Rouse Awards – Florie Harmer’s exploration of mental health in American literature
16 Nov 2020
Florie Harmer (Upper Sixth) clinched the Rouse Award for her investigation into the theme of mental health in mid-20th Century American literature.
For her project, she focused on three works – One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl – to evaluate whether they were simply journeys of personal discovery or contained calls for social change in terms of mental health provision.
She said: “I was just really interested by the themes of mental health in literature and there was a real prevalence around the topic in American literature at the time (1955 to 1965). I enjoyed seeing how it intertwined with the contrasting texts.”
Florie looked into three key themes including control (the use of psychiatric institutions as a method of controlling people who did not fit into societal boundaries), incompatibility with societal expectations, and social conditioning in terms of how people influence others and force them into certain roles and behaviours.
While Ginsberg spent time in a psychiatric institution and Plath had mental health issues that led to her committing suicide just a month after the publication of The Bell Jar, Kesey wrote from his experience of working night shifts in a mental institution.
Florie said: “I compared the links to the writers’ own personal lives and autobiographical metaphors and images and reflected on whether that was what was influencing the composition of the texts or whether they were aimed at promoting change in society.”
“My overall conclusion was that they all caused change or had the potential to induce change, but it was their personal intricacies and standpoints that made their calls for social change more potent.
Florie, who hopes to study English at university, was “pleasantly surprised” to be named among the Rouse Awards winners and felt she gained much from carrying out her project.
She said: “I enjoyed delving into the critical material and it felt like I was given the right to have my own opinion within the critical debate.
“I also found the interview process with the Rouse panel useful. It wasn’t anything I’d experienced before and it was on Zoom, which made it feel different, but it was a good opportunity to defend my own opinion, while also taking on different viewpoints and adapting my argument.”