Complicating Assumptions about Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper"

My students are usually captivated by “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and every time I teach it I get a paper or two with a thesis that argues the narrator’s husband is sexist, that the rest cure is demeaning, and/or that the narrator speaks for the author. That’s a bit like “proving” that the river is important in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or that the Puritans oppress Hester in The Scarlet Letter. I call those “safe” claims. The textual evidence overwhelmingly supports these claims, and precious little evidence supports any challenge to these these claims, so there is not a lot of room for a student to demonstrate the ability to support a debatable claim.

I’m blogging the review of Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s Wild Unrest, to remind me to assign some reading that offers a credible “opposing view” that complicates the assumption that everything the author says is an accurate representation of the author’s real-life experience. (See also Ngram for “postpartum depression,” “rest cure” and “yellow wallpaper”.)

The doctor in question was one S. Weir Mitchell, then at the height of his fame; his reputation had been secured during the Civil War when he published a book on the neurological effect of gunshot wounds. He claimed great success in treating what were thought of then as female nervous conditions – though it’s not as if Mitchell made that sharp a distinction between mental health and mental illness with women. Horowitz quotes him commenting on “how near to disorder and how close to misfortune [a woman] is brought by the very peculiarities of her nature.”

So, yes, a sexist pig, pretty much. But Horowitz determines from the available evidence that the treatment Mitchell prescribed for his female patients wasn’t quite the nightmare of sensory deprivation portrayed in “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” While known for his “rest cure,” this didn’t involve putting them under the command of their husbands. Indeed, he wanted his patients to recuperate away from their families, just to get them away from influences that might be wearing them down. Mitchell believed in the therapeutic effects of exercise, and he also encouraged women to open up to him about their unhappiness – a Yankee approximation of the “talking cure” later associated with Vienna. —Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed


One thought on “Complicating Assumptions about Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper"

  1. Such a timely post! I had never heard of or read “The Yellow Wallpaper” until just last week, when I listened to a Librivox recording of it while driving home. I was struck with the desire to rewrite it, a la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, as a story set in space–a setting that simultaneously seemed apt and cliched. In any case, thanks for reminding me of the idea!

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