Deborah Molloy

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Research title: The Sick Apple: A geocritical investigation into female mental illness in New York fiction set between 1925 and 1955

Research Summary

The objective of my doctoral research project is to discover how and why so many female characters suffer from mental illness in New York based fiction.  How did the rapid growth in both population and structure impact upon women and how is that reflected in the literature, both portraying and written by women? 

This study will cover the period from 1920 to 1945, from the introduction of female suffrage and the ban on the sale of alcohol to the publication of the Mental Health Act “to improve the mental health of U.S. citizens through research into the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of psychiatric disorders.” This era coincides with that of High Modernism, which saw the literary innovations of fragmentation, unstable plotlines, unreliable narrators and the externalisation of thought twinned with an exploration of metropolitan existence. These disorienting devices speak to the modernist interest in different perspectives, altered reality and mental illness.

With the exception of Virginia Woolf, most critical attention was formally reserved for the alpha male authors of modernism, Joyce, Hemingway and Eliot, but much work has been done to highlight female writers since Shari Benstock’s reclamation of The Women of the Left Bank in 1986.  Following in this vein, I will engage with the relationship between female mental illness and the city, in New York rather than Paris, focussing on women writing about the New York female of the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

This timeframe was a period of immense social upheaval in America, spanning Prohibition, the jazz age, the post-war boom followed by the Depression, the growth of New York to become the most populated city in the world and the Second World War; a time when the struggles of female characters to survive in the City are repeatedly portrayed in the New York literature of women writers.  I seek to bring out the subtext of female mental illness and re-position it as the centre of critical engagement with these texts to gain a new perspective on the cultural significance of mad women in New York.


Grants & Awards

  • The Elsa Nettles Prize for a Beginner Scholar, 2017, $250, Edith Wharton Society

  • College of Art Research Support Award, 2019, £300, University of Glasgow, research trip to New York
  • Collaborative Research Award, 2019, £1000, University of Glasgow, co-applicant to run a Medical Humanities conference, Public Health, Private Illness
  • SASA Travel bursary, March 2019, £60
  • The William Lauchlann Mann Memorial Prize, 2017, University of Glasgow, tuition fees for entire PhD
  • The Gordon Scholarship, 2017, University of Glasgow, year-long fee waiver.



  • Edith Wharton Society’s Conference, New York, June 2020 - “This killing New York life”: Edith Wharton and the tyranny of place in Twilight Sleep
  • Association of Literary Urban Studies Symposium, Padua, 28 September 2019, “Lutie Johnson’s LocoMotion – mental illness and mobility in Ann Petry’s The Street”
  • Literary Geographies conference, by invitation, Cambridge, 2 September 2019, “A Literary Geography of mobility and mental illness”.
  • The British Association of Modernist Studies conference, London, 23 June 2019, panel lead, “Disorderly Conduct in Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies
  • The 20th Annual Conference of the Scottish Association for the Study of America and SASA Postgraduate Workshop, 2 March 2019, “Mad Spaces: When the medical humanities meet literary geography”
  • Transatlantic Women III, Dublin, 21-22 June 2018 “Toxic Maternity in Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep”

Additional Information


  • Member of the British Association of American Studies
  • Member of the Edith Wharton Society

Organisational Committees

  • Co-organiser of Public Health, Private Illness conference, 8-9 April 2020
  • Co-organiser of Literary Geographies conference, July 2020