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The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward
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The Snake Pit

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The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward
Paperback $15.95
Jun 01, 2021 | ISBN 9781598536805

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  • Jun 01, 2021 | ISBN 9781598536805

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“One of the first novels about the American mental health system turns out to be among the freshest, and most darkly funny, examples of a genre that is often grimly earnest if well-meaning. Published by the Library of America to honor its 75th anniversary, Ward’s novel was a bestseller, the basis of a popular movie, and the impetus behind change to state mental institutions. The semiautobiographical novel is told from the constantly changing and unreliable point of view of sardonic novelist Virginia Cunningham, who, as the story opens, is puzzled to discover herself in what seems at first to be a public park but which she gradually identifies as a mental institution, in which she has been confined for an indeterminate amount of time. Virginia, whose primary tie to the outside world is her faithful husband, Robert, and who is beset by lapses in her memory, bounces around through the wards of Juniper Hill, a severely understaffed state institution whose motto, she believes, is “Keep Them Quiet.” For a while, she makes it up to Ward One, the closest to release. Other times, she comes to consciousness in wards where she is being drugged, treated with ice baths, or given shock treatment. She alludes to sessions with a psychoanalyst, but her main focus is on the nurses and patients with whom she interacts and on her own desperate attempts to make sense of her situation, or to fake her way out of it. Virginia, deeply confused and occasionally violent, is also sharply observant, noting that the medication given to the patients makes them smell like “badly tended lions” and observing that the eyes of one fearsome nurse “had a look you do not mind seeing in the eyes of your cat.” The novel, admirably, doesn’t oversimplify Virginia’s mental state or provide an explanation for it but reveals it in all its complexity. An uncompromising look inside a troubled mind and a troubled institution.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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