiation

Having crossed the threshold, the hero encounters a strange world of trials and ordeals where his strength and persistence are tested. He often receives help from faithful companions and from the possessions given him by his supernatural protectors during the departure phase of his journey. He gradually gains knowledge as he faces and overcomes one obstacle after another. The attainment of knowledge is frequently symbolized by some valuable possession, such as the Golden Fleece that Jason of Greek mythology must obtain.

The world of trials, where the hero is figuratively tested, represents the mystic experience. This is the place where Campbell found psychoanalysis to be most helpful, for the frightening monsters and eerie landscapes the hero encounters here represent both the depths of the human psyche and the heights of transcendent religious experience, the world where the individual self dissolves into one being with the cosmos. The death of the self must precede the knowledge of cosmic unity. For this reason the hero’s journey is often spoken of as a death followed by rebirth, or the descent into hell and back.

3. Return

After attaining knowledge (or obtaining the valuable object that symbolizes knowledge), the hero must take it back home for the benefit of all. To do this he must cross the return threshold that separates the divine realm from the human world:

The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know. And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero. The values and distinctions that in normal life seem important disappear with the terrifying assimilation of the self into what formerly was only otherness. (p. 188)

And having crossed the threshold back into the world of man, the hero faces yet another difficult task:

How render back into light-world language the speech-defying pronouncements of the dark? How represent on a two-dimensional surface a three-dimensional form, or in a three-dimensional image a multi-dimensional meaning? . . . How communicate to people who insist on the exclusive evidence of their senses the message of the all-generating void? (pp. 188-189)

Like Frodo Baggins, the hero returns as a different person than the one who initially left home. Having been reborn, he cannot simply take up his life where he left it. And the returned hero is not only different from the person he used to be; he is also different from everyone else who has not experienced his quest.


The myths and tales that Joseph Campbell analyzed come from ancient civilizations. In more modern literature the external journey to unknown lands often becomes an internal journey in search of self-knowledge and personal growth. Yet we continue to respond to the pattern of the hero’s journey, as evidenced by the enormous popularity of the Star Wars films, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (both books and films), and the Harry Potter series.

Cover: The Hero with a Thousand Faces




Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd ed. (New World Library, 2008). The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell.

Literature & Psychology

Introducing Literature & Psychology


Literature & Psychology is a collection of interdisciplinary news items that I aggregate daily (well, almost daily) through ScoopIt.

Literature & Psychology is also a new category of blog post here. Of course, there’s a story behind it.

About 35 years ago I completed the coursework, though not the dissertation, for a doctorate in English and American literature. But not finishing that degree did not keep me from reading. The more I read, and the more book group discussions I attended, the more I realized that what intrigued me most about fiction is that good literature is psychology, or what characters do, why they do it, and how they handle the consequences of their actions. So when I went back to school for a late-life doctorate, I studied psychology as an adjunct to the literary training I already had. My focus was on life stories, an area that contributes directly to understanding fictional characters.

Posts labeled Literature & Psychology will consider areas that involve the intersection of those two fields. I think of both fields broadly, so that they overlap in areas involving history, culture, and society. The emphasis here, though, is always on how psychology can help us better understand and appreciate works of literature. These posts will focus on three broad areas:

  1. Content, particularly characterization: How do authors create characters?
  2. Form and structure: What conventions and devices do writers use to shape their stories?
  3. The reading process: How and why do we get lost in a good book?

Although these discussions will focus primarily on literature, I will sometimes refer to other formats, particularly film and television, that share aesthetic and cultural features with literature.

Look for the first real Literature & Psychology post soon.

Audiobooks Fiction Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Review

“The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” by Maggie O’Farrell

O’Farrell, Maggie. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox   
New York: Harcourt, 2006 
ISBN 978-0-15-101411-8  
Blackstone Audiobooks, narrated by Anne Flosnik


This novel is about family stories–in this case, the truths that don’t get told and the lies that spring up to fill the void–and how those stories reverberate through generations.

Iris Lockhart is a 30-something woman busy managing her vintage clothing shop in Edinburgh, juggling a tense relationship with her stepbrother Alex, and trying to sidestep the increasing demands of her latest married lover. Besides Alex, Iris’s only family is her paternal grandmother, Kitty, who is in the clutches of advancing Alzheimer’s disease. 

Then one day Iris receives a shocking phone call: A nearby mental institution is closing, and Iris must make arrangements for her great aunt Esme, Kitty’s sister, whom Iris has never heard of. Kitty always claimed to be an only child. However, the institution’s paperwork proves that Esme is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see a hint of her dead father’s face in Esme’s.

Iris agrees to take Esme to a residence home arranged by the institution but finds the home too appalling to leave Esme there. Iris therefore has no choice but to take Esme home for the weekend with her, to an apartment carved out of the family home in which Esme had lived before being sent to the institution more than 60 years ago, at age 16. As Esme caresses the doorknobs and looks into the well-remembered rooms, Iris tries to question her about the past.

Although the novel is short, it is not an easy read, either emotionally or stylistically. The narrative structure skips among three kinds of narration:

  1. the straightforward third-person narration of Iris’s life  
  2. the convoluted, often naive meanderings of Esme’s schizophrenic memories and thoughts  
  3. the even more disjointed and bitter memories of Kitty’s dementia

Understanding this novel requires an attentive reader able to  put together the pieces of the puzzle.

In a sudden flash of insight Iris puts all the pieces together in the book’s abrupt, dramatic climax. I would have liked to see a bit of dénouement about how Iris’s new knowledge will affect her life. Nonetheless, the novel richly repays the reader’s investment of time and effort.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox would be a good book group choice, since all readers will have their own individual take on the many themes this novel raises: truth, the subjugation of women, racial and gender stereotypes, colonialism, social propriety, the meaning of love and of family, parenting, and the treatment of mental illness.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Review

“The Knitting Circle” by Ann Hood

Hood, Ann. The Knitting Circle
New York: Norton, 2007
ISBN 0-393-05901-4
Blackstone Audiobooks, narrated by Hillary Huber

Highly recommended

This novel is all about perspective, and about the healing power of telling our stories.

When Mary Baxter’s five-year-old daughter dies suddenly of meningitis, Mary finds herself unable to read, write, go to work, or do any of the other activities that formerly filled her life. Her mother suggests that she take up knitting to occupy her hands and her mind. Reluctantly, Mary goes to see Alice, who teaches her to knit, and joins the knitting circle at Alice’s store. Over the next few months the members of the knitting circle all, one by one, tell Mary their own personal stories of pain and loss.

As I read this book, I kept wondering when Mary was going to tell the other knitters her own story. Dealing with pain and loss takes time, of course, but eventually Mary does tell her story. In the process she also reconnects with her own mother who, Mary is stunned to learn, also has her own story to tell.

A loss the size of Mary’s can seem overwhelming; we think that no one else has ever been through anything as huge as what we’re going through. But hearing other peoples’ stories can gradually give us a new perspective. We gain empathy by looking at life from their perspective. We also see that they have endured, and recognizing that truth lets us know that we too will survive. And we gain support from the sharing of stories with a group of compassionate, caring, non-judgmental people who understand what we’re going through.

The author herself experienced the sudden loss of her young daughter and afterwards took up knitting as a way to calm her spirit and soothe her soul. That is probably why the character depictions in this novel ring so poignantly true. Anyone who loves good literature with strongly drawn characters will appreciate this novel.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

(See also the review of Hood’s later memoir, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief.)

Literary Criticism Literary History Literature & Psychology Nonfiction Review

“Writing a Woman’s Life” by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing a Woman’s Life (1988) 
W.W. Norton & Company, 144 pages, $14.95 hardcover 
ISBN 0-393-02601-9

In the “Introduction,” feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun explains the topic of her book:

There are four ways to write a woman’s life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process. (p. 12)

Heilbrun says that she will focus on three of these methods, omitting fiction.

Men have always had narrative stories, such as the quest motif and the warrior exemplar, on which to base their lives and within which to tell their life stories. But, Heilbrun argues, such stories of action and accomplishment have been denied to women; the behavior praised by these stories has always been branded “unwomanly”:

above all other prohibitions, what has been forbidden to women is anger, together with the open admission of the desire for power and control over one’s life (which inevitably means accepting some degree of power and control over other lives). (p. 13)

Because this has been declared unwomanly, and because many women would prefer (or think they would prefer) a world without evident power or control, women have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots, or examples, by which they might assume power over—take control of—their own lives. (p. 17)

Well into the twentieth century, it continued to be impossible for women to admit into their autobiographical narratives the claim of achievement, the admission of ambition, the recognition that accomplishment was neither luck nor the result of the efforts or generosity of others. (p. 24)

The concept of biography itself has changed profoundly in the last two decades, biographies of women especially so. But while biographers of men have been challenged on the “objectivity” of their interpretation, biographers of women have had not only to choose one interpretation over another but, far more difficult, actually to reinvent the lives their subjects led, discovering from what evidence they could find the processes and decisions, the choices and unique pain, that lay beyond the life stories of these women. The choices and pain of the women who did not make a man the center of their lives seemed unique, because there were no models of the lives they wanted to live, no exemplars, no stories. These choices, this pain, those stories, and how they may be more systematically faced…are what I want to examine in this book. (p. 31)

In subsequent chapters Heilbrun offers George Sand, Willa Cather, and particularly Dorothy L. Sayers as examples of women who tried to mold their lives into patterns other than those traditionally allowed to them. However:

Only in the last third of the twentieth century have women broken through to a realization of the narratives that have been controlling their lives. Women poets of one generation—those born between 1923 and 1932—can now be seen to have transformed the autobiographies of women’s lives, to have expressed, and suffered for expressing, what women had not earlier been allowed to say. (p. 60)

These poets, all American, are Denise Levertov, Jane Cooper, Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath.

Finally, Heilbrun argues for what she calls “reinventing marriage,” for a new kind of marriage in which husband and wife both recognize and nurture the other’s strengths. “Marriage is the most persistent of myths imprisoning women, and misleading those who write of women’s lives” (p. 77), she says. As an example of this new kind of marriage she cites the relationship between Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

One of the more interesting aspects of Writing a Woman’s Life is Heilbrun’s explanation, in chapter six, of why she chose to use a pseudonym in the 1960s when, as a young college professor, she started publishing detective novels: “I believe now that I must have wanted, with extraordinary fervor, to create a space for myself” (p. 113). “But I also sought another identity, another role. I sought to create an individual whose destiny offered more possibility than I could comfortably imagine for myself” (p. 114).

A potential problem with any  type of literary criticism based on a particular ideology is that it often ends up reducing complex issues to dismissively simple statements, such as this declaration by Heilbrun: “Marriage, in short, is a bargain, like buying a house or entering a profession” (p. 92). Nonetheless, in general, Writing a Woman’s Life offers a compelling view of cultural and social conventions that are currently undergoing change.

© 1999 by Mary Daniels Brown