Hysteria or Sanity

Siri Hustvedt explains Jean-Martins Charcot’s idea of hysteria as a “dramatic emotional display” (Hustvedt 71). This theory would fit well in trying to understand what is really going on the “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In the story we see the narrator go insane by what she perceives to be a woman caged in behind this yellow wallpaper. Did she really go insane? That question doesn’t seem relevant, what is relevant is that she believed that there was a woman caged in. Whether or not it is true has no bearing on the argument. Her display of emotions can be characterized as dramatic because she goes to extreme lengths to see and look at this wallpaper. It seems to mirror how she is feeling. In the day the caged woman isn’t present, but only in the moonlight is it visible. This seems to be the way she is treated too. When her husband is awake (in the day) she really has no voice, no emotion, no nothing. She’s kind of just there. In the night, however, she is not under the eye of her husband and thats when this wallpaper seems to bug her. It’s interesting because before I read Hustvedt I would have never thought of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as being dramatic, I think it’s because “dramatic” has a negative connotation. I would rather, if I was a therapist, look at the reasons that make the narrator feel like she is having these “dramatic” emotional breaks. It seems to me that her husband puts her on a pedestal…and not in a good way. He completely infantilizes her calling her a silly goose. He doesn’t allow her to write or have any form of creative expression whatsoever so the only thing she has to rely on is her thoughts. I would say she’s border line schizophrenic. The only reason I don’t believe she is completely schizophrenic is because if she had an outlet of expression I believe she would be fine. I’m also curious at looking at the infantilization of her character and the idea of an “imaginary person.” I mean, it’s totally okay for children to have an “imaginary” friend but at what age do we start to diagnose people with schizophrenia? The poem is obviously a product of the time it was written in, but I think it’s important to look at the human psyche as well. Why is it that women were infantilized, but were also supposed to reproduce? Isn’t that an adult amenity? What does that say about men? Were they attracted to childlike attitudes but women that looked like women? To just claim that this was a “dramatic emotional display” takes away 99% of the reason the emotions are there in the first place furthermore calling it “dramatic” given the circumstances is completely absurd. To think being lock in a house, away from society, with nothing to do except sit there and look pretty…I’m pretty sure the only sane thing to do would be to go insane.

3 Comments so far

  1.   Jason Tougaw on September 13th, 2016

    You make two great points here: 1.) The word “dramatic” is loaded by a gendered (and misogynist) history 2.) Treatments for mental torment or delusion that involve social and sensory deprivation have a long history, one that current research is showing to be really damaging. The recent history of autism or the growing Hearing Voices Network (http://www.hearing-voices.org/) come to mind.

    Here’s my question–for you or anybody: What difference does history make? How much of Gilman’s protagonist’s experienced is shaped by history? How much by psychology or physiology? What would Hustvedt say?

  2.   Michelle Coleman on September 14th, 2016

    Hi! Your use of “dramatic” is such a great idea. I really appreciate you explaining your own definition of it, and rejecting the current connotation it has. It’s true– “dramatic” is almost always an insult, especially target at a woman or something feminine. I would really love to see a parody/reinvention of this short story with swapped gender roles. From that, I’m curious if I would find the main character just as dramatic. How would he want to express himself, because writing and drawing and socializing can even be considered feminine? I also find this quote of yours intriguing: “When her husband is awake (in the day) she really has no voice, no emotion, no nothing. She’s kind of just there.” This idea of freedom or unleashing the inner self when the moon comes out reminds me of not only werewolves and other creatures, but also women and their connection with the moon, the lunar cycles, and menstrual cycles. I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but it was just something that crossed my mind. This post’s ending was also well-written: “To think being lock in a house, away from society, with nothing to do except sit there and look pretty…I’m pretty sure the only sane thing to do would be to go insane.” I agree. And it seems like even the narrator would agree, as she keeps asking to go out and socialize and DO things. Really interesting post!

  3.   Radheeka Sharma on September 16th, 2016

    I do agree with you and how if she had a outlet for creative expression she would have been better off. Her husband putting her in a isolated room without any hobby would really mess with her. I like your description of how she started to use her thoughts as a form of expression. I never looked at it like that. Its an interesting point you make that her imagination only runs free when the husband is asleep, because somehow unconsciously in the day time her husband intimidates her to a certain extent. Even though, he is not able to get into her thoughts. I do think history plays an important part in how a person is shaped. During a time period, the way society was and what events were going on at the time, would shape it. Gilman’s protagonist, I would say, was heavily shaped by history because these psychological disorders were heavily gendered during this time period.

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