Yellow Wallpaper and Paul's Case: Emancipation of Mental Captivity
The two texts, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper and Willa Cather's Paul's Case, portray the main characters with hysteria. Both cases are reactions to the pressures put on them by their families as well as the society. They seem to build mental barriers that cannot be brought down, so called safe heavens, escape from harsh realities and this puts them on a self-destruction course. The narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper is the main character, an upper middle class woman confined to domesticity and "women's role. The text reveals her inner struggles and from her eye, the reader is able to see her plight. Similarly in Paul's Case, the main character has personal issues that are products of the society he lives in. He is motherless, thin pale and dreamy adolescent who rebels from his conventional surroundings in Pittsburgh. The major characters in both stories are portrayed as having mental disorders. However, their psychological issues are more than their personal problem; instead, these individualu psychological illnesses are the symptoms of the society they live in. Both the authors use these elements to outline social and family issues and how they influence the end of the stories.
Gilman and Cather use psychological symptoms as a means to articulate their social critiques. In The Yellow Wallpaper the conventions of psychological tale is used to critic the role of women in marriage more so the elite during the 1890's. The author reveals the struggles of women during this period, where they assumed second class citizenry. Women were to undertake domestic work as their role in marriage while the men were the professionals. The Yellow Wallpaper reveals the gender disparity in the society and the role of men in dwarfing women in a childish state impeding their development. Women's place was at home as house helps they were to be seen and not heard. They suffered discrimination silently most of them were subjected to child rearing, cooking for the families. The author portrays John as a typical man of that period, he thinks highly of himself thereby patronizing, misjudging and dominating his wife (Gilman 576). He does all this in the pretext of helping her get well. The reader sees her world as ruined by male chauvinism manifested in her husband who has reduced her to a petulant child, unable to fend for herself. On the same line, in Paul's Case, Willa Cather seems to paint Paul in a different light from the other children in the story. Paul's is alienated from his environment and the reader is subjected to the feeling that Paul a young boy without a mother, with a busy father the major authority figures in Paul's life and mean teachers (Cather 264). The author portrays Paul as alienated with lack of human caring would have been helped by human caring.
The symptoms of hysteria in The Yellow wallpaper are synonymous to those of a dysfunctional marriage and problematic gender relations. Just as in Paul's Case it symbolizes disconnection with the society's expectations. It appears as though the narrator is struggling with mental constraints resulting to the symptoms of hysteria. She is afraid of exposing her anxieties because this will reveal her unhappy marriage to John. She is forced to remain silent and idle in pursuit of wellness, this compulsory passiveness prevents her from putting her mind to use. John her Husband warns her to exercise self-control afraid of what is in her mind, "you will never for one minute let that idea enter your mind" (Gilman 582). In the same line, Paul's paranoia, constant fear, and notorious theatrical aversions to school and Cordelia Street, says much about his middle-class upbringing and the religious doctrine that surrounds him. Paul's father just like most of the people living in Cordelia Street, were respectable middle class who believed in the values of hard work, family and church. This could suggest the genesis of Paul's desire to become rich. During their leisure time, the people at Cordelia Street sat around talking about their bosses referred to as the captains of industry who came from humble backgrounds to head large companies and live in luxury "yet he rather liked to hear these legends of iron kings" (Cather 268). This American dream of wealth might have been responsible for corrupting and instilling in him love of materialism that finally led to his ruin. To Paul, the prosy male teachers at school who do not wear violets in their button-holes misrepresent his ideal lifestyle. Coming from a middle-class background, he sees his teachers as inferior to him, this is also seen when he meets one of them at the carnage hall and wonders what she was doing among the people there. Paul is certainly portrayed as a victim of his upbringing characterized by the values common in middle class homes. These values produced in him a desire to acquire wealth and luxury. The portraits of John Calvin and George Washington hang above his bed reiterating the American values subluminally (Cather 266). To achieve this, Paul ends up living a lie consuming himself morally.
A comparison of the endings of Paul's Case and The Yellow Wallpaper portray death and insanity respectively as the ultimate triumph. The death of Paul is tragic, unexpected of one who embraced life at its fullest. This is ultimately what gets the reader to revisit the prior events, to examine the circumstances leading to his death. Death adds importance to the story and cleanses him putting focus on his mental condition. The author ends the story by stating that Paul "dropped back into the immense design of things," this point at the fact that Paul's death was inevitable and that he was of that realization (Cather 276). He decides that, if he were to choose again, he would do the same thing. The reader then focuses on the issue prompting this reaction giving attention to the struggles he endured silently. In the same line, the end of the Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator embraces her husband's worse fears. She however is liberated from the chains of marriage, society, and herself. She finally assumes the role of the woman trapped in the wallpaper, this move is seen as championing for the rights of other women who are forced to creep and hide behind the "patterns" of their lives. The end justifies her struggles; she has eventually set herself free revealing her sacrifice. In these last episodes of her struggles she says "I've got out at last, in spite of you and Jane" (Gilman 588). She has finally broken the chains and is free.
In conclusion, in both cases abnormal behaviors are the symptoms of troubled relationship between them and their environments. Paul hates and despises Cordelia Street, which the author describes as "perfectly respectable" middle-class neighborhood. He hates his room, the wall paper and fears his father the authority figure as well as his teachers at school. He finds shelter in his imaginative mind fuelled by theater, stories of "beauty." While in New York, he learns of his fathers anticipated arrival from Pittsburgh. He then thinks of the possibility of going back home a fate "worse than jail," he finally decides that his only escape from such boundaries is death. On the same note John's wife in Yellow Wallpaper, sees herself in a cage. She is held captive by the family structure, medicine, and tradition and thinks the same of all the women. The end of both the stories raises more questions than answers. The reader is left wondering what could have been done to prevent these occurrences, why they had to end this way. The ends marks the beginning of critical analysis into the preceding events.
Hysteria was considered a "women's disease" before Freud because it was then a common medical diagnosis in women. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator's "hysteria" gets worse since John, her husband, prevents her from writing. First it appears as though the narrator's psychological symptoms are as a result of her limitations. She talks of John as active in the extreme perhaps to denote fullness of life may be a wish of what she would like to be. Unfortunately he is her physician a fact she reckons does not aid her recovery, furthermore he does not take her seriously. She yarns for some activity as an escape from her mental situation or someone understanding for that matter who can understand. She finds herself restricted both mentally and physically and these are ultimately what drives her insane. She is forced to be passive and even forbidden from exercising her mind. John puts pressure by warning her that she must exercise self-control and writing is prohibited. It appears that suppressed activity was the greatest contributor to her condition. In addition, no one seemed to care deeply how she felt and her inner struggles. Perhaps given the freedom she might not have slipped into that psychological problem.