Illness as Metaphor/as RealityAn interesting topic came up on the Q&A boards yesterday.  The student wanted to know about the representaion of madness in Charlotte Perkins-Gilman's "The...

Illness as Metaphor/as Reality

An interesting topic came up on the Q&A boards yesterday.  The student wanted to know about the representaion of madness in Charlotte Perkins-Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." 

Having done some research before on this subject, I know that the author suffered terribly from post-partum depression.  He doctor prescribed the then (or what I thought was "then") cure for her ailment:  bed rest without any "stimulus" for 4 months.  She nearly lost her mind and used the horrific event as the impetus for her short story.

I was reading a recent article in the NYT about Gilman and rest cure.  It really has not gone away.  1 in 5 pregnant women are currently prescribed bed rest for any number of complaints.  (750,000 a year.) 

What do you think about this stat?  What other women's fiction or non-fiction examines the "just lye down dear" cure? 

Expert Answers
sagetrieb eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I remember that someplace on this strand someone (Jamie) mentioned "Alice in Bed," a play by Susan Sontag, which asks "why didn't Alice become the genius that her brothers became," not unlike Woolf asks in Room of One's Own"why wasn't there a Judith Shakespeare?" 

The play grew from Sontag's essay that is the title of this discussion strand:  Illness as Metaphor published in the 1970's, which addresses cancer in particular. A cancer patient herself when she was writing the book, Sontag shows how the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses add to the suffering of patients. Cancer, she argues, is not a curse, not a punishment, and should not be an embarrassment, although that is the way many experience it.  And the corollary is that we view cancer patients as "marked"--even though we will deny we do so, probably because we fear disease so much.  What seems interesting is the way our culture will mystify disease (a remnant of the plague of centuries ago?) to create anxiety, something our culture seems to crave.

Are there any portrayals of disease in contemporary literature (other than memoir) that explore it as metaphor in the ways that Sontag (recently) or Gilman 9a century ago) explored it in their works?



sagetrieb eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It would an interesting topic for a data base search. I have a feeling we would find quite a few contemporary stories about anorexic girls but few anorexic women producing the literature for their minds would be consumed (bad metaphor)by food--and maybe that gets back to the other strand on the incandescent mind and creative production ala Woolf.  There is a short story called "The Fat Girl" by Andre Dubus (collected in Vintage Book of Contemporary American SS , ed Tobias Wolff) that is about a woman's struggles with weight and identity.  Once when I taught it my students assumed the author was female and were incensed when they found out the story was written by a man. They felt the material too personal, and decided he was voyeuristic in his intrusion into a female mind. Then, they later decided he "didn't get it" in terms of many issues of women and weight and dieting, which I won't go into on this strand. 

sagetrieb eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Virginia Woolf takes on the topic of madness in Mrs Dalloway, but does so through Septimus Smith, having him suffer from PSD from WWI.  However, her accounts of him reflect much of her own experience with doctors and their failure to help her.  The problem with the doctors in Mrs. Dalloway is that they insist on values of "proportion," not able to understand Septimus' suffering. He throws himself out of a window as a result.  Woolf, in one of several early suicide attempts, threw herself out of a window as well.  When severely depressed around 1917, the doctors prescribed bedrest, no writing, and regular meals. In fact, she consulted with--or her doctor consulted with--Weir Mitchell (I think that's his name), who invented the rest cure and treated Gilman.  Alas, once again my materials are at school, not at home on my desk, or I would cite some sources, but several Woolf biographies address this.

Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Yes, Woolf, of course.  How awful that this same man got hold of both Woolf and Gilman! 

How about more modern writers? (of which I am not well-versed, as I am steeped in 20-40s lit.)  I think maybe "Alice in Bed" though I am not entirely sure (is this Sontag?).  I hope I'm not getting this wrong, but being forced to eat (I recall reading something recently about how difficult it was to get Woolf to down a morsel) was also a component of "Alice." Or, am I confusing this with, "Girl, Interrupted"?

Why do you think so many women turn anoerexic?  I went through a brief period of that myself, and I remember consciously feeling that it was the one thing about my life I could control.  Is this common and where does it appear in late 20th century lit, if at all? 

ask996 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What about Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour?” The main character is considered weak and emotionally frail. When it is presumed that her husband has been killed in a train bombing(?) all her family and friends gather round to protect her from the shock of which they are afraid will kill her. She retires to her room and begins an almost manic celebration of the freedom his death has brought to her. What, in fact, eventually kills her is the shock she suffers when he shows up alive at the front door.

Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I'm not sure if it counts, because you might consider this memoir, though it is so rich literarily (sp?), and really a remembrance of someone else other than the author.  Anyway, what about Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty the story of her long friendship with Lucy Greely, the woman afflicted with disfiguring cancer.

Also, Andre Dubus comes to mind, but I cannot think of the name of the short story.  Anybody?

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The Yellow Wallpaper

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