How John`s attitude toward the narrator in ‘’The Yellow Wallpaper’’ mirrors social attitudes regarding mental illnesses
The diagnoses, treatment, and overall understanding of mental illnesses have progressed greatly from when “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written. In those times the classification of a mental illness for a woman was madness. Women were treated accordingly, and not just by their doctors, but by their families and communities. Today, many facilities and medications exist to help individuals recover from a mental illness as best they can, and there are trained physicians and psychologists who can properly identify their illnesses.
The only aspect that has not been completely altered since then is the way someone often reacts to another person’s mental illnesses. There are many people today who would treat someone with depression, nearly the same way John, in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, treated his wife, who had postpartum depression. That would be to firstly deny there is even a problem, and then try and conceal it out of embarrassment from family and friends.
In the nineteenth century, women had no rights and could therefore make few decisions for themselves. In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, John decides there is nothing wrong with his wife, despite her complaints. When she stops performing her duties as a wife and mother, he can ignore it no more. So he then simply refers to it as a “temporary nervous depression” (page 1). John is belittling the narrator’s illness, and we can tell she is upset by this when she says: “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 […] a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?“. He is not only convincing her that there is no serious problem with her, but he also tells their family and friends that it is just “a slight hysterical tendency”; downgrading it so it does not sound as bad as it is. In the article “A Woman’s Decent to Insanity”, Rula Quawas touches on this as well: “Following in the footsteps of Mitchell, he tells her that there is really nothing wrong with her and forbids her to think of her condition[.]” (n.p.). John treated the narrator with the ‘rest cure’ because of Weir Mitchell, the doctor mentioned in this article. But from reading “The Yellow Wallpaper”, it is clear that the ‘rest cure’ only made things worse for women and it is the reason that the narrator became insane in the end.
The narrator guessed this from the beginning; this is clear when she says “Personally, [she] believes that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do [her] good” (page 1). She keeps this option to herself, however, because she knows John will not listen to her, since he did not even believe she was ill. In the BBC adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the first line spoken is “I do assure you, nothing serious of the matter, nothing beyond tiredness and a temporary depression”.
The consulting physician says this to John, while they are discussing the narrator, or Charlotte, as the character is referred to in the film. As well in the other examples, here the physicians just decide that her only problem is nerves. This is because she is a woman of upper/middle class, and in the nineteenth century, women have very few things to do, definitely nothing straining for the mind. If a woman began to act differently, the first thing every physician thought was that it was self-inflected. Although people today do not feel this way about women, the element of just ignoring it and hoping it goes away is still evident. Many times it is not until someone actually reacts to their illness, like the narrator did, that people believe them at all.
In the 19th century, upper class women, like the narrator in our story, had to uphold a certain image. That was; to be soft spoken, gentle, a dutiful wife, overall a respectable lady. A woman suffering hysteria, even slightly, would make that illusion untrue. So for these women’s husbands, there were two options; either to put the woman in an asylum or go to a different town possibly until she recovered. In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, John takes the narrator to a different town and tells their families that she is not as bad as she really is. This is something they clearly do not do often. This is apparent because the narrator says “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and [the narrator] secure ancestral halls for the summer” (page 1). Also the narrator had just had a baby, so if they were going just out of town for a summer vacation, it would be an odd time.
In her article, Quawas noticed that John not only kept his wife from her family and friends, but he chooses the room farthest away from Jennie and the servants as well: ‘’He isolates his wife in the upstairs nursery, a room with barred windows and hideous yellow wallpaper’’ (n.p.). In the BBC adaptation, Charlotte waits until she is sure that John is in a good mood and then says “John, [the narrator] must ask you a serious question, won’t allow [her] to pay a visit to Hendry and Julia”. Charlotte tells us John spends most days in town, so obviously she is lonely. John does not seem to make this connection and immediately shoots her question down. He tells her “[her] improvement is the result of keeping to the cure”. Charlotte had not been getting better, but worse, so John must have known that what he said was a lie. John does invite one of their mothers down for a weekend, but she already knew about Charlotte being ill. This is similar to today.
If someone is suffering from a mental illness then it is not brought up in conversation or told to people outside immediate family and friends. Many people do not find out that someone they are not close with even had a mental illness. Charlotte Perkins Gilman overcame her mental illness, something the narrator in her story did not. This was mostly because of the ‘rest cure’, but it partly was because of John. There were many things that John could have done to help the narrator recover. Instead he did not listen to her or acknowledge her illness and he would not let her cousins visit and cheer her up. Although the ‘rest cure’ has been proved ineffective for many decades, people today still do what John did. For example, denying there is a problem at all, or hiding a mental illness from everyone you know.
Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper” Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 01 Nov. 1999. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.
Quawas, Rula. “A NEW WOMAN’S JOURNEY INTO INSANITY: DESCENT AND RETURN IN THE YELLOW WALLPAPER.” AUMLA : Journal of the Australasian Universities Modern Language Association.105 (2006): 35,53,147-148. ProQuest. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.
“The Yellow Wallpaper”. Dir. John Clive. Perf. Stephen Dillane, Julia Watson, Carolyn Pickles. BBC, 1989. Film.