Based upon what is seen in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," what alternative treatment could have been available to women for postpartum depression?
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator is suffering from postpartum depression after the recent birth of her baby. She is isolated from her child, and ultimately from her family, as her husband (a physician) enforces his prescription for a disease he really does not understand—which is the "rest cure" or the "bed-rest cure."
The narrator echoes the sentiment about her husband's inability to help her:
John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.
She places no faith in what the medical world (also a man's world) professes to know about a woman's illness.
An additional element in this story is the underlying theme of oppression, shown by the male-dominated society (at the turn of the 20th Century) controlling women—husbands dominating wives. Although the narrator is certain that the "rest cure" is not helping her at all, she has no voice regarding her care. The fact that her husband believes nothing is really wrong with her, and her brother (also a doctor) agrees, shows how little room there is for this woman to find healing in a world where if the men say she is fine, she must be fine!
Alternatives to the narrator's treatment are expressed in her own words:
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
At the time, women working was generally frowned upon, unless a woman could get her husband's permission. However, perhaps making blankets for babies in orphanages or putting up jellies or baked goods for shut-ins could have been suitable "work" if her husband had not insisted on bed-rest.
Change, it would seem, would also have benefited the narrator. It is true that the family has moved into a new home temporarily, and this alone is a form of change, but the narrator is allowed only to rest. She cannot even be caught writing.
I am sitting by the window now, up in this atrocious nursery, and there is nothing to hinder my writing as much as I please...
The narrator mentions also...
I sometimes fancy that in my condition, if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.
The inference on the narrator's part is that less conflict with her husband and more exposure to the outside world—and other physical and mental stimulation—would be valuable to her. Ironically, John cautions her that thinking of her condition is the worst thing she can do—however, without a change of scenery or everyday interaction with others, what else is she left to do but to think about her condition? After all, her "illness" is responsible for the state in which she finds herself at their rental house.
With little available to her from the medical world, the narrator seems to have a clear idea of what she needs: a change of scenery, some excitement, engaging activities, and the ability to perform small, yet meaningful tasks. Any of these things would have been helpful to her. Her inability to do anything but dwell on her illness drives her into a delusional state.
The irony of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is that left to her own, the narrator would have devised a better treatment for her postpartum depression that her husband John and Dr. S. Mitchell, who are directly responsible for her mental breakdown. For, the narrator feels that work, mental and physical stimulation, and change--the opposite of what the doctor prescribes--would benefit her rather than imprisoning her aesthetic self with her insanity. She yearns to go outside and be away from the house where she can indulge in artistic expression as a release from her melancholia. Early in the narrative, the woman mentions,
There is a delicious garden! I never saw such a garden--large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them.
Feeling that "there is something strange about the house," the narrator longs to be outdoors, sitting by the window whenever she can and surreptitiously writing in a diary while her husband is gone. As she looks out the window, her soul's yearning for the aesthetic appears again,
Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deep-shaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees.
This is a creative, intelligent woman who possesses an artist's eye. To have her locked into a barred room with a repellent yellow wallpaper of an unsymmetrical pattern is absolute torture. Without any outlets for her artistic personality, the narrator's imagination becomes distorted and tortured.
Clearly, the doctors of Gilman's time should have learned more about the female psyche. Consultations with their patients would have revealed to them what made women depressed and what helped cheer them up. Attempts should have been made to engage the patient in social action such as being with her baby and walking outside with her loved ones. Talking about things is often helpful; writing is therapeutic.