The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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23-4 ‘and journeys, and air, and exercise’ – This short phrase is important if the reader is to place The Yellow Wall-Paper in its proper medical context. Gilman, famously, wrote a letter to Dr Weir Mitchell and was subsequently examined and treated by him. She underwent the rest cure in the Infirmary for Nervous Diseases in Philadelphia for a month and then returned home to continue a much lighter regime than the rest cure itself. As recalled in her own words, she was told to: ‘Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time... Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.’ This is, essentially, the regime prescribed by John for his wife, though there are significant differences: the narrator obviously does not have her child with her all the time, for example. Although Weir Mitchell prescribed the opposite for Gilman, separation of mother and child in cases of puerperal insanity was quite common, since a frequently reported symptom of the illness was the mother neglecting or harming her child. In any case, weaving the narrator’s baby into the story would make The Yellow Wall-Paper a quite different piece of work, and Gilman wanted her artistic focus to be elsewhere.

A point that is frequently overlooked is that the narrator (as opposed to Gilman herself) never experiences Weir Mitchell’s rest cure in anything like its complete form. For a start, under Weir Mitchell’s regime, ‘journeys, air and exercise’ were completely forbidden. He advocated complete bed rest for several weeks, combined with deliberate over-feeding, daily massage and electrical therapy. At the end of the process certain exercises were finally prescribed to strengthen the woman’s muscles so that she could walk again.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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