Author of The Female Malady, Elaine Showalter, suggests that ‘women have been labelled mad because mental illness has been defined and codified by male psychiatrists’. Depictions of female ‘hysteria’ in texts such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper have notoriously been interpreted as the embodiment of deviance within a patriarchal hierarchy. Whilst The Yellow Wallpaper is recognised as a gothic horror and ‘The Bell Jar’ is classified as a Roman à clef, there are considerable parallels between the female protagonists and equally between writers who have all experienced severe mental health issues and have faced marginalization. The Yellow Wallpaper explores the detrimental effects of the ‘rest cure’, a treatment developed by Silas Weir Mitchell in the 1800s on the unnamed narrator who is experiencing ‘slight hysterical tendencies’. Conversely the male physicians constructed by Sylvia Plath attempt to lift the metaphorical ‘bell jar’ that hangs over Esther Greenwood by prescribing multiple courses of Electroconvulsive therapy which was said to reduce ‘connections in an area of the brain previously linked to both depression and cognitive function’. Both Plath and Gilman utilize their own experiences to create female characters, indoctrinated into their roles as male subordinates, in an attempt to illuminate the devastating effects of the ‘cures’ provided by the male dominated medical community at the time.
From the onset, Gilman’s narrator and her husband are pitted against one another and their conflicting opinions are made abundantly clear. The relationship between the two is a microcosm of a much larger pre existing prejudice against women. The hyperbolic characterisation and villainisation of John, who is ‘practical in the extreme’, comes as no surprise given the genre of the text and whilst it is easy to do so, it must not be forgotten that this is a character constructed by a female writer on behalf of a first person female narrator. Gilman draws from her own bouts with postnatal depression and the treatment that followed. The Yellow Wallpaper is emblematic of the effects of inactivity on minds under stress; embedded within the narrators’ fragmented notions is a distinct opinion that she would have benefited greatly from ‘congenial work’, ‘more society and stimulus’ rather than ‘perfect rest and all the air [she] could get’. The amount of evidence to suggest that this prescribed ‘rest cure’ is not consensual within the text is manifold and whilst the disjointed manner of the narrator’s thought processes and confusion over ‘phosphates or phosphites’ does suggest that John has good reason to oversee her treatment, equally it leaves us questioning whether or not this imbalance of power is what aggravates her mental decline. The repetition of the harrowing interrogative ‘what is one to do?’ reinforces, despite the ability to form her own opinion, the futility of any attempted interjection or challenge to the authoritative voice of her husband which we see dismissed relentlessly. Whether this is due to, ignorance and haughtiness given his combined role as a husband and ‘physician of high standing’, a genuine lack of knowledge or out of malice is something which has been discussed by critics. Sarah Ghosal suggests that John appears to be approaching treatment rather pragmatically given the context and widespread belief that ‘isolation and simplicity will help to cure his wife of her nervousness’. Regardless, it is near impossible to feel no sense of empathy towards the narrator who is forced to succumb to the perpetuating prejudice against women that has been notoriously documented throughout the history of literature in texts such as Hamlet and The Bell Jar. The suppression and dismissal that the protagonists are forced to adhere to is symptomatic of the patriarchal societies that Gilman and Plath were writing in which places such a significance on their alternative perspectives.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet documents Ophelia’s (arguably the most paradigmatic of his heroines) descent into madness which has remained an ‘archetypal illustration of romantic suicide for centuries’ so much so her character has become synonymous with female suicide and depression. Much like Ophelia, Esther Greenwood is a character with suicidal tendencies, to the point that the novel almost becomes a ‘bleak resume of self-murder’. The extent of the character’s attempts to end her own life is telling of Sylvia Plath’s own struggles with her mental health and suicide which followed the release of the text. Similarly, whilst we are urged to believe Gilmans testimony, that this psychoanalytical short story is not biographical in Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, we are introduced to a narrator who is ‘viciously influenced’ by the ‘lame curves’ which ‘suddenly commit suicide’. The narrator anthropomorphizes the floral pattern of the yellow wallpaper, the elements are representative of the scrutiny society makes of lives of women, particularly those who are creative or disobedient. The narrator displays such characteristics, given her dismissal of Johns orders not to write despite his emphatic lexis. The surreptitious continuation of her writing is not scrutinized by contemporary audiences, but her bouts with guilt cause her to imagine ‘the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down’. There is a certain sense of responsibility that we cannot help but assign to John in this sense, as this confinement has caused her to develop such a fixation with this wallpaper. The treatment of mental illnesses are circumstantial and therefore whilst, all three females have experience suicidal thoughts, in varying degrees, the treatment of such differs. Whilst the female protagonists have very different experiences with treatment, one undeniable comparison, is their lack of agency and involvement and just as we see the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper forced into taking phosphates, Esther is forced into undergoing shock treatment and is sectioned.
The lexical field of entrapment in The Yellow Wallpaper is supported through the writer’s use of setting used to strengthen the impact of her story by allowing the distant mansion to physically isolate the narrator from the rest of society. Whilst the narrator sees the barred windows as a means of containing children in the nursery, to the reader combined with the bed nailed down and rings on the walls, it is apparent that it is more likely this is a means of keeping the narrator secure. Critics have argued that the nursery mimics a psychiatric ward for this reason. However, considering windows typically connote a prospect of possibilities, the nursery is likened to a penitentiary and John resembles the penal officers of the eighteenth century. This is indicative of the fact mentally ill women were regarded as children rather than the evil wrongdoers that they once were. It is difficult to ignore the damage this enforced infantilism has caused to the mental health of the narrator when she is reduced to crawling on the floor like a young child. This male dominance is not uncommon for Gilman, the text is often compared to her short story The Giant Wisteria; both gothic tales are known for their exploration of the ‘troubled nexus between the sexual repression of women, the patriarchal control of motherhood madness, and the anxiety of authorship’. Much like the ‘ancestral mansion’ inhabited by the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper, the ‘old mansion’ beneath the ‘knotted arms’ of ‘the great wisteria’ frames Gilmans’ indictment of the patriarchal marginalization of women. The ‘giant wistaria’, has been regarded by critics as a symbolic female presence and the image of it ‘cover[ing] the whole front of the house’ is representative of the attempt to dismantle patriarchal constructs, much like the yellow wallpaper that the narrator tears down. The parallels appear more prevalent towards the end of the story when the wisteria engulfs the house and threatens to bring it down. Gilman leaves the reader with a similar analogy of overcoming oppression in The Yellow Wallpaper when the narrator reaches the height of her mental decline and we see her crawling over John to highlight the juxtaposition of the power dynamic.
There is much irony in the writers use of environment in the yellow wallpaper as a means of treating the narrator for her hysterical tendencies. The very fact she is confined to the nursery on the upper floor is sardonic considering the reason she is undergoing such treatment is because she has postnatal depression. This room is undoubtedly responsible for the narrator’s mental and cognitive decline, in a space where women are traditionally expected to flourish we are forced to experience the torment this confined space causes her. There is no evidence to suggest the isolation from ‘such a dear baby’ has enhanced her emotional, physical or mental wellbeing and in fact we only see the narrator as a ‘tired’, ‘fearful and querulous’ character. Childbirth and motherhood was feared by many women particularly because pueruple insanity, seemingly triggered by childbirth, could affect any woman rendering them insane. Gilman obeyed instructions to ‘’live as domestic a life as far as possible,’ to ‘have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again’ as long as I lived.’ for three months before she ‘came so near the borderline’ of utter mental ruin that I could see over’. The intention to isolate someone experiencing postnatal depression was to reduce risk to the patient, child and society, given the extremities of symptoms one could expect to experience, but above all restoring the women to their rightful place in society, as mothers and homemakers. Esther Greenwood is another example of a character who is particularly ‘unmaternal’. Whilst she facets a facade, given the first person narrative, we are able to access her internal truth. Identity and a sense of conformity is subject that protrudes the novel as we see her at the pinnacle of her breakdown unable to differentiate herself from ‘the Indian man’ she sees in her reflection. Plath use of mirrors in the text is an extremely effective way of conveying how far removed Esther has become from herself. Misidentification and the idea of the uncertain self is a common theme throughout Plath’s body of work, the short two-stanza poem, Mirror, the personification of the ‘cruel’ mirror demonstrates just how impactful this object and its nondiscriminatory nature can be in people’s lives.
The types of treatment that Esther receives is significant when considering whether or not it is the ‘cures’ Esther is subjected to that aggravate or contribute to her mental decline. The syntactic parallelism employed by Plath serves to highlight the juxtaposition of approaches by Dr Nolan and Dr Gordon and thus the level of their success. From the onset, it is apparent, from his patronising tone the line ‘suppose you try and tell me what you think is wrong’ Dr Gordon is a character we are encouraged to dislike as the reader. With his conventional male attractiveness and seemingly perfect family, Harold Bloom, along with many other critics, argues Dr Gordon is symbolic of the patriarchal power in the medical establishment. Whilst Dr Nolan is the woman who redeems psychiatry carries her across the threshold of her new life’ and is able to ‘suspend [the metaphorical bell jar] a few feet above’ her head. The Bell Jar, given that it is the title of the novel, is the most iconic motif in the text. It signifies the all consuming pain that comes with mental illness, and as the reader we cannot help but feel a shared sense of relief and respect for Dr Nolan who has not only kept her word that it would be painless, but that she has helped relieve some of the suffering Esther was experiencing. Whilst the Bell Jar is still ’suspended, a few feet above my head’ does, insinuating that Esther will never truly be able to move on and forget her experience like her mother wishes, the results compared to the ‘blue flash’ which ‘shuck her till [her] teeth rattled’ is astounding. It is at this point that we see, for the first time, Esther truly content and at peace. Despite this, shock treatment yields disturbing consequences for example in the line ‘I put down the knife and looked at it’ we see that Esther’s mind is slower moving and appears empty. The Mental Capacity Act of 2005 means that professionals are able to make decisions on behalf of individuals who lack capacity. In this sense, Esther’s lack of inclusion makes sense to contemporary audiences as it appears they are working to enhance her mental health. However, the way that she is disregarded completely by Dr Gordon and to a certain extent by Dr Nolan echos the infantilism we see throughout The Yellow Wallpaper.