Posted: August 6th, 2022


MLA citation and summaries of each articles 

Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Author(s): Jane F. Thrailkill

Source: ELH , Summer, 2002, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer, 2002), pp. 525-566

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Stable URL:

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide
range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and
facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at

Terms and Conditions of Use

The Johns Hopkins University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and
extend access to ELH

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������

All use subject to



“You see, healing does go on, even if not in the expected

In Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration (1991), set during the final
year of World War I, a neurologist named Dr. Rivers experiments
with treating the tics, paralyses, and corporeal contortions of shell-
shock victims by asking the damaged soldiers to talk-about their
dreams, fears, pasts. Another physician, Dr. Yealland, also treats
the newly recognized “psycho-neuroses of war,” but he embarks
on a different therapeutic regimen: shock treatment, or the
application of electricity to the part of the body presenting
symptoms. When faced with a British soldier who had emerged

physically unscathed from “Mons, the Marne, Aisne, first and
second Ypres, Hill 60, Neuve-Chapelle, Loos, Armentieres, the
Somme and Arras” yet had lost his ability to speak, Yealland straps
him to a chair and attaches conducting wires to the tender tissues
of his throat. “‘Suggestions are not wanted from you; they are not
needed,”‘ the doctor admonishes the agitated patient during a
session. “‘You must speak, but I shall not listen to anything you
have to say.”‘2 It becomes clear that the doctor’s thinking is this:
either the soldier’s muteness had a real somatic source-in which

case the electricity would reactivate his vocal organs-or it was a
pretence, in which case the painful and humiliating treatment
would constitute a form of discipline. Elaine Scarry has written of
torture, “The physical pain is so incontestably real that it seems to
confer its quality of ‘incontestable reality’ on that power that has
brought it into being.”3 A solution to skepticism, Yealland’s treat-
ment also makes irrelevant the question of whether the soldier’s

debility is fabricated: reality lies in results, and indeed by the end
of the session the soldier manages to stammer out a few words.
What distinguishes this medical treatment from torture proper is
the doctor’s indifference to the semantic content of the soldier’s

verbal expression. Effects, in other words, trump meanings.

ELH 69 (2002) 525-566 © 2002 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 525

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

In American letters, perhaps the most renowned instance of a
doctor disregarding a patient’s words involves the eminent neu-
rologist S. Weir Mitchell, who in 1887 treated the young Charlotte
Perkins Gilman (then Charlotte Stetson). As one of her biogra-

phers wrote, “[Mitchell] found utterly useless the long letter she
had written to him detailing her symptoms; that she should
imagine her observations would be of any interest to him was but
an indication of her ‘self-conceit,’ he advised her.”4 Mitchell

submitted Gilman to his celebrated rest cure that, in calling for
isolation, physical inaction, massage, mild electrical stimulation,

and fattening, centered on the body as the site of health and
disease. This story is familiar to twentieth-century readers of
Gilman’s now classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” due
largely to the critical work of feminist scholars who, beginning in
the 1970s, interpreted Gilman’s treatment at the hands of Mitchell

as paradigmatic of the patriarchal silencing of women.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a fictional account of a young wife and

mother whose physician husband takes her to the country to recuper-
ate from a “temporary nervous depression.”5 Cast as a series of
diary entries, the story portrays the narrator’s preoccupation with the
ugly wallpaper in her sickroom. Both the narrator and the narra-
tive become increasingly unhinged, and the narrative ends with the
maddened woman crawling over the body of her swooning husband.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” has since become a case study of the
psychical consequences of the masculine refusal to listen to a woman’s

words, a refusal that critics link to the more general proscription of

female self-expression-literary and otherwise-within a patriar-
chal culture. That Gilman’s contemporary reviewers did not appear
to perceive its feminist meanings was construed as lending weight to
this analysis, for it fueled the call for a new, feminist mode of reading
that (allegorizing the narrator’s own activity with the wallpaper)
would peel back “the dominant text” to reveal “the second muted
text” beneath.6 As Lisa Kasmer has noted, critics such as Susan
Gubar, Sandra Gilbert, Annette Kolodny, Jean Kennard, and others
examined Gilman’s story as an exercise in gendered hermeneutics,
“align[ing] the inability of the husband to understand his wife’s
condition, in effect to read her text, with the difficulty Gilman’s
contemporaries had in understanding the work itself.”7

This raises a pertinent question. If Gilman’s readers did not

read the text in the gendered terms of twentieth-century critics,
how did they react to her tale?s Physiologically, I would argue;

526 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

while nineteenth-century reviewers differed on the story’s ulti-
mate meaning (from a cautionary tale about the dangers of
tasteless home decorating to a Poe-esque study of psychosis),
almost all commented explicitly on the story’s powerful effects on
the reader. A typical correspondent, writing for The Criterion,
described “The Yellow Wallpaper” as

an eerie tale of insanity that is uncommonly effective. Most
attempts to work up insanity as “material” are ineffective; but
here the progress from nervous sensitiveness to illusion, and on to

delusion, is put before the reader so insidiously that he feels
something of that same chill alarm for his own mental soundness
that accompanies actual contact with lunatics.9

In response to readers who feared her story was madness-inspir-
ing, Gilman wrote, “it was not intended to drive people crazy, but
to save people from being crazy, and it worked.”‘0 Significantly,
Gilman did not quibble with her readers’ tendency to read the text
in instrumental terms-emphasizing, that is, what it does rather
than what it means-but instead clarified the intended trajectory
of its effects and claimed that they hit the target: “and it worked.”

Rather than elucidating subterranean meanings, Gilman and
her contemporaries focused on the story’s consequences. Whereas

some critics have used early reviewers’ supposed misreadings as a
springboard for late twentieth-century critical practices, I would
like to consider whether recent critical practices might instead

help to shed light on the interpretive context-both literary and
medical-of Gilman’s readers. For as I will explain, Gilman’s
historical moment is marked by the incursion of the literary into
the medical, within the nascent discourse of psychotherapeutics.

To frame the discrepant reactions of Gilman’s twentieth and

nineteenth century readers, it is instructive to return to the scene
in Regeneration (in which the mute soldier is shocked into

speech), for the two doctors’ contrasting modes of treatment
dramatize the disparities between two approaches to nervous
ailments at the turn of the century. These approaches diverged

most significantly in how they articulated the role of human
expression, both within the doctor-patient encounter, and in the
context of theories of health and disease. It is difficult for a post-

Freudian reader to perceive the use of electricity by the character
Dr. Yealland, or his indifference to the content of his patient’s
speech, as legitimate medicine, much less recognize his emphasis

Jane E Thrailkill 527

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

on effects as providing a conceptual matrix for approaching a text.
And yet Yealland’s treatment is not reducible to simple sadism;

rather, it can be traced to the somatic paradigm regnant in Europe
and the United States at the turn of the century. Many neurolo-
gists, physiologists, and even those working in the emergent field
of psychology theorized corporeal malfunctions, including afflic-
tions produced by nervous shock, to have a physiological seat.
When a nervous patient became inexplicably mute, the doctor
focused on the mechanics of the body to restore speech. Posi-
tioned in opposition to the physiological position, the psychoana-

lytically influenced character Dr. Rivers perceives even the most
strikingly corporeal disability-a patient’s uncontrolled vomiting,
say-to be a meaning-bearing sign that, along with a patient’s
verbal representations, the physician must mine for significance.
The narrative he produces, then, is understood to be at once
diagnostic and therapeutic.”

In this article I wish, like other feminist critics, to take seriously
Gilman’s own claim that “the real purpose of the story was to reach
Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways.”‘2

I diverge from these critics, however, in arguing that Gilman
thought Mitchell’s error inhered not in his semiotics, which were
underwritten by his physiological theories about nervous disease
(and which Gilman shared), but in Mitchell’s extension of the
category of gender beyond a few circumscribed anatomical differ-
ences to a woman’s health, capacity, and cultural role more broadly
construed. In fact, scholars who discern an &criture fdminine in
Gilman’s text, who locate and celebrate gender distinctions in an
extra-corporeal domain of female production, replicate Mitchell’s
commitment to mapping the world in terms of gender differences
despite the strenuous objections of Gilman herself that “there is

no female mind. . . . As well we might speak of a female liver.”13 I
also differ from earlier feminist readings in taking seriously
Gilman’s own claim that her text had a “purpose.” I argue that
recent critics have not only reprised Mitchell’s gendered logic,
they have also subscribed (somewhat paradoxically) to the semiotics
of psychoanalysis insofar as they privilege subtext over text,
symbolic meanings over stated intentions, and sex over every-
thing-even over Gilman’s explicit feminist commitment to

decoupling sex from the issue of women’s work. (The housewife,
she believed, traded sex for food, an abhorrent arrangement that
made all women’s domestic work a form of prostitution.)14

528 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

In the first section, I examine the role of words in the healing
process, as theorized by Mitchell and early Freud, to reveal the
intellectual underpinnings of the well-established tendency among
both mainstream and more radical healers to discount the seman-

tic content of patients’ speech, while taking self-expression seri-
ously as a physiological function. In sections two and three, I
examine Mitchell’s writings in light of Gilman’s belief that the

nineteenth-century home produced artificial gender distinctions
between men’s and women’s bodies and minds. Gilman’s idea that

the domesticated wife is basically a victim of household rather
than battlefield carnage-a notion she expresses in “The Yellow
Wallpaper”-recovers the historical and conceptual roots of
Mitchell’s approach to nervous disease: male bodies damaged in
the Civil War. The intended effect of Gilman’s short story, then,
was to provide verbal “shock therapy” for proponents of the rest

cure in order to bring about an amendment to the treatment: the
inclusion of vigorous exercise and intellectual work once the

patient had sufficiently recuperated, elements Mitchell prescribed
for nervous men but proscribed for nervous women.

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” in other words, does not document the
difference between a feminine and a masculine epistemology.

Rather, the text makes an appeal for a sex-neutral medical model,
engaging the reader (as Mitchell did his patients) at the somatic
level. In the final section, however, I argue that because of
Gilman’s commitment to be shocking-to producing a text with a
purpose, one that doesn’t so much convey an idea as it does
catalyze action-the story extends its own physiological logic to
the breaking point, producing within itself an alternative way of
understanding nervous disease that would come to be codified as
psychoanalysis, and which would understand hysteria as an essen-
tially textual rather than corporeal malady. Rather than privilege
“the second muted text” over the dominant text, I conclude that
“The Yellow Wallpaper” both thematized and helped to effect the
move from a materialist paradigm of mental states to a proto-
psychoanalytic one. This shift, which unfolds across the text,

involved a deceptively simple epistemological reorientation, from
looking at a patient’s body to listening to the patient’s story.’5
Understanding how the story’s formal features interact with its
competing medical epistemologies helps to situate more precisely
the novel premise of much recent scholarship on Gilman’s tale:
that arduous interpretive work by a skilled expert possessed

Jane E Thrailkill 529

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

curative power. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I conclude, both occa-
sioned and seemed to sanction a certain approach to literary texts.
Whereas Freud came to believe that medicine might draw on the

techniques of literary analysis, “The Yellow Wallpaper” has irresist-
ibly solicited literary critics to “doctor” the text: to imagine that
their readings possessed not just literary/historical significance but
also therapeutic efficacy.


As historian of science Eric Caplan has written, the emergence
of a scientific medicine in the mid-nineteenth century helped to
disassemble the more integrated approach to health and disease of
an earlier “holistic medical paradigm,” which posited a “corre-

spondence between mind and body on the one hand, and environ-
ment and health, on the other.”’16 With the advent of the new
disciplines of physiology, bacteriology, and cellular pathology in
the second half of the century, diseases once explicable primarily
in terms of a patient’s character traits, personal history, or social
circumstances, became instead firmly rooted in the physical body
and meliorable in purely somatic terms.17 Caplan writes, “somati-
cally inclined physicians devoted an unprecedented amount of
attention to the psychical symptoms of those for whom there

existed no clearly discernible anatomical or organic irregularities….
[P]sychical factors came to be regarded merely as the products of
certain yet-to-be determined neurophysiological processes.”’18 By
the turn of the century, however, nervous disease became a class of
disorder that required not just a new discipline (psychology) to
investigate its particular conundra, but a new body of knowledge
and epistemological orientation to produce meaningful diagnoses
and new methods to effect cures. Poised not on somatic symptoms

as such but on narrative representations of traumatic events from

a person’s life, this new mode of knowing would have at its
problematic center the patient’s story.

Despite Mitchell’s thorough case studies of patients, in which
some have discerned the biographical elements of Freud’s case

histories, his interest was in neurology rather than psychology. 19
His inquiries into family background, which might appear to lend
weight to a patient’s narrative of her sickness, actually sought to
ascertain any hereditary predisposition to nervous illness.20 In his
Clinical Lessons on Nervous Diseases (1897), Mitchell narrated in
meticulous physical detail one nervous patient’s inexplicable in-

530 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

ability to control the movement of her limbs, which became
increasingly rigid and contorted. What impressed the physician
the most about this patient was that, despite her physical degrada-
tion (covered with abscesses, she was unable to move, speak, hear,
eat, or control her bowels), she “learned to write and draw
beautifully with pen and pencil in her mouth.””‘ Unulsual for a
Mitchell text, this case study contains a picture of the girl herself,
poised over a piece of paper with fountain pen in her lips, as well
as facsimiles of her handwriting drawn from her personal corre-

The girl’s words are thus preserved in Mitchell’s medical

narrative, though purely as evidence of a rare compensatory motor
skill; the content of her writing goes without remark. One enig-
matic excerpt from a letter she wrote reads as follows: “He doesn’t

seem to be able to catch rabbits, or at least to keep them in the
traps; one rabbit left its toe in the trap, another its tail, and another

pulled its leg clear off getting away. I am getting better faster now
than I have for a long time; I can move one of my thumbs when”
[the writing apparently continues outside the frame of the im-
age].22 Mitchell’s complete lack of interest in the girl’s words, much
less in interpreting what light they might shed on her grotesque,
inexplicable symptoms, is particularly striking given the parallels
between the girl’s malady, which involved the slow loss of function
in all her limbs, and the amputation of the rabbits’ appendages
(feminist critics would later argue that hysteria itself served as a

“mock escape by self-mutilation”).23 That the girl’s body was,
without any somatic damage, in almost total rebellion from even
the most basic capacities of sight, movement, or digestion, Mitchell
accepted as a function of her disease. Such symptoms required

physical interventions to remove them; etiological explanations
had no therapeutic role to play in such cases.24 Significantly, he
concludes the case study not with the images of his patient’s words,
but with two pictures of her emaciated naked body (her face
discreetly out of the frame), one taken with her legs horribly
twisted and contorted, the second taken following surgery and
treatment with weights, which succeeded in straightening the girl’s
limbs and restoring limited mobility.

Mitchell, in his willingness to persist for years with cases others

had given up on, became immensely popular and influential, and
patients flocked to his practice from around the world. Like the

legendary scientist of hysteria Jean-Martin Charcot, whom Mitchell

Jane E Thrailkill 531

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

met during a Parisian sojourn, Mitchell himself was clear that the
efficacy of his cure lay in its treatment of a patient’s material body,
not in what we might now term the psychological effects of

isolation or of his own charismatic presence. (In a 1908 article in
the Journal of the American Medical Association, Mitchell derided
those “psychopaths” who believed “the chief value of [his] treat-
ment lay in its psychotherapy.”)25 Mitchell’s own lack of interest in
a patient’s assessment of her condition is completely consistent
with his physiological perspective; he trusted instead his own
expertise and powers of observation. Why would one consult a
layperson’s opinion about complex neurological questions? Or ask

a desperately sick girl to explain why she chose to write about self-
mutilating rabbits? Indeed, Mitchell ascribed to the received
wisdom of neurologists, believing that “too morbid attention
riveted to her many symptoms” to be a contributing factor in the
progress of nervous disease.26 With this in mind, it is possible to
recontextualize Mitchell’s indifference to Gilman’s letter to him

detailing her condition. Far from uneasy about the relationship
between body and mind, Mitchell conceived the mind to be yet
another point of ingress to a person’s physical substance, as
susceptible to emotional shocks as the mucus membranes were to

germs. In both cases, one addressed the cure to the afflicted body,
for as Mitchell noted, “The hysteria is lost with years . . . the
consequences and additions [to the body’s anatomical structure]

The influence of the somatic paradigm, and indeed Mitchell
himself, is evident in the early writings of Sigmund Freud.28 In
Studies on Hysteria, Freud writes of his treatment of Frau Emmy
von N., who had a tendency to describe early childhood experi-
ences when under hypnosis. Likening his technique to surgery,
Freud found hypnosis a useful tool because, like chloroform, it
placed the patient in a receptive state for probing and treatment,
allowing Freud to catch glimpses of the pathogenic objects-
certain memories and ideas-and then to focus his therapy on
extracting them.29 When Frau Emmy entered a memory state in
which she fretted about the health of her child, Freud “inter-
rupted her here and pointed out to her that this same child was to-

day a normal girl and in the bloom of health, and [he] made it
impossible for her to see any of these melancholy things again” (S,
60-61). When Frau Emmy complained of seeing mice, Freud
“said that these were hallucinations and told her not to be

532 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

frightened of mice; it was only drunkards who saw them (she
disliked drunkards intensely)” (S, 73). (In a similar vein, Mitchell
recorded the case of a self-starving woman who started eating
“when told that being thin and wasted she was ugly.”)30

While Mitchell acknowledged that “in certain cases of hysteria,
insomnia, aphonia, bed cases, [and] simulation of paralysis, a
command, an order will sometimes produce abrupt results,” he
was extremely skeptical about the permanence of such word-
instilled cures. Further, he maintained that he had “seen some
rather appalling results from hypnotism,” although in the context
of a medical article he declined to go into detail.3′ Although
Freud’s earliest assays into hypnotic cure shared the technique of

suggestion with the mind-cure movement, his scientific commit-
ments forced him to confront the inefficacy of his attempts to
erase the memories and images that beleaguered his patients

(Freud was, by his own account, a remarkably poor practitioner of
hypnosis). When Emmy von N.’s symptoms reappeared, and she
complained of Freud’s tendency to interrupt her discourse, a
resigned-sounding Freud recorded her injunction for him to be
quiet and “let her tell me what she had to say” (S, 63). Following
her lead, Freud departed from the interrogative approach of an
empiricist and adopted the far more time consuming method that
would come to distinguish psychoanalysis from both the authorita-
tive rest cure and the more subversive mind cure: “I now saw that

… I cannot evade listening to her stories in every detail to the very
end” (S,61). To his astonishment, Freud found that the verbal
recovery of a traumatic event, when accompanied by the intense
emotions adequate to the trauma, allowed the accompanying
hysterical symptoms to be (in Breuer’s words) “talked away” (S,
37). A previously “strangulated affect” might “find a way out
through speech” (S, 17) rather than finding expression in disabling
physical symptoms: this was the heart of the cathartic treatment

developed by Breuer and Freud.
That a patient’s seemingly irrelevant stories might provide

etiological clues and even possess salutary power was, as Freud
immodestly claimed in later writings, novel to psychoanalysis: “No
one had ever cured an hysterical symptom by such means before,
or had come so near to understanding its cause.”32 Urging the
patient “to reproduce the story of her illness” (S, 138), he found in
the case of Emmy von N., “Her remarkably well-stocked memory
showed the most striking gaps. She herself complained that it was

Jane E Thrailkill 533

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

as though her life was chopped in pieces” (S, 70n). Most remark-
able of all was the fact that a patient’s body appeared to fill the
“gap” that her conscious memory couldn’t recover; as Freud writes
of Fraulein Elisabeth von R., “her painful legs began to ‘join in the
conversation’ during our analysis” (S, 148). Physiology, that is,
became the discursive handmaiden of psychology. Aware that he

might be accused of “laying too much emphasis on the details of
the symptoms and of becoming lost in an unnecessary maze of
sign-reading,” Freud nonetheless asserted that interpretation-of

corporeal symptoms as well as verbal expression-lay at the heart
of both diagnosis and cure. “[I]t is difficult,” he maintained, “to
attribute too much sense . . . to these details” (S, 93). As Janet
Malcolm has written, “it isn’t the story [the patient] tries to tell but
the story he tells in spite of himself that the analyst listens for.
What he is really after is the story behind the story.”33

The tendency of feminist critics to approach “The Yellow
Wallpaper” as a layered text demanding meticulous-even strenu-
ous-critical attention in order to discern its subversive subtext

therefore reprises the analytic approach Freud was developing in
his embryonic practice. “This procedure,” he writes,

Was one of clearing away the pathogenic psychical material layer
by layer, and we liked to compare it with the technique of
excavating a buried city. I would begin by getting the patient to
tell me what was known to her and I would carefully note the
points at which some train of thought remained obscure or some

link in the causal chain seemed to be missing. And afterwards I
would penetrate into deeper layers of her memories at these

points by carrying out an investigation under hypnosis or by the
use of some similar technique. (S, 139)

As is clear from Studies on Hysteria, in early psychoanalysis the
role of the doctor in treating nervous diseases underwent a
remarkable transformation. Epistemologically, there was a dra-
matic shift from the sometimes spectacular details of a patient’s
physical symptoms (apparent in Charcot’s use of the amphitheater

to demonstrate grande hysterie, as well as in Mitchell’s only
slightly tamer case studies) to the content of her speech. Whereas
once he looked, now the doctor listened.

This analytic listening was, judging from Freud’s frequently
burdened reports, immensely arduous: “The task on which I now
embarked turned out, however, to be one of the hardest I had ever

534 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

undertaken, and the difficulty of giving a report upon it is
comparable, moreover, with the difficulties that I had then to
overcome” (S, 138). The difficulty of analysis, of tracing out the
connection between symptom and source in a patient’s experience,

was for Freud commensurate (or even identical) to the difficulty of
producing a coherent narrative of his course of treatment. In
Studies, Freud records the birth pangs attendant on the new
medical genre that sprang from his therapeutic approach, the case
history. Because of its unfamiliarity to science, Freud offers an
apology for this new form:

I have not always been a psychotherapist … and it still strikes me
myself as strange that the case histories I write should read like

short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious
stamp of science. . . . Case histories . . . have, however . . . an
intimate connection between the story of the patient’s sufferings
and the symptoms of his illness. (S, 160-61)

Narrative, that is, mediated between a patient’s corporeal condi-
tion and the afflictions of her mind. In the introduction to

Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905), Freud’s
famous study of “Dora,” Freud maintained that his piecemeal
approach to case narrative placed the reader in the same situation

of the “medical observer” when he took on a new patient, for “[i]t

is only towards the end of the treatment that we have before us an
intelligible, consistent, and unbroken case history.”34 Relief of a
patient’s symptoms and restoration of her damaged memory are
achieved through the process of interpretation that establishes a

coherent narrative. “The two aims are coincident,” Freud writes.

“When one is reached, so is the other; and the same path leads to
them both.”35 These elaborate, detailed, even unwieldy represen-
tations would become the point of connection between body and
biography, between the physiological and the psychological-and
between doctor and patient.

Studies nonetheless refutes an easy, linear progression from
physiology to psychology, for even as Freud became increasingly
convinced of the centrality of storytelling to the therapeutic
encounter, he retained his links to Mitchell and the physiological
approach to hysteria. He frequently isolated his patients from their
families, sending them to calmer therapeutic settings where he
could see them multiple times per day. Against Emmy von N.’s
better judgment, he decided to embark with her on a course of

Jane E Thrailkill 535

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

fattening. He continued to theorize the etiology of nervous disease
in physical terms, in which a traumatic event, producing a psychic
wound analogous to inflamed tissue, required that the sufferer
expend a certain quota of bottled affect to relieve distress-a

therapeutic act that Freud imagined along the lines of lancing a
boil.36 Psychoanalysis, he continued to insist, was a medical proce-
dure akin to surgery in its ability to produce tangible effects that
were not mere words, but written in the lingua franca of the
patient’s healed or healing body.


Much has been written on the apparent epidemic of nervous-

ness during the second half of the nineteenth century. “I am
nervous. I did not used to be. What can I do to overcome it?” was,
Mitchell reported, a question on the lips of a vast number of
Americans.37 Although the narrator of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-
paper” is her most renowned portrait of this distinctive nine-

teenth-century figure, nervous women and men show up repeat-
edly in Gilman’s fiction.38 In “Dr. Clair’s Place” (1915), for instance,
a suicidal woman is advised to seek the help of a woman doctor
“who is profoundly interested in neurasthenia-melancholia-all
that sort of thing.” In this utopian vision of the perfect medical
treatment, the patient travels to Dr. Clair’s isolated mountain

retreat, agrees to “do anything she said,” is “put through an
elaborate course of bathing, shampoo, and massage, and finally put
to bed, in that quiet fragrant rosy room.” In slow stages the
patient’s body is “made as strong as might be” and her “worn-out
nerves” are restored with “sleep-sleep-sleep.'”39 Once the pa-
tient reclaims an increment of energy, the doctor then tests out a

series of treatments, focusing in particular on how the body of the
patient responds to different foods and to her physical surround-

To this point, the treatment Gilman portrays is practically
identical to the rest cure that Mitchell developed and which met

with acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. The key elements of the
treatment were isolation, complete physical rest, a rich diet of
creamy foods, massage, and electrical stimulation of disused
muscles, and complete submission to the authority of the attend-
ing physician. All physical and intellectual activity was prohibited.
A patient was lifted out of her own social and familial milieu and

transported to a neutral environment tended only by a nurse and

536 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

her doctor. Underlying Mitchell’s approach was the commitment
to the physiological relationship between the mind and the body,
where worries and burdens could precipitate “a speedy loss of
blood globules.” “[T]he defects of the body,” Mitchell explained,
“have to do with those of the mind, [hence] the need to begin by
building up the body anew.”40

Mitchell, however, possessed no background in women’s dis-
eases; instead, his work as a young physician with the damaged
bodies of soldiers during the Civil War primed him to take
seriously maladies of the nerves dismissed by the medical commu-
nity. Hysteria in particular had presented a profound challenge for
doctors, since its symptoms consisted of “strange and multiform
phenomena”-including local paralysis or anesthesia, fainting,
tunnel vision, and trance-like spells-that mimicked the features
of other diseases while possessing no discernible organic basis. As
a contract surgeon for the Union army, however, Mitchell had
discovered an equally astonishing set of symptoms among men
suffering from injuries to the nerves, both direct (as in a gunshot
wound) and indirect (as in paralyzing homesickness or what he
termed nostalgia). The soldier with wounded nerves often became

“hysterical, if we may use the only term which covers the facts. He
walks carefully, carries the limb tenderly with the sound hand, is
tremulous, nervous.”41 In these cases, the normal laws of physiol-
ogy appeared inapplicable: a wound to the neck might render a
man’s arm immobile, cause a limb to atrophy, produce a shiny red
gloss to the skin of the hands, or cause terrible contortions,
twisting a man’s body into a grisly human pretzel. (When the shape
of the limb seemed unusually interesting, Mitchell would have a
plaster cast of it sent to the Army Medical Museum.) Perhaps most
bizarre was phantom limb syndrome, the experience of sensation
or pain in a limb that had been amputated.

Rather than reject the somatic paradigm, which traced all
physical symptoms to some organic lesion, Mitchell and his
colleagues used the findings from the Hospital for Nervous

Diseases to expand it. Likening nerve force to an electrical
current, they hypothesized that a person’s nervous function could
be affected without necessarily leaving any pathological traces in
the tissue itself. A traumatic shock caused a short in the circuit,

generating a variety of far-flung symptoms. “Reflecting then upon
the close correlation of the electrical and neural force,” they write,

Jane E Thrailkill 537

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

it does not seem improbable that a violent excitement of a nerve

trunk should be able to exhaust completely the power of its
connected nerve centre. … [T]he condition called shock is of the

nature of a paralysis from exhaustion of nerve force … [that] may
be so severe as to give rise in certain cases to permanent central

nerve changes, productive of paralysis of sensation and motion, or

either alone.42

By hypothesizing nervous force to be as real and yet as immaterial
an entity as electricity, Mitchell conceived that a person might
suffer a functional injury that, in depleting or overtaxing the
nervous circuit, produced symptoms as substantive and potentially
irreversible as any visible wound. Fellow neurologist George
Beard, writing of a new clinical entity he dubbed neurasthenia,
was optimistic that the source of the disease’s wide array of
symptoms-fatigue, paralysis, irrational fears, palsy, insomnia-
would “in time be substantially confirmed by microscopical and
chemical examinations of those patients who die in a neurasthenic

condition.”43 In the meantime, restoration of function was the goal:

limbs were splinted into position, feeling restored with electricity,
muscles rejuvenated with massage.

A model of disease articulated through experience with male

bodies, then, underwrote Mitchell’s postwar treatment of his
affluent female clientele.44 That domestic struggles debilitated
some women as if they were battlefield skirmishes was not
unreasonable to Mitchell; well before Gilman advanced her own
critique of the draining effects of unsystematized housework,
Mitchell took seriously the exhaustion inherent in the home. He
attributed many nervous disorders to “the daily fret and weari-
someness of lives which, passing out of maidenhood, lack those
distinct purposes and aims which, in the lives of men, are like the
steadying influence of the fly-wheel in an engine.” Mitchell
criticized American household arrangements, which included such
physical strains as “furnace-warmed houses, hasty meals, bad
cooking, or neglect of exercise.”45 Mitchell observed in his nervous
patients that even simple, normally habitual actions of the body,
such as rising to a sitting position or raising a teacup to the lips,
required a tremendous amount of thought and conscious will to

execute. Yet, because of their physical depletion, his women
patients had no nervous reserves for such an energetic “tax.”

Rather than confront the exhausting prospect of rising, the ner-
vous woman kept to her bed.46

538 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

Yet domestic pathology was not limited to the individual suf-
ferer: “the [invalid] woman,” warns Mitchell, “who wears out and
destroys generations of nursing relatives … is like a vampire,
sucking slowly the blood of every healthy, helpful creature within
reach of her demands.”47 Although clearly pejorative, the image of
the female vampire was not exactly metaphorical. Nervous women,
Mitchell observed, tended to be frail and anemic; embellishing the
image of the vampiratic woman, Mitchell ominously reported, “I
have seen an hysterical, anemic girl kill in this way three genera-
tions of nurses.”48 The title of his popular tract published in 1877

supplied the remedy: Fat and Blood. This book was subsequently
translated into five languages (and was favorably reviewed by

The rest cure proceeded, then, along two lines. First, the
physician treated the physical body through a strict, iron-rich
feeding schedule and a regimen of strengthening therapies. To
reverse the depleting effects of a hectic domestic environment, he
also transported a patient “from a restless life of irregular hours …
to an atmosphere of quiet, to order and control, to the system of
care of a thorough nurse.”49 Coupled with isolation, the rich diet
fortified a woman’s nervous reserves by adding flesh and enriching
her blood, while massage and electricity provided “exercise with-
out exertion” to preserve a patient’s muscle tone until she could

safely exercise on her own. Second, the exclusive authority of the
physician provided the patient with willpower (the doctor’s) with-
out any expenditure of her own mental resources, during which
time her mind and body were retrained to more efficiently bear
the burden of her domestic functions. Uninterested in the psycho-

logical power of suggestion, Mitchell’s medical logic operated by
simple analogy to other physiological processes; just as a crutch
provided temporary mobility while a broken bone knit, so the
physician’s decisive authority supplied temporary willpower while
a patient’s own capacity for self-control was on the mend.50

When twentieth-century critics have pointed to Mitchell’s obvi-
ous infantilization of his women patients as misogynistic, they
wrest his therapy from its historical and theoretical context. More
to the point, however, they overlook the fact that many of his
patients were in contact with him precisely because of the extrem-
ity of the symptoms that predated their contact with the neurolo-
gist.51 Stripped not by her physician but by her illness of the
habitual functions built up from infancy, the hysteric’s circum-

Jane E Thrailkill 539

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

scribed capacities rendered her physiologically analogous to that
earlier state; such an unfortunate regression “necessitated,” Mitchell
wrote, “an entire re-education.”52 The physician’s orders bolstered
the patient’s will, while the desired physical habit-in this case, the
power to use the legs-was reinforced through repetition (“by a
series of trained and aided efforts, there may be won, bit by bit, a
full power of motion”). This patient was slowly trained to move up
the phylogenetic ladder, from a mute, mollusk-like state, to
“quadruped” capable of “creeping,” to fully functioning woman.53
Infantilization was often a symptom of nervous disease, but was
not for Mitchell a therapeutic end; the point of the rest cure was to
restore a woman to adulthood.


Until recently, critics writing about Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-
paper” have tended to emphasize her feminist impulses and to

disregard the theories of human physiology that undergirded her
calls for social reform of the home and the professions.54 Yet her

ideas about the human brain, in particular, are crucial to any
understanding of Gilman’s critique of domestic arrangements.
They also reveal a deep compatibility between her ideas about
nervous disease and those of Mitchell. Like the neurologist,
Gilman believed that the distinctive contours of the nineteenth-

century household produced a damaged organ prone to nervous
disease. It is notable in Gilman’s writings that she used the terms

“brain” and “mind” interchangeably; because the human brain was
composed of “[t]he softest, freest, most pliable and changeful
living substance,” one’s environment physically shaped one’s state
of mind.55 Whereas a man of business tended to hone a single set
of specialized skills, the housewife was called on to live “a
patchwork life,” performing multiple tasks in wearying redun-
dancy. “To the delicately differentiated modern brain the jar and
shock of changing from trade to trade a dozen times a day is a
distinct injury, a waste of nervous force,” Gilman wrote in Women
and Economics. The conditions of the housewife, that is, injure the
mind: “She has to adjust, disadjust, and readjust her mental focus

a thousand times a day; … to live at all, she must develop a kind
of mind that does not object to discord.” In turn, the addled mind
of the housewife displayed its confusion in the very decorations of
the house: “The bottled discord of the woman’s daily occupations
is quite sufficient to account for the explosions of discord on her

540 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

walls and floors. She continually has to do utterly inharmonious
things … perform[ing] all at once and in the same place the most
irreconcilable processes.” So while “it is true that the brain is not a

sex-distinction; either of man or woman,” Gilman maintained “it is
also true that as an organ developed by use it is distinctly modified
by the special activities of the user.'”56

In her analysis of nervous exhaustion, then, Gilman sounds
uncannily like Mitchell. Even his evolutionary metaphors of recu-
peration are echoed in Gilman’s work: “Women,” she wrote, “are
undeveloped human beings, that is what ails them; and their
brains are more severely affected than their bodies.” Gilman was
similarly optimistic about physically training an ill mind to healthier
habits, proclaiming “[j]ust as one screws and makes adjustments in
a machine, one may reset one’s mind, and train it to better action.”
Echoing Mitchell, Gilman explained, “We have a certain storage of
nerve force, with which we can drive ourselves …. We act, in all
those established lines we call habits, without loss of energy. …
For the conscious mind to compel the body to do what it has no
inherited desire or acquired habit of doing, is a direct expense.””57
And just as Mitchell suggested that “[n]othing is a better ally
against nervousness or irritability in any one than either out-door
exercise or pretty violent use of the muscles,” so Gilman, after her
repeated bouts of nervous prostration, turned to the gymnasium to

restore her vigor.58 So while twentieth-century critics have almost
universally read the wallpaper in Gilman’s famous short story as
symbolic of the narrator’s psychological state, a more thorough

reading of Gilman’s own oeuvre sharply indicates that she con-
ceived of the connection between environment and the body-
even between home furnishings and one’s state of mind-in

physiological, rather than psychological, terms.

Further, Gilman’s reformist writings recover the history of
Mitchell’s own ideas about nervous disease by making explicit the
connection between the bodies of soldiers and the nerves of

women. If women are flighty and mercurial, it is because “[t]he
daughter of a soldier inherits her father’s pride and courage, and
also the centuries of … cowardice of her mother.”59 Diverting a
young woman’s ambitious “energies for conquest” onto “the con-
quest of a man,” domestic training artificially instills “discreet
submission to domestic life.” Within this environment, the plastic

body and mind of the girl adapt by becoming “smaller and
softer”-“And then we blame woman for extravagance indeed! We

Jane E Thrailkill 541

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

dress in their armor, their tools, their weapons of defense and
offense-their battlefield, their indirect means of subsistence”
(“E,” 30). Married life (the conquest of a man), only exacerbates
her embattled state, plunging her into a home that, for Gilman, is
itself a war zone. Martial metaphors are peppered throughout The

Home, which describes the “tranquil” home as a series of breached

First there is the bulwark aforesaid, the servant, trained to protect
a place called private … Back of this comes a whole series of

entrenchments-the reception room, to delay the attack while
the occupant hastily assumes defensive armour; the parlour or
drawing room, wherein we may hold the enemy in play, [and]
cover the retreat of non-combatants … the armour above

mentioned … and then all the weapons crudely described in
rural regions as ‘company manners,’ our whole system of defence
and attack.60

Although Gilman’s tone here is irreverent, she was deadly serious in
casting the wife as a domestic warrior whose strained nerves were
identical to those Mitchell had encountered on the field of battle.

Gilman drives home this point in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by
exposing the traces of conflict inscribed in the rented house: “the
floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is
dug out here and there, and this great heavy bed, which is all we
found in the room, looks as if it had been through the wars” (“Y,”
43). The wallpaper’s images of carnage assert the connection
between the domestic sphere and the discord of war: “the pattern

lolls like a broken neck, and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside
down” (“Y,” 42). Figures in the paper “go waddling up and down in
isolated columns of fatuity” (“Y,” 44), while the images appear to
stage ambushes: “It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and
tramples you” (“Y,” 47). These distorted figures are not merely
metaphors for twisted minds and deformed bodies, however; they
are catalysts. Just as war “makes” deformed, hysterical men, so the

domestic environment materially constitutes women’s minds and
bodies; the narrator, then, is literally correct when she sees her
mental processes in the wallpaper’s figures. In a public lecture,
Gilman echoed “The Yellow Wallpaper” in syntax, metaphor, and
meaning when she warned, “our whole race reels to the founda-
tion, totters and gropes and staggers blindly, because of this
implied discord of our own making” (“E,” 22).

542 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

Much has been made of the narrator’s husband’s proscription of

writing in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Mitchell’s advice to Gilman
that she refrain from written expression. In fact, Gilman writes
that she suffered from neurasthenia her entire life, and as Tom
Lutz has pointed out, it was Gilman’s exhaustion, rather than her
husband’s proscription, that kept her from putting pen to paper
during the early years of her marriage.6′ Gilman’s journal is riddled
with entries describing her utter lassitude and her husband’s
diligent house cleaning, baby tending, and wife nursing during her
malaise. “I was so weak,” she recounted later in her autobiography,
“that the knife and fork sank from my hands-too tired to eat. I
could not read nor write nor paint nor sew nor talk nor listen to

talking, nor anything. . . . To the spirit it was as if one were an
armless, legless, eyeless, voiceless cripple.” Employing Mitchell’s
economic terms, she asserts, “the effects of nerve bankruptcy
remain to this day.” Simply put, Gilman herself provided no
evidence to indicate that “Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Literary
Escape from S. Weir Mitchell’s Fictionalization of Women” pro-

vided her with lasting good health.62
The term “fictionalization of women,” however, does provide a

good index for Gilman’s central point of disagreement with Mitchell:
his commitment to the fiction of gender difference. Although he
believed that prepubescent boys and girls had commensurate

vitality, Mitchell theorized that puberty and reproduction put an
enormous strain on girls, making them less able to sustain pro-
longed study, intellectual labor, or vigorous exercise. “[T]he grave
significance of sexual difference controls the whole question,” he

wrote, concluding that “woman … is physiologically other than
man.”63 Gilman, by contrast, was adamant that “we should be human,
not feminine” (“E,” 34). Gilman agreed that women’s bodies
announced their differentiation from men, but whereas Mitchell saw

these traits (usually weaknesses) as natural and sought to restore
nervous women for their domestic role, Gilman saw them as artificial
(akin to the contorted limbs of Mitchell’s Civil War soldiers), created

by the domestic role. “Now I want you all to look at your own hand,”
she exhorted her audience. “If that hand was seen, alone, all the rest

hidden, what would anyone instantly pronounce it? A feminine
hand! Did any of you ever hear of a feminine hoof? Or a feminine
paw?” (“E,” 24). Generations of domestication had made women
smaller and weaker; now, it was up to society to reverse this
process and restore natural homogeneity between men and women.

Jane E Thrailkill 543

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

Gilman’s suggestions for social uplift for women had then a
crucial physiological impulse. As she expressed in “Dr. Clair’s Place,”

the way to decouple the connection between women and nervous
depletion was first to restore a woman’s vitality and then-her central
variation on Mitchell’s rest cure-to prescribe productive work. The

invalid in the story had exacerbated her nervous condition by her
“clear and prolonged self-study” of her symptoms, a focus that Gilman
viewed as “a diseased condition; most extreme in the megalomaniacs,
and in those writers of intimate personal confessions.””64 The narra-
tor of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” then, becomes unhinged when her
writing can no longer be construed as work but instead becomes
(to use Gilman’s own term) “excretion.” It is precisely the narrator’s
turning inward, away from the more detached observation of her
physical environment, that forms the point of entry into the textual
space designated (and indeed privileged) by some feminist critics
as the “subtext.” For Gilman, who denigrated in her autobiography
what she saw as the “infantile delight in ‘self-expression”‘ that

characterized her age, the narrator’s intensely subjective self-
absorption is not just morbid, but actively pathological.65

Dr. Clair, by contrast, turns her patient’s pathogenic “self-study”
into productive work. Once the invalid’s energy is enhanced
through massage and delicious food, the doctor begins to solicit
her observations in order to isolate which environmental elements
(e.g. certain colors or smells) helped relieve her various symptoms.
Absorbing her physician’s epistemological stance, the patient her-
self becomes “more and more objective, more as if it were
someone else who was suffering, and not myself.”66 The story ends
with the convergence of cure and denouement, but in a form that
would have been unimaginable to either Mitchell or Freud: in
Gilman’s tale, the patient joins the physician’s staff. No longer a
professional invalid, the former patient becomes a professional

who specializes in invalids.67 (Indeed, many of Gilman’s stories
conclude with a woman in medical, financial, or marital trouble

solving her difficulties by acquiring a career.) An explicitly didactic
portrait of good medicine, the story could be construed as the
deepening and extension of the somatic paradigm, in which habits
of mind and body make us who we are. In this regard, “Dr. Claire’s
Place” reverses the trajectory of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by
moving the nervous woman from agonizing self-scrutiny (i.e. an
obsession with the psychological) to dispassionate empiricism (i.e.
an emphasis on the physiological).

544 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

“A writer can no longer expect to be received on the ground of

entertainment only,” wrote William Dean Howells; “he assumes a
higher function, something like that of a physician or a priest …
bound by laws as sacred as those of such professions.” The
physician that Gilman emulated in “The Yellow Wallpaper” was, I
would argue, Mitchell himself, who employed electricity to stimu-
late a patient’s disused muscles (and who was reported to have

once shocked a neurasthenic patient out of bed by offering to hop
in with her). Gilman’s tale was explicitly crafted as a form of shock
therapy, a catalyst to social change via corporeal reform. “If I can
learn to write good stories,” she once wrote, “it will be a powerful

addition to my armory.” Gilman was clear that “the story was
meant to be dreadful,” and nineteenth-century readers indeed
gave it their “startled attention.”68 Intensely aware of the tale’s
somatic effects, a number viewed it-not inappropriately-as a

cautionary tale pointing up the dangers of tasteless home decorat-
ing.69 For Gilman, however, that was just half the story: the other
piece, portrayed in “Dr. Clair’s Place,” involved the inclusion of
salutary professionalized work once a nervous woman had suffi-
ciently begun to recharge her energetic battery. Such work could
quite literally re-form persons by changing not just their minds but
their bodies, and it had an uplifting effect on the world, something
that Gilman claimed for “The Yellow Wallpaper.” For, as she
ecstatically declared, “My brain is to see and teach. I do this by
voice and pen.”70


Contrary to critics who construe “The Yellow Wallpaper” in
gendered, polemical terms, I would argue that for the first half of
the story, the narrator in fact emulates Mitchell’s physiological
thinking in her scrutiny of the wallpaper.71 Assaulted by its
confusing design, the narrator, like the recuperating patient in
“Dr. Clair’s Place,” initially sets herself up as an experimentalist,
with the diagnostic task of “follow[ing] that pointless pattern to
some sort of conclusion” (“Y,” 44). In casting the narrator as a
diagnostician who experiences both fascination and disgust with

the wallpaper-cum-patient, Gilman shrewdly captures the sense in
which nervous maladies constituted a thorn in the side of the

medical establishment. As one historian has written, “For twenty-
five centuries, hysteria had been considered a strange disease with
incoherent and incomprehensible symptoms.” Carol Smith-

Jane E Thrailkill 545

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

Rosenberg has argued that doctors’ “resentment [of hysterical
women] seems rooted in two factors: first, the baffling and elusive
nature of hysteria itself, and, second, … [the fact that hysterical]
patients did not function as women were expected to function.”
Hysterical behavior was, in other words, both fickle and threaten-
ing. One researcher captured the outrageous elements of the
illness when he wrote in 1867 that hysterics “manifest themselves

by vociferation, singing, cursing, aimless wandering; occasionally
by more formal delirium, attempts at suicide, nymphomaniacal
excitement; … or there are attacks of all kinds of noisy and
perverse … actions.”72

With this background in mind, one can imagine that the
narrator’s commentary on the wallpaper might have flowed di-
rectly from the pen of an exasperated physician faced with a
recalcitrant case. “It is dull enough,” she complains, “to confuse
the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and
provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for

a little distance they suddenly commit suicide-plunge off at
outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradic-
tions” (“Y,” 41). The narrator positions herself as an objective

observer, noting that the paper’s “defiance of law … is a constant
irritant to a normal mind” (“Y,” 47). She also renders the power
struggle that attended a doctor’s engagement with a hysterical

patient: “You think you have mastered it, but … it turns a back
somersault and … slaps you in the face, knocks you down and
tramples on you” (“Y,” 47). (The “back somersault,” in fact, could
refer to the infamous arc-en-cercle or gymnastic backarching and
contortions of Charcot’s hysterical patients.) In the narrator’s case
study, in short, the wallpaper becomes a “debased” figure “with
delirium tremens” (“Y,” 44). In turning her attention to the
hysterical flourishes of the wallpaper-in “studying,” “watch[ing]
developments” (“Y,” 48), “analyz[ing] it” (“Y,” 49), advancing
“scientific hypothes[es]” (“Y,” 48), and finally “discovering some-
thing at last” (“Y,” 49)-the narrator is not producing a distinctly
“women’s discourse”-but in effect assuming the diagnostic ap-
proach of her physician husband (or even Mitchell).73

Attempting to divert his wife from the internal, ungrounded
pathologies of a morbid self-consciousness, the husband refers the
narrator to the external world of palpable fact. When the narrator

writes, “John is practical in the extreme … and he scoffs openly at
any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures”

546 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

(“Y,” 39), she captures the medical epistemology of both Mitchell
and the so-called “Napoleon of the Neuroses,” Jean-Martin Char-

cot. In one of Charcot’s famous Tuesday Lessons, in which he
modeled his diagnostic technique by displaying a patient in front
of a packed auditorium of eager students and curiosity seekers, the
neurologist articulated his approach to hysterical patients. “I am

not the type,” he pronounced, “to suggest things that cannot be
demonstrated experimentally. … If you want to see clearly, you
must take things exactly as they are …. [I]n fact all I am is a
photographer. I describe what I see.”74 The narrator’s recording
eye and minute descriptions of her surroundings emulate this

cataloguing empiricism. Morbidity might arise from too much
exercise of the imagination-the narrator admits that “to think

about my condition . . . always makes me feel badly” (“Y,” 40)-
while good health is achieved through physical therapies: thus the

rest, doses of cod-liver oil and other tonics, and meals of sustaining
meats and wine. Accordingly, John urges the narrator to avoid self-

defeating thoughts about her condition (“There is nothing so
dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours” [“Y,” 47])
and applauds the response of her physical body to his ministra-
tions: “You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better. I
feel really much easier about you.” Sight is the privileged indicator
of health and disease, holding sway even over a person’s subjective
physical experience: “you really are better, dear, whether you can
see it or not” (“Y,” 46).

A sort of Charcot of the Wallpaper, the narrator scrutinizes it

almost constantly, making her a parodic expert in her field: “There
are things in that paper,” she announces, “that nobody knows but
me, or ever will” (“Y,” 46). Unlike the physicians she mimics,
however, the narrator is possessed of “an imaginative power and
habit of story making” (“Y,” 42) which causes her to press onward,
in spite of both the dumb recalcitrance of her object of scrutiny
and her husband’s indifference to her findings. Her work, in other
words, has no currency; it produces no effects on the world around
her; she remains a metaphorical doctor, not an actual one. Drained
of purpose, the narrator’s observations turn inward, become specu-
lative: “I wonder-I begin to think–” (“Y,” 46) she writes,
composing sentences that, lacking an object, call attention to the
operation of her own mind. Her first impulse upon discerning a
woman behind the paper’s surface pattern is actually to recognize
the pathology in the heightened activity of her mind, and she begs

Jane E Thrailkill 547

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

her husband to take her away from the house. When he refuses,
she finds herself unable to resist further observations; at this point

for the narrator, the wallpaper shifts from being an entity of
essentially material interest available to description (like a Mitchell
patient), to being a text, something with dual material and seman-
tic dimensions (which, like a Freud patient, elicits interpretation).

Bringing to bear analytic attention on this homely object, the
narrator pieces together a narrative fraught with significance,
featuring a woman struggling to extricate herself from the
wallpaper’s surface pattern. With the help of the narrator, who
embarks on a campaign to peel the paper down and thereby
complete her project (“I declared I would finish it today!” [51] she
reports), the wallpaper quite literally unfolds: the flat entity
becomes a participant in the drama of the sickroom.

Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the narrator becomes
a participant in the drama of the wallpaper, for at this point the
narrator enters into the plot she has up to now purported simply to
observe, as she strives to rescue the shadowy figure from the
villainous wallpaper. In a shift that articulates the larger transfor-

mation from the physiological to the psychological, the patient/
wallpaper loses its inertness and becomes impatient, insistently
soliciting attention from its analyst. Just as a panicky Breuer found
himself sucked into the erotics of Anna O.’s interior drama, and
just as Freud found himself anxiously entering into Lucy R.’s
fantasy of marrying her employer, so the narrator begins to
participate in the drama she sought only to report.'” Gilman’s story,
in other words, moves inward, away from the outward setting (of
ancestral house, recuperating woman, etc.). Most explicitly, the
conceit of the journal, with its emphasis on the realist scene of
writing, falls away. “Why, there’s John at the door!” the narrator

reports (“Y,” 52), even as her hands-while ostensibly inscribing
her journal-are propelling her along the floor as she circles the
perimeter of her room. At this point, the narrative follows the play
of the narrator’s mind in real time. From Gilman’s perspective, the
narrator has metamorphosed from metaphorical doctor (i.e. po-
tential professional) to tragically literal patient.

Two path-breaking exegeses, Annette Kolodny’s “A Map for
Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,”
and Jean E. Kennard’s “Convention Coverage or How to Read

Your Own Life,” argue that contemporary readers of Gilman’s
story were surprisingly unable to “decipher its intended meaning”:

548 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

that meaning, they recommend, is that the narrator is “the victim
of an oppressive patriarchal social system.””76 “The Yellow Wallpa-

per,” by this account, is a tale of failed interpretation, a failing that
extends off the page and to the story’s reception in Gilman’s

culture at large. For feminist critics, however, this plotline that
engaged nineteenth-century readers-the concern, for instance,
with the somatic effects of home furnishings-is simply an overlay
for the real story that lies submerged beneath it.

Indeed, for Kolodny, Kennard, and Gilbert and Gubar, “The
Yellow Wallpaper” is no common example, but the model of what
Golden terms the “palimpsestic” literary work, and what Gilbert
and Gubar describe as “works whose surface designs conceal or

obscure deeper, less accessible (and less socially acceptable) levels
of meaning.” Feminist critique, in turn, proceeds along the lines of
restoration; as Elaine Showalter writes, critics attuned to the
layered quality of such texts employ a mode of interpretation
attentive to recurrent patterns of imagery (of incarceration, for
instance), which allows them to sponge away the occluding pic-
ture: “The orthodox plot recedes, and another plot, hitherto
submerged in the anonymity of the background, stands out in bold
relief like a thumbprint.”77

Tempering what these critics have chalked up to a more or less
malevolent patriarchy (Kolodny sees “mutual misreadings” be-
tween men and women, while Ann Douglas Wood tersely indicts the
narrator’s husband for “sadistic ignorance”), Regina Morantz has
helpfully observed, “medical men [of the nineteenth century] were
unable to cure most diseases-not just those of women but of

everyone. Indeed, they ‘tortured’ men and women indiscrimi-
nately.”78 More importantly, a certain kind of feminist reading
occludes the central work being done in Gilman’s story-work that in
fact unites the cover story and the sub-story, rather than privileging
one over the other-which involves moving from a materialist
paradigm of mental states to a proto-psychoanalytic one. These

critics, in other words, map a psychotherapeutic approach back onto
a text that marks the emergence of the very possibility of such an
interpretive stance. By locating the real story in what they perceive as
barely audible subterranean suggestions, such readers actually play
Breuer/Freud to the narrator’s Anna O.-or, in the arresting case
of critic Mary Jacobus, to the story “The Yellow Wallpaper” itself.

In her article entitled “‘An Unnecessary Maze of Sign-Read-
ing,”‘ Jacobus argues that feminist critics “exemplif[y] hysterical

Jane F. Thrailkill 549

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

processes” when they repeat the narrator’s tendency to overread
the wallpaper: “The literalization of figure,” she asserts, “(a symp-
tom of the protagonist’s hysteria) infects the interpretive process
itself.”79 But her critique is not that critics anachronistically
approach the text in terms of a psychoanalytic encounter; rather,

Jacobus suggests that critics have improperly adopted the role of
hysterical patient instead of occupying the position of analyst.
Jacobus’s own psychoanalytic reading boldly stakes out the herme-
neutic authority of the analyst who reads textual lapses to discern
any “inexplicable, perhaps repressed element in the text itself.”
Whereas earlier feminist critics made the mistake of thinking that
the subversive story to be revealed lay in the recesses of the
narrator’s (or Gilman’s) inexpressible feminine experience within
patriarchy, for Jacobus, the story of the narrator is the obscuring
cover story: “there emerges . . . a creeping sense that the text
knows more than she; perhaps more than Gilman herself.” (Elaine
Hedges, commenting on Jacobus’s reading, aptly notes, “While we
may have lost a feminist heroine, we have retained a feminist
text.”) What “the text knows,” it turns out, is its own “uncanny
literalness”; what Jacobus’s interpretation is meant to reveal is a
dual failure: first, the failure of interpretation to capture the
uncanniness of hysteria, and second, the inevitable inadequacy of
any attempt at realist figuration. However, even as she positions
herself in opposition to feminist critics whom she believes

reductively psychoanalyze both Gilman and the narrator, Jacobus
makes the most dramatic substitution of all. For by elucidating
“the unconscious of the text”-by reading its excesses and evasions
and ultimately its refusal to bow to the “violence … of interpreta-
tion”-she personifies the story itself as the psychoanalytic subject
par excellence.80 Rather than textualizing women, her reading
succeeds in “womanizing” the text: she makes it exemplary, like
the female body, of the absence that she maintains underlies any
attempt at mimetic representation.

I am arguing, by contrast, that contemporary readers of Gilman’s
story were not duped by the patriarchal script when they avoided
the hermeneutic entanglements of the text and instead reacted to
“The Yellow Wallpaper” in physiological terms. Nor, as Jacobus
seems to indicate, was it unreasonable that feminist critics have
interpreted the story so tenaciously. For just as chilling (and darkly
humorous) as Kafka’s twentieth-century tale of metamorphosis,
Gilman’s story records the creepy literalization of a woman trans-

550 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

formed into a text. Gilman, that is, captures the Gothic underside
of Freud’s novel epistemology, where legs might “enter into the
conversation,” or the seemingly irrelevant talk of addled patients
might encrypt salacious horrors from the past and possess an

almost magical capacity to heal. (This in stark contrast to Charcot,
who once told an audience witnessing a patient’s agitated vocaliza-
tions, “Again, note these screams. You could say it is a lot of noise
over nothing.”)81 In the final pages of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the
distinction between the narrator’s life and the drama she perceives

in the wallpaper collapses when the figure finally appears from
behind the paper. The narrator recognizes the woman in the paper

as herself, and suddenly sees her embodied, observing, recording
self as the enemy, referring to her in the third person as “Jane.”
(One might say that the doctor/narrator, in a radical transference,
has actually become the patient.) It is the reconstituted narrator,
now, who completely enters the text (that is, the wallpaper). In
doing so, she actually begins to behave less like a person and more
like writing: she “get[s] to work” (51) and, with her body, marks a
swath through the convolutions of the wallpaper’s pattern–“a long
straight even smooch” (49)-as she creeps around the room.

The “story” the narrator tells in appropriately literal (or really,
corporeal) form, then, is the story of textualization of nervous
disease, of the advent of a new epistemology that would raise
“sign-reading” (S, 93) to a medical art. As Freud explained in the
Studies, whereas physiology traced innocuous-seeming symptoms,
such as a facial tic or the convulsive wiggling of toes, to reflex acts
or the “stimulation of cortical centres” (S, 94), the radical semiotics
of psychoanalysis presumed that “it is difficult to attribute too

much sense to them” (S, 93). Not only did hysterics’ symptoms
speak volumes, in Freud’s analysis they told a certain kind of truth
that traditional narrative, cast in language, could only feebly
emulate. The listening, interpreting physician returned to linguis-
tic form a traumatic event that the hysteric had realized as physical

symptoms, while the patient’s most eloquent means of accepting

her reworked story took the appropriately somatic form of getting

What has led critics astray in reading Gilman’s story, I would
argue, is that in presenting a creepy story that in fact becomes a
story of creeping, it emulates the form of such a patient, which in
turn elicits in its post-Freudian readers an almost irresistible will
to interpret: to in fact doctor the text. These critics, in other words,

Jane E Thrailkill 551

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

have done a superb job of “listening” to “The Yellow Wallpaper,”
which endlessly solicits interpretation, asking readers to assemble
the pieces of its fractured narrative, and the narrator’s fractured
mind, into a coherent story. William Veeder echoes contemporary
critics of every stripe when he comments of the narrator’s writing,
“These passages cry out for analysis.”82 And, despite many indica-
tors to the contrary, in almost every case the doctoring leads
inexorably to an account of someone “getting better”: whether it’s
the narrator (who, last seen on all fours, purportedly triumphs over
her husband and patriarchy), or Gilman (whose biography, which
involved a lifelong struggle with nervous illness, is dramatically
reshaped to model an archetypal feminist success story), or even
the text itself (which has, in recent decades, quite literally been

But, one might ask, don’t all stories coax us into such intellec-
tual activity? What is novel about Gilman’s narrative is the way it
instills the sense that there is therapeutic potential inherent in

interpretation itself, an insight that psychoanalysis would circum-

scribe to a very particular and strenuous sort of doctor-patient
encounter. Instead of reading the story, one might say, contempo-
rary scholars have continued to do its work, and in so doing have
conflated the activities of literary critic and psychotherapist.
Understood historically, “The Yellow Wallpaper” narrates how the
medical wisdom of the day, which conceived of a patient as a
conceptually inert bundle of physiological processes, came to be
replaced by a psychological approach that reimagined a patient as
a text. (Johns Hopkins’s William Osler would adopt this cry when
he wrote more than a decade later that in medicine “it is a safe rule

to have no teaching without a patient for a text.”)83 Recognizing
the way the story engenders this impulse helps to explain why so
many critics, many of whom position themselves as vehement
critics of Freud and denounce his treatment of Dora, find triumph

in its pages.84 What they are applauding, I believe, is the reworked
story their exegeses create; such critics are left with the satisfied
sense that someone’s life story has been successfully reconfigured-
if only their own.

Unlike the critic Julia Dock, however, who suggests that twenti-

eth-century feminist scholars distorted facts and engaged in sloppy
scholarship in producing the “dramatic story of Saint Charlotte
and the evil Doctor Mitchell,” I wish to argue that Kolodny and
post-Freudian critics have doctored the story in a much less

552 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

disreputable sense: by recasting what one contemporary reviewer
termed its “un-narration” into a recognizable Ur-feminist tale and

then by conceiving of their readings as a form of therapy as well as
a form of criticism.8″ And while the unhappy plight of the narrator
at story’s end suggests the dangers inherent in attempting to
doctor oneself, the sort of collaborative effort that women scholars
have engaged in as we read and reread the text marks the
difference between solipsism and what Gilman referred to as

reformist “organizing,” and what contemporary thinkers, drawing
on Hannah Arendt, have termed “world making.” As Michael
Warner explains, “The idea is that the activity we undertake with
each other, in a kind of agonistic performance in which what we
become depends on the perspectives and interactions of others,

brings into being the space of our world, which is then the
background against which we understand ourselves and our be-

longing.”86 Though Gilman may have puzzled over the meanings
that twentieth-century scholars discerned in “The Yellow Wallpa-
per,” and certainly would have disapproved of its being used to
establish a textual paradigm for gender difference, she would, I
think, be enthusiastic about its effects: the founding of a vibrant,
contentious field of study and myriad institutional venues that
have helped propel women into the academy in startling numbers
since the 1970s.87 These women, like Gilman herself, found
productive, specialized “work [that] lies mainly in public speaking,
in writing for a purpose, and in organizing.” I think it is not
irrelevant that these women, like the character in Gilman’s story
“Turned” (1911), are in fact Doctors of Philosophy.88 I conclude
that what Dock somewhat disparagingly terms “invested scholar-
ship” is actually an apt phrase for Gilman’s own reformist goal for
women to stop dissipating their precious energies in unpaid
housework and barely disguised sexual labor, and instead invest
their “capital of nervous force” by joining the ranks of the
professions. With this in mind, I suggest that we should read
feminist critic Jean Kennard’s purposefully shocking comment
about the lesson of “The Yellow Wallpaper”-that “the value of

our rereadings lies not in their ‘correctness’ [read meanings] …
but in their ability to enrich our present [read effects]” (185)-not
as epistemological nihilism but the reverse: as an indication that,
as Gilman earlier claimed of her story, “it worked.”89

Univeristy of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Jane E Thrailkill 553

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to


My special thanks to Jack Kerkering for his suggestions, advice, and encourage-

1 Spoken by the character W. H. R. Rivers in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration
(New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 242.
2 Barker, 231 (“psycho-neuroses”), 226 (“Mons”), 231 (“Suggestions”; “‘You

must'”). Barker’s novel treats actual historical figures, including the neurologists
Lewis R. Yealland and Rivers (who was also a social anthropologist), and the
poets Seigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Regeneration also draws on docu-
mented cases of shellshock; the mute soldier who is shocked into speech appears

as “Case Al” in Yealland’s Hysterical Disorders of Warfare (London: MacMillan,
1918). I refer to Barker’s novel not for its historical accuracy, but for its post-
Freudian polarization of two approaches to nervous disease and the concomitant

dismissal of nineteenth-century modes of treatment, which are personified
(really, demonized) in the figure of Yealland. For a meticulous historical account
of the writings of Rivers and Yealland, which uncovers their mutual debt to
physicalist nineteenth-century ideas about nervous disorders, see Allan Young,
The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Princeton:
Princeton Univ. Press, 1995), 67-74. Young provides a succinct critique of the
received Rivers/Yealland dichotomy, which he attributes to such diverse works as

Barker’s Regeneration, Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady (1987), and Judith
Herman’s Trauma and Recovery (1992). Of the latter, for example, he writes that
the “dubious sketch of Yealland” and the “questionable” depiction of Rivers
serves to claim Rivers as a “standard-bearer” for enlightened medicine, in which
“‘[p]rogressive,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘humane,’ and ‘psychoanalytic’ are a single piece” (82).

3 Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), 27.
4 Ann J. Lane, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins

Gilman (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990), 113. I should note that Lane’s source
for this anecdote is Gilman herself, who wrote of the encounter in her
autobiography, published 43 years after “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Despite Gilman’s
indication that her former physician amended his treatment of nervous illness

after becoming aware of her story, scholars have not discovered any comment by
Mitchell referring either to his treatment of Gilman or to her work of fiction.

5 Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in The Yellow Wallpaper,
ed. Dale Bauer (Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1998), 42. Hereafter abbreviated
“Y” and cited parenthetically by page number. Completed in 1890, Gilman’s
short story was first published in New England Magazine in 1892. In 1920
William Dean Howells, a long-time booster of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” included
the story in his collection entitled The Great American Short Stories. The
Bedford edition reprints the text from the original 1892 publication, which
included the inconsistent hyphenation of the word “wallpaper,” although the

editor follows critical convention (as do I) in omitting the hyphen from the story’s

6 Catherine Golden, “The Writing of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Double
Palimpsest,” Studies in American Fiction 17 (1989): 193.

7 Lisa Kasmer, “Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Symp-
tomatic Reading,” Literature and Psychology 36.3 (1990): 1-15; Sandra Gilbert
and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Writer and the Nineteenth

554 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), 89-92;
Annette Kolodny, “A Map for Rereading: Or Gender and the Interpretation of
Literary Texts,” New Literary History 11 (1980): 451-67; and Jean E. Kennard,
“Convention Coverage or How to Read Your Own Life,” in The Captive
Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” ed. Golden (New York:
The Feminist Press, 1992), 168-90. More recently, Conrad Shumaker has argued
that Gilman’s readers couldn’t acknowledge the story’s realism because “[i]t

would have required seeing creeping [i.e. oppressed] women everywhere”
(“Realism, Reform, and the Audience: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Unreadable
Wallpaper,” Arizona Quarterly 47 [1991]: 91). An important exception to the
approach of these critics can be found in an article by Suzanne Poirier entitled
“The S. Weir Mitchell Rest Cure: Doctors and Patients,” Women’s Studies 10
(1983): 15-40. Poirier places Mitchell’s treatment in the context of nineteenth-

century physiology, in which “emotions were subordinate to chemistry or
pathology” (22), then analyzes the reaction of a number of women authors,
including Gilman, Virginia Woolf, and William Dean Howells’s daughter Winifred,
to such a therapeutic approach. In contrast to Poirier, who concludes that

Mitchell “moved medicine one step nearer to recognizing the power of one’s
psychological existence” (35), I wish to argue that Mitchell remained fiercely
physiological in his approach throughout his career.

8 In an article that is highly critical of what she perceives to be historical and
textual inaccuracies in feminist scholarship on Gilman’s story, Julia Dock has
challenged a central premise of such readings, arguing that nineteenth-century
readers actually did perceive a feminist subtext in the story (“‘But One Expects
That’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and the Shifting Light
of Scholarship,” PMLA 111 [1996]: 52-65). I disagree with Dock on this point,
however, for even those few moments in later reviews (after Gilman achieved
fame as a feminist reformer) that might appear to take a feminist position suggest

that the prevailing issue was not gender as such, but the then current belief that
inharmonious decor (e.g. highly patterned wallpaper) might contribute to ner-
vous illness. For example, one reader wrote that the story “should illuminate for
some other blundering, well-intentioned male murderer the effect of a persistent
aversion upon knotted and jangled nerves” (News [Newport, R. I.], 27 January
[1905?], in Folder 301, Charlotte Perkins Gilman Papers. Schlesinger Library,
Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Mass.). “After reading [the story],” another
reviewer concluded, “the model husband will be inclined seriously to consider
the subject of repapering his wife’s bed chamber according to the ethics of
William Morris” (Anon., “A Question of Nerves,” Times [Baltimore], 10 June
1899, in Folder 301, Gilman Papers). As I explain more fully, from this
perspective the husband’s failure did not lie in his misogyny, but rather in his
ignorance about the physiological effects of interior design.

9 Anon., “Book Notes,” The Criterion 21 (New York), 22 July 1899, 25, in
Folder 301, Gilman Papers.

10 Gilman, “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper?”‘ Forerunner 4 (October
1913): 271.

11 What links the physiological and the psychotherapeutic approaches and
differentiates them from the received wisdom of previous centuries is the belief

that nervous ailments are real and not simply the result of malingering (the
moralistic view) or demonic possession (the religious view). For an excellent

Jane F Thrailkill 555

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

account of the displacement of “preternatural illness”-which required religious
healing-by “natural illness”-which called for medical practitioners who laid
claim to scientific knowledge-see Henri Ellenberger’s The Discovery of the
Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry (New York:
Basic Books, 1970), esp. 53-69. Also, see Ilza Veith, Hysteria: The History of a
Disease (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1965), 55-65, 203-9, on the historical
link between hysteria and witchcraft, and on the moral censure of hysterics in the

nineteenth century. In wresting authority over a burgeoning array of nervous
afflictions away from ecclesiastics, both camps in the debate succeeded in
medicalizing what were once conceived as social or spiritual ills. In the crisp
words of S. Weir Mitchell’s son, who was also a physician, “the treatment of a
patient, whether it be surgical, medical, or psychic, should, for the safety of the
public, be in the hands of the doctor” (John K. Mitchell, “The Emmanuel
Movement: Its Pretensions, Its Practice, Its Dangers,” The American Journal of
the Medical Sciences [December 1909]: 782).

12 Gilman, “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper?”‘ 271. I disagree with Wai
Chi Dimock’s declaration that Gilman “was writing specifically for a female
readership” (“Feminism, New Historicism, and the Reader,” in Readers in
History: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Contexts of Response,
ed. James L. Machor [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1993], 93). To
defend this claim, Dimock quotes selectively from Gilman’s explanatory essay,
omitting the part that I quoted above in which her intention to reach her former

doctor was made explicit. (In fact, the critical tendency to discount Gilman’s
stated beliefs about both gender and medicine reproduces the psychoanalytic
idea advanced most forcefully by Mary Jacobus, that the author’s “text knows
more than Gilman herself” [“An Unnecessary Maze of Sign-Reading,” in her
Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism (New York: Columbia Univ. Press,
1986), 240], a position I wish to critique in this essay.) I also take issue with
Dimock’s assertion that, at the conclusion of Gilman’s story, the reader is “still
sitting, still sane and still rational” (91) and is therefore a model of professional-

ism. This point is clearly troubled by the reaction of contemporary readers, who
persistently spoke of the text’s destabilizing and even pathogenic qualities (“he
feels something of that same chill alarm for his own mental soundness”). As I will
explain, Dimock’s idea of the “professional woman reader” will indeed come into
play, but not until the late twentieth century when women academics begin to fill

this role. Ironically, by applying psychoanalytic principles of reading to Gilman’s
tale, these scholars do indeed carve out a professional domain that comes to be
defined, first by a shared set of texts (of which “The Yellow Wallpaper” is
exemplary) and hyperattentive, deeply imaginative reading strategies (which
Gilman herself found morbid and pathogenic), and eventually by the creation of
authorized institutional spaces within the academy (e.g. programs in women’s
studies and feminist theory, the National Women’s Studies Association). As I will
explain, while Gilman would have deplored some of the theoretical components
of women’s studies (i.e. gendered texts and gendered ways of reading), she would
have applauded the very outcome that makes some radical feminists uneasy: the
creation of professional spaces for women within a traditionally male-dominated
sphere, the academy.

13 Gilman, Woman and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between
Men and Women (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 149. In addition to the

556 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

groundbreaking articles of Kolodny, Kennard, and Gilbert and Gubar, there is an
expanding critical oeuvre that discerns some form of dcriture fdminine in “The
Yellow Wallpaper.” Among these, exemplary essays include Jacobus’s, “An
Unnecessary Maze of Sign-Reading”; Diane Price Herndl’s “The Writing Cure:
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Anna 0., and ‘Hysterical’ Writing,” NWSA Journal 1
(1988): 52-74; and Paula A. Treichler, “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and
Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,”‘ in The Captive Imagination, 191-210.

14 Arguing that the home was “a little ganglion of aborted economic processes,”
Gilman asserted that the traditional housewife “gets her living by getting a
husband” (The Home: Its Work and Influence [Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press,
1972], 319; Women and Economics, 110). To break the clandestine domestic
connection that turned sex into work, Gilman advocated either that housewives
acquire careers and let their families eat in communal kitchens, or become
professionals in the home by receiving wages for housework (implicitly leaving
sex as a recreational activity-or, in her utopian novel Herland [1915], getting rid
of sex altogether and reproducing through parthenogenesis).

15 For an historical account of how this epistemological transformation worked
itself out in European medicine, see Daphne de Marneff, “Looking and Listen-
ing: The Construction of Clinical Knowledge in Charcot and Freud,” Signs 17
(1991): 71-111.

16 Eric Caplan, Mind Games: American Culture and the Birth of Psychotherapy
(Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1998), 6, 7. Historian of science Charles
Rosenberg has explained that the practice of many early nineteenth-century
doctors was predicated on a “model of the body, and of health and disease …
[that] was all-inclusive, antireductionist, and capable of incorporating every
aspect of man’s life in explaining his physical condition” (Explaining Epidemics
and Other Studies in the History of Medicine [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ.
Press, 1992], 18). For other accounts of the transition from traditional therapeu-
tics to scientific medicine, see John S. Haller, American Medicine in Transition,
1840-1910 (Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1981), esp. 17-29; and James H.
Cassedy, Medicine in America: A Short History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
Univ. Press, 1991), 25-33. For the French and German roots of American
scientific medicine, see Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical
History of Humanity (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 304-47.

17 Technologies such as the stethoscope and the x-ray helped to facilitate what
Michel Foucault has famously termed “the clinical gaze,” that detached, abstract-
ing mode of perception that made visible the most intimate recesses of the
diseased body, which in turn “authorize[d] the transformation of symptom into
sign and the passage from patient to disease” (The Birth of the Clinic: An
Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith [New York:
Vintage Books, 1994], 114). This transition-from imagining health and disease
as a dynamic interaction with an internal and external environment, to conceiving
of illness as a discrete set of pathologies localized in, yet detachable from,
individual bodies-was both reflected in and bolstered by a whole set of
transformations within the medical profession. The regularization and extension

of medical education to include laboratory work and the increasing medical
dependence on hospitals in the U. S. are two examples of the organization (and

consolidation of authority) of the medical profession. By the 1880s, many diseases
such as anthrax and cholera had been isolated and studied in the laboratory; they

Jane E Thrailkill 557

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

were no longer attributable to the psychosocial constitution of particular patients

or social classes. In addition, rather than examining a patient at home and
therefore embedded in the broader context of her life, physicians would with

increasing frequency visit patients in hospital wards, in which they were grouped
with others suffering from the same ailment.

18 Caplan, 7.

19 Veith, in her important study, Hysteria: The History of a Disease, argues
backward from the Freudian perspective when she approvingly writes of Mitchell’s
rest cure: “the actual treatment . .. was supplied by the physician in the form of
moral medication,’ or psychotherapy. This consisted largely of long conversa-
tions with the patient, eliciting, often in writing, her life history and the
circumstances preceding the onset of the hysterical state” (217). Similarly,
Mitchell biographer Ernest Earnest and literary scholar Cynthia Davis discern in
Mitchell’s collection of essays, Doctor and Patient (1888), the germ of Freud’s
psychoanalytic method; see Earnest’s S. Weir Mitchell, Novelist and Physician
(Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1950), 98. A look at Mitchell’s actual
case studies, however, reveals the physician’s entrenched somaticism; he himself
never acknowledged the centrality of the patient’s storytelling to either disease
etiology or cure.

20 The French investigator Jean-Martin Charcot’s influential studies on the
etiology of hysteria, conducted at the Salpetriere hospital in Paris, identified
heredity as the primary factor in the illness.

21 S. Weir Mitchell, Clinical Lessons on Nervous Diseases (Philadelphia: Lea
Brothers & Co., 1897), 256.

22 S. Weir Mitchell, Clinical Lessons, 257.
23 See Porter, “The Body and the Mind, the Doctor and the Patient: Negotiat-

ing Hysteria,” in Hysteria Beyond Freud, ed. Sander Gilman et al. (Berkeley:
Univ. of California Press, 1993), 229.

24 In every physiological respect, however, the study couldn’t be more
thorough; S. Weir Mitchell devotes an unprecedented twenty-five pages to this
girl’s case and included four facsimiles of her handwriting. After three years of

treatments that included exploratory needling to discern sensation, intermittent
rectal feeding, the application of massage and electricity, multiple surgeries, and
the forcible stretching of limbs, the girl was finally able to use crutches and even
“unaided to walk a few steps.” Mitchell considered even this imperfect recovery
close to miraculous, worthy of such extended commentary because “[n]o more
instructive lesson can be given as to the need for hopeful, persevering treatment
in a case of what did seem at first beyond human aid” (Clinical Lessons, 274).

25 S. Weir Mitchell, “The Treatment by Rest, Seclusion, Etc., in Relation to
Psychotherapy,” The Journal of the American Medical Association 1 (1908): 2033.
Mitchell was heavily influenced by the neurological work of Charcot, who had
taken charge of the immense Salpetriere hospital in 1872. Faced with a massive

number of patients suffering from nervous aliments, Charcot set to work studying
and classifying previously unrationalized (and unruly seeming) complaints. “I was
befuddled as I looked at such patients,” Charcot remembered, “and this
impotence greatly irritated me. Then one day, when reflecting over all these
patients as a group, I was struck with a sort of intuition about them. I again said
to myself, ‘Something about them makes them all the same”‘ (quoted in Charcot
the Clinician: The Tuesday Lessons, trans. with an introduction by Christopher

558 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

G. Goetz [New York: Raven Press, 1987], 103-4). Charcot then proceeded to
anatomize attacks of hysteria, developing a disease archetype (la grande hysterie).
Despite accusations that he scripted these episodes, Charcot adamantly de-
fended his scientific approach. In the words of historian of science Anne

Harrington, Charcot made hysteria behave (lecture, Harvard University, 8
February 1999).

26 S. Weir Mitchell, Doctor and Patient (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co.,
1889), 134. Not just doctors but John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle, reports
historian Porter, “deplored egoistic preoccupation as the road to ruin, to suicide
even, and advised consciousness-obliterating, outgoing activity” (“Body and the
Mind,” 246).

27 S. Weir Mitchell, Clinical Lessons, 247.

28 For a genealogy of psychoanalysis as a discursive science, see Dianne F.
Sadoffs Sciences of the Flesh: Representing Body and Subject in Psychoanalysis
(Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1998), especially her analysis of Freud’s hesitant
move away from the somatic paradigm to a psychoanalytic understanding of the
modern subject (152-65). For her account of S. Weir Mitchell’s rest cure, which
conceives of “the reflex body” as embedded in “an economy of exchanges with
the nurturing or depleting social world” (125), see 124-27.

29 Sigmund Freud, The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis (New York:
Henry Regnery Co., 1965), 65. On his first trip to the United States, Freud gave
a series of lectures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, which were
originally published in The American Journal of Psychology 21 (1910). Freud
wrote of his psychic “surgery”: “Therapy consists in wiping away these pictures,
so that she is no longer able to see them before her.” (Josef Breuer and Freud,

Studies on Hysteria, trans. and ed. by James Strachey [New York: Basic Books
Inc., 1957], 53. Hereafter abbreviated S and cited parenthetically by page

30 S. Weir Mitchell, “The Treatment by Rest,” 2036. The idea that words
spoken by a healer might possess curative power was far from a novel idea;
however, before psychoanalysis the meaning of either the doctor’s or the patient’s
words was considered therapeutically uninteresting. The French physician
Hippolyte Bernheim, Charcot’s rival in the treatment of hysteria, was the first
European physician systematically to investigate as well as employ the power of
hypnosis to cure patients through suggestion (see Bernheim, Suggestive Thera-

peutics: A Treatise on the Nature and Uses of Hypnotism [New York: G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, 1890]). Freud’s technique also approximated the practices of a
wide range of Americans engaged in what Harvard philosopher and psychologist

William James dubbed “the mind-cure movement” (The Varieties of Religious
Experience [New York: Macmillan, 1961], 89). Phineas Quimby, the popular

healer who first treated Mary Baker Eddy and set her on the road to Christian
Science, located healing power not in the patient’s account of her troubles, but in
the doctor’s potent empathy with the patient’s suffering. “The doctor,” Quimby
wrote, “can produce a chemical change by his talk. It makes no difference what
he says” (The Quimby Manuscripts Showing the Discovery of Spiritual Healing
and the Origins of Christian Science, ed. Horatio Dresser [New York: Thomas Y.
Crowell, 1921], 263). As James put it, the story of a patient’s malady was
“something merely to be outgrown and left behind, transcended and forgotten”

Jane E Thrailkill 559

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

31 S. Weir Mitchell, “The Treatment by Rest,” 2036. It is likely that the
“appalling” results to which Mitchell referred were sexually explicit words or
gestures on the part of patients under hypnosis. Perhaps he even came across
incidents similar to that which Breuer confronted in his treatment of Anna O.

(and which Breuer declined to include in the case history published in Studies on
Hysteria): the ardent patient’s declaration of amorous feelings for the attending
physician. Suggestion in particular, and mind cure in general, are ridiculed in
Mitchell’s short story, “The Case of George Dedlow.” Adopting the detached
tone and narrative form of a medical case study, the narrator-a Civil War doctor
who loses all four limbs to gunshot wounds-recounts his miraculous (if
temporary) “cure” at the hands of a spiritualist. When, in a trance state, the
medium becomes aware of two spiritual visitors who wish to contact the doctor,
she conjures his ghostly limbs from their specimen jars at the Army Medical
Museum, causing the doctor’s torso to lurch across the room on invisible alcohol-
sodden legs. (Mitchell was later amused to learn that spiritualists pointed to his

story, which he intended as a satirical commentary on mind cures, as authorita-
tive proof of the efficacy of their methods.)

32 Freud, The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis, 7.
33 Janet Malcolm, “Six Roses ou Cirrhose?” in The Purloined Clinic: Selected

Writings (New York: Random House Inc., 1992), 46.
34 Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (New York: Macmillan,

1963), 31, 32.
35 Freud, Dora, 32.
36 Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen has argued that Freud’s desire to distance psycho-

analysis from the “impure origins” of hypnotic technique led him to overempha-

size the scientific, materialist nature of his practice rather than acknowledging
the kinship between his “talking cure” and the curative trance-induced speech of
shamanic rituals. See his essay “Mimetic Efficacy,” in his The Emotional Tie:
Psychoanalysis, Mimesis, and Affect (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1992), 98-

37 S. Weir Mitchell, “Nervousness and Its Influence on Character,” in Doctor

and Patient, 116. For an examination of how the late nineteenth-century
discourse of nerves is linked to cultural and industrial modernization, see Tom
Lutz, American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Ithaca: Cornell Univ.
Press, 1991). As Porter argues, “the chronological epicenter [of nervous disease]
is bound to be the nineteenth century” (“Body and the Mind,” 226); similarly,
Carol Smith-Rosenberg observes, “Hysteria did not emerge as an endemic
disease among bourgeois American women until the mid-nineteenth century”
(Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America [New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1985], 198).

38 See “An Honest Woman” (1911), “Making a Change” (1911), “Mr. Peebles’
Heart” (1914), or “The Unnatural Mother” (1916) for characters who are
nervous, oppressed, or in rebellion against their domestic arrangements.

39 Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Dr. Clair’s Place,” in The Yellow Wallpaper, 328
(“who is”), 334 (“do anything”), 332 (“put through”), 334 (“made as”; “worn-out”;

40 S. Weir Mitchell, Doctor and Patient, 16 (“a speedy loss”); Lectures on
Diseases of the Nervous System, Especially in Women (Philadelphia: Henry C.
Lea’s Son & Co., 1881), 31 (“[T]he defects”).

560 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

41 S. Weir Mitchell, Fat and Blood: An Essay on the Treatment of Certain
Forms of Neurasthenia and Hysteria (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1877),
141 (“strange”); Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of the Nerves (Philadelphia:
J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1864), 103 (“hysterical”).

42 S. Weir Mitchell, Gunshot Wounds, 22, 23.

43 George Beard, “Neurasthenia or Nervous Exhaustion,” Boston Medical and
Surgical Journal 80 (1869): 218. As late as 1895, an article on neurasthenia in the
Medical Record argued, “To understand this [condition] more fully we have only
to study closely the anatomy of the brain” (W. A. McClain, “The Psychology of
Neurasthenia,” Medical Record [1895]: 82).

44 Critical discussion of gender in relation to S. Weir Mitchell’s rest cure has
actually overshadowed another important category of analysis: class. Mitchell
believed that a person’s social status provided a crucial predisposition to nervous

disease, a position also held by Beard. Physiologically, Mitchell maintained, elite
class status in the U. S. was correlated with an excessively sensitive nervous
system; economically, it tended to indicate overinvolvement in the draining
postwar economy. Some neurologists, however, were adamant that these mala-
dies struck all sorts of persons: “it does not make any difference whether it is a
mechanic or the man who has the whole responsibilities of the country upon his
shoulders, it is an overaction of the brain … that produces the result” (B. W.
James, “Report of the Section in Neurology and Electro Therapeutics,” Transac-
tions of the American Institute of Homeopathy [1901]: 592). Despite this
disagreement over who became nervous, one class-related issue was incontro-
vertible: only well-to-do patients could afford Mitchell’s rest cure, which re-
quired the intensive medical attention of both doctor and nurse, as well as
months (and sometimes years) of diminished activity.

45 S. Weir Mitchell, Lectures, 14 (“the daily”); Wear and Tear, or Hints for the
Overworked (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1871), 43 (“furnace-warmed”).

46 William James, in Principles, also conceived of the nervous system in
economic terms, where, through repetitive training, we “fund and capitalize our
acquisitions [i.e., good habits], and live at ease upon the interest of the fund.” In
a passage that might have been drawn from direct observation of a neurasthenic,

James wrote, “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom
nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the
drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the
beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation” (126).

47 S. Weir Mitchell, Wear and Tear, 30.
48 S. Weir Mitchell, Fat and Blood, 41.
49 S. Weir Mitchell, “Evolution of the Rest Treatment,” The Journal of Nervous

and Mental Disease (1904): 371, 61.

50 An effective doctor, Mitchell explained, must not be “a person of feeble will,”
for the “man who can insure belief in his opinions and obedience to his decrees

secures very often most brilliant and sometimes easy success” (“Evolution of the
Rest Treatment,” 58, 55). Another physician put it more bluntly: “[The doctor]
must rule [the patient] with a rod of iron” (William Harvey King, “Some Points in
the Treatment of Neurasthenia,” Transactions of the American Homeopathic
Association [1901]: 493). The decisive will of the physician worked along the
same lines as the electricity they applied to enervated bodies, providing the nerve
force to galvanize a patient’s recovery.

Jane E Thrailkill 561

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

51 In Sciences of the Flesh, Sadoff includes a peremptory rejection of “strictly
social constructivist feminist accounts of hysteria that portray the hysteric as a
victim of power struggles with nineteenth-century doctors” (17). Despite this
assertion, and despite her general attentiveness to the physiological theories
underpinning S. Weir Mitchell’s rest cure, Sadoff nonetheless casts Mitchell as a
usurping mother figure who (in what appears to be a mixed metaphor) proceeds
to “paternalistically reeducate” his patients (130). My point is simply that
infantilization or depleted capacity to perform basic functions was not the effect
of the physician’s treatment, but the cause of the patient’s seeking help in the
first place.

52 S. Weir Mitchell, Lectures, 39. This physical re-education was grueling; in a
passage that warrants the analogy between a nervous patient’s path to recovery
and infant development, William James quotes the English physiologist Henry
Maudsley: “Think of the pains necessary to teach a child to stand, of the many
efforts which it must make, and of the ease with which it at last stands,
unconscious of even an effort” (118).

53 S. Weir Mitchell, Lectures, 40 (“by a series”), 41 (“quadraped”), 42
(“creeping”). Mitchell was unapologetically clear about the model employed: “You
see that, following nature’s lessons with docile mind, we have treated the woman
as nature treats an infant” (Lectures, 42). In his novel Roland Blake (New York:
Houghton, Mifflin, 1886), Mitchell employed a metaphor savoring of Darwinism
to describe the process by which “the mind rose in the scale of soundness with
the body,– slowly, of course, as when one long crouching in slavery, straighten-
ing himself, tends to walk erect” (254). The physical habits the woman acquired
during recuperation, then, allowed her-like the slave, the savage, or the child-
to complete her ascent to full personhood. As James wrote, “The more details of
our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more
our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work” (126).

54 The work of literary critics Lutz and Davis forms an important exception.
Analyzing Gilman’s domestic writings in terms of the capitalist economy of the
Gilded Age, Lutz astutely notes that for Gilman, “women’s work as it existed,
since it was wasteful, led to neurasthenia,” though he concludes that her vision
for reform “helped reshape women as consumers” (230, 243). Davis goes further
in examining “The Yellow Wallpaper” in light of Gilman’s views about the
maddening aspects of women’s domestic life, concluding that the literariness of
Gilman’s Gothic prose undermines her commitment to “the healthiness of what

we might call a hermeneutics of the overt” (Bodily and Narrative Forms: The
Influence of Medicine on American Literature, 1845-1915 [Palo Alto: Stanford
Univ. Press, 2000], 139). While I concur with Davis’s observations about
“Gilman’s disdain for psychoanalytic approaches to life and narrative” (153), I do
not agree that “The Yellow Wallpaper” fails in its didactic purpose (145). For as

I argue, Gilman’s ideas about physiology indicate that she wrote the story less for
its meanings than for its effects, and that she did not precisely intend it “to
instruct” (Davis, 143) but instead crafted it to shock. Rather than conceiving of
critics’ psychoanalytic readings as proof of the story’s formal failure (on Gilman’s
terms), I conclude that the cultural and professional work of such readings make

them the splendidly ironic embodiment of Gilman’s governing belief that
ultimately, women’s health lies in their developing a sphere of expertise and
pursuing a paid vocation.

562 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

55 Gilman, The Home: Its Work and Influence (New York: McClure, Phillips,
and Co., 1903), 6. Concurring with Gilman’s belief in the corporeal basis of the
mind, one physician explained that “thought exhausts the nervous substance as

surely as walking exhausts the muscles” (McClain, 82).
56 Gilman, Home, 151 (“a patchwork”; “She has to”; “The bottled”); Women and

Economics, 155-56 (“To the delicately”); Our Brains and What Ails Them,
published in serial form in The Forerunner 3 (January-October 1910): 249 (“it is
true”). Gilman concurred with one of the fundamental precepts of Mitchell’s rest
cure when she acknowledged that, when the strain of home life “produces utter
exhaustion, we have to go away from home for a rest!” (Home, 71). As an antidote
to the complexities of modern life and the strain it placed on a person’s nervous

system, Gilman echoed William James in proposing “the power of habit.” “Don’t
waste nerve force,” she exhorts her readers, “on foolish and unnecessary things-
physical or moral; but invest it, carefully, without losing an ounce, in the gradual
and easy acquisition of … new habits” (Gilman, “Improved Methods of Habit
Culture,” The Forerunner 1 [July 1910]: 7, 9).

57 Gilman, Our Brains, 250 (“Women”; “are undeveloped”), 329-30 (“[j]ust as”;
“We have”).

58 S. Weir Mitchell, Doctor and Patient, 148.
59 Gilman, “Our Excessive Femininity,” 22, in Lectures from the 1890s, Folder

172, Gilman Papers. Hereafter abbreviated “E” and cited parenthetically by page

60 Gilman, Home, 45.

61 Lutz, 226-27. Literary critics are not alone in associating good health with
robust publication. Because of Gilman’s voluminous publications and speeches,
her own friends (to Gilman’s chagrin) received her complaints of chronic nervous

weakness “with amiable laughter and flat disbelief’ (Living, 104). Casting writing
as salutary, Diane Herndl concludes, “Through her representation, her ‘story’ of
a breakdown, Charlotte Perkins Gilman managed to cure herself’ (74). Similarly,
Gilbert and Gubar in Madwoman in the Attic assert that “it was quite clear to

Gilman herself’ that the narrator’s escape from the patriarchal text-and by
extension Gilman’s own-“was a flight from dis-ease into health” (91). Treichler

has argued that Gilman’s story is about freeing “women’s discourse” from a
silencing “patriarchal language” (195). Jeffrey Berman, in his article “The
Unrestful Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper”‘ (in The

Captive Imagination), is an exception in emphasizing Gilman’s chronic poor
health, though he also chalks it up to patriarchy (“The price she paid for imitating
her father’s glorious male achievements was a lifetime of neurotic suffering”
[220]). In short, the idea of Gilman’s prescribing her own “writing cure”
constructs a tidy if inaccurate story supporting the notion that if patriarchy made
her sick, feminism healed her.

62 Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New
York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935), 91, 97. The quotation concerning Gilman’s
“Literary Escape” is from the subtitle to Golden’s essay entitled, “‘Overwriting’
the Rest Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Literary Escape from S. Weir
Mitchell’s Fictionalization of Women” (Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins

Gilman, ed. Joanne B. Karpinski [New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992], 144-58).
63 S. Weir Mitchell, Doctor and Patient, 48.
64 Gilman, “Dr. Clair’s Place,” 328 (“clear”); Our Brains, 81 (“a diseased”).

Jane E Thrailkill 563

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

65 Gilman, The Living, 330. In contrast to some current critics who construe the
narrator’s journal keeping in “The Yellow Wallpaper” as cathartic and therefore
potentially therapeutic, Gilman asserted in a 1894 lecture that production not
intended for communication is a sign of individual and social ills. For an

individual who construes writing as “the relieving of himself,” she maintained, it
is “as much his business to stop producing-to cease to express himself-as for
the consumptive to forbear marrying” (“Art for Art’s Sake,” 16, 34, Folder 171,
Gilman Papers).

66 Gilman, “Dr. Clair’s Place,” 333.
67 Walter Benn Michaels, in his essay treating “The Yellow Wallpaper,”

emphasizes the phenomenological aspects of work, in particular, the “physiologi-
cal labor of ‘self-conquest”‘ that was the particular occupation of the nineteenth-

century woman (The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism [Berkeley:
Univ. of California Press, 1987], 6). In this account, the narrator of the story is the
radical extreme of the modern subject, one who simultaneously conceives of
herself as a commodity and writes herself into existence. While I agree that the
market economy is central to Gilman’s conception of the self, I differ from
Michaels in arguing that Gilman endorsed not an allegorical performance of
market exchange (as in the narrator’s writing herself into the wallpaper), but
actual participation in the culture of professionalism.

68 Howells, Criticism and Fiction and Other Essays, ed. Clara Marburg Kirk
and Rudolf Kirk (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1959), 72; Gilman, “Stories”
(n.d.) in notebook labeled “Thoughts and Figgerings,” Folder 16, Gilman Papers
(“If I can”; “it will be”); Gilman, Living, 119 (“the story”); Anon., “In Book Land,”

Newport [Rhode Island] Daily News, 27 June 1899, 3 (“startled”). Reading
Gilman, one contemporary explained, “brings a distinct shock” (Anon., “You
Ought to Know” [n.d.], Oversize Folder 2, Gilman Papers). Howells, apprecia-
tively rereading “The Yellow Wallpaper” decades later, confessed that he
“shiver[ed] over it as much as I did when I first read it in manuscript” (“A
Reminiscent Introduction,” in The Great Modern American Stories: An Anthology
[New York: Boni & Liveright, 1920], vii). One newspaper urged that the tale
“work[ed] one into an agony of … horror” (Anon., Oklahoman, 29 January 1928,
Folder 301, Gilman Papers)-a sentiment echoed by a Boston reader who warned
that for anyone with a “heredity of mental derangement, such literature contains
deadly peril” (quoted in Gilman, The Living, 120). These somatic responses
apparently had significant extra-literary effects, as with Horace Scudder, then the
editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who refused to publish the piece not on its (de)merits

or its unseemly innuendos, but because, as he said, “I could not forgive myself if
I made others as miserable as I did myselfl” (quoted in Gilman, The Living, 119).
69 One review called the story “a strange study of physical environment”

(Anon., “A Study of Physical Environment,” Times [Boston], 9 July 1899 [?],
Folder 301, Gilman Papers), while another praised Gilman for “warning of the
quite frightful consequences which might follow disregard of discretion in such

permanent furnishings of a sick chamber” (Anon., “Colors in Hygiene,” [n.d.],
Folder 301, Gilman Papers). “[E]very householder,” one reviewer emphatically
wrote, “ought to be made to read that story” to prevent his “inflict[ing] a ‘Yellow
wallpaper’ on a defenceless prospective tenant” (Charles Bainbridge, “Choosing
Wallpaper,” National Food Magazine 53 [April-May 1916]: 9).

70 Gilman, entry dated 28 June 1908, “Thoughts and Figgerings.” In her
personal papers, Gilman wrote that the tale “so alarmed” one of the friends of a

564 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

woman “treated in the same mistaken manner” that “they forthwith altered their
methods and the woman got well” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wall Paper-Its History
& Reception-Note left by C. P. G.” [n.d.], Folder 221, Gilman Papers).

71 Although dozens of such essays have been written, I will only refer to a
representative few. Herndl analyzes hysteria as “a sort of rudimentary feminism”
(54), in which women’s bodies speak a truth that cannot be expressed by “women
existing in a patriarchal signifying system” (55). She concludes that it is Gilman,
not the narrator, who triumphs by “writing a breakdown, rather than having one”
(74). Kasmer agrees that “the narrator is entrapped in her husband’s discourse”

(4); she sees the wallpaper as a disruptive text, a potential “袲iture f謩nine” (8)
that the narrator is unable to fully embrace. Golden argues that the narrator is
forced to write in a language “imbued with a social, economic, and political
reality of male domination” (“The Writing of the ‘Yellow Wallpaper,”‘ 194), while
the “cogent madness” that she achieves “circumvents” and “banishes” (200) the
malevolent force of both her husband and masculine language.

72 Ellenberger, 142; Smith-Rosenberg, 202; Wilhelm Griesinger, Mental Pa-
thology and Therapeutics (London: New Syndenham Society, 1867), 179, quoted
in Veith, 195.

73 Treichler, 192.
74 Charcot, 107.
75 Malcolm makes this observation about Freud in “Dora,” The Purloined

Clinic, 18.
76 Kolodny, 173, 175.
77 Gilbert and Gubar, 73; Elaine Showalter, “Review Essay,” Signs 1 (1975):


78 Kolodny, 158; Ann Douglas Wood, “‘The Fashionable Diseases’: Women’s
Complaints and Their Treatment in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Clio’s
Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women, ed. Mary S.
Hartman and Lois Banner (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 11; Regina

Morantz, “The Lady and Her Physician,” in Clio’s Consciousness Raised, 47.
79 Jacobus, Reading Woman, 232.
80 Jacobus, Reading Woman, 234 (“inexplicable”), 240 (there emerges”), 248

(“the text”; “uncanny”), 233 (“the unconscious”), 245 (“violence”); Elaine R.
Hedges, “‘Out at Last’? ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ after Two Decades of Feminist
Criticism,” in The Captive Imagination, 330.

s’ Charcot, 106.
82 William Veeder, “Who Is Jane? The Intricate Feminism of Charlotte Perkins

Gilman,” Arizona Quarterly 44 (1988): 48.
83 William Osler, “Medical Education,” in Counsels and Ideals from the

Writings of William Osler (Oxford: Henry Frowde, 1905), 146.
84 This critical doubleness-allegiance to Freud’s epistemology, but resistance

to his account and treatment of women-is in fact an echo of the text itself. For
“The Yellow Wallpaper” anticipates an approach to nervous disease that, once

codified by Freud, would be as roundly rejected by Gilman as it was by the
purported villain of the piece, S. Weir Mitchell. In her autobiography, Gilman
expresses her disdain for psychoanalysis in terms that take on added significance
given recent psychocritical accounts of her work (see for instance Veeder’s
account of Gilman’s “‘boundary’ problems” [41]). Gilman writes, “Always it has

amazed me to see how apparently intelligent persons would permit these mind-

Jane E Thrailkill 565

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

meddlers, having no claim to fitness except that of having read certain utterly
unproven books, to paddle among their thoughts and feelings, and extract
confessions of the last intimacy. … One of these men [analysts], becoming
displeased with my views and their advancement, since I would not come to be
psyched,’ as they call it, had the impudence to write a long psychoanalysis of my
case, and send it to me. … Fancy any decent physician presuming to send a
diagnosis to some one never his patient, and who on no account would have
consulted him!” (The Living, 314-16). More succinctly, Earnest reports that
Mitchell, upon reading of Freud’s theories, exclaimed, “‘Where did this filthy
thing come from?’ and threw the book in the fire” (180). For a thorough account
of Gilman’s writings on the subject of psychoanalysis, see Davis, 136-38.

85 Anon., “Books: Light and Serious Stories,” Time and the Hour 10, 17 June
1899, 9, Folder 301, Gilman Papers.

86 Annamarie Jagose, “Queer World Making,” interview with Michael Warner,
Genders 31 (2000): 38.

87 Perhaps the pithiest account of the role played by “The Yellow Wallpaper” in
the rise of academic feminism is written by Jonathan Crewe in his “Queering The
Yellow Wallpaper? Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Politics of Form,” Tulsa
Studies in Women’s Literature 14 [1995]: 273-94. He approaches the text “not

just as any old text but as a text that has taken on peculiar salience in modern
feminist criticism” (274), acknowledging that, as “almost the exemplary literary
document of the intellectual movement” (276), it “became an instrument of
academic change” (277). Crewe, however, critiques what he sees as academic
feminists’ misuse of the text’s potentially radical, decentering possibilities;
similarly, Susan Lanser has faulted critics of Gilman’s tale for being “collusive
with ideology” insofar as they used the story implicitly to assert themselves as
bourgeois white professionals (“Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and
the Politics of Color in America,” Feminist Studies 15 [1989]: 422). Here is

Crewe’s complaint: “Contrary to persistent legend in the academy and beyond,
the narrator’s now-perceived reason-in-madness, or oppositional 袲iture f謩nine,
was not embraced by academic feminists in radically disruptive, counter-cultural,
or extra-professional ways, but was legitimized, rationalized, and incorporated
under only modestly adjusted canons of professional civility and procedural
regularity” (277). By contrast, I argue that this employment of the story (pun
intended) should be viewed not as a scandal, but as an astonishingly apt
application of Gilman’s own professionalized, sex-neutral form of women’s

88 Gilman, entry dated New Year’s Day, 1896, “Thoughts and Figgerings.” In
“Turned,” a woman with an inactive Ph.D. discovers that her husband impreg-
nated their young servant. The wife’s solution is to leave her husband, whisk the
young woman away, tend her through her pregnancy, help raise the baby, and go
back to teaching. I read this story as Gilman’s meditation on the rich semantic
possibilities of the term doctor, which here references reform as well as healing,
and education as well as medicine (The Yellow Wall-paper and Other Writings

[New York: Modern Library, 2000], 78-88).
89 Kennard, 185.

566 Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:29:51 UTC�������������
All use subject to

  • Contents
  • 525

  • Issue Table of Contents
  • ELH, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer, 2002), pp. 277-566
    Front Matter
    Rochester and the History of Sexuality [pp. 277-301]
    Back Door Sex: Renaissance Gynosodomy, Aretino, and the Exotic [pp. 303-334]
    The Value of “Eschaunge”: Ransom and Substitution in “Troilus and Criseyde” [pp. 335-358]
    The Mistress of the Marriage Market: Gender and Economic Ideology in Defoe’s “Review” [pp. 359-383]
    Spenser’s Grieving Adicia and the Gender Politics of Renaissance Ovidianism [pp. 385-412]
    Romance of the Spirit: Female Sexuality and Religious Desire in Early Modern England [pp. 413-438]
    “Erewhon” and the End of Utopian Humanism [pp. 439-472]
    Filth, Liminality, and Abjection in Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House” [pp. 473-500]
    Sexual Politics and the Aesthetics of Crime: Oscar Wilde in the Nineties [pp. 501-523]
    Doctoring “The Yellow Wallpaper” [pp. 525-566]
    Back Matter


Author(s): Lillie P. Howard

Source: CLA Journal , December, 1977, Vol. 21, No. 2 (December, 1977), pp. 256-268

Published by: College Language Association

Stable URL:

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide
range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and
facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at

Terms and Conditions of Use

is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to CLA Journal

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������

All use subject to



By Lillie P. Howard

Now that literary buffs are enthusiastically discovering or
rediscovering Zora Neale Hurston 1 (1903-1960), a black woman
novelist and folklorist who, like many of her black contempo-
raries, failed to realize the bright promise of the Harlem Renais-
sance, a critical look at certain aspects of her fiction may be
in order. During her lifetime, much of Hurston’s erratic and
short-lived fame rested on the publication of her two books
of folklore, Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938),
though she also published short stories, plays, essays, four
novels – Jonah9 s Gourd Vine (1934), Their Eyes Were Watching
God (1937) , Moses , Man of the Mountain (1939) , Serwph on
the Suwanee (1948) – and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a
Road (1942) . Part of her relative obscurity can be attributed
to ill-founded criticism like that of Richard Wright who, in
his review of Their Eyes Were Watching God, charged Hurston
with being unconcerned with the race or class struggle or with
the revolutionary traditions of black people in America. To-
day’s readers, having found that Hurston’s works deal not only
with black problems, but with problems common to all human
beings, are puzzled by Wright’s charges. Though her fictional
landscape differs radically from Wright’s her works clearly
convey the idea that people, regardless of their color or their
peculiar burdens, must inevitably struggle with some of the
same life problems. Although several of life’s problems in-
terested Hurston, she seemed particularly interested in the
problems that beset the state of marriage.

1 Robert Hemenway’s book, Zora Neale Hurston : A Literary Biography, has
recently been published by the University of Illinois Press; Alice Walker published
an article, ” In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” in the March, 1975, issue of Ms.
Magazine and she is currently preparing a Zora Neale Hurston Reader; and the
Modern Language Association featured a Hurston seminar at its 1975 Conference
in San Francisco, California.


This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������
All use subject to

Zora Neale Hurstons System of Values 257

Critics have agreed that a writer’s system of values can be
determined by a close reading of that writer’s works. We can
normally determine what qualities an author admires or detests
in a character, for instance, by how that writer makes us feel
about that character. We can also determine how an author

values a character by what he/she allows to happen to that
character. Hoyt Trowbridge uses this process to determine that
Jane Austen values intelligence, morality, feeling, beauty, and
worldly condition (rank and fortune) in her characters.2 We
can use the same procedure to determine what qualities Zora
Neale Hurston who, like Austen, confined her studies to small,
country villages, considered essential to a good marriage – what
qualities she valued in the marriage partners and what qualities
she detested.

The marriage relationship and the problems that emanate
therefrom are themes in four of Hurston’s short stories and in

three of her novels. Instead of portraying marriage romantical-
ly – all cape jasmine bushes and sweet potatoes – however,
Hurston presents it frankly, replete with infidelity, jealousy,
violence, and hatred. Of the eleven marriages in the seven
works, only three succeed. By looking closely at these three, we
can reasonably conclude that Hurston considered courage,
honesty, love, trust, respect, understanding, and a willingness
to work together essential to a successful marriage. By looking
closely at the unsuccessful marriages, we can see that for those
who did not subscribe wholeheartedly to Hurston’s formula, the
consequences could be disastrous.

” Spunk/’ published in Opportunity in June, 1925, is one of
the unsuccessful ones. Told in Poe-like fashion, the story ex-
amines infidelity, jealousy, violence, and hatred. It is set in an
all-black community in Florida where Spunk Banks, Joe and
Lena Kanty form a love triangle. Banks, an audacious character
who ” ain’t skeered of nothin’ on God’s green footstool,” woos
Lena from her husband and parades around town with her on
his arm. Kanty, the weak, cuckolded husband, is shamed and
spurred by town gossip to confront Banks and demand his wife
back. When he foolishly does so with a mere pocket knife he

2 Hoyt Trowbridge, From Dry den to Jane Ausiem, (Albuquerque: University
of New Mexico Press, 1977), pp. 275-276.

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������
All use subject to

258 Lillie P. Howard

is killed by Banks. When Banks prepares to marry Lena a few
days after Joe’s death, he is mysteriously troubled by his con-
science. He sees a black bob-cat that ” walked round and round

that house and howled like forty,” which he cannot shoot, and
he imagines that someone is pushing him into an electric saw
at work. Before very long, he is mysteriously caught in the
saw – pushed by Joe, he swears – and killed.

Because Joe and Lena Kanty are relatively flat characters
and because the narrator is rather closed-lipped, the reader is
not privy to information that would explain how the Kanty
marriage came to its present state. He does know, however,
that Lena is taken with Banks because of his spunk – his deter-
mination to conquer and reign over the world – a blatant con-
trast to Joe’s lack of prowess. Too, the reader gets some indica-
tion of how he is to feel about the characters by the way each
character is portrayed. Spunk Banks, for instance, is described
as “A giant of a brown skinned man . . .” who ” ain’t skeered
of nothin’ on God’s green footstool – nothin’! He rides that
log down at the saw-mill jus’ like he struts ’round wid another
man’s wife – jus’ don’t give a kitty.” He is the kind of man
who would ” go after anything he wanted ” and he tells Lena
that ” Youse mine. From now on Ah works for you an’ fights
for you an’ Ah never wants you to look to nobody for a crumb
of bread, a stitch of close or a shingle to go over yo’ head, but
me long as Ah live.” Spunk is clearly a man’s man, an absolute
necessity in the Hurston world. After he kills Joe, however, he
loses some of his spunk, too much to remain one of the chosen.
Not only is he so ” nervoused up ” that he can’t shoot the
black bob-cat but he believes the cat is Joe ” done sneaked

back from Hell! ” At work, where he had always reigned
supreme, he is now ” cussin a blue streak ’cause he ‘lowed dat
saw wuz wobblin’ – almos’ got ‘im once . . . claimed somebody
pushed ‘im but ‘twant nobody close to ‘im.” Later, when he is
indeed caught in the saw, he claims that ” he pushed me –
the dirty hound pushed me in the back! … It was Joe – the
dirty sneak shoved me … he didn’t dare come to mah face . . .
but Ah’ll git the son-of-a-wood louse soon’s Ah get there an’
make hell too hot for him . . . Ah felt him shove me. . .

Curiously, as Spunk declines in manliness, Joe Kanty in-

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������
All use subject to

Zora Neale Hurstons System oj Values 259

creases in it. While Banks had been a “giant of a brown
skinned man,” Kanty had simply been a ” round shouldered
figure in overalls much too large.” And while Banks ” sauntered
up the one street of the Village/’ Kanty ” came nervously in the
door” of the local store. After seeing his wife clinging to
Banks’ arm, Joe ” swallowed several times painfully and his
lips trembled. . . . He stood there silent with his Adam’s apple
twitching nervously up and down his throat. One could actual-
ly see the pain he was suffering, his eyes, his face, his hands and
even the dejected slump of his shoulders.” One of the townsmen
refers to him as that ” rabbit-foot colored man ” and another

says that he’s “timid ’bout fightin’.” While Banks loudly
proclaims Lena as his, Kanty ” sorter whines out ‘ Lena ain’t
I yo’ husband?’ ” When Joe does challenge Spunk, he sneaks
up and tries to stab him in the back. Clearly there is no com-
parison between the two.

After Joe is dead, however, one of the townsmen wonders if
Joe wasn’t a braver man than Spunk:

Lookit whut he done; took a razor an’ went out to fight a man
he knowed toted a gun an’ wuz a crack shot, too. ‘Nother thing
Joe wuz skeered of Spunk, scared plumb stiff! But he went jes’
the same. It took him a long time to get his nerve up. ť Tain’t
nothin’ for Spunk to fight when he ain’t skeered of nothin’.

And when Banks is killed, the same man says: “If spirits
kin fight, there’s a powerful tussle goin’ on somewhere ovah
Jordan ’cause Ah b’leeve Joe’s ready for Spunk an’ ain’t skeered
anymore – yas, Ah b’leeve Joe pushed ‘im mahself.” Obviously
it is easier to attribute qualities of strength and bravery to
Joe Kanty when he is not around, swallowing, slumping, and
trembling, to refute the claims. Ironically, both men are quick-
ly forgotten. At Spunk’s wake, ” The women ate heartily of
the funeral baked meats and wondered who would be Lena’s

next. The men whispered coarse conjectures between guzzles
of whiskey.”

By Hurston standards, Joe Kanty is not a MAN; he’s one
of those puny characters who are more of a nuisance than any-
thing else. Although Banks is a MAN, on the other hand, he
is a wrongheaded one, the tragic hero with too much hubris
who, by imposing his will upon others (the whole town is

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������
All use subject to

260 Little P. Howard

frightened of him) without proper regard for their feelings,
brings about his own downfall. Too, after Banks kills Kanty,
he loses his spunk and thus becomes less than a man. At this
point, he would not make an ideal spouse. Lena Kanty does
not go unpunished for where she once had two men, she now
has none. She at least remains to try again, however. A good
marriage for her still remains a distinct possibility.
” John Redding Goes to Sea,” published in Opportunity in

January 1926, is a melodramatic story of dreams deferred, of
ambition, determination and expectations mocked to death by
time and an unhappy marriage. Its main character, John
Redding, like the main character in Their Eyes Were Watching
God , anticipates the horizon, but never achieves it while alive.
Whereas the protagonist of Their Eyes is limited by her grand-
mother and her first two husbands, John Redding is limited by
his mother and his wife.

From his early childhood John has known the pain of being
limited and shackled. He dreams but can never realize his
dreams. When he grows up and wants to explore the horizon,
he is hindered by his mother who believes that he should
marry, settle down, and forget about wandering, seeking. To
Matty Redding, marriage is the solution to everything. Per-
haps to please his mother, John does marry, but he soon be-
comes restless again. He begins to ” saunter out to the gate
to gaze wistfully down the white dusty road; or to wander
again to the river as he had done in childhood. To be sure
he did not send forth twig-ships any longer, but his thoughts
would in spite of himself, stray down river to Jacksonville, the
sea, the wide world – and poor home-tied John Redding wanted
to follow them.” John quickly discovers that marriage does
not make happiness; it cannot pacify that urge to wander.
Sometimes it brings pain and chains.

As John explains to his wife, he obviously errs by marrying
when he really wishes to be free to search: ” I know I should
never have married with my inclinations, but iťs done now,
no use to talk about what is past. I love you and want to keep
you but I can’t stifle that longing for the open road, rolling
seas, for peoples and countries I have never seen. I’m suffering
too, Stella, I’m paying for my rashness in marrying before I

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������
All use subject to

Zora Neale Hurstons System of Values 261

was ready.” Because neither his wife nor his mother under-
stands or encourages him, his life is wasted. He is a stifled free
spirit, Sterne’s startling trapped in the cage of an unhappy
marriage. He begs his mother to ” let me learn to strive and
think – in short, be a man.” Ironically, though appropriately,
Redding is killed in a storm and his body floats out to sea
where he is free to search, explore and realize his dreams. Be-
cause his marriage lacks most of the qualities essential to a
successful marriage – respect, understanding, courage, trust, and
a willingness to work together – John’s death implies that the
wrong kind of marriage can literally and figuratively deny life.
John Redding is a good man who wishes to please his mother,
his wife and himself. He cannot do both. By the time that
revelation comes, he can do neither.

In November 1926, Hurston published Sweat in the infamous
Fire . ” Sweat ” is a story of hard work, adultery, hatred and
death – a story of marriage gone sour. Set in Florida, the story
explores the relationship between a married couple, Delia and
Sykes Jones, and the hatred that emanates from their marriage
after love has disappeared. Although the couple appear to be
in love when they marry, Sykes soon tires of his wife and seeks
companionship with various women of the town. Delia stays
home and does the laundry of white folks to earn a living for
herself since her husband spends his money elsewhere. When
Sykes becomes so enamoured of one of his ladies that he wishes
to marry her, he plots to kill his wife by leaving a poisonous
rattle snake in her clothes hamper. Delia escapes, Sykes him-
self is bitten – ” hoist with his own petards,” as it were – and
dies. The marriage is over and Delia is free.

The story itself is not as simple as the plot summary sug-
gests. One of the reasons that Sykes cannot bear the sight of
his wife, for instance, is because her work makes him feel
like less than a man. He resents her working for the white
folks, washing their dirty laundry, but he doesn’t resent it
enough to remove the need for her to do so. Or perhaps his
wife’s work has removed the need for him to be a man. Clearly
Delia is an independent woman, having worked for 15 years to
support herself and her husband, and having even paid for
the house they live in. Whether she needs Sykes at all is ques-

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������
All use subject to

£62 LiUie P. Howard

tionable and perhaps he senses this and looks elsewhere for
someone who does need him.

Though Sykes’ vulnerability and uncertainty about his own
masculinity is understandable, he is still contemptible. He
has not loved, trusted, understood and appreciated Delia but
has instead hated, tricked and beaten her. As one of the towns-
men noted, Sykes had ” beat huh ‘nough tuh kill three women
let “lone change they looks.” He is one of those men ” dat
takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane. It’s round, juicy
an’ sweet when dey gits it. But dey squeeze an* grind, squeeze
an’ grind an’ wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat’s
in ’em out. When dey ‘s satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey
treats ’em jes lak dey do a cane-chew. Dey throws ’em away.
Dey knows whut dey is doin’ while dey is at it, an’ hates their-
selves fuh it but they keeps on hangin’ after huh tell she’s
empty. Den dey hates huh fuh bein’ a cane-chew an’ in de
way.” Like Spunk Banks, Sykes obviously deserves and brings
about his fate.

Hurston first deals with marriage in novel form in Jonah’s
Gourd Vine. John Pearson, the preacher-protagonist, is un-
usually susceptible to the charms of women and he marries
three times before the novel ends. Though married, however,
he drifts from one extramarital affair to another. His first

wife dies after a lengthy illness which was aggravated by her
unhappy marriage; his second wife – a despicable character
in her own right – divorces him because he beats her; and his
third wife is widowed when after a final fling, John drives
his car into the path of an oncoming train. John’s inability
to control his sexual urges leads to his destruction.

Although Hurston seems to want her readers to think kindly
of John – she said in a letter to James Weldon Johnson (April
16, 1934) that a preacher ought to be allowed to ” follow his
bent as other men ” – she herself handles him harshly. She
allows him to prosper and to even become Moderator of the
State Baptist Association, but when his affairs become too
numerous, she strips him of his power, possessions and friends,
makes him a picaresque hero and sets him on the road to make
his own way. When after a brief period of prosperity he again
succumbs to temptation, Hurston allows him to be killed.

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������
All use subject to

Zora Neale Hurstons System oj Valúes 263

John is both innocent and guilty. At one point, he genuinely
loves, respects and appreciates his first wife, Lucy Potts. She
is a help-meet to him, propping him up on every side and urging
him on to bigger and better heights. She also protects him from
the harsher realities of life bearing the brunt of most of their
problems herself. She is John’s gourd vine. Like Jonah, how-
ever, John forgets her true worth, attacks and mistreats her.
Later, when he is able to compare his marriage with his second
wife, which was brought about mainly through her conspiracies
with the local voodoo doctor, with his first marriage, he regrets
his actions but it is too late.

The third marriage seems workable, but because John cannot
resist the temptations of a prostitute, it seems to have been
headed in the direction of the first. John is eliminated before
his infidelity can gnaw away at his marriage. The third wife
is left with good, though not entirely accurate, memories.

Of the successful marriages, the ones in “The Gilded Six-
Bits ” and Their Eyes Were Watching God are the most
striking. Set in Eatonville, Florida, ” The Gilded Six-Bits ” is
the story of a beautiful marriage beset by difficulties. Having
as its theme the old adage that all that glitters is not gold, the
story centers around the married life of Missie May and Joe
Banks, the force which tests and threatens their relationship,
and their subsequent attempts to allay this force. The narra-
tive falls logically into three parts, each of which centers around
the welfare of the marriage. We see the marriage in a state of
health, in a state of ill-health, followed by a long but successful

At first the marriage between Missie and Joe is a happy one.
They show their love in small but significantly generous ways.
Missie keeps a spotless home for Joe and cooks his favorite
food while Joe buys her little tokens to show his love. They
are so happy that there is even ” something happy about the
place ” where they live. Their life together seems perfect, the
Garden of Eden. When the serpent arrives in the form of Otis
D. Slemmons, however, the Banks begin their fall.

Otis D. Slemmons is a city slicker- womanizer who sports
gold teeth, a five-dollar gold piece for a stick pin and a ten-
dollar gold piece for a watch charm. He and his gold impress

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������
All use subject to

264 Lïllie P. Howard

Missie so much that she wants some of the same for her hus-
band and takes Slemmons into her bed as a means of getting
it. Although her intentions are naively good – Joe has admired
Slemmons and expressed his desire to be like him – they pre-
cipitate the deterioration of the marriage.

When Joe returns home earlier than usual from work one

night and catches Slemmons awkwardly trying to get into
his pants, he attacks him, accidentally grabbing the gold watch
charm as Slemmons makes a timely escape. In spite of his
discovery, however, Joe remains with Missie. She becomes
hopeful when Joe makes love to her after three months of
abstinence, but when she finds Slemmons’s piece of money
under her pillow the next morning, she is confused. A close
examination of the money reveals that it isn’t gold at all; it
is a gilded half-dollar. What disturbs Missie most, however,
is that Joe has left the money under her pillow as though he
were paying her for her services – ” Fifty cents for her love.”

When Missie becomes pregnant and bears a fine boy who
resembles Joe, shadows slowly lift and happiness once again
becomes possible. Determined to let bygones be gone, Joe
goes shopping for the first time since the Slemmons incident
and buys fifty cents worth of candy kisses with the gilded
money. The marriage has come full circle, but it will never
be the same. The carefree innocence which characterized the
early marriage has been replaced by painfully-gained maturity
and knowledge. The lesson has been costly but because the
foundation upon which the marriage was built has been strong,
the marriage has survived. Missie and Joe genuinely love each
other and both have enough courage, determination and trust
in each other to weather the storm. Thanks to their joint
efforts, their marriage is well on its way to recovery.

In Hurston’s best novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God,
marriage dominates. The marriage that is finally achieved there
is the happiest and most ideal in Hurston’s canon. Published
in 1937, the novel has universal implications for women in that
it protests against the restrictions and limitations imposed upon
women by a masculine society. Like the women of most
societies, the females in Janie’s town are expected and en-

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������
All use subject to

Zora Neale Hurstons System of Values 265

couraged to marry for security and economic advancement.
The greatest wish of Janie’s grandmother, for instance, is that
Janie find a respectable husband with property. After dutifully
marrying the old farmer with sixty acres and a house her grand-
mother has chosen for her, Janie, dissatisfied, strikes out like
Huck Finn for the territory in search of that better life beyond
the horizon.

Like John Pearson of Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Janie actually
marries three times. When she is 16, she marries the propertied
farmer, Logan Killicks. Killicks is middle-aged, dirty (he does
not believe in washing his feet) , unloving and too set in his
ways to treat Janie like a real woman. Instead he treats her
like the livestock on his farm and measures her worth in terms
of how much work she can do and how much time she spends
doing it. Neither really loves the other, but Janie naively hopes
that love will come in time. When it doesn’t, she runs away
with the man who is to become her second husband, Jody

Stārks is an ambitious young man on his way to make his
fortune in the small, all-black community of Eatonville, Florida.
To Janie, he is a knight in shining armour. When stark reality
replaces blind romanticism, she realizes that he is only a youn-
ger version of Killicks who feels that she should be proud and
grateful for his removing her from the valley to the mountain
top. He insists that she hold herself above all the towns-
people – be the bell cow for others to follow. Janie is neither
proud nor grateful, however; she is simply biding her time
until she can see her way clear of this bull.

All her life, Janie has been interested in people and love while
all the people who have controlled her life thus far – her grand-
mother, Logan Killicks, and Jody Stārks – have been interested
in property and wealth. They have insisted upon prose while
Janie herself prefers and seeks poetry. When Janie is nearly
40 years old, Starks conveniently, though not incredibly, dies,
thereby setting Janie free to search again. When she meets
Tea Cake (whose real name is Vergible Woods) a few months
later, she finds her poetry.

Tea Cake is a young, happy-go-lucky black man who worries
very little about money or material possessions. He is a hedon-

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������
All use subject to

266 Lülie P. Howard

ist, living life to its fullest. He makes Janie feel alive, vital,
wanted and unlimited. The two leave Eatonville, marry and
set up frenetic but blissful housekeeping. They work together
and play together, and while Tea Cake does not bring the
security or ambition of the first husbands, he brings her the
joy of simple things in simple ways. There are fleeting periods
of distrust and jealousy, but the marriage is essentially a happy

Unfortunately and rather melodramatically, Janie is forced
to shoot Tea Cake in self-defense after he is bitten by a
rabied dog during an Everglade storm. Janie is only tem-
porarily saddened, however, for she has seen and explored that
horizon that had beckoned to her years before. Tea Cake can
never be dead as long as she herself lives. As James Giles sug-
gests, ” Janie will now develop a new method of coping with
time – reflective hedonism. She will cultivate memories of sexu-

ality and drama. She needs no new experience because her
cup is full.”3 She has stored up enough memories to with-
stand the loss.

The marriage has only lasted about two years but it has
been intense and happy. The two have lived dramatically, each
loving, fulfilling and understanding the other. They have
braved criticism and gossip because of the differences in their
ages and they have triumphed. They have enjoyed a real
marriage. As Janie herself says, ” If you kin see de light at
daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many
people never seen de light at all.”

Arvay Henson of Serœph on the Suwanee (1948) is one of
those who have trouble seeing ” de light at all.” The novel itself
puzzles readers because it differs from Hurston’s other works
in such noticeable ways. Not only is the style controlled and
detached, but the novel concerns itself with white characters
instead of the usual folksy black people. The subject, however,
as in most of Hurston’s works, is still the coming of age of
the individual, and the social context is the marriage relation-

Arvay Henson, the heroine, is a poor white woman who for

8 James Giles, ” The Significance of Time in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes
Were Watching God ” Negro American Literature Forum, 6 (Summer, 1972), 52.

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������
All use subject to

Zora Neale Hurstons System of Values 267

very complex reasons, has a poor self-concept. Even though
she does marry a handsome ambitious man who loves her,
her self-doubt gnaws away at the relationship, incredibly for
about twenty years. Then the husband, grown miserably tired
of the constant bickering and tension, leaves his wife and waits
for her to find herself. While he is ” as hungry as a dog for
a knowing and a doing love/5 Arvay loves “like a coward.
Don’t take no steps at all. Just stand around and hope for
things to happen out right.” Arvay must take the initiative for
once in her life and go after what she wants. After much soul-
searching and confrontation with the past, she does just that,
finally feeling that she deserves to be loved and appreciated.
She has consciously decided to work with instead of against
her husband. All the possibilities of the marriage relationship
can now be realized.

Because her struggle goes on through most of the 311 pages
of the novel, Arvay shows that having a successful marriage
is often a graillike quest. She also shows that one cannot love,
respect, and accept another until one loves, respects, and ac-
cepts one’s self. Just as Janie Stārks and John Redding dis-
cover that marriage does not necessarily make love or happiness,
so Arvay discovers that marriage cannot improve one’s value
to one’s self. Only time, courage, and a deliberate and con-
scious effort to set things right can do that. It helps, of
course, to have a loving, patient mate like her husband, but
she must do the final self-assessment and self-adjustment her-
self. When the marriage is at its best, Arvay is as much of an
individual as her husband. Like Missie May, she has grown
and matured, and she has come down safely from the clouds
and found her place in the world.

Clearly, then, a successful happy marriage does not come
easily but it can, and sometimes does, happen. In each of the
three discussed here, both partners have been willing to work
together to realize the best they have to offer each other. Dis-
trust, doubt and dishonesty figure in each marriage, but each
is overcome as the couples mature and come to grips with
themselves and reality. Curiously, in the unsuccessful mar-
riages, the male is always eliminated, i. e., killed – an unusual
and hard fate – and the woman is left intact, available, as it

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������
All use subject to

268 Liūie P. Howard

were, for another, hopefully happier marriage. A flawed man
is obviously less forgiveable in the Hurston world than a flawed
woman. When the woman is at fault, however, as in ” Spunk,”
” The Gilded Six-Bits/’ and Seraph on the Suwanee, she is
made to suffer, though her punishment is mild when compared
to that of the men. Lena Kanty loses both of the men in her
life within a few days; Missie May is taunted and tortured by
her conscience and her husband for almost a year; and Arvay
Henson torments herself throughout most of the novel, through-
out most of her life.

Though Hurston herself did not find marriage palatable –
she married twice, divorced twice, after spending only a few
months, maybe less, with each husband – she did advocate it
highly for her characters. She recognized that for some, finding
a suitable mate who will love, cherish, respect, trust, under-
stand and encourage is the ” be-all 99 of life, just as she realized
that for others, like herself and John Redding, marriage wasn’t
meant to be. In her works, she presents marriage as varied
and realistically beset by hardships. To her, it was an im-
portant institution capable of various possibilities which she
explores sometimes beautifully, sometimes unmercifully.

Wright State University
Dayton # Ohio

This content downloaded from
������������� on Thu, 04 Aug 2022 22:30:29 UTC�������������
All use subject to

  • Contents
  • p. 256
    p. 257
    p. 258
    p. 259
    p. 260
    p. 261
    p. 262
    p. 263
    p. 264
    p. 265
    p. 266
    p. 267
    p. 268

  • Issue Table of Contents
  • CLA Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2 (December, 1977) pp. i-iv, 179-335
    Front Matter
    CONTRIBUTORS [pp. ii-iv]
    Review: untitled [pp. 321-324]
    Review: untitled [pp. 324-325]
    Review: untitled [pp. 325-327]
    Review: untitled [pp. 327-329]
    Review: untitled [pp. 329-330]
    Review: untitled [pp. 331-332]
    Review: untitled [pp. 333-334]
    Back Matter

Expert paper writers are just a few clicks away

Place an order in 3 easy steps. Takes less than 5 mins.

Calculate the price of your order

You will get a personal manager and a discount.
We'll send you the first draft for approval by at
Total price: