Ann Martin

The Emotional Aspects of Mental Illness in Relation to the Harsh Limitations of Society
A Corner of the Universe
By Ann M. Martin


In this literary criticism, T.M. will discuss the interactions among characters in the novel A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin and how these interactions develop themes of maturity, family, mental illness, self-identity, inner turmoil, and social judgments.


A bildungsroman novel, the central story line of this work focuses on mental illness and its effects on the individual impacted, in addition to illustrating the ways in which these disorders can influence the people around the person affected, whether they be strangers or family. Rather than over-incorporating symbolic details and using enhanced implications of literary techniques to comment on social and emotional themes, Martin's simplistic writing style focuses more on utilizing the interactions among characters, each holding different relationships with one another, to highlight the overall ideas and themes of maturity, social constraints, acceptance, and self-evaluation.


Sent away at a young age by his parents to a home established and layered with people specializing in mental illness, Adam was forced to come home when the school suddenly closed. It is intellectually accurate to argue that Adam was sent to this home not as a form of safety and rescue, but to simply do away with him and the disorder that sets him apart from the mainstream, upper class society. To his parents, who are wealthy members of the highest social class and are extremely particular in how they desire their family be perceived, Adam’s disabilities appear to be nothing short of an annoyance to them and their efforts to meet the social standards they set for themselves. "Maybe Nana and Papa think he doesn't fit in there. Certainly, he [Adam] is not part of the perfect world Nana has worked so hard to create."(Martin 34). The distant relationship Adam and his parents insensitive attitudes comment on and reflect the state of society at this period of time, around the 1960s. His disorder is not widely recognized and accepted by those around him, as illustrated by the neglect from his own parents, who place importance on how they are viewed by their peers as opposed to doing what is most helpful for their outcast son, as they, along with the society around them, fail to accept his differences and disabilities.


Opposite to the lack of love, acceptance, and care received by Adam from his parents, his fluctuating relationship with niece Hattie mainly follows a path of positivity and highlights the themes of maturity, family, and individual growth. The two characters mutually benefit from their interactions with each other. From the start of the novel, it is obvious the two had an immense influence on each other: "Last summer, the summer I turned twelve, was the summer Adam came. And forever after I will think of events as Before Adam or After Adam" (VII). In the beginning, Hattie is confused and flustered by her uncle, as his mental handicap is a relatively new introduced into her life, as she had never met him before as a result of his institutionalization. Throughout the novel, she continues to grow intellectually and socially, as Hattie develops a sense of self-worth that correlates to her mature recognition of Adam’s unique personality that can, at times, be hidden by his mental disorder. Their interactions with each other create a passionate friendship and special bond neither have experienced before. Adam teaches Hattie the themes of creativity, confidence, acceptance, and standing up for what is believed in, while Hattie teaches Adam themes such as love, friendship, and family. Before meeting each other, Hattie was timid and hesitant to express her feelings, and Adam knew very slim the ideas of acceptance and friendship. The two influenced each others lives immensely through their interactive relationship.


Other relationships showcased that are of significant value are experienced between Adam and the random strangers that surround him on a daily. Both affecting each other in one way or another, their interactions connect back to the meaning of the work as a whole. These particular relationships between Adam and the members of society aid in illustrating the themes of acceptance and social expectations. The random outbursts from Adam are, in particular, judged harshly by the individuals around him. Their lack of recognition, once again, is omniscient of the misunderstandings shown by society for those suffering from mental illness during this time period. It is often felt by people of such dismal education that those affected by mental illness are not aware of what is going on around them. Adam’s interactions, albeit brief, with Angel Valentine and the other judgmental members of society prove this theory incorrect. The crush Adam develops for Angel is significant in displaying this aspect, as he is devastated when he sees her with her boyfriend. As a result of his combined disappointment and mental instability, Adam commits suicide. Ultimately, his interactions with Angel caused the end of his life. This relationship exhibits the themes of love, acceptance, and neglect in connection to mental disability and is one of the most important relationships featured in the novel.


The various interactions expanded throughout A Corner of the Universe connect as they all develop relationships among characters, both negative and positive. As these relationships grow, they enhance the overall meaning of the work as a whole that social realities influence the lack of love, support, and acceptance of mental disabilities in society. Key themes explored through this meaning of the world include maturity, coming of age, neglect, acceptance, friendship, and social restriction. The countless interactions Adam with family, strangers, and others all held significance as they influenced his mental state, happiness, and journey through life.

T.M. 2015