Depression and mental health issues

In About a Boy, Nick Hornby explores some aspects of mental health or well-being. Through the character of Fiona, Hornby looks at the way people with depression try to cope with everyday life while they may be feeling helpless or even suicidal. Hornby himself has experienced depression. Hornby has a son, Harry, who has autism, and he was directly involved in the foundation of a charity – TreeHouse Trust – while trying to find specialist education for him.

Marcus could be described as being mildly autistic; he does not get jokes or sarcasm and usually takes everything he hears literally, which is a typical response for somebody who is autistic. Through Fiona and Marcus, Hornby demonstrates that mental health issues are just another aspect of life, as common as any other problem.

How are the themes of depression and mental well-being shown in the novel?

In About a Boy, Nick Hornby explores depression and mental health through:

  • Fiona’s depression
  • Marcus’ autism

Fiona experiences depression

How does Hornby show this?

Example 1

Marcus shows how Fiona is behaving from Marcus’ point of view.

Evidence

He didn’t want to watch any of the soaps, because soaps were full of trouble, and he was worried that the trouble in the soaps would remind his mum of the trouble she had in her own life.

One Monday morning his mother started crying before breakfast and it frightened him. Morning crying was something new, and it was a bad, bad sign.

Analysis

Hornby allows the reader to track Fiona’s descent into a new bout of depression through Marcus’ eyes. She is feeling sad at first, and Marcus grows increasingly alarmed as she seems to become sadder.

Every few days, there is a more sinister indication that Fiona’s depression is worsening. Marcus is unable to do anything as his mother cannot explain to him why she feels this way.

Example 2

Fiona calls in sick to her work, but Marcus cannot see how she is sick.

Evidence

When he got home his mother was lying on the floor with a coat draped over her, watching children’s cartoons. She didn’t look up.

His mum was half on and half off the sofa: her head was lolling towards the floor. She was white, and there was a pool of sick on the carpet, but there wasn’t much on her – either she’d had the sense to puke away from herself, or she’d just been lucky.

Analysis

Hornby shows how difficult it is for other people to understand how to help somebody who is depressed. Marcus is beside himself with worry, but at the same time he feels resentful that his mother is not looking after him.

Fiona takes an overdose of pills and would have died if Marcus, Suzie and Will had not come home when they did. Marcus is aware that everything has changed, because his mother has proved that she would rather be dead than be with him.

Example 3

Marcus finds his mother’s suicide note to him.

Evidence

A big part of me knows that I’m doing a wrong, stupid, selfish, unkind thing. Most of me, in fact. The trouble is that it’s not the part that controls me any more. That’s what’s so horrible about the sort of illness I’ve had for the last few months – it just doesn’t listen to anything or anybody else. It just wants to do its own thing.

Analysis

In this note, Hornby describes how depression feels. The reader sees that Fiona is controlled by the illness, and is able to sympathise with her, even when Marcus is traumatised by it. As time moves on, he begins to understand that his mother is learning to live with her depression and sees that it is nothing to do with him or his behaviour.

Marcus is slightly autistic

How does Hornby show this?

Example 1

Marcus finds it hard to understand other people’s jokes or sarcasm, which is one of the symptoms of autism.

Evidence

They thought this was hilarious. They always made jokes about girls and sex; he didn’t know why. Probably because they were sex-mad.

Sarcasm, Will was beginning to see, was a language that Marcus found peculiarly baffling...

Analysis

Marcus does not find the same things funny as most other teenage boys. They are quick to pick up on any differences and target Marcus because of this.

Will often uses sarcasm, but he soon understands that it is wasted on Marcus because he takes everything literally, and Will has to spend time explaining what he meant.

Example 2

At Suzie’s New Year’s Eve party, Marcus has a long conversation with Ellie.

Evidence

Even though what they were talking about was miserable, Marcus was enjoying the conversation. It seemed big, as though you could walk round it and see different things, and that never happened when you talked to kids normally.Did you see Top of the Pops last night?There wasn’t much to think about in that, was there?

Analysis

Marcus finds it difficult to hold ordinary conversations with children his own age because so much of their subject matter is trivial and unimportant. He is unable to make small talk. This is another symptom of autism.

Analysing the evidence

Question

How does Hornby explore the issues of depression and mental health in the novel?

Hornby looks at the way depression affects not only the people who suffer from it, but also those who are connected to them, through Marcus’ responses to his mother’s illness. In her suicide note, the writer gives an intimate and revealing description of how a sufferer feels when in the grip of depression. In addition, through Marcus, we are able to see how a child who is on the autistic spectrum finds it difficult to interact with other people, and is constantly trying to find coping mechanisms.

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