While reading the selections for this week, Chopin’s The Awakening and Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, I was struck by the different methods utilized to treat the condition called "hysteria." Both methods concentrated on by these authors are still prevalent in today’s societies, unfortunately. The way in which women are perceived as a whole contributes to the abuse heaped on them by well-meaning physicians.
In each work, I believe that both authors chose the ‘treatment of hysteria’ that best fit the narrative that they were writing. Chopin’s choice is to have the doctor advise Mr. Pontellier to "let your wife alone for a while." (Chopin 684) while Gilman’s treatment of choice in her story is the ‘rest’ cure, which was very popular in that time period.
Chopin’s Edna needed to be given free reign in order to carry the story to it’s conclusion. By having Pontellier leave his wife alone, the story allowed Edna to explore her ‘awakenings’. If the Doctor had prescribed the ‘rest’ cure for Edna, the story would not have been able to go as deep into Edna’s new feelings as it did. Likewise, Gilman would have been unable to move her story forward if she had used the treatment of just ignoring the character’s malaise. So this main character tells us, "So I take phosphates and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’" (Gilman, 833). ‘Work’ for her is writing and writing for a woman is thought to be "silly fancies".
To illustrate the view of hysteria in the 19th century I look at a popular book written in 1897, Safe Counsel, by Professor B.G. Jefferis, M.D., PhD. Dr. Jefferis offers treatment for the condition known as ‘hysteria’, "Some healthy and pleasant employment should be urged upon women afflicted with this disease. Avoid excessive fatigue and mental worry; also stimulants and opiates. Plenty of good food and fresh air will do more good than drugs." (Rager 92) This is the case with Gilman’s character who is urged to "lie down ever so much now. John says it is good for me, and to sleep all I can." (Gilman 840).
The predominant view on hysteria in the late 19th century was that women were "moody and whimsical" (Chopin 685) and that if they were kept busy with children, entertaining, and household duties then they would be less likely to fall into this particular sickness. I think that this perception of women only served to cause them to have more ‘hysterical’ episodes. We often ‘are’ who others perceive us to be. Gilman’s character illustrates how much she trusts the physicians (and her husbands) advice, "John is a physician, and perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster." (Gilman, 833). This character not only doesn’t believe she is ill, but she believes that her husband (her doctor) is not perceiving her as she really is.
Each work emphasizes the limited choices offered to women in the 19th century and the choices of treatment for depression are slow in changing. Today we have the choice of ‘popping a pill’ in order to overcome our depressive periods. But women are still viewed as "moody" and "unpredictable" (largely due to the common myth that a woman’s cycle makes her unstable in some way.)
I was able to identify with both forms of treatment used by Chopin and Gilman, as I have gone through depressive periods of my own. The choice of treatment of hysteria in each story underscores the different forms of restraint placed on women by a patriarchal society. A change will only occur for women when society’s perception of women change.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Sixth Edition, Vol. C, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Sixth Edition, Vol. C, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Rager, Karen Hamilton. Safe Counsel - A Complete Guide to Health Care and Home Remedies in the Late 19th Century. Maryland: Heritage Books, 2000.
K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2002, 2006