The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Everyone with any knowledge of the background to this story knows that Charlotte Perkins Stetson (as she was then) underwent the rest cure under the supervision of Silas Weir Mitchell and that she wrote The Yellow Wall-Paper about her experiences. While this is true, it can, nevertheless, mask what is an equally indisputable point: that the narrator of Gilman’s story never actually undergoes the rest cure in any recognisable form. The only reference to it, in fact, is a statement by the narrator that she might be sent to Weir Mitchell ‘in the fall’ if she doesn’t ‘pick up faster’ (lines 187-8). There are probably several reasons why Gilman chose not to describe the ‘rest cure’ directly, and, indeed, to do so would have significantly changed the whole focus of her narrative. In this context, it is important to realise that rest was, in reality, only one aspect of the whole ‘rest cure’. Weir Mitchell, for example, was part of a small vanguard of physicians who were beginning to recognise the therapeutic value of massage. Patients were massaged on every single day of their ‘cure’. They were also made to overeat; received electro-therapy, and were forbidden all exercise: the rest cure meant bed rest – not simply a period of relaxation or holiday, such as is prescribed for the narrator of The Yellow Wall-Paper . In fact, even the most cursory glance at the rest cure reveals how very different it was, in several important respects, to the regime John prescribes for his wife. If Gilman had included more elements of the real rest cure in her story, she would have ended up writing a narrative as much about the body as the mind – and that was clearly of no interest to her. The narrator’s regime is actually much closer in spirit to the general advice Weir Mitchell gave to Gilman after her ‘cure’ –

This wise man […] sent me home with solemn advice to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” [sic] to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as I lived.”

There are also differences, however, between Weir Mitchell’s ‘post-cure’ advice to Gilman and the regime John prescribes for his wife. Firstly, Gilman was told to live thus for the rest of her days: her doctor was not prescribing a course of treatment to be suspended after the patient’s cure, but was rather commenting on how she – and, by implication, every other intelligent woman in the civilised world – should live her life if she wished to remain healthy and sane. Secondly, Gilman’s ‘domestic’ life should, according to Weir Mitchell, include her having her child beside her at all times, whereas the narrator in The Yellow Wall-Paper is separated from her baby. This is partly a narrative convenience: the constant involvement of an infant child in the story would quickly become a distraction from its main themes. However, there are other reasons behind this particular change that are worth pursuing in more detail.

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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