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Female Mental Health
Hysteria and neurasthenia were among the major mental health conditions attributed exclusively to females in the 19th century (Little 21). At that time, “all women were seen by physicians as susceptible to ill health and mental breakdown by reason of their biological weakness and reproductive cycles” (Marland). The common symptoms of neurasthenia and hysteria are fatigue, changes in mood and character, loss of the ability to function, weight loss, anemia, and so forth (Sigurðardóttir 3; Tasca et al. 115).
The protagonist in the short story shows similar symptoms, including the loss of appetite, extreme tiredness, unreasonable crying, and others (Gilman). Additionally, she notes that one of her friends once referred to a doctor, Weir Mitchell, with similar problems (Gilman), which may indicate the “popularity” of the diagnosis.
Treatment for Nervous Exhaustion in the 19th century
To cure the nervous depression, the character “was to have perfect rest and all the air… [she] could get” (Gilman). Besides that, the woman was forbidden to work/write because “imaginative power and habit of story-making” could only worsen the situation (Gilman). The “rest-cure” designed by Weir Mitchell was the main method of treatment for hysteria and neurasthenia in the 19th century and implied a strict regimen for eating, exercise, and sleep (Marland).
Little states that the rest-cure was a form of psychological punishment aimed to make the patient succumb to “normative and traditional behaviors, such as being obedient and compliant to her physician’s suggestions” (24). Additionally, Sigurðardóttir notes that its purpose was to discipline women who avoided their household duties by using the disease (4).
Etiquette and Gender Relationships
The described standard treatment method demonstrates that women were expected to be “submissive, docile and in all ways well behaved and subservient to men” (Sigurðardóttir 4). The main role of a 19th-century woman was a loving nurturer, serving the needs of her family and obedient to her husband/father (Little 27). At the same time, the mental disorder occurred in women when they tried to fulfill the roles that were considered unsuitable for their gender, for instance, a writer and a social activist (Marland). In the short story, the protagonist’s husband and his sister consider that writing made her sick (Gilman). Thus, the woman hides her true feelings and strives to follow John’s recommendations: “I take pains to control myself—before him, at least—and that makes me very tired” (Gilman).
Symbolic Imprisonment of Women
Throughout time, society has put more behavioral restrictions on females than on males (Sigurðardóttir 9). While men had greater chances to express their individuality through work and other activities, women were usually forced to suppress it (Little 27). Also, Eisenchlas observes that “violations of gender role expectations are met with criticism and penalized” (2), and this situation creates psychological constraints. The pattern on the wallpaper is a symbolic representation of those constraints. The protagonist sees the shape of a woman, “stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern” (Gilman). That woman shook the pattern and tried to climb it, but “nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so” (Gilman).
In the story, the protagonist tears down the wallpaper: “I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman). According to Marland, such an escape can be regarded as either the salvation from behavioral restrictions or an ultimate loss of mind. Little notes that, for many women, mental illness as such was a way to express dissatisfaction with social norms (27). Nevertheless, Sigurðardóttir observes that, in fiction, many writers used insanity as a method to depict internalized ideas about true, unrestrained womanhood (14). Therefore, the image of a woman creeping over a fainted man (Gilman) may be a symbol of emancipation.
Eisenchlas, Susana A. “Gender Roles and Expectations: Any Changes Online?” SAGE Open, 2013, pp. 1-11.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Project Gutenberg. 2008. Web.
Little Julianna. “Frailty, thy name is a woman”: Depictions of Female Madness. Dissertation, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2015.
Marland, Hilary. “The Yellow Wallpaper: A 19th-Century Short Story of Nervous Exhaustion and The Perils of Women’s ‘Rest Cures’.” The Conversation. 2018. Web.
Sigurðardóttir, Elísabet Rakel. Women and Madness in the 19th Century: The Effects of Oppression on Women’s Mental Health. Dissertation, University of Iceland, 2013.
Tasca, Cecilia et al. “Women and Hysteria in the History of Mental Health” Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health, vol. 8 , 2012, pp. 110-119.