When I first began researching madwomen, my search began in literature. I combed through books, short stories, and poetry across periods. I found so much madness not only in the characters but in the writers’ own lives. Writing, after all, is an extension of ourselves and our circumstances. If so many female writers were experiencing the madness of patriarchal enclosure, I began wondering how many other women were experiencing it, but not writing it down? How many were ‘mad’ in reality and not just fiction? There are very interesting parallels that can be drawn between fiction and reality. I want to refer to scholars Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic. Their research into the same topic is focused mainly on 19th-century literature authors and characters, but as I argue that sort of oppression has not changed. Gilbert and Gubar write in their Preface that women have often been, “enclosed in the architecture of an overwhelmingly male-dominated society” (xvii). They are using the term architecture to describe the structural facets of patriarchal society. Women then are confined to the areas men have defined for them; that really gives the phrase ‘women belong in the kitchen’ new meaning.
If patriarchy defines the spaces, then I can argue that women have had to find creative ways to rebel. Aside from active protests, there is passive activism that exists in works that include this madwoman character. These writers could have written these “images of enclosure and escape” (Gilbert & Gubar Preface xvii) as an act of both pointing it out and as an act of rebellion. Even though many women have been unable to shed the shackles of patriarchy, they were able to disguise their rebellion in their writing cleverly hiding their dissatisfaction and protests in their novels and poems. As Gilbert and Gubar point out, writings by and of madwomen have certain characteristics and tropes. The madwoman starts out as a “normal” woman and then for some reason she goes mad. Once she goes mad there is no returning to the genteel housewife. In this blog, I want to examine the similarities between a fictional short story and a real madwoman’s life story.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (TYW) has been analyzed and examined since its initial publication in 1892. Authorial intent is not usually something that matters to me as an English grad student. I think that’s the beauty of literature: that you can interpret things in lots of different ways (provided you have actual evidence). For this text though, Gilman actually wrote about her reasons for writing the short story, and I believe those should be considered when this story is examined. After all, the text is based partly on her own experiences with postpartum depression. In the entry, she writes that she was given the same advice as the character in her story to rest in bed and never write ever again. She states that the advice from this “wise-man” sent her “so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over [it]” (Perkins Gilman). This was never meant to be a feminist tale (I think it still is though), instead it was supposed to be a cautionary tale. At the very end of the brief entry she writes, “It [TYW] was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked” (Perkins Gilman). For its use here, TYW offers an example of the madwoman character arc in literature, that takes its ideas from real-life.
The structure of TYW is a series of journal entries written by the wife as she spirals into madness. At the beginning of TYW, readers are informed that the wife has been advised, or should I say ordered, by her husband to remain locked up in an “atrocious nursery” (Perkins Gilman), after her mental health has taken a turn for the worse during her postpartum period. Her choices about her health and care are made by the patriarchal figures in her life, “if a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?” (TYW Perkins Gilman). As with the case of many madwomen, her husband decides to just sweep her off, away from prying eyes, away from the society she cannot conform to. It is not explicitly stated in the text, but it is implied that she will remain away from society until she is decent enough to rejoin.
Once they arrive at the mansion, her husband sets her up in the nursery. In this nursery, she becomes increasingly obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in the room. Also in this room, the windows are barred and there are rings hanging out from the walls. Within the wallpaper she sees forms and shapes moving about until she believes it to be a woman trapped behind the paper. She watches the figure move “the faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out” (TYW Perkins Gilman). The woman believes that this same treatment happened to another woman before her; that the wallpaper swallowed her up and now it wants her too.
The patriarchal hold over her eventually breaks when she snaps, becoming utterly mad, peeling all the wallpaper off and pacing around the room continuously “‘I’ve got out at last,’ … ‘and I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’” (Perkins Gilman). There is no going back to the submissive wife, she is a monster now, but literature is often conveying a message to its readers. With her transformation she surpasses the patriarchy, “now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall so that I had to creep over him every time” (Perkins Gilman). She physically and metaphorically tramples over the patriarchal hold over her.
This is often the point where critics argue this is not a feminist tale. They believe that because she spirals totally into madness with no hope for her sanity then it must mean that her husband was right; she was mad. I want to caution readers from rolling down the hill to that conclusion so quickly. As a cautionary tale, Gilman was attempting to warn other women about the treatment she, and her heroine, were prescribed. When she breaks out of the wallpaper she is utterly mad, but she is mad because she was enclosed both physically and societally. The patriarchal force in her life saw a woman as unable to perform her domestic duties so she must be reprogrammed and confined. Gilman takes that notion and shows how shutting a woman away does very little good for their sanity.
If the fate of literary madwomen is bleak, the fate of real madwomen is bleaker. Historically the Victorian era saw the height of admissions to asylums. I say that it is sooner than that because people who differ from societal norms have always been excluded in some way. To focus on the Victorian era, 18th and into the 19th century, the emerging field of psychiatry was used to justify women’s oppression. Perhaps one of the most influential madwomen of this time is Elizabeth Packard. Packard was an advocate for the rights of women and the insane after her own time in an asylum. Kate Moore’s novel The Woman They Could Not Silence, chronicles the story of Packard’s experience of being condemned to the Jacksonville Insane Asylum in Illinois in 1860 by her husband, Theophilus. She was put there not for the sake of her own mental health, but because of her outspoken differing opinions from her husband and his church. She would be there for three years before a jury took seven minutes to deem she was sane. During her time there she observed the doctors and attendants, their treatments, and the other patients. What she found was a large group of women as sane as she was, there for the same reasons she was: they were not perfect, quiet angels. When Packard is forcibly removed from her home Moore writes, “If she screamed, she sealed her fate. She had to keep her rage locked up inside her, her feelings as tightly buttoned as her blouse” (Moore “Prologue”). What Moore has done with this scene is perfectly capture the restrictive nature of patriarchy. Both her locking up of her emotions and also the “tightly buttoned…blouse” work together to convey how trapped Packard must have felt. If she let those emotions, presumably rage and hurt, she would play out the insanity her husband had prescribed to her.
As I read Moore’s novel I found so many aspects of Packard’s life that echoed the literary “Yellow Wallpaper”. While Gilman did not credit Packard’s story in why she wrote TYW, Gilman’s own experience lends itself to the historical medical treatment of women like Packard. There is a common theme of physical enclosure for both Gilman’s heroine, and Packard is a direct result of the ever-present patriarchy. In TYW, the heroine is locked away in a “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate” (Perkins Gilman). Her description as a hereditary estate works not only to set the scene but also further embeds her in patriarchal control. Often hereditary estates were passed through generations by male heirs, women were used to merge estate holdings through marriage arrangements. In the very first chapter of Moore’s novel she describes Packard’s bedroom, “The morning of June 18, Elizabeth’s eyes were drawn again to the green shutters in her bedroom. There was a reason why they no longer let in light. Theophilus had boarded them shut” (Moore 15). Her husband has locked the outside world away in an attempt to keep her unsightly opinions away from others. Even after she is released from the asylum he locks her in the nursery and boards all the windows (Moore 290). It seems the literary madwoman is not as exaggerated as it is argued.
If the madwoman is so permeated into literature, why does it seem like no one is realizing its real-life implications? These madwoman characters were not meant to be understood as only villains, or antagonists to scare the heroine into the hero’s arms. These madwoman characters were cries for change, points of activism that fell largely on deaf ears. Historically in the 19th century, the medical wisdom of the age was that assertive, ambitious women were unnatural, and therefore sick. Women like Elizabeth Packard and Gilman’s character were physically shut away for their inability to conform to the idyllic angels they were told to be. I think that if we really look we will still find all sorts of different forms of confinement that exists over us today.
*picture via Pixabay