In the 19th century, mental illness was an uncommon issue to be discussed. The public would treat the illness only by avoiding the matter and forcing the sick to feel helpless. At that time, the medical profession had not yet distinguished between diseases of the mind and diseases of the brain. Neurologists such as Dr. Silas Mitchell treated the problems that would now be treated by psychiatrists, such as depression. The most accepted cure was Mitchell’s Rest Cure, which required complete isolation from family and friends. It forbid any type of mental or physical energy, and required total bed rest.
The harsh results of the Rest Cure are easily seen in the story titled The Yellow Wallpaper written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1891. The main character was given the Rest Cure and soon began to descend deeper into the traps of insanity. Before fully understanding mental illnesses her actions would be linked to hysteria. Hysteria was the term given to women with signs of depression. (Showalter, p. 127) Embedded largely in women’s discouraged ambitions and limited opportunities, a reaction of supposed hysteria cases occurred during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Due to rise in this type of mental illness, the period became known as the Golden Age of Hysteria. Authorities of the time defined the problem in terms of femininity and female sexuality. Coming from the Greek term hysteron, meaning womb, hysteria was known as a strictly female illness that was caused by women’s delicate constitutions and emotionality. Many doctors believed the uterus caused it, which was why they concluded that men could not become hysterical. (Showalter, p. 129) Hysteria was assumed a largely self-created or imagined illness.
People did not generally take it, or mental illness seriously. Though hysteria became a focal point of study by physicians throughout the world. Symptoms included fainting, vomiting, choking, sobbing, paralysis, and temperamental fits. Reflecting the belief that women were prone to hysteria because they were less rational and stable than men. Dr. Edward Tilt, in a typical Victorian textbook definition, wrote: mutability is a characteristic of hysteria, because it is characteristic of women (Showalter, p. 129).
As more studies were conducted, however, some doctors began to link hysteria with restricted activity and sexual repression. One doctor wrote in 1879: the range of activity of women is so limited, and their available paths of work in life so few, compared with those which men have in the present social arrangements, that they have not, like men, vicarious outlets for feelings in a variety of healthy aims and pursuits. Strong women who exhibited more than the usual amount of forceful, confident, and fearless behavior were particularly prone to hysteria, according to F. C. Skey, a Victorian Age physician. (Showalter, p. 130)
In fact, as shown in The Yellow Wallpaper, strong and creative women were forbidden from exercising their minds and bodies. They often struck out with fits of hysteria, or became extremely depressed because they could not find useful outlets for their energy. The narrator was unable to express her thoughts through writing, because her health depended upon her remaining relaxed and peaceful. In addition, postpartum depression was not diagnosed as a reasonable condition during Gilman’s time.
Motherhood brings significant hormonal and other changes that require psychological adjustment. After giving birth, some women become extremely depressed. Postpartum depression, coupled with the unfair social constraints of the Victorian Era, drove some women mad, causing serious mental illness and even suicide. (Showalter, p. 130) The main character in The Yellow Wallpaper encounters many signs of entrapment. Her mind and body are unable to escape the toucher of the Rest Cure given to her by her husband. It is apparent from the beginning of the story that her husband physically and spiritually traps her.
Though she wanted a room downstairs that opened onto the forum, John would not change his mind. I wanted one downstairs that opened onto the pizza and had roses all over the windows, and such pretty old-fashion chintz hangings, But John would not hear it. The narrator strives for some space of her own close to her family. Instead John has put his wife on the top floor away from the rest of the household. She believes that the room is a nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium. Though she recognizes her captivity she overlooks other more threatening signs of her confinement.
Signs such as, the bars at the window, the gate at the top of the stairs, steel rings on the wall, and the nailed-down bedstead. This should show her that this room was meant for incarceration. (Korb, p. 3) This habit of deliberately misreading her surroundings is evident throughout the story. She continues to fool herself in believing what John really wishes her to believe. She explains how writing would better her and relieve her mind. I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.
Then she contradicts her statement so that she may mislead herself into believing what John feels is right. But I find I get pretty tired when I try. She doesnt recognize his subtle way of controlling her. He has her justifying her own actions without him even saying it. He is slowly manipulating her mind, and sending her deeper into her insanity. When she is speaking to John at nighttime she doesnt notice that he is acting very unconcerned. He says things that illustrate he truly doesn’t care about her healths improvement.
He only tries to fool her in saying that she is getting better when she is not. You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better, I feel really much easier about you. Her response is I dont weigh a bit more. She proves him wrong and he avoids the response by saying But now lets improve the shining hours by going to sleep, and talk in the morning.
She overlooks his true intentions and focuses back on the wallpaper. She almost revels to herself and John that the Rest Cure isnt working as expected. and actually show that he doesnt care. egins to interpet the yellow wallpaper, as having many life like similarity ries to resorts to reasoning with herself so that she may feel husband keeping he away from any outside world her minds wanders into insanity. Her husband doesnt know any better than to restrain her from exerting energy. He feels that he must keep her in bed to better her health. This in the end is the reason she goes insane. He must feel a bit ashamed being a doctor and not knowing of any other cure to The signs of metal illness are evident when the main character resorts to ripping at the wallpaper to release some built up anxiety.