Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

“Something monomanical”: obsession and the unity of effect

Jack Rosser
Herefordshire, England, United Kingdom


A portrait of Poe in 1848, not long prior to his passing in 1849.

The concept of monomania first gathered popularity in France at the beginning of the nineteenth century; the term “referred to a type of mental disorder in which a person would have fixed, and often grandiose, ideas that did not correspond to reality.”1 These ideas would be “confined to a single object, or a limited number of objects.”2 The term has been simplified over time, and obtained a modern denotation of “exaggerated or obsessive enthusiasm for or preoccupation with one thing.”3 In a chapter entitled “The National Narrative of Monomania,”4 Joan Burbick discusses the condition in relation to Edgar Allan Poe, using a simplified, modern interpretation of it as “an obsession with a single object.”5 The issue with this definition is that it neglects monomania’s initial existence as a form of “partial insanity”6 as it first appeared as a “psychiatric diagnosis in France in the 1830s and 1840s.”7 Monomania has been compared not only to obsession but also to paranoia and indolence. Poe, however, seemed to have a profound awareness of the term’s incomparability.

In Berenice8 (1835), the word “monomania” features for the only time in Poe’s work, as a self-diagnosis of the narrator’s irrationally obsessive mind. Robert J. Belton discusses how Poe’s narrator labels his ailment “as monomania, an old psychological term for what now is called paranoia.”9 Belton’s comparison of monomania to paranoia adheres to the problematic oversimplification of its modern denotation (obsession with a single object), yet this insight acknowledges monomania as a mental disorder as opposed to a mere obsession. In Berenice, the narrator describes his monomania as “morbid irritability of […] the attentive.”10 This corruption of attention forms the basis of monomania in all contexts, particularly “to muse for long unwearied hours with […] attention riveted to some frivolous device.”11 Poe acknowledges the importance of the obsession being tied to an otherwise ordinary object. Moreover, the narrator in Berenice describes a “nervous intensity of interest.”12 Whilst nervousness alone is not indicative of partial insanity, it holds connotations of paranoia, thus Belton’s understanding of monomania as paranoia, despite the fact that they are not entirely the same, resurfaces here. Poe’s narrator confesses that in these musings, it is “more than probable that [he is] not understood.”13 The lack of understanding and logic associated with the narrator’s monomania, in addition to the nervousness of his temperament, leads to the conclusion that the generalized, modern definition of the term as merely an obsession with a single object neglects much of this intriguing condition’s profundity, which Poe understood.

The Man of the Crowd14 (1840) offers further clarification of how Poe understood the term. As the story opens, the narrator feels “a calm but inquisitive interest in every thing.”15 This state of mind initially opposes monomania, which would instead command a nervous, irrational interest in a single thing. However, “suddenly there came into view a countenance (that of a decrepit old man […] which at once arrested and absorbed [his] whole attention.”16 The narrator suddenly switches to a monomaniacal state of mind on seeing this man, as he feels “aroused, startled, fascinated.”17 While the old man’s seemingly aimless wanderings that continue through the night are indeed peculiar, this peculiarity is not pronounced when the narrator’s obsession is first triggered. Given the lack of any notable, early revelations surrounding the man that justify the narrator’s assumption of a “wild history,”18 it seems that his “ideas of a vast mental power”19 are a result of monomania. The narrator follows the man despite not knowing why; he “felt an interest all-absorbing.”20 Given the narrator’s initial calm interest in all things, the sudden switch to becoming irrationally interested in a single thing uses a juxtaposition of mentalities that switches focus to this new-found intensity of interest that is so indicative of monomania. Richard Noll explains that: “Save for these pockets of delusions in their thought pattern, the persons affected were otherwise considered rational.”21 Poe corresponds with this interpretation of monomania as partial insanity, a condition leaving much of a person’s mental faculties unaffected. Alternatively, generalizing modern definitions neglect monomania’s place within this category; while obsession and paranoia are conditions that can affect and influence the entirety of a person’s mentality, monomania does not.

Marina Van Zuylen has highlighted the connection between indolence and monomania. She draws attention to Poe’s complaints of a strange illness he called “’constitutional indolence, […] he rambled and dreamed away whole months.’”22 This notion of dreaming away months poses similarities to the deep, illogical musings of monomania. Van Zuylen praises the power of work in combating indolence by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that: “’work is the best policeman… it keeps everyone in bounds and can mightily hinder the […] desire for independence.’”23 The sentiment of work as a distraction suggests that Poe’s writing was a distraction from his own indolence. Van Zuylen also states that “Nothing is more central to monomania than this grateful surrender of independence.”24 It is feasible that Poe combatted indolence by producing literature and keeping himself too occupied to allow grandiose ideas to swamp his mind. However, it is again too general of a term to use synonymously with monomania. The monomaniacal narrator of Berenice claims that books worsened the condition by adhering to “the characteristic qualities of the disorder itself.”25 Poe does not portray books, and therefore literature, as an escape from monomania. Whilst Poe and his narrator are not the same people, it is evident that indolence (like obsession and paranoia) and Poe’s version of monomania are separate, distinctive conditions. Thus it seems Poe did not write monomania into Berenice introspectively, nor did he write to try and escape from his own monomaniacal thoughts.

Poe theorizes that within the realms of short fiction, any skillful writer should conceive of “a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out […] he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect.”26 Poe claims to write focused tales with a single, commanding function, which lends itself to a monomaniacal style. If Poe indeed views short fiction writing as something that flourishes when it maintains a narrow focus upon a single effect, it would provide an explanation for Joseph Krutch’s opinion of Poe, claiming that “When he fails it is usually because he has attempted something outside of his narrow range.”27 Whilst Krutch’s view has been bred within psychoanalysis, Poe’s narrow range does not seem to reveal anything about his own mentality. Instead, monomaniacal writing simply fits the build of an effective short story for Poe, achieving a single effect to be maintained throughout the story, allowing him to keep hold of and subtly induce his desired effect upon the reader by ensuring the existence of what “is rightly termed by Schlegel, the unity or totality of interest.”28 To ensure a totality of interest, the unified effect must be maintained throughout the reading experience; monomaniacal writing that incorporates a narrow range alongside obsessive narrators allows this effect to be realized, suggesting monomania is not only a specific form of partial insanity but also a tool.

Poe highlights the power of this monomaniacal tool in his first detective piece The Murders in the Rue Morgue, by using game analogies to represent different modes of reading. The narrator states that the true power of intellect is “more usefully tasked by […] draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess.”29 This analogy insinuates that the rules and technicalities of draughts make it a far simpler game, arresting mental faculties so the player can monomaniacally focus. The narrator describes “a comprehension of all the sources whence legitimate advantage may be derived.”30 Once again, with fewer rules and frivolities, the game of draughts allows players to observe them more effectively. Likewise, if fewer details exist, readers of Poe’s detective fiction may need to focus on frivolous devices, which would, of course, be abnormal. However, Poe disparages a disregard for the abnormal, as the Prefect of Police in The Purloined Letter (who is unsuccessful in retrieving the sought-after letter) had a “fashion of calling every thing ‘odd’ that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of ‘oddities.’’’31 Poe implies that labeling something as abnormal signals a lack of comprehension. Obsessing over frivolities as a monomaniac is abnormal, yet it is plausible that a purpose lies within monomania that only those who live with it can comprehend.

As Etienne Esquirol stated when he disseminated the term in nineteenth-century France, monomania’s “seat is in the heart of man, and it is there that we must search for it, in order to possess ourselves of all its peculiarities.”32 Poe clearly acknowledges monomania as something seated deep within the heart of man, thus he utilizes it to enhance his writing whilst uncovering its peculiarities to the reader. The painful irony is that the term was “criticized by many alienists for being too general and thus virtually disappeared by the end of the century.”33 The comparisons of monomania to paranoia, obsession, and indolence are not only bizarre given the fact that monomania only partially affects a mind (unlike the aforementioned conditions), but this modern dilution and oversimplification limits potential understanding of a fascinating condition. Monomaniacal writing allows the unity of effect to be maintained, whilst monomaniacal thinking transforms the frivolous into the significant and facilitates an understanding incomprehensible to those who are shackled by conventional thoughts.


End notes

  1. Richard Noll, The Encyclopedia of Schizophrenia and Other Psychotic Disorders 3rd ed. (New York: Infobase Publishing, 1992), p. 278.
  2. Etienne Esquirol, translated by E.K. Hunt, M.D. Mental Maladies; a Treatise on Insanity (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1845), p. 320.
  3. Oxford Dictionaries, last accessed: 16/11/2015 <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com>
  4. Joan Burbick, ‘The National Narrative of Monomania’, in Healing the Republic: The Language of Health and the Culture of Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 156-175.
  5. Burbick, p. 165.
  6. James Cowles Prichard, A Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind (Philadelphia: E. L. Carey & A. Hart, 1837), p. 2.
  7. Noll, p. 278.
  8. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Berenice’ (1835), The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. by G. R. Thompson (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), pp. 140-147.
  9. Robert J. Belton, ‘Edgar Allan Poe and the Surrealists’ Image of Women’, in Woman’s Art Journal 8.1 (1987), 8-12, p. 8.
  10. Poe, ‘Berenice’, p. 142.
  11. Poe, ‘Berenice’, p. 142.
  12. Poe, ‘Berenice’, p. 142.
  13. Poe, ‘Berenice’, p. 142.
  14. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1840), The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. By G. R. Thompson (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), pp. 232-240.
  15. Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, p. 232.
  16. Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, p. 235.
  17. Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, p. 236.
  18. Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, p. 236.
  19. Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, p. 236.
  20. Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, p. 238.
  21. Noll, p. 278.
  22. Edgar Allan Poe, in Monomania: The Flight from Everyday Life in Literature and Art, by Marina Van Zuylen (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), p. 99.
  23. Friedrich Nietzsche, in Monomania: The Flight from Everyday Life in Literature and Art, by Marina Van Zuylen (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), p. 100.
  24. Marina Van Zuylen, Monomania: The Flight from Everyday Life in Literature and Art (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), p. 100.
  25. Poe, ‘Berenice’, p. 143.
  26. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Poe on Short Fiction: Review of Twice-Told Tales’ (1842), in The New Short Story Theories ed. by Charles E. May (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1994), pp. 59-64, p. 61.
  27. Joseph Wood Krutch, ‘Le Frisson Nouveau’, Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius (New York: Russel & Russel, 1965), pp. 192-218, p. 203.
  28. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Totality of Interest’ (1836), in The New Short Story Theories ed. by Charles E. May (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1994), p. 65.
  29. Poe, ‘Rue Morgue, p. 189.
  30. Poe, ‘Rue Morgue, p. 190.
  31. Poe, ‘The Purloined Letter’, pp. 330-331.
  32. Esquirol, p. 200.
  33. Noll, p. 278.




JACK ROSSER is a literature graduate from Durham University, who studied for an MA in English Literary Studies, following a Literature and Creative Writing BA at Northumbria University. Mental health has always been a fascination of his, especially the manner in which it is exposed in literature. Following graduation, he decided to move abroad to learn other languages, gain fresh insights, find inspiration, and understand new cultures. Whilst currently residing in the tranquil city of Hangzhou, China, he works as a university lecturer and continues to build his writing portfolio.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 11, Issue 4 – Fall 2019
Spring 2019  |  Sections  |  Psychiatry & Psychology

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