After experiencing a nervous breakdown in 1940, novelist Mary Jane Ward was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and committed to Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York. From that horrific experience came this landmark novel.
The Snake Pit tells the story of Virginia Cunningham, a young white middle-class woman who finds herself in a psychiatric hospital with no memory of how she got there. It opens with Virginia in a highly confused state of mind, the reader initially as challenged as Virginia to make sense of her surroundings. Virginia's treatments seem a series of cruel punishments inflicted on her for crimes she cannot name, while the penalty for failing to follow the hospital's many seemingly arbitrary rules is transfer to another, even worse ward.
The novel was memorably adapted for the screen two years after it was published, with Olivia de Havilland playing the role of Virginia, its powerful and ambivalent conclusion softened for Hollywood. Together, the book and film had an outsized influence on popular perceptions of mental illness, and The Snake Pit is often credited with setting in motion important investigative journalism and the introduction of legislation at the state level to reform the care and treatment of the mentally ill. Too long out of print, Ward's unforgettable novel belongs in the company of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Joanne Greenberg's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden--three books it influenced or inspired.