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Yellow Wallpaper" and Mental Illness in Women
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is an important short story that delves into the issue of mental illness. It illustrates how women and their problems are trivialized, with this closely related to the role that women have in society. Through the story, it is seen that women become prisoners of their mental illness because the medical community will not help them. This leaves women to manage their own problems, an action that lead to madness. By telling this story, Gilman is urging the medical community to take a new view on mental illness, to take women seriously, and to find a genuine way to help women before the condition worsens. This makes the short story an extended metaphor for medical discourse on women and mental illness, that shows both the problems that exist and calls for a solution to those problems.
In "The Yellow Wallpaper" Gilman shows that the medical and psychiatric disorders of women are ignored and trivialized. This is part of the medical discourse on women and mental illness because it shows how the medical community views mental illness in women. Gilman shows this by presenting a character that is suffering from depression. She begins the story by showing how women with depression or "nervous conditions" are actually treated. It is important to note that at the beginning of the story, the characters experience is based on Gilman's own experience. She describes this in her essay "Why I Wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper." In this essay, she describes her own struggle with depression and how the medical community responded to her. Gilman's depression was trivialized, with the doctor concluding that there was nothing wrong with her. The cure according to the doctor was to "live as domestic a life as far as possible" and to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day" (Gilman, Why I Wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" 844). Gilman also describes the real outcome of the treatment, saying that she "came so near the border line of mental ruin that I could see over" (Gilman, Why I Wrote "The Yellow Wall-paper" 844). Gilman then wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" in an attempt to change the perspective of the medical community. With this said, the way the character is initially treated can now be examined. The most important point to note is that nobody takes the narrator's condition seriously. The narrator describes how both her husband and her brother view her condition saying,
If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression -- a slight hysterical tendency -- what is one to do? My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing (Gilman 833).
This description represents the views of the medical community and shows that the psychiatric conditions of women are considered as unimportant. It is especially relevant that the two characters representing the medical community are both close relatives of the narrator. This emphasizes that the problem is not just lazy or busy doctors considering that other patients have more important problems. Instead, it is two people who have more reason than anyone to help the narrator. Yet even they consider that is a minor problem and all in the narrator's mind. This represents how ingrained the medical community's ideas are. It is also important to note that the story shows that the narrator is not even regarded as having a worthy opinion in regards to her own health. This is seen where the narrator describes how she disagrees with her husband's and her brother's ideas but cannot do anything about it. As she states,
So I take phosphates or phosphites -- whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do? (Gilman 833).
This quote shows how the narrator disagrees with the medical profession's views and has her own ideas on her condition. However, rather than do what she believes is best for herself, she gives in and accepts their view of what is best for her. This quote also shows that the narrator accepts herself as powerless. This relates to the role that women are placed in, where it is considered that women do not have any intellectual value. King and Morris (27) make this observation where he describes how the husband and brother represent the power that men have over women to "name what is sickness and health, abnormal and normal." The narrator's acceptance of their views shows how women have lost the ability even to manage their own health. This occurs because women are trivialized to the extent that any problem that occurs for women is also considered trivial. This is related to the role of women in the 19th century, where women were viewed as wives and mothers. Haralambos and Holborn (601) describe how the society of the time viewed women saying that, "Married life is a woman's profession, and to this life her training -- that of dependence -- is modelled." This dependence is observed in the story by the way that the narrator has no control over her own health. The actions of the medical community, as represented by the narrator's husband and brother, can also be viewed as being motivated by a need to keep women in their dependent role. Referring to a woman's need for intellectual stimulation as a condition helps to control women by making them question their own needs, view themselves as ill, and accept the decisions of men as superior. The role of women and the way they are perceived is also highlighted by the fact that the medical community considers that the cause of the narrator's problem is that she thinks too much, and that if they can stop her thinking, the problem will be solved. This shows that women are not considered as having any intellectual value. This also shows how medical views assist in controlling women and keeping them in an obedient role. This explains why a woman's opinion of her own condition is not considered valuable and also explains why a condition associated with a woman's mind is considered trivial. This illustrates how the medical community views and treats mental illness in women. The house is also significant in the story because it represents both the role of the narrator in society and her psychological condition. Her given role is to be wife and mother, with this meaning that her importance in society is limited to the house. The narrator shows a general rejection of the house, which represents how she is trying to reject her role. At the same time, the house appears prison-like. This is a correct representation of the narrator because she is imprisoned in the house. She is physically allowed to leave, but she is still imprisoned by the way that she is only considered as playing an important role within the house. Outside of the house, she has no value to society. Since the important decisions about society take place outside of the house, she becomes intellectually imprisoned. This becomes another means of controlling women and keeping them imprisoned in their dependent roles. The next part of story shows the consequences of this.
In the next part of story, the narrator begins to descend into madness. Denise Knight describes how the madness is a result of the anger of the narrator. The madness occurs as the narrator is driven to do something about her condition, with the anger turning inwards and becoming madness. In saying this, it must be noted that this is the only alternative that the narrator seems to have. While her anger might be better directed at the medical community, she is not able to do anything about this because she would only be perceived as suffering from more nervousness. She is also not able to calmly voice her opinions to get the doctors to listen to her because anything she says is automatically considered as unintelligent simply because she is female. Finally, she is not able to make changes herself because she is dominated by men and not able to achieve any independence. The end result is that the anger and frustration builds until it needs to be released. Since she cannot control or change anything, the only option she has is to turn the anger inwards. This causes the madness, as the narrator's frustration begins to be released. King and Morris (25) refer to the madness as representing the narrator "breaking free" from reality and its confines. It is also important to note that the narrator's madness is focused on herself, rather than her husband or the medical community. This is seen by the way that…[continue]
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