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Bed rest also called rest cure, has been used in medical practice for centuries. As a rule, it implies that the patient should voluntarily stay in his or her bed. Nowadays, this method is prescribed as an addition to regular medication-based treatment, but this was not always the case. As far back as the 19th century, rest cure was the primary practice that was imposed on women in a variety of physical and mental conditions. In 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published “The Yellow Wallpaper” in an attempt to reflect on her personal experience after being treated this way. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the novel narrator’s encounter with enforced bed rest, which was inspired by the author’s memories.
The concept of rest cure was widely supported even by the most prominent neurologists of the 19th century, including Silas Weir Mitchell. At that time, Gilman was suffering from postpartum depression following the birth of her daughter (Ghandeharion and Mazari 116). As she was departing for treatment, she prepared a detailed letter for the doctor describing her history and current condition (Bergman 195). However, Mitchell was known for his authoritative views on the relationship between a doctor and a patient, especially if the latter was a woman. Therefore, Mitchell saw the letter as a sign of self-conceit on behalf of Gilman, as he believed that “wise women choose their doctors and trust them; the wisest ask the fewest question” (Bergman 195). Such negligence of the patient’s effort later became one of the factors that inspired “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
As far as the letter is concerned, Gilman went to great lengths to provide Mitchell with as many details as possible. She wrote sixteen pages, including an in-depth analysis of her family tree and the health history of the ancestors and relatives, as well as her mental records (Bergman 195). In the letter, Gilman highlighted Mitchell’s expertise and assured them that she had complete trust in his neurological experience while presenting herself as the one who desperately needs help. Besides. Gilman mentioned that she felt constantly tired, especially by communicating with people, and could barely form letters. Her idea was to have her case adequately examined and evaluated rather than limited to a “mere casual examination” (Bergman 196). In other words, Gilman wanted to take an active part in her treatment instead of being a silent patient.
Nevertheless, the described events took place at the time of Victorian gender roles. Bergman notes that the system could only “silence women and deny them self-determination” (198). Following the conventional procedure of the time, Mitchell ended up enforcing a strict rest cure therapy on Gilman. As the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper” remembered afterward, she was allowed no more than two hours of intellectual activity per day combined with complete social isolation (Ghandeharion and Mazari 116). In addition, Gilman could not fulfill her creative desires, as writing was also restricted per doctor’s orders. Since she was an aspiring author, the restriction only made already unbearable confinement worse.
Writing is a vital self-determination tool, similar to other creative activities. Deprived of opportunities to realize the potential, an individual is prone to depression and other mental disorders, which was especially detrimental in Gilman’s already poor condition. Ghandeharion and Mazari state that letting the patient at least keep a diary would alleviate some of the pressure (117). As time went by, Gilman noticed a correlation between unfair treatment toward her as a woman and her symptoms. Subsequently, she found the will and the means to take her daughter and escape to California, where she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a way of expressing her feeling. The author herself did not feel that it was a work of fiction, as she intended to demonstrate the implications of rest cure to the public (Ghandeharion and Mazari 117). Each page of the novel is explicitly written to reflect on a confined woman’s conditioned and inspired by Gilman’s personal story.
The plot of “The Yellow Wallpaper” revolves around a middle-class woman, the protagonist, as well as the narrator allegedly named Jane, and her husband, John. The novel is written in a specific manner that resembles a diary with several entries. Gilman opens the first chapter with Jane’s description of a colonial mansion that the couple has decided to rent for the summer. Once at the house, the narrator mentions that she is worried about her condition, but her husband, a physician by profession, does not believe that she suffers from any condition aside from “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency” (Gilman 1). Moreover, John restricts his wife from any kind of activity except for house chores and advises her to stay in an isolated room at all times. Besides, the room, in which the narrator is confined, evokes unpleasant feelings in her. She is especially unhappy with the yellow wallpaper, which she calls “almost revolting” because of the color (Gilman 3). Nevertheless, John dismisses any complaints and insists that the narrator should follow his recommendations.
As time passes, the narrator does not feel any improvements in her condition. Furthermore, she begins to miss the mere act of communicating with other people. The narrator is devastated by the fact that she is not allowed to write, as she is sure it would “relieve the press of ideas and rest” her (Gilman 5). The diary remains the narrator’s only form of self-expression, which is why afraid John might take it away, she hides it from her husband. Forced to stay in what she calls an “atrocious nursery,” the narrator pays increasingly more attention to the repulsive yellow wallpaper (Gilman 4). Having examined it more closely, the narrator is convinced that she begins to unravel its mysteries hidden in peculiar patterns. She soon becomes obsessed with the idea that there is a woman trapped behind the wallpaper and decides to set her free.
Eventually, the confinement makes the narrator feel even more miserable. The tone, in which she describes her surroundings, becomes darker, while the yellow wallpaper obsession persists. The narrator makes several attempts to convince John to leave the mansion, but the latter remains sure that his wife has been receiving the right treatment. As a result, the narrator’s paranoia grows, as she suspects that Jennie, John’s sister, who has been staying with them, challenges her in uncovering the secrets of the yellow wallpaper.
The narrator’s obsession increases, as she becomes assured that she has a deeper connection with the wallpaper and even begins to feel its smell “hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor” (Gilman 13). She even considers burning the house down to escape the “yellow smell” but admits that she has grown used to it. As her mental state worsens, the narrator begins to keep secrets not only from her husband but also from the reader, including her finding regarding the mysterious lady in the wall. Overwhelmed by her obsession, the narrator tears down the yellow wallpaper and assumes the persona of the trapped woman, who has broken free. The format of the novel shifts at this point, as John is shown arriving at the house only to find his wife mindlessly crawling on the floor. At the end of the book, John faints and falls on the floor, as the narrator continues going over his body with each turn around the room.
Rest Cure Experience
As mentioned above, the plot of the novel is based on Gilman’s personal experience with Mitchell’s rest care. Unlike her character, the author was able to escape confinement and recover after the crippling treatment. She used her suffering and put it in a written form in an attempt to attract the public’s attention to the severe implications of rest care enforced on women. The narrator’s journey from mental discomfort to madness is portrayed through a series of diary entries. The format is chosen with a clear intention to show a woman’s thoughts from a first-person perspective, which would highlight the shift in her perception of the world.
The very personality of the narrator causes several questions. In the beginning, Gilman reveals that the narrator is a woman who is married to a man named John and does not provide other details, including her name (1). The lack of more information allows the reader to focus on the events and the character’s feelings, instead of her past and personality. It might be true that Gilman arranged it this way to make the protagonist as relatable as possible.
The narrator enters the mansion as an unhappy yet sane woman in need of treatment. Like the author, she suffers from postpartum psychosis, having recently given birth. Nevertheless, her husband and her brother, who are both physicians, do not believe that the condition requires any specific medical attention and claim that bed rest and absence of work will be an effective treatment. At first, the narrator is reluctant to accept the idea but does not express strong opposition to her husband’s views, as he does not see her disorder as anything more than a minor issue. Furthermore, the narrator’s illness has put them in a weaker position in comparison to her husband, who uses his reputation to assure people around them that this condition can effectively be treated with bed rest.
In reality, the narrator ends up being confined to one room, which she finds unpleasant. The description of the ancestral mansion that John rented for the summer shifts throughout the story as well, which is another way for Gilman to portray the growing paranoia of the protagonist. She perceives the house as a more menacing place and, simultaneously, loses trust in her husband and his sister Jennie. When John restricts the narrator from working, writing, and overall thinking about her condition as a way of treatment, she agrees that she will only speak about the house (Gilman 2). Tuttle supposes that this line serves as Gilman’s metaphor of a woman’s role in 19th century America, i.e., “her imprisonment within a domestic role” (Tuttle 197). Therefore, the austere mansion shows the narrator’s cage, to which she would be confined regardless of her condition. This image translates the author’s experience as well because Gilman herself ended up fleeing home with her daughter to become the most prominent feminist writer of the turn of the 20th century.
As far as the novel’s structure is concerned, it is another instrument that shows the narrator’s progressive insanity. Having been confined to bed rest, she has no other means of expressing her thoughts than a secret diary. As the reader goes through the entries, he or she sees the events through the prism of the narrator’s perception. At some point, when she points out several damaged objects in the nursery, a question arises whether she has done it herself in her search for the yellow wallpaper mysteries. Eventually, as the narrator’s mental state worsens, the diary entries become shorter and less detailed, while she begins to keep secrets from the reader, too. This writing tool is called “unreliable narrator,” and, in the case of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it serves to emphasize the narrator’s unstable condition.
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Toward the end of the novel, the protagonist begins to personify the mansion and namely the titular wallpaper. Gilman demonstrates that a woman deprived of meaningful relationships outside her house becomes entrapped in her surroundings, which exacerbates her pre-existing condition. As mentioned above, Gilman wrote the story not to entertain the readers but to highlight the issues of enforced bed rest promoted by physicians of that time. The author mentions the name of Silas Weir Mitchell in the text, thus strengthening the novel’s connection with reality and with her own experience. In a way, “The Yellow Wallpaper” invites its readers to put themselves in the narrator’s position to experience the same desperation as Gilman did when being treated by Mitchell. The horror of this book is caused not by terrifying creatures or elements of surprise, but by the cruel reality of the situation.
Overall, the novel represents a social commentary on a woman’s role in 19th century America. Gilman wanted to highlight that, while a female patient may be ready to cooperate with her physician on equal terms, the latter did not bother to consider her opinion. Most of the women’s concerns regarding their health could be dismissed as meaningless hysterical breakdowns. As far as the novel is concerned, the narrator’s husband disregarded his wife’s worries until the point of no return in the book’s climax. John was stunned when he saw his wife lose her mind, which caused him to faint. Perhaps, Gilman wrote this scene to demonstrate how ignorant such men could be about the issues discussed in the novel.
In the end, unlike her protagonist, Gilman managed to live on after her dreadful experience with rest cure. She filled “The Yellow Wallpaper” with her memories attempting to demonstrate the detrimental effect of enforced bed rest on women with mental disorders. While medicine and society have come a long way since the end of the 19th century, it is vital to remember the consequences of neglecting such problems. Gilman wrote the novel as a warning, and, despite significant progress, it has remained relevant until nowadays.
Ghandeharion, Azra, and Mazari, Milad. “Women Entrapment and Flight in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Alicante Journal of English Studies, vol. 29, 2016, pp. 113-129.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings. Gibbs Smith, 2019.
Tuttle, Jennifer S. Charlotte Perkins Gilman and a Woman’s Place in America. Edited by Jill Bergman. The University of Alabama Press, 2019.