Editors’ Note: This is the second part of the two-part article about Charlotte Perkins Gilman by Wendy Bird, an advocate for social justice and equality of opportunity and a strategic consultant for non-profits, government, and philanthropy.
by Wendy Bird
What is One to Do?:
Like the haunting “nevermore” of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “what is one to do” in “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes a chilling rallying cry against the injustices of the “rest cure.” Disenfranchised and isolated, the unnamed woman feels she cannot be heard over the voices of her husband and brother, both doctors. In her words, “Personally I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?” The woman senses that her husband’s profession may actually be impeding, rather than aiding, her recovery and wellbeing, saying, “John is a physician, and PERHAPS–(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)–PERHAPS that is one reason I do not get well faster. You see he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?” For the woman, her husband’s belief that she is not sick and, therefore, not in need of quality medical care, as opposed to just “rest,” cannot be overcome: “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency–what is one to do?” As the protagonist becomes increasingly upset (“I am getting angry enough to do something desperate”) and ultimately goes insane (“I’ve got out at last”), the reader is left to wonder if something might have been done to prevent the tragedy after all.
Girl Power Matters:
Gilman adds complexity to the story by introducing Jennie, John’s sister. Rather than serve as an ally to the ailing woman, Jennie inadvertently contributes to the woman’s demise by upholding the unwanted isolation and inactivity of the “rest cure” and, by extension, the “men know best” stereotype. Before long, “Jennie sees to everything.” Like John, Jennie tries to escalate control over the woman: “Jennie wanted to sleep with me–the sly thing! but I told her I should undoubtedly rest better for a night all alone.” Just as she begins to fear her husband, the woman begins to fear her sister-in-law, saying, “even Jennie has an inexplicable look.” Without anyone to support her ideas and suggestions, the woman’s isolation extends beyond the physical into the mental and emotional.
Gilman uses several strategic literary devices to advance her point of view. First, Gilman presents the protagonist as a woman without a name. By the end of the story, we know the names John, Jennie, Mary, Henry, and Julia, but not the name of the ailing woman, underscoring the woman’s sub-status treatment. Second, Gilman uses the wallpaper as a metaphor for the stifling treatment of John and Jennie, enabling the woman to criticize her family without drawing the ire of conservative readers. For example, echoing John and Jennie’s relentless oversight, the woman says, “There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down. I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere.” Finally, Gilman uses familiar language to draw readers in and win their trust, making her ultimate denouncement of the “rest cure” more compelling. Initially, for example, John and Jennie are described as “loving,” “dear,” “sweet,” and “careful,” as to be expected from family members. The woman would never prioritize her own needs over those of her husband: “of course, I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim.” The woman even expresses gratitude for her husband’s treatment, saying, “it is lucky that John kept me here.” Like the woman, the reader is drawn in by the false promises of the “rest cure” and, in turn, also shocked and dismayed by its tragic consequences.
With its masterful storytelling, Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” raised serious questions about the “science” behind the “rest cure” and amplified a voice still hear too little in women’s health care: a woman’s. Other writers such as Virginia Woolf also criticized the treatment, laying the foundation for improved understanding of women’s health needs and effective treatments moving forward.
In 1935, suffering from incurable breast cancer, Gilman chose to use chloroform to end her life on her own terms. In a note she left behind, Gilman described her choice as a human right: “When all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one” (Radcliffe Magazine). While still controversial in health care today (as recently evidenced, for example, by Brittany Maynard in “My Right to Death with Dignity at 29”), in death, as in life, Gilman exercised autonomy and the power of choice
The original collection of the “Papers of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1846-1975” is located at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. For more information and the online collection, please visit the “Charlotte Perkins Gilman Digital Collection.”
Part I of the article series on Charlotte Perkins Gilman by Wendy Bird.
FREE AUDIO of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
The Woodstock (NY) town board in August passed a resolution honoring Woodstock women in history, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and affirming the NYS suffrage centennial celebration in 2017. This is the first time a local community has taken such a step, and it’s likely that other towns and cities will do the same.
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