THE YELLOW WALLPAPER:A BACKGROUND STUDY
Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores the disturbing reality of postpartum depression in the 19th century through this short story . The plot is an exaggerated account of her own experience with nervous breakdown .Gilman lambasts the practices followed in the American society to cure depression. The “rest cure” treatment was common to women of that time. Mental health was something that was looked down upon and that resulted in the triviality of diagnosis in the early 19th century .Such forced regimes could only exacerbate mental health and result in a breakdown .The work also discusses the attitudes towards women and the stigma surrounding mental health through cryptic symbols which can be found throughout the plot .Early readers found “The Yellow Wallpaper” to be a fascinating gothic novel rather than a feminist narrative and social commentary on the treatment of women. The Yellow Wallpaper continues to be a seminal work of early feminist literature due to its subtle yet sharp criticism of the society and attitudes towards women prevalent during that point of time . In Gilman’s own words “the real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways” CITATION Dav l 16393 (Davis) based on her ordeal as a patient .
THE “REST CURE” DIAGNOSIS
American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell is credited to be the originator of the rest cure diagnosis. Rest cure became a popular and preferred method in the treatment of nervous breakdown, postpartum depression, hysteria and other nervous illnesses. It is interesting to note that this method was prescribed to more women than men. The routine included social isolation, bed rest, and a dairy / milk-based diet and force-feeding if necessary. From the short story, readers can relate to the feeling of dread faced by Gilman. In her autobiography, (1935), she describes her experience as follows:
” I was put to bed, and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed, and responded with the vigorous body of twenty-six. As far as he could see there was nothing the matter with me, so after a month of this agreeable treatment he sent me home with this prescription:
Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. . . . Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.” CITATION Cha35 l 16393 (Gilman, 1935) This description summarizes the brutal ordeal faced by the patients (mostly women)on whom such horrendous regimes were imposed .Since there were people who also benefitted from the treatment, Gilman’s perspective of the treatment was considered to be a “colored” opinion by critics. Mitchell was said to have to have been notoriously unsympathetic to hysterics. Coincidentally Gilman was diagnosed with hysteria. Due to varied accounts of the rest cure treatment, Gilman’s claims have to be viewed with a pinch of salt .But the popularity of the work was such that Mitchell became a gothic medical misogynist and villain in the eyes of many and this image prevailed in the minds of people for a long time. Another popular writer who underwent rest cure was Virginia Woolf who was critical about the routine and also of the treatments implemented for mental health. She exemplifies this in her work” Mrs Dalloway” where one of the characters Septimus Warren a war veteran goes insane and commits suicide. Rest cures were popularized during the Civil war when war veterans were treated with rest cure. For every testimonial of failure Mitchell had a success story to brag .Among those treated , many of them were popular authors and war heroes. Despite Gilmans criticism there were people who found the regime authoritative yet effective. A patients progress depended on his/her state of mind and social status. Though the rest cure was originally meant for those traumatised by the war , Mitchell established that the cure was applicable for both the sexes. After the publication of his book “Fat and Blood: And how to Make Them” the rest cure gained prominence and its popularity spread far and wide and it went on to become a widely practiced phenomenon in the diagnosis of mental health. Soon rest cure found its popularity in literature with novels dealing with unstable characters. Looking back at the origins of rest cure , Mitchell first described the diagnosis in 1873 .Most of his patients were young soldiers injured in the war. The method was considered to be helpful in rebuilding injured nerve tissue. The routine included
1) A fattening diet
4) Electric stimulation of muscles
Electric stimulation was implemented to aid patients who were completely bed ridden and for the ones who couldn’t indulge in physical activity. Mitchell aimed to create an atmosphere of authority and control and went to any extent to achieve it. Disobedience was severely dealt with . The daily menu included enormous portions of food including “a light breakfast. . . a mutton chop as a midday dinner. . . bread and butter thrice a day,” and “three or four pints of milk, which are given at and after meals.”Patients who refused eat were force fed and even whipped at times to ensure perfection of the routine. Mitchell noted that most of the women who consulted him were pale and thin. He felt that a diet rich in fat would gradually improve mental and physical health .Regardless of the state of mind , Mitchell found a normal reproductive function to be an indicator of good health. Soon the rest cure became a social phenomenon rather than a scientific one. It was considered an effective method in disciplining women and making them aware of their responsibilities and duties. Mitchell ensured that women stayed away from reading or writing or any other intellectually demanding activity. He considered intellectual advancement in women to be an impediment to mental health. Thus contrasting opinions about the rest cure raises questions if the treatment is really misogynistic. Medical historian David Schuster is of the opinion that Mitchells reputation has been tarnished by Gilman and other modern feminist critics .The basis for Schuster’s argument is from a series of letters between Mitchell and his female patients. We can understand that rest cures played an important role in the evolution of mental health diagnosis from the examples stated above
The short story starts with the narrators description of the house and begins her journal by revealing her admiration for the property her husband has taken for their vacation. She raises several questions about the house and wonders how they could afford it, and why the house had been desolated for long. The narrator has an ominous feeling about the house and concludes that there is something strange about their arrival at the house which in turn leads her into questioning about her illness. The readers understand that the narrator is suffering from “nervous depression”. John, her husband who is a doctor, disparages her situation and as a result her opinions and cravings are looked down upon. This brings out the contrasting character traits of both John and the narrator. Her treatment requires her to remain inactive for a certain point of time. Physical exertion and writing is strictly ruled out from her day to day routine . She yearns to write and strongly asserts that it would help her get over the depression phase and decides to maintain a secret journal in order to relieve herself from boredom. As the plot moves forward, the narrator begins describing the setting in great detail . Her description is mostly simple, but she is petrified of certain objects such as the rings in the bedroom walls, and the window bars .The picture the narrator provides, resembles the setting of a mental asylum. The narrator is particularly wary of the yellow wallpaper in the bedroom, with its bizarre patterns , and calls it revolting as she is bewildered by the very sight of it , however, her creative liberty is short lived due to John’s intervention, and she is asked to stop exerting herself by writing. The narrator finds John being indifferent to her situation yet she pities herself for being a burden to her husband. As the story progresses there is a noticeable shift in the narration , the narrator begins to develop a morbid obsession for the yellow wallpaper with her descriptions becoming increasingly disturbing. Though she tries to explain her ordeal John cajoles her and tries to talk her out of it. The narrator is led deeper into madness by the haunting symmetry of the wallpaper. She begins to stare at the wallpaper and studies the pattern with rapt engrossment. It is at this point where readers can find a noticeable change in the narrators behaviour, when she displays signs of insanity. The narrator begins to visualise figures of that of women in the wallpaper. She hallucinates that a woman is trapped within the wallpaper and trying to make her way out. She comes to a conclusion to destroy the wallpaper in order to save the woman held in. As she goes into a frenzy tearing the wallpaper ,she realizes there are many other women trapped inside .This is when she realizes she is no different from the trapped women and she concludes she herself is from the wallpaper.