Despite how unfairly our society has always viewed and treated people who suffer from mental health issues, as well as the social stigma that comes with this diagnosis or undiagnosed ailment, the truth is that these very individuals who are labeled “mentally ill” can be geniuses at projecting through their writings an understanding to the reader of the mind and society, and how the world appears through the lens in which they view life. According to Edvard Munch, a master of painting who had a bipolar disorder claimed that his fear of life was as necessary to him as his illness itself, he proclaimed that “without illness, I am a ship without a rudder… My sufferings are part of myself and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.’ This testimony, as well as the short stories “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Story of an Hour,” and “A Rose for Emily,” aids their readers’ understanding of the mind and society through authors that would be considered in today’s terms mentally ill.
As stated by the Mayo Clinic Staff, “Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior” (Mayo Clinic). The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica defines repression, a type of mental illness, in psychoanalytic terms as “the exclusion of distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings from the conscious mind.” “…[T]hese unwanted mental contents are pushed into the unconscious mind” (Encyclopedia Britannica). In essence, repression works as a buffer to allow a person to go on and live their life unimpeded by the negative reality of the world in which they live. This was especially true for the character Mrs. Mallard in “The Story of An Hour,” by Kate Chopin. However, to understand and analyze the real cause of Mrs. Mallard’s death, “of joy that kills,” one must first look at the repressive history of a woman’s rights as they existed in the 1800s, and somewhat understand the life of a married woman during that time, at least as perceived by the author in 1894, to allow the reader to grasp that her true cause of death was not from an overdose of joy, but instead from the instant annihilation of the newfound happiness that she felt after hearing the news of her oppressive husband’s survival.
Likewise, as in “The Story of an Hour,” understanding this same history is necessary to place into context “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” as penned by Charlotte Perkins Stetson in 1892, and specifically how her world looked to her as it related a woman’s mental illness at the time. As told from the posture of the narrator, the author chronicles in detail the decline of a young woman into lunacy. As the story unfolds, the narrator’s mental illness worsens as she sinks further into her inner captivation with the wallpaper and becomes progressively more disconnected from her day-to-day life. When the narrator finally identifies herself with the woman trapped in the wallpaper, she is able to see that other women are forced to hide behind the domestic “patterns” of their lives and that she herself is the one in need of redemption (Perkins).
According to Lives of Women, America in the late 19th century was still predominantly rural, with seven out of ten people in the United States living in small towns with populations under 2,500 or on farms, and most in poverty. What was termed the “Cult of Domesticity” was firmly in place. “The beliefs embodied in this ‘Cult’ gave women a central, yet outwardly passive, role in the family. Women’s God-given role, it stated, was a wife and mother, keeper of the household, guardian of the moral purity of all who lived therein;” however, in practice, it was “designed to limit their sphere of influence to home and family” (Hartman). In the cult of domesticity, a woman was to be submissive and obedient to one’s husband in all things (MacKethan). Also, from The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860, “[b]y custom and law, she did not enjoy all of the rights of citizenship. In the legal realm, women were decidedly dependent, subservient, and unequal” (Welter). Further exacerbating the situation, rights normally enjoyed by women were often withdrawn when she married. Indeed, a woman gave up so many civil and property rights upon crossing the threshold that she was said to be entering a “state of civil death,” according to Women and the Law in Early 19th Century (Crumrin). Not only did women more often than not hold miserable positions within marriages, but the same rang true with employment where they would typically hold servant-type positions. Because of a woman’s lack of status and opportunities, it is very understandable why many of them suffered from different forms of mental illness and may have been deemed insane for negligible reasons. There were laws in place during this period to protect women from being committed to insane asylums and treated unfairly. However, they were rarely enforced and inconsistently applied. The cumulative effect of all of these things was, as stated by Katherine Pouba and Ashley Tianen, the fact that women were committed to “mental institutions for [simply] acting in ways that the male-dominated society did not agree with” (Pouba et. al 95). This was the social backdrop for each of these authors as they wrote their short stories.
As alluded to above, “The Story of an Hour” was a short story written about a mentally repressed woman, in the late 19th century who, after hearing of her oppressive husband’s death, instead of being overcome with grief, begins to feel ascended in hope and spirits. After receiving the tragic news of her husband’s demise, she ironically begins to notice all the “new spring life” that she has not seen since her single years. She felt she was finally granted freedom for “intelligent thought” (Chopin 1) that of which she was not capable of doing while under her husband’s reign. However, because the announcement of his death was a mere misunderstanding, his presence alone walking into the house crushes all of her hopes that she finally started to plan, consequently giving the last stab to her feeble heart. So, instead of this ending happily where husband and wife are together, the thought of her spending another day with him ends her life. Through this story, Kate Chopin conveyed to the reader a fictional account of the emotional toll repression had on women during this time, as well as being a voice to stand up against or at least acknowledge the terminal effects that a mental disorder, like repression, can have on a person.
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” according to the article, Mental Illness in Literature, by Rebecca Sutton, laid out perfectly to the reader how a “women’s lack of autonomy negatively affects their mental, emotional, and physical well-being.” The author achieves this by telling a story from the point of view of a mentally unstable wife who was under submission to her husband who believed that the rest cure practice – “no physical activity, mental stimulation, or hobbies – was necessary to treat her mental condition” (Sutton). But instead, she was slowly going insane due to her forced idleness and isolation. For example, because of this act of repression of not allowing her to work, much less leave the house, the narrator confesses to the reader how “[i]t is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work (Gilman 13).” Later she yearns that, “I wish John would take me away from this house” (Gilman 27)! Despite his wife’s wishes, his constant response was in the negative. Due to the author’s own depression, she was able to convey her real-world experience with mental illness in a very understandable way to the reader, and express through her own familiarities the fact that the “rest cure” treatment was a fallacy and was nothing more to her than a way for a dominating husband to control all aspects of his wife’s life.
Unique to the other two short stores is “A Rose for Emily,” written by author William Faulkner in 1930. This uniqueness is borne out by the circumstance that you have a male author with a female lead character, Emily Grierson, an elderly Southern woman who cannot accept the fact of her father’s death. Just as in understanding “The Story of an Hour” and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the reader has to look to the environment in which this story was written. First, the backdrop was the Great Depression which began in 1929. Based off Political Movements and Social Change, aside from the Civil War, the Great Depression was the gravest crisis in American history. Just as in the Civil War, the United States appeared—at least at the start of the 1930s—’to be falling apart” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Furthermore, the opulence of the United States in the 1920s overshadowed the continuing poverty of certain populations, including women, because they typically held unstable or low-paying jobs. In fact, according to The Economic Context —The Second Industrial Revolution, during this time, about “one-fourth of the population in southern rural areas consisted of poor sharecroppers and tenant farmers” (Marx). Finally, this time brought a rapid rise in crime. This was a result of American’ frantic need for essentials, such as food. Suicide rates rose, as did cases of malnutrition. For women specifically, prostitution was on the rise as desperate women sought ways to pay the bills. Since health care, in general, was not a priority for many Americans, based on the information from the article: Social and Cultural Effects of the Depression, seeing “a doctor was only reserved for the direst of circumstances” (ushistory.org). The cumulative side effects from the Great Depression set the background for this short story, and the mental illness issues that flowed from this time.
“A Rose for Emily” is written from the perspective of the townspeople in Jefferson, Mississippi, where the story takes place. According to Stephen Holliday’s, What Might Have Been William Faulkner’s Purpose? Themain intention of this writing other than mere entertainment was “exploring several aspects of the human condition, specifically repression” (Holliday). This intention is achieved by telling the story of a woman, Emily Grierson, whose father dies. Instead of exercising the typical post-death functions, she chose to try to deny his death and not except its finality. As customary of the time, when the ladies of the town came to support her during this time of grief, she was dressed in her “usual clothes and there was no trace of grief on her face, for she was in denial of his death” (Faulkner II). Three days later, before the townspeople “were about to resort to law and force, she [finally] broke down [in tears], and they buried” him quickly (Faulkner II). According to the author, it was just “another sad manifestation of man’s condition in which his dreams and hopes…[and] of the poor tragic human struggling with its own heart,” which gives the reader enough information to conclude that she suffered from some sort of mental illness (Faulkner at Virginia 1957). Further, adding to Stephen Holliday’s analysis of the character, based on “Miss Emily’s… abnormal behavior,” as well as Mr. Faulkner’s comments, we can more specifically infer that she actually suffers from repression from her father’s death. All in all, Mr. Faulkner’s story of a psychologically repressed woman that suffers a tragic life, allows its readers to better understand the sociogenic views of the mentally ill in this time.
Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” Charlotte Gilman’s and “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” while each containing similar themes, still managed to give their own unique impression to aid the reader’s understanding of the effect of mental health on the mind and society as they existed during the time in which they were written. In “The Story of an Hour,” the author tries to alert its readers to the seriousness of repression and how lethal being emotionally unstable can be. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” its author focuses on debunking the hopes of the “rest cure” treatment specifically for women, showing how some men expressed their dominance over their wives in her time, while simultaneously helping the reader truly grasp the complexity of mental disorders as a whole. Lastly, “A Rose for Emily” allow its readers to understand how society viewed the mentally ill, along with the trouble that one who was mentally repressed could have at processing death. Furthermore, each author’s ability to connect with their stories was directly due to their relatability to what they experienced and to what they wrote about, as each suffered from mental illness themselves.
- Faulkner at Virginia: Selected Clips, faulkner.lib.virginia.edu/display/wfaudio16_2.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Repression.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 21 Apr. 2009, www.britannica.com/science/repression-psychology.
- Chopin, Kate, and Kate Chopin. The Story of an Hour. Perfection Learning, 2001.
- Clinic, Mayo. “Mental Illness.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 13 Oct. 2015, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/symptoms-causes/syc-20374968.
- GILMAN, CHARLOTTE PERKINS. YELLOW WALLPAPER. WILDER PUBLICATIONS.
- “Great Depression: American Social Policy.” Social Welfare History Project, 26 Feb. 2018, socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/american-social-policy-in-the-great-depression-and-wwii/.
- Polk, Noel, and William Faulkner. A Rose for Emily: William Faulkner. Harcourt College Publishers, 2000.
- Pouba, Katherine, and Ashley Tianen. Lunacy in the 19th Century: Women’s Admission to Asylums in United States of America. University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, minds.wisconsin.edu/bitstream/handle/1793/6687/Lunacy in the 19th Century.
- “Quotes by Edvard Munch.” Goodreads, Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/quotes/25844-my-fear-of-life-is-necessary-to-me-as-is.
- Romer, Christina D., and Richard H. Pells. “Great Depression.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 10 Jan. 2019, www.britannica.org/event/Great-Depression/Political-movements-and-social-change.
- “Social and Cultural Effects of the Depression.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association, www.ushistory.org/us/48e.asp.
- Sutton, Rebecca. “Mental Illness in Literature: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Owlcation, Owlcation, 9 Aug. 2014, owlcation.edu/humanities/Mental-Illness-Literature-Charlotte-Perkins-Gillmans-The-Yellow-Wallpaper.