The concept of mental illness is defined by the overall cultural context and cannot be comprehended fully without considering the links between madness and social norms. Notably, gender as a cultural construct plays a crucial role in the shaping of public perspectives on mental health. While today women are more active members of society and face less opposition when expressing themselves, in the 19th century, the situation was different.
They performed mostly background roles and were entirely submissive to males. At that time, each case of a woman’s noncompliance with established gender expectations was a sign of deviant, dangerous behavior and was frequently regarded as a symptom of mental disorder. With such a gendered view of insanity, containment through the rest-cure could be perceived as the only practical way to stabilize female mental health. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman describes the experiences of a woman who underwent a psychological breakdown and its standard treatment. To understand if the rest-cure was a method for forcing females into traditional social and behavioral roles during those times, this paper will focus on the contextual analysis of Gilman’s story.
Female Mental Health: Background
The society in the 19th century was exposed to numerous changes due to rapid industrialization and advent of novel technologies. The emergence of psychiatry as a new medical field in the 1830’s also changed the way mentally unhealthy people were perceived and treated. Sigurðardóttir states that while in the 18th century an insane person was predominantly regarded as a violent, “bestial madman,” the view shifted to an image of a “less threatening but troubled mad-woman” in the following century (3).
It happened mainly because the most common diagnoses at that period included hysteria, neurasthenia, and anorexia nervosa, which were usually attributed to females (Little 21; Sigurðardóttir 3). Marland clarifies this observation by noticing that the 19th-century physicians correlated the propensity of women to mental breakdown due to their “biological weakness and reproductive cycles.” It means that a woman’s mind and personality were seen in a close connection to her body and the uterus, in particular.
A wide range of symptoms regarded by healthcare practitioners as signs of abnormality in females can be another indication that the perspective on mental health was gendered. For example, Little states that hysteria could be manifested through almost anything, starting from general weakness and mood swings to severe forms of paralysis and loss of sensations (21-22). As for the protagonist’s symptoms in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” they were rather mild and included the loss of appetite, extreme tiredness, unreasonable crying, and other. Additionally, she saw “nervous troubles” as “dreadfully depressing” (Gilman 3).
Overall, these examples demonstrate that anything that prevented a woman from performing her gender roles and associated duties could be a symptom of a mental disease, whereas the severity of symptoms determined the way she was treated, for instance, through long-term shock therapy or short-term rest.
Along with a large symptom list, the very belief in the inherent predisposition of females to mental disorders could contribute to an increased incidence of such disorders as hysteria that “swept over women” in the 19th century (Sigurðardóttir 1). According to Little, mental breakdowns were common among the middle- and upper-class females and became a type of a lifestyle (21). The protagonist’s mentioning of a friend who referred to a doctor to treat similar problems in “The Yellow Wallpaper” may also indicate the “popularity” of the diagnosis (Gilman 6).
Additionally, it is possible to presume that an increased rate of mental disorders was triggered because, due to all economic, political, and other changes occurring in the society by the end of the century, women sought social equality and ways to express themselves more actively. Thus, they both consciously and unconsciously showed noncompliance with traditional norms. The exploration of the dominant patterns of gender relations will help understand this assumption better.
Etiquette and Gender Relationships
Traditional gender roles imply that individuals’ social behaviors are defined by their biological characteristics. While a man is expected to be a breadwinner and show such personal traits as assertiveness, willpower, and inner strength, a woman is perceived as a loving nurturer, serving the needs of her family and obedient to her husband or father (Little 27). In the 19th century, an ideal woman was a domestic creature: weak, submissive, docile, and not socially active (Sigurðardóttir 4).
The compliance with such gender expectations was regarded as good behavior, whereas the demonstration of some of the masculine traits by women and their engagement in conventionally male activities, including work and politics, were considered to indicate that they were bad-mannered or mentally ill.
A strict division between genders and prescribed behavioral norms dictated the way males and females interacted with each other. Gilman’s work is rich in illustrations to the 19th-century gender relationships. Firstly, it is clear that the protagonist’s husband is an authority for her. Not only does he aims to control what she should do but also what she must and must not think. For instance, when she tried to tell John that her mental problem could be more severe than it seemed, he said: “I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!” (Gilman 9).
John did not listen to his wife because his expertise as a doctor and authority as a husband were unquestionable. At the same time, the protagonist strived to be obedient but instead felt guilty since she was unable to be of help to her family and “a real rest and comfort” to her husband as she was before the breakdown (Gilman 3). However, character’s engagement in writing was the main sign of her deviation from the social norm, and it had a link to her disease. She thought that John and his sister believed that writing – an unconventional activity for a female – made her sick (Gilman 5). Thus, there is no surprise that the forbiddance to write was one of the treatment measures prescribed to the woman.
Psychological health intervention through resting was the most common treatment method and was more frequently prescribed to women than men. According to Sigurðardóttir, it was invented by an American nerve specialist, Silas Weir Mitchell (3), whose approaches Gilman described as stricter than those of the character’s husband (6). Weir Mitchell recommended women with mental disorders to have a lot of rest and adhere to a special nutritional, exercise, and massage regimen while allowing them to do anything else merely after the doctor’s approval (Sigurðardóttir 6; Marland).
Such methods were expected to target the primary physical symptoms of psychological unwellness, including anemia and malnourishment. Nevertheless, its main purpose was to make ill women succumb to traditional norms, be more obedient and disciplined again (Little 24). The situation in which the protagonist’s husband insisted on the adherence to his treatment plan and condemned her for nonobservance is a good illustration of this darker side of the rest-cure intervention.
The treatment course described in “The Yellow Wallpaper” comprised all typical rest-cure procedures. Firstly, the character “was to have perfect rest and all the air… [she] could get” (Gilman 2). Additionally and more importantly, as it was already mentioned, the woman was forbidden to work/write because “imaginative power and habit of story-making” could only worsen the situation (Gilman 4). Thus, the character had to hide from others when working, because she thought that writing could make her condition better regardless of how exhausting it might be. It is worth noticing that this part of the story is autobiographical.
Gilman, who was prescribed with the rest-cure treatment by Weir Mitchell before creating “The Yellow Wallpaper,” said that his recommendations led her to “mental agony” and she could get rid of it only after rejecting the physician’s intervention and engaging in writing again (Marland). In this case, voluntary work can be regarded as a mean for individual expression conducive to psychological well-being, while the rest-cure, which promoted female obedience and submissiveness, can be seen as a primary feature of gender inequality and a tool for its maintenance.
In the “Yellow Wallpaper,” the rest-cure is represented as a symbol of behavioral restrictions imposed by the society on women. Moreover, the character’s obedience to her husband who did not believe in her sickness and did not allow her to think that it was something more than a “temporary nervous depression” is presented as a form of psychological imprisonment that led the woman to greater distress and complete insanity (Gilman 1).
This depiction is illustrative of the observation made by many scholars about a historical need for women to suppress their individualities in order to avoid criticism and punishment (Little 27; Sigurðardóttir 1). However, since not every woman’s personality conforms to the traditional gender roles, some of them find themselves in the situation of a severe psychological tension similarly to the one experienced by the character. These psychological constraints, as well as inability to pursue personal aspirations and fulfill instincts openly, are like a prison.
The pattern on the yellow wallpaper has a major symbolic significance because it is nothing but an image of the mentioned mental constraints. It generalizes all the restrictive social norms behind which women have to stoop down and creep about (Gilman 8).
At the same time, it is extremely hard for any woman to break the constraints and escape the psychological prison – the pattern constructed of “outrageous” angles, lines, and figures, destroying themselves in “unheard contradictions” – because the latter are too potent and strangling (Gilman 3, 12). From this perspective, mental illness can become an alternative to free expression because, through it, a woman becomes able to display her dissatisfaction with traditional gender roles that are against her individuality.
Regardless of the 19th-century assumption that inherent female characteristics served as a prerequisite for madness, research evidence demonstrates that femininity and womanhood as such were not the factors predisposing one to mental illness. Conversely, the inability to conform to artificially constructed conventional social roles during the period characterized by numerous social changes was such a prerequisite. Although the rest-cure treatment was designed to help patients cope with physiological symptoms of their disorders, it was more a form of punishment for women who avoided their domestic duties by means of mental disease. In her story, the research of themes in Gilman’s story showed that this approach was a method to maintain the status quo and gender inequality in the patriarchal society.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories. Dover Publications, 2012.
Little, Julianna. “Frailty, thy Name is 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.