Fiction Literature & Psychology Review

“The Headless Hawk,” Truman Capote

Cover: The World WithinCapote, Truman. “The Headless Hawk” (1945)
In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

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This story first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in October 1945. It later appeared in the collection A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949) and in The Complete Stories of Truman Capote (2005).

In her introduction to the story, Mary Louise Aswell, literary editor of The World Within, wrote that Capote, then in his 20s, had “consistently explored a territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly.” She added that “we ourselves have visited it in the dark” and are moved to “the catharsis at least of terror” (p. 283). In an interview published in the spring-summer 1957 issue of The Paris Review, Capote acknowledged Mary Louise Aswell of Harper’s Bazaar as one of the editors who most encouraged him early in his career.

Truman Capote later became known for his innovative writing style in In Cold Blood, but in his early stories of the 1940s he was a master at using gothic elements to create psychological states. He is therefore often associated with the Southern gothic tradition of writers such as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner.

In “The Headless Hawk,” Vincent, a 36-year-old art gallery employee in Manhattan, has an affair with a young girl, who remains mysteriously unnamed, who sells him a painting depicting a girl with a severed head and a large, headless hawk. Both the painting and the girl draw Vincent in in a way that first thrills, then repulses him.

The story opens with the following quotation from the biblical book of Job:

They are of those that rebel against the light; they know not the ways thereof, nor abide in the paths thereof. In the dark they dig through houses, which they had marked for themselves in the daytime: they know not the light. For the morning is to them as the shadow of death: if one know them, they are in the terrors of the shadow of death.

—Job 24:13, 16, 17

Capote uses imagery to create an atmosphere of darkness and death in keeping with this epigraph. We first meet Vincent when a “promise of rain had darkened the day since dawn” (p. 284). He lives in a dark basement apartment. Much of the story’s action takes place either under cloud-darkened skies or at night. Scenes, such as Vincent’s stumbling, rambling visit to a Broadway funhouse and penny arcade, become surreal night visions. Other macabre scenes come to Vincent in dreams.

Imagery of the sea, of submersion, also creates a picture of Vincent moving unnaturally through the world, encumbered in an alternate reality: “Vincent felt as though he moved below the sea” (p. 284). Buses “seemed like green-bellied fish, and faces loomed and rocked like wave-riding masks” (p. 284). Vincent sees himself in a dream “swimming through oceans of cheese-pale faces, neon, and darkness” (p. 293). Later, “The air seemed thick with gummy fluid” (p. 307).

Vincent is out of sync with the world, “never quite in contact, never sure whether a step would take him backward or forward, up or down” (p. 284). He had “substituted for a sense of a reality a knowledge of time, and place” (p. 287). Later, Vincent thinks of himself as “a man in the sea fifty miles from shore” (p. 291).

Narrative structure also contributes to the creation of a dark, foreboding, otherworldly atmosphere. In the opening section of the story, Vincent sees the girl and tries to elude her. But he watches where she goes and then approaches her. He stops to light a cigarette in front of her, and she steps out of the shadows and offers her lighter. This action sequence is disconcerting for the reader because it seems counterintuitive: Who is stalking whom? He walks away, and she wanders into traffic, causing a cab driver to yell. Vincent turns and sees her staring straight at him, “trance-eyed, undisturbed as a sleepwalker” (p. 286). He walks on but continues to hear “the soft insistent slap of [her] sandals” (p. 286).

Much of the rest of the story is an extended flashback about how Vincent and the girl met and how their relationship developed. Events jump back and forth in time as the flashback unfolds, and this disjointed time sequence contributes to the story’s sense of jumbled reality.

The focal point of the story is the girl’s painting, with its dominant image: “The wings of a hawk, headless, scarlet-breasted, copper-clawed, curtained the background like a nightfall sky” (p. 289). For Vincent, the painting, though lacking technical merit, “had that power often seen in something deeply felt, though primitively conveyed” (p. 289). He just knows that he must have the painting, which has “revealed to him a secret concerning himself” (p. 290). On nights when he can’t sleep, “he would pour a glass of whiskey and talk to the headless hawk, tell it the stuff of his life” (p. 291). At those times he sees himself as “someone … without direction, and quite headless” (p. 291).

Vincent sees himself in the headless hawk: “a victim, born to be murdered, either by himself or another; an actor unemployed. It was there, all of it, in the painting, everything disconnected and cockeyed, and who was she that she should know so much?” (p. 291). It is this question that piques his interest in the girl:

There are certain works of art which excite more interest in their creators than in what they have created, usually because in this kind of work one is able to identify something which has until that instant seemed a private inexpressible perception, and you wonder: who is this that knows me, and how? (p. 290)

The climax of the story comes in a dream in which a young and handsome Vincent recognizes an “old and horrid” (p. 302) Vincent. Of other guests in the room of his dream, “many are also saddled with malevolent semblances of themselves, outward embodiments of inner decay” (p. 302). In the dream a man approaches with “a massive headless hawk whose talons, latched to the wrist, draw blood” (p. 302).

After this dream, Vincent realizes that

he’d betrayed himself with talents unexploited, voyages never taken, promises unfulfilled … oh why in his lovers must he always find the broken image of himself? Now as he looked at her in the aging dawn his heart was cold with the death of love (p. 304).

He gathers the girl’s belongings and puts them and her out, marking the death of yet another love, just as all his other love affairs have ended. The phrase “the death of love” recalls the epigraph’s references to the shadow of death.

In his brief remarks after the story, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham focuses on the girl, whom he describes as a schizophrenic portrayed with “almost clinical accuracy” (p. 311). Wertham also touches on the story’s “surrealist tapestry” of “phosphorescent decadence” (p. 311), but about Vincent, the story’s protagonist, he has little to say.

The psychiatrist’s remarks don’t do the story justice and in fact demonstrate how we understand the human psyche as portrayed in literature. We don’t need a clinical diagnosis of a specific condition, complete with a catalog of symptoms. Rather, we more often experience psychological states in literature as a “private inexpressible perception,” a “territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly,” that we may not know how to articulate ourselves but recognize when we see represented by an artist of words.

In fact, this story well illustrates how that process works. Capote’s language creates more of an atmosphere than coherent symbolism. Even the headless hawk produces a general, though macabre, feeling of terror and unreality that cannot be mapped as a specific symbol (e.g., headless hawk = death, headless hawk = fear). This story well illustrates how a master of language such as Truman Capote can communicate psychological truth that feels more real to readers than a clinical description would.

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literature & Psychology

“I Am Lazarus,” Anna Kavan

Cover: The World WithinKavan, Anna. “I Am Lazarus” (1940)
In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

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The story’s opening paragraph introduces an English doctor who distrusts “anything he did not understand,” particularly “this insulin shock treatment there had been such a fuss about” (p.270).

Polish neurophysiologist and psychiatrist Manfred J. Sakel introduced insulin-shock therapy:

Sakel had used insulin to tranquilize morphine addicts undergoing withdrawal, and in 1927 one addict accidentally received an overdose of insulin and went into a coma. After the patient recovered from the overdose, Sakel noted an improvement in his mental state. Sakel hypothesized that inducing convulsions with insulin could have similar effects in schizophrenics. His initial studies found the treatment effective in 88 percent of his patients, and the method was applied widely for a brief period. Follow-up studies showed the long-term results to be less satisfactory, and insulin-shock treatment was replaced by other methods of treatment. [1]

Until the discovery of the tranquilizing drugs, variations of insulin-shock therapy (also called insulin-coma therapy) were commonly used in the treatment of schizophrenia and other psychotic conditions. With insulin-shock treatment, the patient is given increasingly large doses of insulin, which reduce the sugar content of the blood and bring on a state of coma. Usually the comatose condition is allowed to persist for about an hour, at which time it is terminated by administering warm salt solution via stomach tube or by intravenous injection of glucose. Insulin shock had its greatest effectiveness with schizophrenic patients whose illness had lasted less than two years. [2]

Two large studies carried out in the USA in 1939 and 1942 gave him fame and helped his technique to rapidly spread out around the world… . [However], Initial enthusiasm was followed by a decrease in the use of insulin coma therapy, after further controlled studies showed that real cure was not achieved and that improvements were many times temporary. [3]

The opening four paragraphs of Anna Kavan’s story introduce us to the unnamed English doctor who lives in a village near the wealthy Mrs. Bow. When the doctor plans a motor trip to Europe, Mrs. Bow asks him to stop in and see her son at the clinic where he’s being treated for dementia praecox, an outmoded term for what we now call schizophrenia. Readers are guided not to think highly of this doctor: “The English doctor was not a very good doctor. He was middle-aged and frustrated and undistinguished” (p. 270). When Mrs. Bow had told him of her plan a year earlier to send her son to the clinic for treatment, the doctor had opposed the idea. “It was a useless expense. It couldn’t possibly do any good” (p. 271).

Not wishing to offend the rich Mrs. Bow, the doctor stops by the European clinic:

He glanced at the beautifully kept gardens. The grounds were really magnificent, the watered lawns green in spite of the dry summer, every tree pruned to perfection, the borders brilliant with flowers. (p. 271)

The clinic superintendent, who “had exactly estimated the unimportance of his companion” (p. 272), describes Mr. Bow’s prognosis:

“We’re very proud of Mr. Bow,” he said. “He’s an outstanding example of the success of the treatment. He responded wonderfully well from the start and I consider him a quite remarkable cure. In a few months he should be well enough to go home.” (p. 272)

Apparently the mediocre doctor from England who had dismissed the possibility of a cure was wrong about the treatment given at this clinic with the perfectly manicured grounds.

The superintendent takes the doctor into a workroom where some patients, including Mr. Bow, are working with leather: “The different pairs of hands, large and small, rose and fell over the table… . The Englishman looked uneasily at the faces and at the hands which seemed to be rising and falling of their own volition in the banded sunshine above the table” (pp. 272–273). Mr. Bow, with his “flat, hazel eyes,” “sat stiffly correct in his place at the sunny table” (p. 273). This opening section of the story ends with the doctor’s reflection on what he has seen:

“I should never have believed it possible,” the Englishman said with emphasis and repressed indignation. “Never.”

He felt disapproving and indignant and uncomfortable without quite knowing why. Of course, the boy looks normal enough, he said to himself. He seems quiet and self-controlled. But there must be a catch in it somewhere. You can’t go against nature like that. It just isn’t possible. He thought uneasily of the young inexpressive face and the curious flat look of the eyes. (p. 274)

Then the focus of the story abruptly switches to Mr. Bow:

He spoke to no one and nobody spoke to him. He methodically went on sewing the pigskin belt with steady, regular movements of his soft hands… All around the table were different colored shapes whose mouths opened and closed and emitted sounds that meant nothing to him. He did not mind either the shapes or the sounds. They were part of the familiar atmosphere of the workroom, where he felt comfortable and at ease. (p. 274)

And suddenly the reader begins to see what the English doctor vaguely sensed but was unable to understand: that the outside viewer’s perception of Mr. Bow’s existence is vastly different from Mr. Bow’s own. On his way to lunch Mr. Bow walks “rather stiffly” through grasses that respond felinely to his touch: “like thin sensitive cats they arched themselves to receive the caress of his fingertips” (p. 275). Daisies growing in the field “had yellow eyes that squinted craftily through the grass” (p. 275). In the washroom

Several coats hung on the wall. Thomas Bow avoided the washbasins nearest the coats. The hanging shapes filled him with deep suspicion. He watched them out of the ends of his eyes to make sure they did not get up to anything while he was washing his hands. (pp. 276–277)

And when Mr. Bow enters the dining room

The young man looked round cautiously. The pretty dresses of the women gave him pleasure but he was not at ease. At any moment something might pounce on him, something for which he did not have the formula. He waited tensely, on enemy ground… . The waiters, like well-trained sheep dogs, skillfully maneuvered the patients toward their chairs. (p. 278)

Now we realize that the perfectly ordered and manicured grounds of the fancy clinic represent the perfectly ordered and regimented existence of the patients, who have been trained to respond like robots. The irony of the situation is that the undistinguished, “not very good” English doctor was correct in his evaluation of how well Mr. Bow’s treatment has worked.

The story’s title provides a final stroke of irony:

“He doesn’t know how lucky he is,” said the dark doctor. “We’ve pulled him back literally from a living death. That’s the sort of thing that encourages one in this work.”

Mr. Bow walked carefully in the sunshine. He did not know how lucky he was and perhaps that was rather lucky as well. (p. 281)


[1] “Manfred J. Sakel”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 02 Nov. 2014

[2] “Shock therapy”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 02 Nov. 2014

[3] Renato M.E. Sabbatini. The History of Shock Therapy in Psychiatry .

Literature & Psychology

“The Door,” E.B. White


White, E.B. “The Door” (1939)
In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

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Cover: The World Within“The Door” originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1939. If you have a subscription with access to that magazine’s digital archives, you can read the story here. The text of “The Door” is available for free here.


If you know E.B. White primarily as the author of the children’s classics Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, “The Door” will surprise you. In just a few short pages this story presents a picture of a man thinking about the upsetting novelty and inscrutability of an era marked by the political, societal, and philosophical upheavals of global war, an era that Aswell labeled “this age of freedom from certainty” (p. vii) in her introduction to The World Within.

The opening few sentences set the scene:

Everything (he kept saying) is something it isn’t. And everybody is always somewhere else. Maybe it was the city, being in the city, that made him feel how queer everything was and that it was something else. Maybe (he kept thinking) it was the names of the things. The names were tex and frequently koid. Or they were flex and oid or they were duroid (sani) or flexsan (duro)… . (p. 261).

The meaningless words (which have become much more common to today’s consumers than they were to White’s original audience) reinforce the sense of incomprehensibility of everything being something it isn’t and everybody always being somewhere else. The parenthetical phrases “(he kept saying)” and “(he kept thinking)” make us wonder who he is and who exactly is telling us about him.

Anyone who has ever taken an introductory psychology course will recognize the story’s dominant image: an experiment in which rats are trained to open a marked door behind which they have learned they’ll find food. It’s hard not to see this experiment as an allusion to modern life as a rat race (a term my dictionary tells me first appeared in 1939). After the rats have learned to jump at the marked door to obtain food, the experimenters remove the food to find out how long it will take the rats to unlearn what they had previously learned:

but then one day it would be a trick played on the rat, and the card would be changed, and the rat would jump but the card wouldn’t give way, and it was an impossible situation (for a rat) and the rat would go insane and into its eyes would come the unspeakable bright imploring look of the frustrated, and after the convulsions were over and the frantic racing around, then the passive stage would set in and the willingness to let anything be done to it, even if it was something else. (p. 262)

The result of this experimental manipulation is madness:

More and more (he kept saying) I am confronted by a problem which is incapable of solution (for this time even if he chose the right door, there would be no food behind it) and that is what madness is, and things seeming different from what they are. (pp. 262–263)

The life of the story’s anonymous subject has been a series of such manipulations. First the world taught him that religion was the appropriate approach:

First they would teach you the prayers and the Psalms, and that would be the right door… . Then one day you jumped and it didn’t give way, so that all you got was the bump on the nose, and the first bewilderment, the first young bewilderment. (pp. 263–264)

But he continued to follow society’s directives, turning next to love and marriage as the proper way, “the door with the picture of the girl on it … her arms outstretched in loveliness” (p. 265). For a while that door “was the way,” until they also changed that door on him:

although my heart has followed all my days something I cannot name, I am tired of the jumping and I do not know which way to go, Madam, and I am not even sure that I am not tried beyond the endurance of man (rat, if you will) and have taken leave of sanity. (p. 265)

Now this man-rat has “taken leave of sanity” and is facing “an impossible situation” (p. 262), “a problem which is incapable of solution” (p. 263). But he has no choice other than to keep on jumping:

and the thing is to get used to it and not let it unsettle the mind. But that would mean not jumping, and you can’t. Nobody can not jump. There will be no not-jumping. Among rats, perhaps, but among people never. Everybody has to keep jumping at a door (the one with the circle on it) because that is the way everybody is, specially some people. (pp. 264–265)

In addition to this image of the manipulative experiment, White uses changing point of view to communicate the protagonist’s fragmenting sense of self and loss of personal identity. The story begins in third person, “(he kept saying),” which then morphs into first person, “More and more (he kept saying) I am confronted by a problem which is incapable of solution” (pp. 262). This shift in point of view and the lack of quotation marks here in the text make readers begin to lose a sense of difference between the character—“he”—in the story and the narrator who is supposedly observing the character and telling readers about him. And the shift to second person—“they would always wait till you had learned to jump at the certain card (or door)—the one with the circle—and then they would change it on you” (p. 263)—creates the sense of universal inclusiveness. (We often use you like this in common speech, for example, “You have to walk before you can run.”) I, you, he: we’re all in this together.

In his endnote the psychiatrist Frederic Wertham calls this story “a tour de force in free association. I would rather call it ‘free dissociation’” (p. 268). He adds that the significance of the story lies “not in the description of a specific disease, not in the description of thought, but in the picture of thinking” (p. 268). E.B. White’s style, with its run-on sentences and seemingly random juxtapositions of wildly unrelated thoughts, underscores the picture of disjointed, illogical thought processes. As Wertham writes in his introduction to The World Within, “Great writers know how to give a unified picture of a whole personality through minute observation of a meaningful expression, a characteristic mannerism, or an unconscious habit” (p. xvi).

Literature & Psychology

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” Conrad Aiken


Aiken, Conrad. “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” (1934)

In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

Related Post:


Cover: The World WithinI remember discovering this story in an anthology of American short stories back in high school. I found it absolutely chilling back then, and it hasn’t lost any of its power over the years. The story is widely anthologized, especially in collections of American short stories, so you should be able to find it with a bit of searching. Or you can look for The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken, which is more difficult to find. This link will take you to Google Books, where you can search for the book in a library near you.


How does an author write about something “which could not easily (if at all) be spoken of” (p. 244)? In this story Conrad Aiken literarily presents the process by which 12-year-old Paul Hasleman loses touch with reality and slips into a world of delusion. The delusion begins with Paul’s belief that snow has fallen outside and is muffling the postman’s footsteps, but when he looks outside, he sees bright sun and no snow on the street. Yet in his mind Paul sees snow: “this was distinctly pleasant, and came almost of its own accord” (p. 239). Paul instinctively knows that he must keep his vision of snow a secret from his parents, his schoolmates, and the family doctor whom his parents finally call in because Paul seems distracted and engages in extensive daydreaming.

Paul initially thinks of his secret as a treasure that he alone possesses. The secrecy gives his treasure a sense of deliciousness. The secret also gives him a sense of protection from the rest of the world. Soon Paul begins to recognize that he has “another and quite separate existence” (p. 243) from the world of his home and school. He differentiates between “the public life and the life that was secret” (p. 245) and recognizes “the increasing difficulty of the daily return to daily life” (p. 247).

Aiken was an accomplished poet, and in this story he uses poetic devices to portray Paul’s increasing alienation from reality. He uses visual imagery to demonstrate what Paul sees: “The little spiral was still there, still softly whirling, like the ghost of a white kitten chasing the ghost of a white tail, and making as it did so the faintest of whispers” (p. 256). Aiken also uses sound imagery; the heavy, recurring sibilance (s sound) throughout the story echoes what Paul hears. Here, for example, Paul is distracted while the doctor is examining him:

Even here, even amongst these hostile presences, and in this arranged light, he could see the snow, he could hear it—it was in the corners of the room, where the shadow was deepest, under the sofa, behind the half-opened door which led to the dining room. It was gentler here, softer, its seethe the quietest of whispers, as if, in deference to a drawing room, it had quite deliberately put on its “manners”; it kept itself out of sight, obliterated itself, but distinctly with an air of saying, “Ah, but just wait! Wait till we are alone together! Then I will begin to tell you something new! Something white! something cold! something sleepy! Something of cease, and peace, and the long bright curve of space! Tell them to go away. Banish them. Refuse to speak.” (p. 254)

The snowstorm that begins so seductively in Paul’s head turns savage by the story’s end:

The darkness was coming in long white waves. A prolonged sibilance filled the night—a great seamless seethe of wild influence went abruptly across it—a cold low humming shook the windows. He shut the door and flung off his clothes in the dark. The bare black floor was like a little raft tossed in waves of snow, almost overwhelmed, washed under whitely, up again, smothered in curled billows of feather. The snow was laughing: it spoke from all sides at once: it pressed closer to him as he ran and jumped exulting into his bed. (p. 258)

The oxymoron (seeming contradiction) of darkness coming in white waves emphasizes the break from reality as Paul listens to the snowstorm and his mind closes inward upon itself:

“Listen!” it said. “We’ll tell you the last, the most beautiful and secret story—shut your eyes—it is a very small story—a story that gets smaller and smaller—it comes inward instead of opening like a flower—it is a flower becoming a seed—a little cold seed—do you hear? we are leaning closer to you—“ (p. 259)

In her introduction to “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” literary editor Aswell describes Aiken (1889-1973) as “one of the writers whose work first showed the specific influence of Freud” (p. 237). But readers need not know details of Freud’s theories to recognize the significance of Paul’s experience as Aiken portrays it. As psychiatrist Wertham says in his closing notes on the story, “The description is the better since it is free from cliches of symptoms” (p. 260).

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Literary Criticism Literary History Literature & Psychology

“The World Within”: Introduction


The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time

Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

Cover: The World Within


The World Within was one of the first literary collections assembled to spotlight a psychological approach to literature. It couples a literary editor’s introductory remarks with analysis by a psychiatrist.

The literary editor was Mary Louise Aswell (1902-1984), a novelist and editor for Atlantic Monthly, Reader’s Digest, and Harper’s Bazaar. In her foreword to The World Within, which she titled “The Wing of Madness,” Aswell wrote that writer Sherwood Anderson had written in his notebook, ”When I had been working well, there was a kind of insanity of consciousness.” Aswell continued, “Anderson was one of the first generation of writers to be profoundly influenced by the great explorer of man’s consciousness, Sigmund Freud. But the source of his genius, like that of the far greater writers who precede and follow him, was his intuitive insight, as Freud would have been the first to acknowledge” (p. viii). About a writer working at the time when The World Within was published, she said, “As part of his cultural heritage he has the work of Kafka, Joyce, Proust; of D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann and the writers of their generation who first interpreted Freud’s revolutionary concepts in the universal, human terms of art” (p.viii).

Frederic Wertham, M.D., (1895-1981) provided the psychiatric analysis for The World Within. He was born in Nuremberg, Germany, then studied medicine and literature at King’s College, London University, before and during the first world war. In England he became interested in Charles Dickens’s writings on social reform. After the war he received his medical degree from the University of Wurzburg in 1921 and conducted postgraduate study in Paris, Vienna, and Munich. In 1922 Wertham left Germany to work with Alfred Meyer at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He became an expert in forensic psychiatry and believed that the environment shapes individual human responses. In 1932 he moved to New York City, where he studied the effects of segregation on the lives of African American children.

Wertham studied psychiatry during the period when Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), a medical doctor, was developing the theories and method of psychoanalysis for the treatment of psychopathology. This same time period saw the beginning of the development of psychiatry as a scientific medical discipline. Freud’s theories came to dominate the field, and for Wertham psychoanalysis was synonymous with psychiatry. In his introduction to The World Within Werthem wrote that after World War I “Freud’s psychoanalysis gained a foothold with a wider audience both inside and outside the psychiatric profession. Freud’s knowledge of literature was prodigious. He explored not only the meanings hidden in the acts of persons but also those in the printed pages of books from the Greek classics to Dostoevsky. He was like an archaeologist who discovers the intact relics of an old bridge, a bridge built of myths and dreams. For the content of every neurosis is an individual myth. No wonder that this kind of psychiatry had in turn the greatest influence on literature” (p. xv). For this reason Wertham’s terminology seems strange to readers of today, for whom psychiatry usually means the use of drugs to treat mental illness.

Wertham also wrote in his introduction “Since ancient times the relationships between psychiatry and literature have been intimate and manifold, although up to the present they have remained largely unformulated” (p. xii). For him, historical myths and legends, such as ancient Greek mythology, represented timeless psychological truths that contemporary psychiatry was particularly suited to formulate: “What brings the science of psychiatry in the psychoanalytic era into such close and fruitful relationship with the art of literature is that psychoanalysis is analysis of a special kind. It does not delve into the mind to isolate disparate elements. Psychoanalysis always aims to relate the detail, the symbol, to the living organism as a whole. It is here that the research of the scientist and the search of the artist find a common ground. Great writers know how to give a unified picture of a whole personality through minute observation of a meaningful expression, a characteristic mannerism, or an unconscious habit” (p. xvi).

The World Within reflects the cultural world view of the time when it was published, a philosophical belief in the absurdity and meaninglessness of the world that had been nurtured by two world wars. Aswell called the time “this age of freedom from certainty” (p. vii). Americans know this attitude best from Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye. The literary works of Søren Kierkegaard, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus reflect a similar philosophy. Wertham referred to this time period in psychoanalytic terms: “The social crisis of our time has a close similarity to the emotional state in a neurosis: it is a want in the face of plenty. False ideals are instilled in people: for men, to produce and sell; for women, to reproduce and buy. Against this propaganda promoted by all the mass methods of modern communication, psychiatry and literature uphold the dignity of the individual in a changing world” (p. xxiv). His reference to changing gender roles as “false ideals” foreshadows The Second Sex (published in French in 1949 and in English translation in 1953) by French woman Simone de Beauvoir.

Wertham looked to literature for expressions of societal ills that needed treatment: “Literature is always—directly or indirectly, positively or negatively—a reflection of the deepest conflicts in the real life of the period” (p. xx). But he also looked to literature as a means of treating those ills, since it is in “the struggle on the frontiers of imagination where the progress of society takes place” (p. xxiv).


The World Within includes the following works:

  • “The Story of Serapion,” E.T.A. Hoffman
  • Notes from Underground (excerpt), Feodor Dostoevsky
  • “The Beast in the Jungle,” Henry James
  • “The Orchid and the Bee” (from Cities of the Plain), Marcel Proust
  • “Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka
  • “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” Conrad Aiken
  • “The Door,” E.B. White
  • “I Am Lazarus,” Anna Kavan
  • “The Headless Hawk,” Truman Capote
  • “Caput Mortuum,” Edita Morris
  • “The Fury,” Robert M. Coates
  • “Mrs. Razor,” James Still
  • “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Eudora Welty
  • “Percy Grimm” (from Light in August), William Faulkner

From time to time I will report here on one of these works.