Violence on the Page: Srilata K. writes on “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Trapped in Medical Discourse: Gilman’s Response to the “Rest Cure”

An American novelist, poet and non-fiction writer, Charlotte Perkins Gilman imagined, wrote and lived like a feminist.  Her work defied just about everything, including conventional notions of genre, style and voice. Gilman was far ahead of her time, an early feminist visionary if you like.  In her long and enormously absorbing semi-autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), Gilman speaks through an unreliable female narrator.  Gilman wrote this story after a severe bout of post-partum depression, following the birth of her daughter Katherine.  The story was essentially a response to her doctor, the well known neurologist S.Weir Mitchell, who tried to cure her of her depression through a “rest cure”.

In 1877, Dr.Mitchell published a monograph in which he described a rest cure for neurasthenia.  The idea was to “renew the vitality of feeble people by a combination of entire rest and excessive feeding”. Mitchell suggested to Gilman that she live “as domestic a life as possible”, to “have but two hours of intellectual life a day” and “never to touch pen, brush or pencil again.” (Mitchell, Weir, Fat and Blood: And How to Make Them (Philadelphia: JB Lippincot, 1878 2nd ed))

Gilman writes:

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

        Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again–work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite–ultimately recovering some measure of power.

        Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.

        The little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate–so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.

        But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.

        It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.  (Gilman CP, Why I Wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Forerunner, 1913)

The innocuous sounding rest cure used to treat mentally “unstable”, “hysterical” women was really a way of infantilizing its subjects. Told in the first person in the form of journal entries, the story is an intense reflection on attitudes towards women’s mental and physical health at the time. By employing an unreliable narrator, Gilman complicates things for her readers. At first, we are not sure what position to take since the narrator, also the story’s protagonist, is obviously depressed and mentally ill. The narrator’s physician husband John confines her to a room in a house he has rented for the summer so she can rest and get over her “hysterical tendency”.  Confined thus, the narrator becomes increasingly obsessed with the wall paper that surrounds her. She begins to see women creeping about inside the wall paper and the story ends rather dramatically with her husband John forcing his way into the room in which she has locked herself and fainting at the sight which confronts him.

As Gilman’s story unfolds, we learn to recognize the psychological and physical violence inherent in the rest cure and the violence that it generates in turn. It is a powerful and frightening violence. The narrator is forbidden from writing and makes her journal entries on the sly when no one is looking.  This is part of the violent logic of the “rest cure” that the patient (typically a female patient) must not use her mind or her imagination for this can lead to a worsening of the hysterical condition. Hysteria was constructed as an illness of the uterus. The narrator, in an attempt to reclaim control over her own life, suggests to her physician husband that she be allowed to work and socialize. Her suggestions, however, are dismissed. Ironically, the rest cure only makes the protagonist more ill than she is at the start of the story, marginalizing and isolating her, snatching from her all agency.  She is an infantilized prisoner, trapped by the violence embedded in the logic of an apparently “rational” medical discourse. The sense of being confined is very strong.  At first, the protagonist remarks that there is “something queer” about the house and wonders why it would be let so cheaply. Soon, we learn that the windows are barred and that her husband is “very careful and loving and hardly lets me stir without special direction”.

The story is a powerful expression of the gendered violence that can inhere in seemingly rational discourses such as medicine, a violence that will not allow for women to be treated as fully functioning, intellectual subjects seeking control of their lives.

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