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The Role of Medicine in "The Yellow Wallpaper"

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   5 March 2010
   Dmitri Kaminiar
   Student #995059083
   ENG 363

The Role of the Medicine in "The Yellow Wallpaper"

   Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was one of America's first women authors, wrote the short story The Yellow Wallpaper in 1892. By the time she wrote it, however, she already had a rather eventful life that had led her to be treated, albeit briefly, by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a leading neurologist doctor of that time - a fact that had affected her life for years afterwards. It also resulted in her writing one of her most famous short stories in 1892 (as well as writing a less familiar piece called Why I Wrote "The Yellow Wall-paper"? in 1913) that shows a nucleonic slice of her contemporary society, viewed - moreover - through medical lenses. Moreover, this essay will attempt to discuss The Yellow Wallpaper through this viewpoint as well and see if the author had reasons to do so.
   These aspects appear right away - as soon the characters arrive at their destination, and perhaps even before that: "John is a physician, and perhaps [...] that is one reason I do not get well faster" (pg. 508). I.e., John is the narrator's husband and doctor at the same time. Such a double-edged "whammy" means that John completely dominates his wife at this point of the narrative.
   The issue of social control at that time, when the society was still largely patriarchal and run practically by men alone stands out in The Yellow Wallpaper very clearly, but what for did the writer have to make a John doctor? Truly, his job would not have played a big role in her short story - yet it actually does.
   On December 4, 1879, another author - Henrik Ibsen - published a play named A Doll's House, which discussed the same topic: the society of the late 19th century, when men still managed their world, but women - such as Christine Linde - were slowly rising up and beginning to take charge themselves. As a result of these similarities - same time, same plot idea - The Yellow Wallpaper appears to be quite similar to Ibsen's play, yet it is very different at the same time.
   "You know the place is doing you good," he said, "and really, dear, I don't care to renovate the house just for a three months' rental."
   "Then do let us go downstairs," I said, "there are such pretty rooms there."
   Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down cellar, if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain.
   (The Yellow Wallpaper, pg. 510)
   This dialogue reveals a curious similarity to the dialogue from another literary piece, A Doll's House written by Henrik Ibsen on December 4 1879 - roughly a decade before Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote her short story. The two literary pieces have little in common, but the interactions between the Helmers in Ibsen's play and John and his wife in the short story are quite similar:
   HELMER. And I wouldn't want my pretty little song-bird to be the least bit different from what she is now. But come to think of it, you look rather ... rather ... how shall I put it? ... rather guilty today ...
   (A Doll's House, pg 5)
   This quotation clearly shows that Helmer's mental processes are quite similar to John's: as the latter calls his wife `a blessed little goose', so does Helmer calls Nora his `pretty little song-bird' and in both cases the wives are dependent financially, socially, etc. on their husbands. "[...] John's insistence upon his wife's conforming to his prescriptions for every detail of her life, thus denying her individuality", (Unheard-of Contradictions, pg. 120) and the same thing can be said of Nora as well - at the beginning of Ibsen's play she is a living doll for all intents and purposes, worried about nothing more than eating some macaroons on the sly while her man is not watching her...
   Yet that is exactly what the narrator-heroine of The Yellow Wallpaper is denied! In Ibsen's play, Nora `only' has to worry about social and financial pressures - but to a certain point she is free, as Christine Linde's example shows that as well; in other words, Nora has a certain amount of free will and identity, a certain amount of personal space to manoeuvre in and make her own decisions.
   The narrator-heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gillman's short story, however, does not have even the amount of personal space that Nora has: due to her medical condition, she is essentially confined to her room with her husband-doctor doing his best to put her into a state that is almost like a suspended animation, everything has been taken out of her control... And since every action produces a counteraction, her liberating insanity can be easily considered to be a direct response to John's actions.
   Moreover, the implications that the final state of affairs has begun not because (or rather, not just because) of the narrator, but of John as well, can be found from the beginning of the short story. "My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing" (pg. 506) says the narrator, thus revealing her family's background (probably an arranged marriage between families of two peers) and that she has a doctor for a brother as well who does not make a personal appearance in the story.
   Now that is rather odd, unless one entertains the notion that John does not want his brother-in-law and his professional opinion because it would make him look either incompetent or less in control of the situation than he would believe. The medical issues here are still merely secondary, but already they manage to sharpen the control/controlled conflict to an extra edge; as The Yellow Paper progresses, this edge sharpens...
   Coincidentally, the narrator's abovementioned brother has a doubtful honour of being the only personage who is mentioned in the story, but does not make an actual appearance, yet he is probably not unique. In Ibsen's play, Helmer and Nora interact with other people, not just other featured characters of A Doll's House, but also the guests at their masquerade (ACT III), and so on. In The Yellow Wallpaper, there is only one other featured character - Jane, the caretaker - outside of John and his wife who is the story's narrator, and that is it.
   Of course, there is at least one obvious explanation as to why these two different states of affairs came to be. Nora from Ibsen's play is a typical woman, who merely made an atypical choice (by the standards of her time) and is planning to live with it as well. The narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper lacks even this power of choosing: by fate or by another person's will, this choice is practically made for her and that is why the end of The Yellow Wallpaper is so ghastly.
   It should be noted that this lack of choice only makes things worse for the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper. In A Doll's House, Nora has to worry about social and financial pressures - but to a certain point she is already free, and Christine Linde's example shows a sort of a personal freedom as well; in other words, the protagonist of Ibsen's (man's) play has a certain amount of free will and identity, a certain amount of personal space to manoeuvre in and make her own decisions.
   The narrator-heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gillman's short story, however, does not have even the amount of personal space that Nora (or Christine) has: as it was already said, she is restricted to her room with her husband-doctor doing his best to put her into a state that is almost like a suspended animation, everything has been taken out of her control... (That is not unlike what Helmer is doing, only more so.) And since every action produces a counteraction, her liberating insanity can be easily considered to be a direct response to John's actions.
   I.e.: "[...] our lease will be up in three weeks, and I can't see how to leave before. "The repairs are not done at home and I cannot possibly leave town just now." (514).
   This quotation shows the extent of John's attempts to be the decision maker of everything and everybody around him - while he is supposedly curing his wife, he is also repairing their home as well: on a certain level The Yellow Wallpaper has a financial factor that is almost as strong as that of Ibsen's play, even if it plays a much more secondary role in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story - or even stronger, for John is also the narrator's doctor, thus his power over her is absolute, especially on the socio-financial level, not just on the medical. In short, for all of his statements that he loves his wife, John is clearly no less concerned with his financial affairs and tries to settle both at the same time, confident that he can do that.
   It should be kept in mind when reading The Yellow Wallpaper that the social control and the issues that come with it are always present in the story. Even if their home is being repaired to some extent or another, there is still a possibility of moving to at least another room (pg. 510), which they do not do for any specific reason: John does not want to, and so they do not. He may be obscure about it, but his reasoning is there: "He said that after the wall-paper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on." (510) John does not want to give in to his wife even once, because he fears her, he fears that if he gives in even once, changes in their lives would come fast and hard and he would not able to deal with them. (Incidentally, when changes did begin to occur in Ibsen's play, Helmer was not able to deal with them either). And as the final scene of The Yellow Wallpaper can claim, his ideas are true - he cannot.
   Due to the unbalanced nature of their relationship, John is trapped as much as his wife the narrator is, but because his position is different (on top instead of at the bottom), he also makes things worse for the narrator as well:
   I lie down ever so much now. John says it is good for me, and to sleep all I can.
   The fact is I getting a little afraid of John.
   He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look.
   It strikes me occasionally, just as a scientific hypothesis, that perhaps it is the paper!
   I have watched John when he did not know that I was looking, and come into the room suddenly on the most innocent excuses, and I've caught him several times looking at the paper! [...]
   (The Yellow Wallpaper, pg. 515)
   The above quotations illustrate this point further: John is beginning to realize that something is rather wrong with his wife, but because to admit it to others (like the narrator's brother - another professional physician and thus John's colleague (pg. 506)) would be equal to admitting of losing control of his situation both domestic and professional, he cannot do it. Consequently, this results in his wife's madness - and freedom:
   "What is the matter?" he cried. "For God's sake, what are you doing!"
   I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder.
   "I've got out at last," said I, "in spite of you and Jane! And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!"
   Now why should that man have fainted?
   (The Yellow Wallpaper, pg. 519)
   Fainting, incidentally, was not considered to be behaviour proper for a man: when the time came to be a man, not just act as one according to the society's rules, John could not do it, as he had suspected all along.
   Finally, one must not forget that unlike Nora from Ibsen's play, the narrator and heroine of The Yellow Wallpaper is an atypical woman in an atypical situation, no matter how hard John tries to deny it. Admittedly, her unusualness grew from medical "reasons", but all the same she is not `a face in the crowd' any longer, what is worse, her choice - to convert or to resist - was already made for her, and John, subconsciously, reacted by increasing his control, unaware that all that the narrator does - or will do - will be just a reaction to his own actions instead...
   Throughout the centuries, the field of official medicine was one of solely masculine occupations, only in the modern days this situation has changed - and that was quite after the publication of The Yellow Wallpaper. That, in turn, was just a part of the general prejudice towards women, that they needed to be controlled (and dominated), something that Charlotte Perkins Gilman had experienced herself throughout her life, including experience in the hospital, under the oversight of S.M. Weir, a celebrated doctor of her times (and unlike John from The Yellow Wallpaper he knew what he was doing - or at least was supposed to). "Much of Gilman's writing asserts that women were considered inferior males and hence inferior humans", writes the author of `Unheard-of Contradictions' on pg. 118, pointing out how the unbalanced social control and attitudes affected all strata of human lives.
   This social unbalance is also evident in her story, something that was noticed by various modern critics: while there are other, non-feminist interpretations, the feminist ones are more numerous ones by far. As a rule, they explain how her male counterpart - is oppressing the narrator as a doctor, as a man, as a husband - and they are right. This controlling oppression, however, warps both sides, the controller as much as the controlled; the resolutions of both A Doll's House and The Yellow Wallpaper show. And so, let us end this story with an observation: in both works, the women escaped, but the men did not. So - who had it worse?


   Delashmit, Margaret Victoria. The patriarchy and women: A study of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper". Diss. The University of Tennessee, 1990. Dissertations & Theses: Full Text, ProQuest. Web. 2 Feb. 2010.
   Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wall-paper. Ed. Julia Reidheid. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008
   Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll's House. Ed. James McFarlane. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
   Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ed. Julia Reidheid. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008
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