Feargal Whelan
Trinity Centre for Beckett Studies, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland | Published: 31 October, 2019
ISSUE 14.2 | Pages: 92-103 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2019-9190

Creative Commons 4.0 2019 by Feargal Whelan. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Samuel Beckett displays an interest in portraying figures normally regarded as insane within their communities, and who are frequently depicted interacting with institutions of mental care. Taking the representation of three asylums in three separate works, this paper aims to explore a developing and complicated meditation on the subjects of mental health and incarceration by the author. Beckett’s recurring reference to Jonathan Swift and the constant presence of sexual anxiety in these narratives allows him to produce a nuanced critique of the development of modes of confinement in the emerging Irish state.

Samuel Beckett muestra interés en presentar individuos normalmente considerados como dementes dentro de sus comunidades y que suelen ser representados interactuando con instituciones de salud mental. El presente artículo tiene como objetivo explorar la meditación beckettiana acerca de la salud mental y el internamiento tomando como referencia la representación de tres psiquiátricos en tres obras diferentes. Las recurrentes referencias a Jonathan Swift por parte de Beckett y la constante presencia de una preocupación por lo sexual en estos textos, le permite producir una crítica matizada de la evolución de los modos de reclusión en el incipiente estado irlandés.

Beckett, Jonathan Swift, biopolítica, salud mental, Estado Libre Irlandés.

The depiction of social outsiders whose behaviour would commonly class them as insane is a constant feature of Samuel Beckett’s work, from More Pricks than Kicks (1934) to the tormented narrators of late works, such as Not I (1973). Although the earliest portrayals predate his own period of psychoanalysis with Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Clinic in London in 1934-5, it is clear that his personal experiences there, and the treatment he received, provided a framework for meditating on the nature of asylums and the accepted social manner of dealing with those declared outside the norms of behaviour. His own social isolation, and its acceptance as a “problem”, was key to his understanding of “mental illness”, as he explained to Thomas MacGreevy in March 1935:

For years I was unhappy, consciously & deliberately … But in all that there was nothing that struck me as morbid. The misery and solitude and apathy and the sneers were the elements of an index of superiority and guaranteed the feeling of arrogant “otherness”, which seemed as right and natural and as little morbid as the ways in which it was not so much expressed as implied & reserved & kept available for a possible utterance in the future. (Letters I 258)

Beckett underwent the treatment at the suggestion of his friend and schoolmate, Geoffrey Thompson, who trained at the Tavistock in 1935, before securing employment at The Royal Bethlehem Hospital (Knowlson 171-182).

Beckett attended his sessions as an out-patient and was therefore never admitted to an institution or asylum, though it is apparent that he took a particular interest in how treatment was administered. According to his wife Ursula, “(Thompson) took Sam, dressed in a white coat, around the Bethlem to see the patients … He was a bit of a loony and wanted to see the other loonies” (Knowlson, Remembering 72). Leaving aside the derogatory terminology (though Beckett uses the term loony in the short story, “Fingal”) it is apparent that he identified with the inmates and as such was interested in their conditions and treatment. It is also crucially important to understand Beckett being at one and the same time a patient (a loony among loonies) and an outsider (a white coat wearer) and this colours the narratives which he develops later in which the binaries of sane/insane and jailer/prisoner become undermined.

The three asylums which are depicted in detail in Beckett’s prose, the real-life Portrane Asylum (later St. Ita’s Hospital) in “Fingal” (1934), the fictional Magdalen Mental Mercyseat in Murphy (1938), and the real-life House of St John of God in Malone Dies (1951), confirm Beckett’s interest in the changing practices of confinement at the time, and also in the nature of psychiatric and social care in the Irish Free State. Between 1925 and 1935, as James M. Smith notes, at the prompting of the Catholic hierarchy, the Irish state brought forward “legislation establishing censorship of films and proscribing divorce, characteristic hallmarks of the socially repressive Free State society” (208). This was followed by inquiries and legislation regarding venereal disease, censorship of literature, the status of so-called illegitimate children, the registration of maternity homes, and the codification of dance halls. Smith reveals how this “architecture of containment” was particularly obsessed with “sexual immorality”, as evinced by the “Carrigan Report” (1935), set up to examine juvenile prostitution. The report avoided issues of sexual abuse, poverty, incest and child welfare, arriving instead at a “discourse that responded to perceived sexual immorality”. This “not only sanitized state policy … but also disembodied sexual practice, concealing sexual crime while simultaneously sexualizing the women and children unfortunate enough to fall victim to society’s moral proscriptions” (209). In the process, discourses surrounding Ireland’s “mad” became heavily sexualised and heavily gendered. Any transgression of perceived sexual and moral norms was not just an affront to religious or personal values, but an affront to society and the state. In response, I argue, Beckett works to intertwine questions of sanity, asylum, and sexuality in a framework that defies easy resolution, and this triangulation of madness, neurosis and confinement, embodied for Beckett in the figure of Jonathan Swift, provides a motif for the understanding of institutional treatments of madness in the Irish Free State.


On 26 December 1932, Beckett took a trip which included a long walk around the northern part of the county of Dublin commonly known as Fingal, a part of the countryside then little known to Beckett. In a letter to Thomas MacGreevy, he described the visit:

I was down at Donabate on Boxing Day and walked all about Portrane lunatic asylum in the rain. Outside the gate I was talking to a native of Lambay, and asked him about an old tower I saw in a nearby field. “That’s where Dane Swift came to his motte” he said. “What motte?” I said. “Stella.” What with that and the legend about the negress that his valet picked up for him, and the Portrane lunatics and round tower built as relief work in the Famine, poem scum is fermenting. (Letters I 150)

The network of buildings forming the asylum at Portrane dominate the environment in the area, as Belacqua observes in “Fingal”: “abstract the asylum and there was little left of Portrane but ruins” (23). The institution was founded initially as a means of relieving the overcrowding in the city centre Richmond Asylum, but by the time of its redevelopment and expansion in 1900 it had become the biggest asylum in the country. It constituted the single biggest investment in Ireland by the British government before 1922 (Ferlier). Beckett’s encounter raises the figure of Jonathan Swift, already on his mind following a visit to Joseph Hone and Mario Rossi, who were then completing his biography (Letters I 150-151). The apocryphal story that Portrane Castle (or “Stella’s Tower”) was used by Swift as a secret meeting place for trysts with Esther Johnson provides a historic parallel for the themes of sexual desire, sexual frustration, and sexual consummation which run through the whole of “Fingal”. Indeed, Beckett alters the story so that Swift doesn’t merely visit Stella, but appears to keep her imprisoned: “he kep a motte in it” (25).

In “Fingal”, however, the asylum and its inhabitants offer a mere backdrop to the shenanigans of the narcissistic Belacqua. The asylum, the behaviour of its inmates, and the intervention of psychiatric power in the figure of Dr. Sholto, provide the means by which Belacqua can court Winnie Coates (a pun on British psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott),[i] only to reject her and make good his escape. The story describes a romantic day out in the countryside with obvious psychoanalytic undertones. Much play is made of the fact that Portrane is “as full of towers as Dun Laoghaire is full of steeples” (20), suggesting an earthier collection of phallic symbols than those nearer home. Belacqua and Winnie appear to consummate their love twice in the story, first at the top of Feltrim Hill and, later, at the top of one of the towers. Both times, Belacqua is describes as becoming “a sad animal” (17; 21), implying post-coital gloom. The sudden appearance of the inmates of the asylum, referred to as “the loonies” (22), provides an opportunity for him to escape the scene and abandon his girl. In so doing, Beckett depicts him morphing into a “Little fat Presto … like camomile” (26), which is how Swift describes himself in his Journal to Stella (Pilling 153). Here, Belacqua’s sexual anxiety is foregrounded against the setting of the Portrane asylum, and the person of Dr. Sholto. It is a ménage à trois in which one of the three protagonists must lose out.

Unlike its appearance in the later works, in “Fingal” the role of the asylum, and in particular its inhabitants, is as a backdrop to the narrative as it relates to the narcissistic Belacqua and his difficult relationships with women. In this case, the asylum, the behaviour of the inmates, and ultimately the intervention of the psychiatrist who works there, provide a means by which the protagonist can raise the possibility of developing a meaningful relationship with a woman, Winnie Coates (a pun on the name of British psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott), only to reject it and make good an escape. Ostensibly, the narrative describes a day out by the young couple in the countryside, but the background is heavily inflected by Freudian overtones and failed sexual encounters, no doubt suggested by the presence of the asylum and enhanced by the introduction of the figure of Dr Sholto, the psychiatrist. Much play is made of the fact that Portrane is “as full of towers as Dun Laoghaire is full of steeples” (20), suggesting an earthier collection of phallic symbols in contrast to the religiously inflected implications of those from near his home. There is a suggestion that Belacqua and Winnie have sexual relations first at the top of Feltrim Hill and later at the top of one of the towers, as in both cases Belacqua is describes as becoming “a sad animal” (17; 21), implying post-coital gloom. The sudden appearance of the inmates of the asylum, referred to as “the loonies” (22), the introduction of the “man from Lambay” who tells Winnie exactly the same story which Beckett was told in his own travels, and the appearance of Sholto, provide an opportunity for Belacqua to escape the scene and abandon the woman. However, in doing so, Beckett depicts Belacqua as morphing into a version of Swift, a “Little fat Presto … like camomile” (26). This is a direct reference to Swift’s description of himself in his Journal to Stella (Pilling 153).

Beckett revisited this arrangement in “Sanies I”, which he wrote immediately after “Fingal”, and which draws on a second bicycle trip to the same area (Poems 275). The poem recovers much of the material of “Fingal”, and the bike the poet uses is a “Swift” (Poems 13). A draft version of this poem, “WEG DU EINZIGE!”, links the occasion of the poem to Beckett’s discovery that his university friends Ethna Mac Carthy and A.J. Leventhal were romantically involved (Poems 274). The parallels with the domestic situation of Swift, in his intimate affair with two women, Stella and Esther Van Homrigh (Vanessa), are inescapable, even as Beckett’s case sees two men in rivalry for one woman. The details of Swift’s tryst were particularly current in Ireland at the time. Apart from Hone and Rossi’s book, published in 1934, biographies of Swift were launched by Shane Leslie (1928), Carl Van Doren (1930), and Stephen Gwynne (1933), while plays by Arthur Power and W.B. Yeats premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 1927 and 1930 respectively (Whelan 152-153). Much of the interest in these works concerns the nature of the intimate relationships between Swift and the two women. Lord Longford’s play Yahoo, written at the same time as Fingal and “Sanies I”, hinges entirely on the ménage (Whelan 153-154). Beckett’s ready association of Swift with romantic triangles persisted throughout his life, as in the later Play (1963), which draws on his own affair with Barbara Bray, who was herself writing a play about Swift’s triangular relationship (Kędzierski 893). Even so, Beckett’s portrayal of the asylum and its inmates in “Fingal” does not constitute a sustained representation of the treatment of the insane. The focus is his own sexual anxiety, with Swift, and the vague resonances of sexual incarceration, as background noise. This was something he would return to later, in Murphy and Malone Dies.


Murphy is a tale of displacement and exile. It deals with the plight of an Irishman in London, his alienation in that environment, and the various means employed to return him “home” (Gibson). Beckett explores the contradictory nature of the term asylum as a place of refuge by reflecting on the traditional depiction of the emigrant, the Irish emigrant, as someone who finds both sanctuary and isolated misery in a new life outside of home environs. Murphy reflects on the poverty of his London surroundings and compares them with the remembered, never fully detailed, life he had in Paris: “while Brewery Road was by no means a Boulevard de Clichy nor even des Batignoles, still it was better at the end of the hill than either of those, as asylum (after a point) is better than exile” (48). Here, the very idea of asylum is a mixed blessing. The best that can be said for it is that it dulls the effect of exile, even as he ignores the fact that he is in exile both from home (Ireland) and his preferred domicile (Paris). In formal terms, the narrative is a Swiftian satire predicated on contradiction: Murphy is a thoughtful, laconic Irishman perceived as stupid by unintelligent locals: “‘E ain’t smart’, said the chandler, ‘not by a long chork ‘e ain’t” (50). In much the same way, Beckett was infuriated by the patronising English habit of addressing him as “Pat” or “Paddy” (Knowlson 186). Murphy, as Declan Kiberd observes, “appears to English onlookers as a bedraggled moron, all body, but his real problem is that he is to himself all mind” (35).

From the beginning, Murphy displays an interest in the existing architecture of mental health treatment. When Murphy’s old teacher Neary bares his head in the GPO and rushes the statue of Cuchulainn, to “dash his head against the buttocks, such as they are” (229), Beckett satirises the Free State, as has been suggested (Bixby 3), and the means by which Neary escapes arrest invokes the system of mental health provision in Ireland in a nuanced way. Wylie intervenes on Neary’s behalf explaining that his friend is from “John o’ God’s. Hundred per cent harmless”: an inmate of “Stillorgan … Not Dundrum” (29). The two institutions cited are the House of St. John of God in Stillorgan, near Beckett’s home, and Dundrum’s Central Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Dundrum, which was opened in 1850, was linked to the criminal justice system, raising immediate questions about the nature of the asylum provided there (Prior xxii), while the House of St. John of God began as a private psychiatric hospital. It was founded in 1882, and recognised by the Royal Medico-Psychological Association in 1926 (O’Brien 242-243). Wylie intimates that Neary is cracked, not criminally delinquent.

In providing detailed description of the levels of detention and treatment for the Irish insane, Beckett constructs a framework for the central section of the narrative, which deals with Murphy’s employment in a mental institution. The asylum appears to be a thinly disguised depiction of Bethlem Royal Hospital, which he had visited. The Magdalen Mental Mercyseat is a comic inversion of the official title of its real counterpart, St Mary Bethlehem Mental Asylum, whereby the Virgin Mary is replaced by Mary Magdalen, and Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, swapped with the seat on which God was enthroned (“Mercyseat”). Crucially, though, Beckett also references the intersection of madness, confinement and sexual transgression in the system of Magdalen Asylums and Laundries which existed throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland from the eighteenth to the late twentieth centuries. These were places to which pregnant women were sent, having been forced to give up their babies for adoption, where they lived as residents, slave labourers, often for the rest of their lives (J. Smith 212). The network of institutions formed “a vast system of increasingly punitive institutions” whose function was “to hide women as the shamed others of the nation”, as Clara Fischer describes it (824). Such “asylums” were known to Beckett, in particular the one in Dún Laoghaire, close to his home, titled the Sisters of Mercy Magdalene Laundry (“Dun Laoghaire”). MMM is not merely a parody of the Bedlam hospital which he knew from London, then: it figures the Irish state’s confinement of so-called fallen women, recalling the convergence of sexual and social incarceration that shadows “Fingal”.

Beckett’s portrayal of the Mercyseat also recalls a satiric representation of eighteenth-century Bedlam by Boswell and Johnson. Beckett reiterates the connection when describing the “single rooms, or some would say cells, or as Boswell said, mansions” (105). Frederik Smith relates this to a passage in the Life which Beckett marked as he was reading for his abandoned play, Human Wishes in 1937: “He calls the cells of Bedlam mansions (and the corridors galleries)” (F. Smith 24). At the heart of the depiction is the same incongruity whereby the attitude of the staff is contrasted with that of literary visitors. In both cases, there is a recognition that the patients are “cut off” from the rest of society, however the permanent staff determine to find way to “bridge the gap” from the “private little dungheap to the glorious world of discrete particles” in order to successfully treat them (Murphy 111). For Murphy, it is this very retreat to themselves which allows the patient to progress as individuals: he calls “sanctuary what the psychiatrists call exile” (111-112). Consequently his “success with the patients” is “little short of scandalous” (114). Unlike his superior Ticklepenny, or the Clinch clan who preside over the inmates, he achieves this through empathy and recognition not treatment.

Here, the idea of “asylum”, tentatively raised in “Fingal”, is meditated on more deeply, and broadened to include the relationship between exile, sanctuary and asylum. After all, Murphy is a geographical and political exile, by virtue of being a displaced Irishman, but assumes a position of control over the inmates, in particular, Mr Endon, with whom he develops a “relationship”. By becoming a keeper in the institution, Murphy finds a form of sanctuary, away from the strained home relationship with his lover Celia, inhabiting the room he occupies while on work duty. Given the ambiguities which Beckett flags for the term “sanctuary” however, it is also the case that Murphy is in many ways confined by his employment, bound to a surrogate master in Ticklepenny, inhabiting a room accessible only through a trapdoor. At the same time, he is also complicit in the regime of power that the MMM represents, recalling Beckett’s visit in white coat to Bethlem. In his own estimation, Murphy is a mere mirror image of the inmates he tends to, in particular Mr Endon, much in the same way as Beckett saw himself a “loony” among the “loonies” he had observed. In the course of the famous chess game, the difference between the men is reduced until Murphy experiences a sense of oneness with Mr Endon, an intimacy which leaves them on the verge of “a butterfly kiss” (156): the former gazing into the latter’s open-eyed stare. The only difference discernible between the two is the emptiness of Endon’s gaze and Murphy’s vision of himself in the man’s blank eyes prompting the conjecture: “Mr Murphy is a speck in Mr Endon’s unseen” (156). For Murphy, communion with the insane is desired, but never consummated.

By invoking Bedlam, Beckett also alludes to Swift, who was elected a governor of the hospital in 1714 (Ehrenpreis 817). Beckett reinforces the allusion when Murphy turns up for work “[f]eeling the same old Wood’s halfpenny in the regulation shirt and suit” (107). He feels like an impostor, no better than the brass coin imposed on Ireland that Swift had campaigned against (Ehrenpreis 187-206). Swift’s involvement in that campaign was constantly referred to in Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s by those promoting Swift as a protonationalist (Mahony 148-156). A further obscure reference to Swift comes with the description of the attending Dr Killiecrankie as a “devout Mottist” (161). This echoes the observations ascribed to Swift’s printer, Benjamin Motte, described by Kelly as “prais[ing] Swift’s benevolent intentions but warn[ing] sternly against permitting the kinds of abuses and maltreatments reported in English private asylums at the time” (21). As a friend of the insane, Swift threatened to become an enemy of social order.

However, it is the love relationship underpinning Murphy which is carries the most evocative Swiftian element within the narrative. As in “Fingal”, there is a triangular relationship, as Murphy abandons Ireland in order to escape the love of Miss Counihan, ending up in London in the company of Celia. In each case, Murphy’s relationship is characterised by ambivalence, despite the devotion of the women involved. When asked of his intimacy with Miss Counihan, he answers, almost in disgust: “Precordial … rather than cordial. Tired. Cork county. Depraved” (6). Despite Celia’s devotion to Murphy, he is physically repulsed by her domesticity, declaring “women are all the bloody same, … can’t love for five minutes without wanting it abolished in brats and house bloody wifery” (26). The paradox of repulsion as a function of sexual attraction is a recurring trope in Swift, most memorably expressed in his “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (1732) and “The Progress of Beauty” (1719). In both poems, a central female figure named Celia is observed in the moment of disrobing, transforming her into a grotesque. In the latter poem, the body visibly disintegrates as its cosmetic additions are withdrawn before bed, while in the former, the idealised beauty is punctured by the interference of its bodily reality, with the revelation that “Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” (451). By calling his protagonist Celia, Beckett not also draws attention to the sexual anxiety towards the body which permeates Swift’s work, he also reprises the evocation of the ménage à trois motif which was formulated in “Fingal”, and implicates himself in a version of Swift’s problem.

Malone Dies

In Malone Dies, Beckett revisits the interior of the asylum, and again evokes Swift and the problems of sex. Yet, on this occasion the narrative provides for a much clearer and lengthier meditation on the broader nature of the institutional asylum as a system of power. Whereas previously the focus was on the effect of the asylum on the individual, here Beckett also addresses the very nature of the power dynamic of that institution in a broader societal sense, describing the internal workings of that power, and its interaction with the “normal” world. As the bed-ridden Malone continues to write in his decline towards death, his creation, Macmann, shares his creator’s sense of confinement as he finds himself incarcerated in an asylum. Unlike the parallel descriptions of the asylums in “Fingal” and Murphy, in this case the focus is on Macmann, the central protagonist. It is through his eyes that the narrative is observed. In this setting, Beckett provides an illustration of Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power in psychiatric medicine, which underpins the whole of “the mechanism of psychiatry” (41). For Foucault, the function of psychiatry is to be found in its performance of its power and conferred authority, not in either an analysis of the discourse of psychiatry, or the institution itself. What is important for Beckett in Malone Dies is not merely the plight of Macmann, or how the asylum “behaves”. Rather, it is the performance of the authority within the asylum, the performance of “disciplinary power”, until the disintegrating narrative provides a critique of that power’s stability. The description of this place of incarceration differs from its predecessors by providing a more ambiguous setting, allowing for a more layered rehearsal of the central theme. Portrane Hospital is only seen from the outside in “Fingal”. It provides a background (quite literally) to the narrative which takes place outside its walls. The fictitious Mercyseat is drawn in more detail, and from within its walls, but provides a fantasized depiction of a reality, in keeping with the exaggerated tone of the comedy/satire of the rest of Murphy.

By virtue of its existence in reality (like Portrane) while being set in a fantasy (like Mercyseat), the House of St John of God occupies an ambiguous space from the beginning. The description mirrors its actual counterpart in Stillorgan, as the reader of Murphy already knows, but at all times they are portrayed as a place apart. When Macmann goes missing from his cell he roams the gardens until found in what he describes as “a genuine English park, though far from England” (105), a description which implicates English colonialism in the history of Irish psychiatric confinement. And there is a heightened sense of dislocation which complicates the asylum as site of both sanctuary and abandonment. Equally, an ambiguity is suggested in the nature of the institution as one of confinement. In a lengthy passage describing the grounds, it is apparent that the role of the institution is to contain its patients as the hustle and bustle of the scene is described as “the keepers coming and going, perhaps mingled with I was going to say with the prisoners!” (108), yet when Macmann is offered the opportunity to escape through the open gates, suggesting a somewhat relaxed regime, he fails to take advantage and merely returns to the main building until he feels the relief of “the sense of absence, and the captive things beg[inning] to murmur again” (109). He takes asylum in incarceration, in ways that confirm Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power.

Once again, Beckett is interested in how sex intersects with incarceration. A prolonged sexual encounter provides the heart of Macmann’s narrative, forced on him by Moll, a warder/keeper, possibly with the connivance of the medical staff. The descriptions of their couplings are suitably grotesque. Macmann experiences them as an abuse of power that brutalizes him emotionally, demeaning his self-esteem to the point that he “carried his inconsequence to the length of wondering what right anyone had to take care of him” (95). Unlike the previous conundrums and sexual anxiety abounding in Beckett’s narratives, Macmann’s encounter is wholly a product of his incarceration, and is merely one of the manifestations of the power wielded within it. In “Fingal”, the sexual ménage of Sholto, Belacqua and Winnie is resolved by Bel running away, while the complicated sexual relations of Murphy, Celia and Miss Counihan, are only resolved as a result of Murphy’s death. The sexual anxiety which abounds throughout these narratives is rendered contiguous to the asylum and its workings, but they seem vaguely connected. In Malone Dies, however, the anxiety is an aspect of their function. The mirroring of an “insane” attendant with an apparently “sane” inmate explored in Murphy, repeats again with the appearance of Lemuel keeper, and his interactions with Macmann. Lemuel is initially described as “slightly more stupid than malevolent” (96), and his behaviour mimics the inmates. He is seen “scratching his head or his armpit”, “crying”, “stamping the ground with indescribable nervousness” (96).

Macmann’s story, as the subject of Malone’s narrative, is given privilege over Lemuel’s in contrast to the treatment of Mr Endon’s in Murphy and, as such, his insanity is less obvious, beyond the fact that he is a legitimate inmate of the institution as we see him “wearing over his shirt a great striped cloak reaching down to his ankles” (105). From an early point in the story, however, both men mirror each other in behaviour and action, most notably when Macmann is in the habit of going absent without leave in the gardens. It is Lemuel alone who knows where to find Macmann, and it is there they commune, after a fashion: “often the two of them remained there for some time, in the bush, before going in, huddled together, for the lair was small, saying nothing, perhaps listening to the noises of the night” (105). The portrayal of the two as reflections of each other echoes the recognition scene in Murphy, and the climax of the narrative deepens the association, switching focus from the individual to the institution, and examining the parallel in the context of the broader scope of the asylum. The gruesome dénouement, in which an excursion to a nearby island ends in Lemuel murdering everyone except the inmates, commandeering a boat, and setting it adrift with all survivors on board, represents the last act in Malone’s narrative, and highlights the redundancy of viewing the asylum system as a place of therapeutic value. It is significant that the trip is led by a Lady Pedal, a well-meaning Christian, as she comes to represent societal and religious hierarchical power by virtue of her title, and by the overt religiosity signalled by her hymn-singing. Lady Pedal’s authority is a blind one, however, as she is unable to detect the increasing menace and disruption of order during the trip when she consistently misinterprets moments of danger such as when Lemuel tells one of the companions to “Fuck off” and an inmate “utter[s] a roar”, as the contrary: “a manifestation of joy” (116). Lemuel represents the authority of the asylum and is therefore deferred to by Lady Pedal, even when he behaves erratically on the island, as she declares to him “you are the one in charge” (117). This remains the case following the attack, as the failing Malone recounts, “Lemuel … Lemuel is in charge” (119). What we are left with, finally, is the understanding that at its core the institution, through its foundation on the exercise of power over the individual, is essentially an apparatus of containment, and that its grotesque product, Lemuel, remains in authority, even at the moment of revolt and ambiguous freedom. Beckett anticipates Smith’s analysis of Ireland’s architecture of containment, but alters the pattern of sexual violence to assaults by women on men.

In naming the protagonist of the excursion scene Lemuel, Beckett clearly evokes Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver, hero of his Travels. The connection is not straightforward, however, as it must be remembered that Swift’s Lemuel goes mad following his adventures, his periods of exile having brought him to an precarious state in which he can no longer partake in human society because of the disgust he feels for it. Swift is ambiguous about how the reader should interpret Gulliver’s view, whether his insight into the human condition is a wise one, the product of a revelation, or whether he has just gone mad, in the accepted sense, because of the exposure (Gulliver 10). By the end of Malone Dies, it is impossible to distinguish the certified lunatics from their keeper Lemuel, and a certain sympathy is afforded him, despite the horror of his violence. In a way, the final scene of a boat drifting to sea, without rudder or oars, becomes an extended parody of the various voyages of his namesake in Swift’s tale. Gulliver always arrives in the lands he visits by a small boat, usually by accident, having been ejected, for whatever reason, from the ship in which he had originally set sail. He becomes a ship’s captain only in the fourth and final section of the book, and even then is immediately mutinied by the crew and cut adrift alone. The revelatory experiences of his voyages, therefore, always appear through happenstance, and by aimless drifting, never by design or seamanship. When he does try to navigate, as in his voyage from the land of the Houyhnhnms, he always makes miscalculations and is rescued by accident, never by design.

In naming the protagonist of the excursion scene Lemuel, Beckett clearly evokes Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver, hero of his Travels. The connection is not straightforward, however, as it must be remembered that Swift’s Lemuel goes mad following his adventures, his periods of exile having brought him to an ambiguous state in which he can no longer partake in human society because of the disgust he feels for it. Swift is ambiguous about how the reader should interpret Gulliver’s view, whether his insight into the human condition is a wise one, the product of a revelation, or whether he has just gone mad, in the accepted sense, because of the exposure (Gulliver 10). By the end of Malone Dies, it is impossible to distinguish the certified lunatics from their keeper Lemuel, and a certain sympathy is afforded him, despite the horror of his violence. In a way, the final scene of a boat drifting to sea, without rudder or oars, becomes an extended parody of the various voyages of his namesake in Swift’s tale. Gulliver always arrives in the lands he visits by a small boat, usually by accident, having been ejected, for whatever reason, from the ship in which he had originally set sail. He becomes a ship’s captain only in the fourth and final section of the book, and even then is immediately mutinied by the crew and cut adrift alone. The revelatory experiences of his voyages, therefore, always appear through happenstance, and by aimless drifting, never by design or seamanship. When he does try to navigate, as in his voyage from the land of the Houyhnhnms, he always makes miscalculations and is rescued by accident, never by design.


Beckett displays considerable knowledge of the system of institutional mental healthcare in his allusions to Portrane, Dundrum, and the John of God’s. Macmann’s questions to Lemuel, in particular, are revealing: “when asked, for example, to state whether Saint John of God’s was a private institution or run by the State, a hospice for the aged and the infirm or a madhouse, if once in one might entertain the hope of one day getting out and, in the affirmative, by what steps” (96). While there is a comic element to this, Macmann draws attention to the large variety of institutions of confinement which existed in Ireland by the 1930s. The belief that there was an ever-increasing instance of madness in the Irish population over the course of the nineteenth century is attested by two reports, in 1894 and in 1906, which both drew attention to the actuality of the increase of those declared insane in the census rose from 152 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1851 to 562 per 100,000 by 1901, leading to a commensurate rate of confinement (Prior 227). By 1845, there were eleven public, and fourteen private, asylums catering for 2,555 individuals. However, a waiting-list of 2,957 also existed, which was housed in a combination of jails, local asylums and, in the vast majority of cases, the poorhouses (Prior 221). The rate of increase, and the constant need to house them, explains the various means of incarceration available. Beckett’s Ireland offers a sobering case study in Foucault’s account of a normalising society.

In Psychiatric Power, Foucault styles as “residue” those who fall outside the function of the disciplinary system which cannot accommodate them, and those who are mentally ill as “the residue of the residue”, such that “asylums” become institutions of confinement (54). The process of identifying the residue is dependent on the particular norms of the day. Foucault also identifies a noticeable shift in the setting of such parameters in the 1930s: “a progressive distancing from the asylum space … as the almost exclusive site of psychiatric intervention … to that of a ‘supervised assistance’” (59). This process of redefinition is visible in Ireland from the decision taken in 1925 in which:

All district lunatic asylums maintained by county councils under section 9 of the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898, shall henceforth be styled and known as district mental hospitals, and the title of every such district lunatic asylum shall be and is hereby amended by the substitution therein of the words “mental hospital” for the words “lunatic asylum”. (Local Government Act 1925 79)

But it must also be borne in mind that the modes of identifying those in need of committal, the identification of the “residue”, became strongly coloured by the ethos of the newly independent Free State, and in particular, its obsession with sexual deviancy and the behaviour of women. Beckett’s account of MacMann’s assault by Moll inverts reality in this crucial case, with troubling implications.

By referencing Swift in this context, Beckett is also questioning the consensus that he was a straightforward champion of the Irish mad. In light of Smith’s analysis of Ireland’s containment culture, it is worth noting the part Swift played in the promulgation of a myth of the Irish as particularly crazy. Beckett would have been aware that Swift left money in his will for the foundation of St. Patrick’s Hospital to provide care for them. His cousin, Peter, served as professor of psychiatry there (Kelly 20-22; 240). Beckett negotiates the ambiguity of Swift’s legacy as both self-proclaimed protector of Ireland and a figure who displays a deep mistrust of its inhabitants. Swift’s “Verses on the Death of Dr Swift” (1731) end with the now famous quatrain: “He gave what little wealth he had/to build a house for fools and mad/and showed in one satiric touch/No nation wanted it so much” (Poems 498). Swift portrays his act of charity as necessitated by the abnormal condition of the Irish, contributing to the enduring association of Ireland with madness that provided a leading rationale for the architecture of containment that followed. Meant as an ironic reflection on his whole career (he survived another fourteen years after its composition), these four lines suggest that Swift understood the problem of madness in Ireland as endemic. His pithy quatrain surfaces time and again in public discourse over the following one hundred and fifty years, bolstering the view that Ireland had a unique problem with madness, and that the solution was the incarceration of lunatics. The donation of a large sum in his will for the founding of St Patrick’s undoubtedly provided a more humane regime than what had been there before, and inspired the foundation of other similar institutions, but it also consolidated the practice of associating the diagnosis and treatment of the insane with incarceration. Not unlike Lady Pedal, whose benevolence becomes her undoing, Swift might be seen as contributing to Ireland’s containment culture in his very attempts to alleviate it.


[1] I am grateful to Seán Kennedy for pointing out this allusion.

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| Received: 06-06-2019 | Last Version: 20-10-2019 | Articles, Issue 14.2