Terri Long has a very educational post up right now about story structure. One of the stories used as an example is “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman. For those of you who may not have read it, the story is about a woman whose husband, John, is a physician. The woman, whose name is never mentioned, appears to be having trouble with postpartum depression, and her husband, her caregiver, prescribes the rest cure, and tells her that if she isn’t well by the end of the summer, she will be sent to another doctor who runs a sanitarium that specializes in a more extreme form of the rest cure.
For those who do not know, the rest cure was a bit of torture come up with by a man named Silas Weir Mitchell. The idea was that women were not really having problems with their emotions — they were hysterical. The most extreme form of the rest cure was to actually be restrained in a bed for two months, and the less extreme was to be confined to a room for some period of time.
Did the rest cure actually drive anyone insane? In her essay on why she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman explains that she actually had one of these rest cures, and it did help, but the prescription given by the doctor when she left his care — stay close to home, give up all creative pursuits, and have only two hours of intellectual stimulation a day — had her looking over the edge three months after. Having come to the end of her rope, Gilman took a friend’s advice and began working again.
I’m sure part of the reason for men never suffering hysteria and being confined to a bed for months on end has something to do with sexism, but I think it also has to do with the perceptions we have about work. A woman knitting is just knitting. Most feminists and others still see this as some sort of backward step. Why is she not creating something from literally nothing?
I think the same goes, sometimes, both ways for both genders. Men who work with wood or in construction are often seen to be less than a man who wears a tie to work. Sorry, but that carpenter is creating something — the same with farmers and just keep on listing.
But back to “The Yellow Wallpaper” — work is often the only thing that helps bring me out of my problems with depression. For some reason, it also keeps the insomnia away as well. Being stripped of the thing that gives you validation is not what those women needed, and Charlotte Gilman did an excellent job of pointing that out.
Everyone needs some sort of validation for the good work they do.