Psychology began blooming during the late 1800s in America with only a few major concepts and scientific experiments. Multiple diagnoses and theories were made without proper research, particularly the Rest Cure treatment developed by neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell. The Rest Cure was a treatment for hysteria, neurasthenia, and other nervous illnesses; this was most commonly used on women, as a result of misdiagnosis of postpartum depression. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, narrates the story of Jane, a woman with postpartum depression, who gradually descends into complete madness. This short story accurately portrays how women with psychological disorders were poorly treated to the point where their condition worsens. In this case, the psychological adjustments her husband John and her physician Silas Weir Mitchell prescribe for Jane continue to make her depression worse.
The unknown disease, postpartum depression, and its incorrect association with hysteria in the 1800s plays a major role in harming the narrator’s mental health.When Jane writes about her husband’s occupation she mentions,“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?” (Gilman 647). Jane’s husband most likely diagnosed her with hysteria or “temporary nervous depression” because of her similar symptoms with postpartum depression. 18th century physicians found this condition in mothers and therefore predicted it was a result of incorrect blood flow to the brain from the uterus.
However, in reality, this psychological effect is caused by a dramatic drop in estrogen and progesterone hormones, along with identity issues. As technological advancements emerged, scientists proved the effects of incorrect association with hysteria. Anne Stiles, author of “The Rest Cure, 1873-1925” claims that, “By the 1940s, scientists such as Karl Menninger and Richard Asher decried aspects of the cure as unscientific and potentially harmful” (23). These damaging aspects such as bed rest, isolation, and no physical activities, are prescribed to Jane. Isolation can lead to decreased cognitive functions, shorter life span, dementia, insomnia, and hallucinations. Consequently, not only does Jane’s mental illness resume, but it progressively gets worse as described throughout the story. If Jane was treated correctly based on her condition, her hallucinations of the woman in the wallpaper would have likely not happened.
The role of women in relationships of a patriarchal society further restricts Jane from communicating her symptoms. Jane is put into complete isolation and is unable to express her thoughts to anyone, including her husband, John. She states, “It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so” (Gilman 652). Her husband communicates with her in a possessive manner, while Jane resists the urge to tell her husband about her symptoms and refuses to question her husband’s authority.
The narrator’s hallucinations get to a point where she starts to imagine a woman in the wallpaper of her isolated room, and is still unable to tell her husband about it. Jane reveals symptoms of postpartum depression as she describes staying up at night, crying for no reason, and anxiety towards her child. She only expresses these symptoms in her diary, which her husband dislikes her writing in. Additionally, these symptoms only get worse until she completely loses her mental stability at the end of the story. Elizabeth Carey, author of “Feed Controlling the Female Psyche: Assigned Gender Roles in “The Yellow Wallpaper” confirms, “She naturally assumes that John knows what he is doing. She questions herself instead of him.
Her condition worsens because both of them believe that John knows best. In the end both husband and wife lose because they are trapped in fixed gender roles” (7). John believes he is more intelligent than Jane, so he makes decisions without asking her about her own symptoms. This doesn’t allow Jane to think for herself and when she does her husband shows his dominance through calling her childish names such as “little girl.” In addition to his mistaken diagnosis, John disregards the narrator’s feelings towards her disease, which causes Jane to develop a greater sense of anxiety.
Gilman precisely portrays the issue of incorrect identification of mental illnesses among women in the 18th century through the character of Jane.The time period of the story plays an immense role in Jane’s damaging treatment. Both the traditional relationship between the husband and wife, along with the lack of psychological knowledge behind the Rest Cure contribute to Jane’s journey to madness.
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