The Snake Pit

ISBN: 0451055276
ISBN 13: 9780451055279
By: Mary Jane Ward

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About this book

A dramatic best-seller, The Snake Pit vividly depicts one woman's plunge into the nightmare world of the mentally ill and her agonizing climb back to health and freedom. When it was first published, the book claimed attention as a moving study of mental illness based on personal knowledge. This fictionalized, brilliant, and uncompromising first-person account of madness and life in an insane asylum was subsequently made into a haunting movie.

Reader's Thoughts


Virginia Cunningham is a writer. As The Snake Pit begins, she does not forget this, but she finds herself disoriented without her glasses, lost in New York City, and concerned that she has forgotten her address. I was intrigued immediately upon beginning this book. Virginia's disorientation was so convincing I felt as though I were disoriented and confused myself. Mary Jane Ward continues to write from within Virginia's mind convincingly for the duration of the book. We realize within the first forty pages that Virginia is not simply lost in New York City, but is in fact living in a mental hospital and The Snake Pit elaborates on her struggle to remember and to shake off the mental illness under which she has fallen.Although The Snake Pit was published in 1946 and cannot be read as an accurate depiction of the current state of mental hospitals, its description and presentation of mental illness as something far from being worthy of romanticizing is still a relevant topic. I found the story as read from Virginia's point of view fascinating. Even once the reader is capable of understanding what has happened prior to Virginia's arrival at the institution, her own journey of discovery and struggle for wellness continues to hold one's attention. The Snake Pit is an example of those mysterious books where the title holds no real clues to what the novel is about, and invites one to read and to discover why the book is titled as it is. The title makes sense to me now, and I am glad that I picked up The Snake Pit and chose to see through the eyes of Virginia Cunningham.

Karen Benne

I watched the old black and white movie that was based on this book...good movie so I was interested in reading the book. Rare instance were the book was not as good as the movie.


Interesting to note that this book was written in 1946, when psycho therapy looked a lot like torture. The electrocution of patients was common and weird. It's odd to think that this was a common practice in the day, even though the results rarely produced anything less than a vegetable.I thought it was so disturbing how the patients would get worse with treatment and yet they would be treated all the more. It was incredibly depressing that the characters appeared to sincerely think they were helping their family members and yet they were just driving them farther down the snake pit. Fascinating all around.


The Snake Pit begins like so many social comedies, with a woman called Virginia newly arrived in New York from the Midwest wondering about all the crazy city people around her. We learn she is a journalist, that she is waiting for her husband who is unaccountably and irritatingly late, and that she is sharp and funny and accomplished though a little confused by her surroundings. A few pages in we realize Virginia isn't sitting in a park in Manhattan. She's a patient in an insane asylum.Ward makes craziness uncomfortably natural, as well as breathtakingly surreal/real. At several points in the book I convinced myself that Virginia was completely recovered, only for Ward to slap me with the realization that what I had taken for sanity was a deepening of her madness. Ward recognizes the inherent craziness of sanity - at one point Virginia knows she is getting better because she feels normally petty, selfish and secretive again. At the same time, she depicts the nightmare whirl of madness as vividly as Antonia White did in Beyond the Glass. Ward is also better than White on the humanity, good and bad, of the caregivers, and I loved the way that she left us with no pat solution to Virginia's collapse or to her recovery, but instead with clues, ideas, vague feelings and suspicions. If that wasn't enough, this is also a very funny, witty and clever book. It could almost be read as the satirical social comedy I thought it was when I picked it up.

Nicki Currie

I read this book after I read an article stating that Sylvia Plath had read it and used it as inspiration for The Bell Jar. I could see the similarities in the two books. Overall I really enjoyed the book. I had to search to find it as it appears that it is not published any more. What a shame. The first chapter was difficult to read, but once you get into the book you understand the first chapter. It was interesting to read about some of the therapies used such as the tubs and how crude ECT was at the time. But one wonders whether treatment has improved much since them as we tend to use chemical lobotomies now. I also found it interesting how overall her doctor(s) would not listen to her or see that she was struggling. I think this book should be considered on the same level as The Bell Jar as for me Mary Jane Ward was able to capture the pain she was feeling, even if it was emotional pain. For me, The Bell Jar lacked some of that aspect.

Liz Frazza

Loved the old movie based on this movie so had to read it. Loved it


A storehouse of practical wisdom on how to care for the mentally ill.

Hanna M.

Imagine, one day you are in your house and you are thinking. Thinking about stuff you have never thought about before. Thinking things that make you feel crazy. That's what happened to Virginia in the book the "The Snake Pit" by Mary Jane Ward. Virginia has just gone to the insane asylum and is going through shock treatment. As she gets transfered from ward to ward she meets new, strange people. She is miserable in Juniper Hill and for reasons I don't blame her for. The food is the same every day (and its not good food), she only gets her hair combed once a week, and she only gets to she her husband once every two weeks. She puts her life in words like this "Well, it was just as though they'd thrown me into a snake pit. And I was shocked into thinking that maybe I wasn't as sick as the others... and I really might get well." So will Virginia get out? Or will she stay in the snake pit forever?

Edward Lengel

An unjustly forgotten testament of mental illness, not entirely without cliche, but also authentic for those who've been there.


Well written


One of my favorite books - I sympathize with the main character who suffers a nervous breakdown and I love her loyal husband. Mental illness and romance, what more could you ask for in a book!

Shelley Lederman

Read this when I was 13 years old. A revelation into the world of mental illness.


Waiting in the stacks


I had to read the reviews to make sure I wasn't the only one unable to understand the first chapter. But, as part of the storyline, it made sense and did get better.

Laurie D'ghent

I almost didn't read this book because the first chapter is so scattered and nearly impossible to understand, but it gets better immediately after. One of the best books I've ever read--a stark reminder of just how lucky we are to be sane. I especially appreciated how the author flipped between "you" and "I"

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