Female Confinement and Escape in "The Yellow Wallpaper"
In 1913, more than twenty years after the first publication of ''The Yellow Wallpaper," Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote that she devised the story, "to save people from being driven crazy." Gilman had suffered a near mental breakdown herself, and had been prescribed a rest treatment very similar to that prescribed to the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper." For Gilman, the act of resuming her normal life, which certainly included writing, was what restored her health. Though we don't know what became of Gilman's narrator, we can chronicle Gilman's own life after her near mental breakdown. If Gilman's narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" regressed into her insanity, Gilman certainly did not; unlike the narrator she created, she made her voice heard. She pursued her career as a writer and lecturer, and she wrote works of theory and social commentary that brought her international fame. Though she concentrated on feminist issues, her influence reached beyond the woman's sphere. She has been compared by some critics to the author George Bernard Shaw and the art critic John Ruskin, and the London Chronicle compared her book, Women and Economics, to the writings of John Stuart Mill.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" commands attention not only for the harrowing journey into madness it portrays, but also for its realism. It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that the "The Yellow Wallpaper" is autobiographical. In 1887, Charlotte Perkins Gilman placed herself under the care of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a well-known nerve specialist. She was suffering from depression, "nervous prostration" as diagnosed by the doctor, after the birth of her daughter. At that time, the medical profession had not yet distinguished between diseases of the mind and diseases of the brain; problems that would now be treated by psychiatrists, such as depression, were treated by neurologists such as Mitchell. The symptoms of depression—fatigue, hysteria, crying fits—were thought to stem from the body, and thus were treated through care of the body. Mitchell's treatment for breakdowns of the nervous system, and the treatment he prescribed for Gilman, included total bed rest and isolating the patient from family and familiar surroundings. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman demonstrates the horror that such a treatment could induce in its subject. When the narrator is threatened by her husband with being sent to Weir Mitchell if she does not get better quickly, she says: "But I don't want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!"
Gilman was sent home from Mitchell's sanitarium after one month, having been pronounced ''cured,'' with the following instructions: ''Live as domestic a life as possible ... Have but two hours' intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brash or pencil as long as you live." When Gilman heeded this advice she came, in her own words, ''perilously close to losing my mind." Mitchell's "rest cure" had been used on other literary figures—Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf—and other noted persons--Jane Addams and Winifred Howells, whose father, the editor William Dean Howells, was instrumental in the publication of "The Yellow Wallpaper." Woolf, Addams, and Howells, like Gilman, protested against the treatment (Woolf also attacked it in her novel Mrs. Dalloway). In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman chronicles what happens to a woman forced to succumb to the "rest cure" and thus, to her inflexible position in society as a prisoner of the domestic sphere.
Gilman claimed a purpose for everything she wrote. "The Yellow Wallpaper" pointed out the dangers of the medical treatment imposed by Mitchell and other doctors like him. Years later, Gilman learned that Mitchell had changed his treatment of nervous prostration after reading the story, so she won her victory. Yet, the story is far more than just a crying out for improvement in one facet of a woman's life; it touches on many issues relevant to women of the nineteenth century, particularly that of the limited roles available to them.
Despite Gilman's avowal that her story was not literature, it has been appreciated as such since its rediscovery in the 1960s (Gilman's works had been out of print since the 1930s). And just as "The Yellow Wallpaper" espoused Gilman's feminist views when she wrote it, critics have analyzed it as a feminist work—or a work that has feminist issues as its main concerns—for the past two decades. As is...
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