The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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17 ‘And what can one do?’ – reiterated as ‘what is one to do?’ at line 20 and ‘But what is one to do?’ at line 29. These three almost identically impotent questions communicate effectively how the narrator feels completely powerless in the fact of male authority.

18 ‘a physician of high standing, and one's own husband’ – The narrator feels trapped. The only way such a high status male as a ‘physician of high standing’ could be challenged by a woman would be through her husband. If her husband supported her, then she might be listened to. However, in the narrator’s situation, ‘physician’ and ‘husband’ are the same person.

19 ‘temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency’ – The adjective ‘nervous’ was long ago detached from our contemporary understanding of depression, since the disease in its various forms has obviously got very little to do with the nervous system. The term ‘nervous depression’, here, is, in fact, a euphemistic description of a mental disorder: the stigma attached to such illnesses would be commonly avoided by such phrases as ‘he (or she) has a nervous problem’ or ‘a problem with their nerves.’ John’s addition of ‘temporary’, of course, serves to verbally ameliorate his wife’s condition even further, as do the words ‘slight’ and ‘tendency’ in his reference to hysteria.

It is worth adding some information at this point about what doctors and the general public meant by the word ‘hysteria’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When the subject is discussed nowadays undue emphasis is often placed on how this supposed condition was treated (by ‘pelvic massage’ to orgasm, latterly facilitated by the invention of the vibrator). As a result of this – and, no doubt, a degree of prurient fascination with what went on in nineteenth century doctors’ surgeries – the assumption is sometimes made that ‘hysteria’ was simply a nineteenth century term for sexual frustration. This idea is almost entirely false. A woman could be diagnosed with hysteria who presented such diverse symptoms as numbness in a limb, amnesia, aphonia, anxiety, depression or even psychotic episodes such as those experienced by the narrator. It was employed as a kind of ‘catch-all’ diagnosis for a complex of symptoms that could not be explained organically, when (1) the patient was female and (2) she was considered to be exaggerating her symptoms and behaving ‘over-emotionally’. Even physicians of the period regarded the diagnosis with a degree of suspicion, one calling it ‘in its slighter forms…as much a temperament as a disease.’

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman