Charlotte Perkins Gillman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"-The Medical Ignorance
In today’s day and age, it would be considered common knowledge that the uterus is, “A pear shaped organ in the female reproductive system where the embryo or fetus develops until birth.” (Hirsch, Kett, and Trefil 559) While the following is not-so-common knowledge, we also know today that, “People with higher left than right prefrontal [brain] activity feel a greater sense of well-being and contentment, while those who have higher right than left prefrontal [brain] activity often suffer from depression.” (Davidson and Begley 154) Today, we have evidence to support the fact that, “Advances in psycho-pharmacology have led to better outcomes for persons with psychiatric disabilities.” (Piat, Sabetti, and Bloom 482) In this 21st century our medical field is quite versed in our human bodies, the organs, and their functions. This has not always been the case however. Throughout history, the medical field has been less than knowledgeable. This falls true especially in the areas of women, hormones, and mental illness. This widespread lack of understanding in the medical field during the 1800’s had a strong influence on Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
In the 1800’s, the medical field was quite young. The amount of time they had thus far to investigate, and with the equipment they had access to, proved later to be insufficient. This was an unfortunate reality of the 1800’s. Those thought to be the most brilliant, and the most respected influences in the world of medicine, were at the mercy of the pinnacle of knowledge from the most brilliant minds. They only knew what they were capable of knowing with the tools and instruments at their disposal. They were not advanced technologically like we are today. They thought and believed many things which have turned out to be inaccurate. They also enforced and prescribed inappropriate treatments as a result. This strongly influenced the work. Mary’s treatment of isolation, as the main character of the story, is an illustration of this.
There were many faulty beliefs and practices in the past that led to such treatments. For example, in 1899 a hospital in Minnesota warned that women were at great risk of going insane. They claimed that, “disturbances of the nervous system [were] associated with the bearing of children.” (Hirshbein, par. 3) With the medical advances that have occurred since this time period, it is easy for us to see how adolescent their claim really was. Women with children are not at risk of going insane; no more than anyone else. This misdiagnosed insanity has been re-assessed. Today, we call this post-partum depression. Postpartum depression is quite self-explanatory. It is a period of depression that occurs in the mother during the time period following the birth of the child. “Postpartum depression seems to be brought on by the changes in hormone levels that occur after pregnancy.” (Web MD, sec. 2) Although we don’t have all the answers desired regarding the nature of hormones and depression, we know that it does exist. We are no longer confusing this common ailment with insanity requiring institutionalization. With Mary having recently had a child in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it is likely that she was suffering from postpartum depression. And thus was at risk of becoming a victim of this ignorant medical theory.
Unfortunately for John and his wife, the 1800’s and early 1900’s were not a medically educated era. John actually believed the things he was taught. He was being taught by medical professors who were the authorities in these subjects. Weir Mitchell was thought to be the best and most experienced physician in this area of medicine. He was as sought after then just as the best neurosurgeons are today. The fact that John was a medical student during this time paved the way for him to enforce inappropriate treatment to his wife. “It is so hard to talk to John about my case, because he is so wise,” (7) Mary writes at one point. She was not stating that he was so wise in her eyes. Rather, she was communicating that he would not listen to her ideas about her case due to his arrogance regarding his position as a physician. This made Mary feel hopeless. The medical field’s ideas during this time period had a strong influence on this story without a doubt.
The amount of time that had been put into studying the human body did not prove sufficient up to this point, at least not accurate enough to make a diagnosis. It seems rather expected that the doctors would have no real reference point for treating any mental illness. It is understandable that these doctors, without access to evolved medical equipment, would have no way of understanding what goes on in a woman’s body and what is not related to biological sex. “We still do not know for sure the biological differences between the sexes in the area of mental illness. [It has always been an accepted idea] that sex determined the cause and manifestations of mental illness...and that they arose from biology.” (Hirshbein, par. 5) However today, we know that men and women alike are susceptible to these ailments. We do not yet understand all we should, although today we are aware of this. John and his colleagues, however, believed women were at risk for mental illness more so than men. John believed this to be the truth, and thus implemented treatments based on such lunacies to Mary.
“From this distance of time, it is easy to chuckle (or shake our heads in dismay) that a psychiatrist could blame mental illness” (Hirshbein 156) on biological sex. To blame mental illness on the total of what it is half the human race seems absurd to us today. In contrast however, during the 1800’s, when Charlotte Perkins Gillman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” this was a widely accepted belief. In fact, in the late nineteenth century practitioners were removing women’s ovaries in an attempt to augment their mental state. (Hirshbein 157) These medical practices seem inappropriate and possibly even unethical to us now, but a hundred years ago, this was as normal and accepted as taking a Tylenol is today. This is a perfect example of a barbaric medical practice that had a strong influence on the work. The medical ignorance is obvious.
Mary was a victim of this sort of ignorance, and her husband John was too, no doubt. She even states at one point, “John is a physician, and perhaps…that is one reason I do not get well faster.” (1) Back then, just as today, doctors were viewed as the ‘authority’ on all things medically related. We trust them now just as we did then. John had the utmost confidence in himself, his knowledge, and his education. Why shouldn’t he, or Mary? “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?” (1) She was a hopeless victim of an uneducated medical period; and of John. He was a victim though as well.
As stated above, Mary was thought to have had a “slight hysterical tendency.” During these times it was thought that hysteria revolved around the uterus, and hence only existed in women (Merriam Webster). For hundreds of years most, “medical practitioners believed the uterus to be a distinctly female organ that caused a host of specifically female diseases...some proposed that the uterus was a "sewer" -- a site of noxious poisons that caused diseases such as the "suffocation of the mother," a condition in which the womb wandered throughout the body.” ("M/F," par. 6) It was believed that this wandering uterus would float around the body causing a number of physical and psychological problems, depending on where it landed. It is these sorts of beliefs that lent themselves to the medical ideas and practices that were taking place in the 1800’s. Since Mary was a woman, and had a uterus, it is understandable that she would have been a victim of this idea. This is another one of the false beliefs during this time period that provided such a strong influence in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
The doctors who received their education during these time periods were taught many incorrect ways of diagnosing illness. According to “The Decline of Hysteria” by Mark S. Micale, in the 1800’s epilepsy was regularly mistaken for hysteria. Syphilis was mistaken for hysteria as well, and quite often. In fact, most of the mental hospitals and asylums at this time were full of patients who were infected with Syphilis. “Acute paralysis is one of the most common symptoms, and its onset, like hysteria, may be characterized by convulsive seizures, double vision, and loss of pain sensation as well as exaggerated emotional responses.” (Micale 5) It is apparent to anyone that these misdiagnoses were victimizing women who had a serious medical virus, not a debilitating mental illness.
Still it became worse. “By the 1930’s, medical scientists were suggesting psychological origins for asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcers, high blood pressure, and certain skin conditions.” (Micale 5) Because of the lack of technology available to these practitioners, they had no idea what many presently well understood illnesses were. They called everything hysteria. Unfortunately, they prescribed their treatments accordingly. Alas, Mary was a victim of these ill prescribed treatments. These professors and medical professionals, including John and Mary’s brother, could only teach and enforce what they knew. The students of this age are victims of their own lack of knowledge. John was a victim, and Mary, being his wife and patient respectively, was a victim also.
In addition to these underdeveloped medical theories, John believed that his wife could be cured of her unexplained nervous disorder. He felt if he kept her safe, removed from her all responsibility, and isolated her, she would heal. “So I take phosphates or phosphites-whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.” (1) This treatment included not writing or painting or communicating with family or friends either. Complete isolation was the ‘cure’. John was acting in a way that showed kindness and love in this time. John, along with other doctors that were caring for Mary, believed that if she were relinquished of all chores and duties, that she would be relieved of her symptoms. It was thought that removing any potential agitator would remove the probability of her becoming stressed out. “He takes all care from me,” Mary states on page two. The intention here was for her to be so well taken care of that she would recover and feel energized and rested again. He had the utmost belief in this treatment, and truly believed it would work. “Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?” (7) John was confident in his knowledge and abilities as a physician. Regrettably, he was wrong.
John, as a doctor, was taught everything that the finest medical professionals at the time believed to be the truth. The medical field today has not evolved completely. By no means do we understand everything now; not at all. Nevertheless, we have come a long way. In today’s world the concept of mental illness and postpartum depression is much more understood. As a result, our treatments are better suited in present day as well. “While it is easy to critique science and medicine from the past, it is also important to recognize that investigators from long ago were just as sure as we are today about the scientific merit of their views.” (Hirshbein 167)
Today, isolating women who are depressed is seen as inappropriate. Today we have anti-depressants and therapy to help with some of these issues. But that is today. In the time during which “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written, such luxuries were not known. And it was these unknowns that lent themselves to Mary’s experience in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “They Yellow Wallpaper.” John was acting upon the information that he, and the rest of the medical field at the time, believed to be right and proper. He was trying to help his wife get better. She may have been a victim of John, her brother, her doctor, and an ignorant medical age, but she was not the only one.
Hartman, Dorothy W. “Women’s Roles in the Late 19th Century.” Connor Prairie Interactive History Park. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2012. <http://www.connerprairie.org/Learn-And-Do/Indiana-History/America-1860-1900/Lives-Of-Women.aspx>.
Piat, Myra, Judith Sabetti, and David Bloom. “The Importance of Medication in Consumer Definitions of Recovery from Serious Mental Illness: A Qualitative study.” Issues in Mental Health Nursing (2009): 482-490. Leatherby Libraries. Web. 24 Mar. 2012.