Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in Moby-Dick, L’assommoir, and Buddenbrooks: Interpreting Novels Through Psychological Categories

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This study uses the complex symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder to reveal new insights about three of the most prominent novels of the last half of the nineteenth century, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir, and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.

What may have seemed like a persistent idiosyncratic behavior pattern to Realists and Naturalists, has now been identified as a disorder with attributes that have been observed for centuries and are still difficult to treat. Following an in-depth description of the relevant components of OCD, the novels and their characters are analyzed in the context of this prevalent psychiatric disorder. Melville, Zola, and Mann identified increased anxiety in nineteenth-century society and they doubted the autonomy of human behavior. These writers applied their accurate intuitions of a psychological syndrome as a means of exploring the philosophical concepts of fate and free will and their relationship to control.

This work argues that the characters in these three novels constitute psychological case studies that can be applied to the understanding of OCD. It contains a literary analysis that provides insights into these literary masterpieces, and demonstrates the close interaction between medical science and literature.


“Dr. Karen Jacobson has written a book that is quite unique and highly illuminating. Spanning the disciplines of psychology and literary criticism, she has documented the manifestations of obsessive/compulsive disorders (OCD in three major nineteenth-century novels … In this important work Dr. Jacobson enables us to grasp both the history and the effects of OCD. Her interdisciplinary approach simultaneously sheds light mutually on the literary texts through the interface with psychology and on psychology through the example of the literary texts.” – (from the Preface) Lilian R. Furst, Marcel Batallion Professor of Comparative Literature, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“Writing for a diverse audience poses special problems for any author, especially when attempting to bridge between readers with an interest in psychology and those oriented toward American, French, and German 19th Century literature. Dr. Jacobson has done an admirable job of drawing useful connections between these two domains. Her sophisticated rendering of psychology’s perspective on OCD and OCPD offers new insights into the characters in each of the three novels and expands scholarship on them and their authors. In addition, in her hands the three novels provide excellent case studies of the kinds of almost universal symptoms and psychological mechanisms underlying these common disorders, which are still of strong interest to most mental health professionals, psychology teachers, and researchers. Dr. Jacobson succeeds in doing more than just showing how these two domains accurately reflect one another. She also expands the reader’s general understanding of psychology as well as in these three specific novels, their authors, and their individual historical context.” – Professor Joseph Lowman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“In her study, Dr. Jacobson has assisted readers of three classic nineteenth-century novels by offering three different but related types of knowledge. First, drawing on her early training in neurological sciences, she has created an impressive definition of the obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) by placing the latter in their changing historical contexts as seen by multiple disciplines. Using this many-faceted definition, she has examined the lives of three master novelists, Melville, Zola, and Mann, for behaviors that now may be viewed as symptoms of OCD. And she has put this combination of scientific and biographical information to good critical use by arguing that the three novelists employed their personal and theoretical understanding of such behaviors in creating fictions that rank among their greatest literary achievements.” – Julius R. Raper, Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina

Table of Contents

1. Coping with anxiety in the Nineteenth Century
2. Comprehending Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
3. Powerlessness on the Open Seas
4. Anxieties in the Paris Slums
5. Battling Obsession in the German Business World
6. Trying to Seize Control

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