The Ha-Ha follows Josephine, recently removed from Oxford and committed to a mental institution. She is completely aware of her situation and often reflects on the events that brought her to the institution. Absurdities that no one else can see, outbursts that send her into fits of laughter. No one knows what is funny and she can’t explain it. She often thinks that there must be a correct answer, a correct way to act when socializing however, it takes her a long time to come up with these answers if she can. After returning from a party she thinks: “I wanted the knack of existing. I did not know the rules.”
Josephine is coaxed back into health by a German sister who appears to genuinely support and encourage her. She gets a job cataloging a library of a nearby couple and seems quite happy in her new surroundings, even if she sometimes finds the activities and ways of the institution a bit strange. She meets Alasdair a fellow resident who conveys his cynicism as well as his affection and opens Josephine’s mind and eyes. They meet often by the ha-ha, they both seem to give the other something that has been missing. Even with these outlets, the place that was supposed to help her begins to seem suffocating and is possibly hurting her.
I found Josephine to be observant, funny, brilliant. What Dawson shows us is the other side of mental illness. That really it doesn’t have to be as far-fetched as it is often portrayed. And I would assume that the gripes that Josephine has about society in all of its proper forms really is confusing and is a game that we all have to play. It can seem shallow and unimportant. If we do not play we are outsiders.
“For as I sat there thinking of the party and the conversations I had listened to, and tried to take part in, in that strange, brittle atmosphere four flights up in the sky, it was they who became unreal, and what the textbooks could mean by schizophrenia was only that whereas most flies crawl along the ceiling in a well-behaved, decorous posture talking about the other sex, or income tax allowances or the articles of faith that ought to be taught in prep-schools, some see how things really are on the ceiling, upside down, and get anxious and frightened, or want to laugh at the incongruity and oddness of that fantastic position. I never was cured and I never shall be”.
“I want to live, to feel. I was born for something more than mere sanity. I was born for so much joy. A great possibility of joy. More than you could ever imagine. My life is far different than you could imagine”
In the Afterword, Dawson states that she wrote this novel in 1960, a year after the Mental Health Act, an act which she says was intended to change the attitude towards mental health. She also discusses her experience as a social worker in a mental hospital.