May 10, 2010
A Male Perspective of Women’s Hysteria in “The Yellow Wallpaper"
Critics view Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" as either a work of supernatural horror or as a feminist treatise regarding the controversial role of women in society. A close analysis of Gilman's use of symbols reveals "The Yellow Wallpaper" as her response to the male view of hysteria from ancient times through the nineteenth century. " In "The Yellow Wallpaper" Gilman questions the validity of Hippocrates's theory of the wandering uterus and Weir Mitchell's "rest cure". As she wrote in her essay "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper?", "[the story] was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy…" (Gilman 107). By her own account, Gilman's purpose in writing "The Yellow Wallpaper" was to educate and inform the public of the misinterpretation of hysterical symptoms. The origin of the word hysteria expresses the belief in the inferiority of women. As James Palis writes in The Hippocratic Concept of Hysteria: A Translation of the Original Texts: "Etymologically, the term usteria (hysteria) derives from ustera (hystera), the Greek word for uterus, which means an inferior position. Thus, usteria denotes suffering of the uterus, the most inferior organ in the female" (226). The fact that the literal translation of hystera is "inferior position" reinforces the fact that from ancient times women were viewed as physically inferior to men. Since the one major physical difference between women and men is the presence of the uterus, psychological problems that were considered to be strictly female were attributed to some malfunction of the uterus. Hippocrates first proposed in his work "The Art of Healing" that hysteria was caused by a wandering uterus (Hothersall 16). He believed that the uterus could dislodge itself in the body and wander around the female body attaching itself to other organs. Hippocrates explained that the various symptoms of hysteria, such as nervousness, depression, and hysterical fits, were caused by the uterus's interactions with the other organs in the body. In his text "On the Nature of Women" he explains the cause and treatment of a hysterical fit: If the uterus comes towards the liver, the female suddenly becomes speechless, and clenches her teeth, and her color comes back. “…“…In such situations, push beneath the liver with the hand and tighten a bandage beneath the hypochondria, and by opening the mouth administer a most fragrant wine, and anoint the nostrils and apply malodorous fumigations”(Palis 227). In light of Hippocratic tradition, Gilman similarly employs symbols of prison and entrapment to represent the process of anchoring the uterus. Gilman's symbols represent stand for the literal anchor of inequality that suppresses women within a misogynist society. The narrator's bedroom is the most obvious symbol of woman's entrapment in a misogynist society. She describes the history of the room in her journal: "It was a nursery first and then a playroom and gymnasium, I should judge for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls" (257). The description of the barred windows and the rings on the walls reveals the prison-like environment of the nursery. The emphasis on the functionality as "a nursery first and then a playroom and gymnasium" suggests that the room transforms to suit all terms of imprisonment. The narrator's inability to escape the entrapment of society's view of women as children who need to be watched over is reinforced in her husband's refusal to remove the wallpaper. John said that after the wallpaper 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” (258). John represents the male viewpoint that once certain rights and liberties are afforded to women, women will...
Cited: Bassuk, Ellen L. “The Rest Cure: Repetition or Resolution of Victorian Women’s Conflicts?” The Female Body in Western Culture : Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986. 139-151.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader: “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Other Fiction. Ed. Ann J. Lane. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. 3-20.
---, "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper". Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction. Ed. Denise D Knight. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997. 106-107.
Hothersall, David. History of Psychology. 3rd Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1995.
Palis, James., et al. "The Hippocratic Concept of Hysteria: A Translation of the Original Texts." Integrative Psychiatry 3.3 (1985): 226-228.
"Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper". Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction. Ed. Denise D Knight. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1997. 106-107.
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