Y is for …

The Yellow Wallpaper

What on Earth is a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman doing in my Virginia A-Z?

The Yellow Wallpaper was published in 1892 and is considered to be an important work of feminist literature. It exposes (masculine) attitudes to women’s health, particularly mental health by charting the descent into insanity of an unnamed narrator and protagonist, as a result of the rest cure prescribed by her husband, a doctor. I have read this story many times, and never without thinking of Virginia Woolf.

The doctor has rented a house for the summer and arranges it so that his depressed wife is confined to an upstairs room for total rest. She would have preferred the nicer room downstairs with its view and outside access but he insisted on this rather less pleasing room. The windows have bars on them.

Some reviews refer to the lady in question as Jane. Jane is mentioned at the very end of the story but it is confusing about whom it refers and it has been said that it may even be a mistake for ‘Jennie’, the doctor’s sister who is keeping house for them. I believe that she is unnamed, or as good as.

The rest cure was developed by an American neurologist, Silas Weir Mitchell, in the late 1800s as a treatment for nervous illnesses, and was primarily prescribed for women. The cure involved isolation from friends and family, constant feeding and no talking, reading or writing for as much as eight whole weeks.

In The Yellow Wallpaper the doctor’s wife (I am annoyed now) is forbidden from reading and writing in order to recover from her depression and ‘hysterical tendency’.  Her treatment also consists of enforced bed rest and isolation, even being kept away from her new baby. However, the lady writes secretly but hides her work to avoid repercussions from her husband. Basically we see a lady who has no mental stimulation and with the absence of anything to do, or people to talk with, she becomes obsessed with the wallpaper. Her imagination takes over, she is convinced there is a woman lurking and creeping behind the paper.

The lady has no identity, she is confined to one room in the home, she doesn’t participate in any outside activity and is controlled and oppressed by her husband. The domestic sphere is the only place for her. Because she wanted to work and go outside she has been dismissed as irrational and ‘mad’.

I am not suggesting that all these thing remind me of Virginia and her situation, but the rest cure certainly does. Virginia was prescribed bed rest and was limited to a couple of hours a day of writing during her illnesses. Leonard was keen that she stayed in the country to avoid over stimulation in London. This cure was common at the time for females, with bed rest, plenty of food and under stimulation considered to be the best approach. Ultimately in the story, the lady descends into worsening mental health … as did Virginia.

By the way, men at the time were not prescribed the ‘rest’ cure but the ‘west’ cure – outdoor living, physical activity, keeping journals about their experiences, companionship, etc. Theodore Roosevelt apparently was prescribed the west cure.

The Yellow Wallpaper was written as an attack on the rest cure and the way it ignored a woman’s opinion and treated her as a passive object of treatment.

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