The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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21-22 ‘My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.’ – The doubling of John’s character in the narrator’s brother is intended to give a sense of Gilman’s central character as a woman struggling impotently against the impregnable walls of male authority. A brother was potentially an influential male to whom a woman could turn – even with regard to problems within her marriage – but, here, that possible avenue of relief for the narrator is closed off: her brother is, to all intents and purposes, a carbon copy of her husband.

23-4 ‘So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise’ – The narrator’s impotence is emphasised by her uncertainty over what medications she is taking. The reference to ‘phosphates or phosphites,’ however, can be understood in other ways, too. As well as ‘tonics, and…air,’ treatment of ‘nervous depression’ might well include regular purgation, and phosphate of soda is a laxative. It is more likely, though, that John prescribed his wife ‘phosphates’ and ‘phosphites’. Phosphorus compounds were believed to be particular effective in repairing damaged and malfunctioning nervous tissue, as an article from The American Therapist of 1903 by L. Harrison Mettler, Professor of Physiology of the Nervous System at the University of Illinois makes clear:

With proper selection of cases, no drug is more useful to the neurologist than phosphorus. It is both a powerful and a subtle remedy…¶Among its available preparations we find…the phosphates and phosphites, and the glycerol- and glycerine-phosphates of iron.

As well as possibly spending beyond his means to secure the large, airy and secluded dwelling he believes to be ideal for his wife’s recuperation, John is also prescribing her the best medicines known to the doctors of the period. It is significant that the narrator is not , for example, being dosed up with laudanum (tincture of opium dissolved in alcohol) which was frequently employed to treat ‘puerperal insanity’ and just about everything else in the nineteenth century. Dr Weir Mitchell was himself firmly opposed to treating women with ‘hysterical’ conditions using narcotics.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman
the Unkindness of Ravens If you have found our critical notes helpful, why not try the first Tower Notes novel, a historical fantasy set in the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

Available HERE where you can read the opening chapters.

The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul