3 Literary Characters with Borderline Personality Disorder

The Western Canonis littered with mad characters of violent passions and many appear to have undiagnosed BPD.

Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte’s novel is an archetypal study of childhood trauma. As one critic famously remarked Wuthering Heights is ‘a world of sadism, violence and wanton cruelty.’ Heathcliff is monster, Catherine a hysteric, and yet Bronte shows they were created that way, by years of neglect and abuse. Underneath their violent exterior there lies two children lost in the pain of the childhood which has carried through into their adult lives.

From the beginning Heathcliff is not only an orphan found ‘starving, houseless, and as good as dumb on the streets of Liverpool,’ he is made sub-human with titles. like ‘ghoul’ ‘vampire’ ‘a dark little thing’ an ‘imp of Satan,’ ‘the plough-boy,’ and the ‘low ruffian.’ As such he deserves all the hurt he gets. And he does indeed get hurt being the victim of not just emotional kickings but physical ones as well. ‘Blows without winking or shedding a tear’ ‘pinches’ and ‘thrashings,’ all of which are mentioned so casually as to be overlooked, but flashforward to adulthood we see Heathcliffs damaged personality. Prone to impulsive behaviour of threats and assaults, violent rage, even and even self-harm he is product of what trauma can do.

Catherine also shows symptoms of BPD of more pure type. She readily makes suicidal threats and gestures: ‘Oh, I will die, [….] since no one cares anything about me.’ Has difficulty controlling her emotions and behavior: She began ‘Tossing about, she increased her feverish bewilderment to madness, and tore the pillow with her teeth.’ Dissociative symptoms similar to flashbacks: ‘oh, I’m burning! I wish I were out of doors! I wish I were a girl again Open the window again wide: fasten it open!’ Back when Cathy was still a child, her father, Mr Earnshaw says, ‘why canst thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?’ she answers, ‘why cannot you always be a good man, father?’ He can only add ‘I cannot love thee, thou’rt worse than thy brother. […] I must rue that we ever reared thee!’ Talk about an invalidating enviroment.

Finally we come the hallowed romance between the pair, which is actually relationship based on the pain of shared abandonment. How else do we account for Cathy saying ‘I am Heathcliff […] he is always in my mind.’ Why does Heathcliff reciprocate with exclamations like: ‘ Do not leave me in this abyss alone […] I cannot live without my life and I cannot live without my soul’. Their personalities have fused in the mutual bond of loss, and only in each others company do they feel loved. The ‘I hate you don’t leave me’ cliche of BPD has its precursor here. Cathy and Heathcliff’s message is simple: Abandonment provokes abandonment, violence breeds violence, and suffering begets suffering. With Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte rises above her sisters to secure her place in the Canon as a rare genius who unfolds the pathways of tragedy.

Harry Haller the Steppenwolf

Harry Haller has very severe case of dissociation. Namely there is a human part to his personality, but also a wolf.

‘I could not help enjoying these crumbs of warmth and kindliness, and was lapping them up like a starved dog. Harry, the Steppenwolf, was moved to a grin. [….] And while I, Harry Haller, stood there in the street, flattered and surprised and studiously polite […] the other Harry, too, at my elbow and grinned likewise. […] a dramatic struggle between my two selves followed […] This very night I would make an end of the comedy, go home and cut my throat. No more tarrying’.

Harry Haller is in fact preoccupied with suicide for much of the novel, and finds great comfort in his fantasies of razor blades. One of the most emotionally dysregulated characters in literature, his personality is, ‘a labyrinth of chaos.’ He ‘knows the bliss of meditation no less than the gloomy joys of hatred.’ He muses on his ‘rare hours of joy, what for me is bliss and life and ecstasy’ but other times he is beset with ‘a mud hell of an empty heart.’

Emotional instability is Borderline territory but so is boredom, and so Harry also experiences a ‘toneless, flat, normal and sterile life,’ an ‘obstruction of all feeling’ and a ‘filthy hell of emptiness.’

Finally he is often beset with destructive urges claiming: ‘I had a mad desire to smash something, a warehouse, a cathedral or myself, to commit outrages.’ He claims: ‘The unhappiness, that I need and long for is of the kind that will let me suffer with eagerness and die with lust. That is the unhappiness or happiness I long for.’

Harry’s treatment can only be described as precursor to Schema therapy. Pablo remarks: ‘ You were striving, were you not, for escape? […] I can throw open to you no picture gallery but your own soul.’ In the Magic Theatre, Haller must wrestle the Wolf of Despair, as well as all the other fragments of his shattered psyche, until then he’ll be in the local tavern drowning his sorrows.

Dmitry Karamazov

Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment, a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships, Identity disturbance, Impulsivity, affective instability, chronic feelings of emptiness, intense anger, Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation. This is the symptom checklist for BPD and Dmitry Karamazov has them all.

‘The Russian Temperment’ as Dostoevsky calls it is inherently unstable, and if thats true Dmitry is the epitome of the Russian. We are told Mitya ‘led a wild life […] frivolous, unruly, of violent passions, impatient, and dissipated.’ A ‘reckless fellow’ ‘a marvellous mingling of good and evil.’ Throughout the novel he scares others and himself by his extreme behaviours. He brawls in taverns, cheats, blackmails, courts prostitutes, gambles, drinks, flirts with suicide, and mostly cannot control his ‘brutal rage.’

His chief act is breaking into his father’s house beating the hapless old man to a pulp before screaming ‘If I haven’t killed him, I’ll come again and kill him […] Beware old man beware of your dream, for I have a dream too.’ Later we find him running round town begging for money, ‘hands slathered in blood’ and raving like a lunatic. He then goes on a final reckless drinking binge and spending spree, ‘almost an orgy’ and plans his suicide: ‘If I’m to shoot myself, why not now? […] in this dark dirty corner, make an end?’

In between his marriage to Katya, his love affair with Grushenka, his finacial problems and family dysfunction, he lands himself a murder charge, parricide no less. He’s innocent of the crime, but guilty of the lifestyle. And how does he appear in court: like an ’awful dandy in a brand-new frock-coat […] immaculate black kid gloves and exquisite linen […] [all] with a most unperturbed air.’ But all becomes too much: ‘He could not go on, and broke into a terrible sobbing wail that was heard all over the court in a strange, unnatural voice unlike his own.’ All very Dostoevskian, all very Russian, all very Borderline.

What makes these characters different from various other passionate souls is their background of trauma. Harry Haller claims his parents rejected him, but ‘Instead of destroying his personality they succeeded only in teaching him to hate himself. ’ Dmitry Karamazov’s father ‘completely abandoned the child […] not from malice, nor because of his matrimonial grievances, but simply because he forgot him.’ Finally Cathy and Heathcliff spell it out: Extreme personalities are forged out of extreme stress. In these 3 burnt out broken mirrors, we’d do well to reconstruct the fragments and see in their life a reflection of our own.

I for one am glad we have our Karamazov’s Steppenwolves, Cathys, Heathcliffs — how boring would the world be without them!

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Freelance journalist writing on mental health and disability. Words have the power to shine a light on realities otherwise missed.

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