Historical Hysteria and “The Yellow Wallpaper”

The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves by Siri Hustvedt, chronicles hysteria as being, “the root [which] comes from the Greek for ‘womb.’ Its origin as a purely female problem connected to reproductive organs serves to warn readers that the word itself is an ancient bias against woman” (12). This assumption paves the way of differentiating “hysteria” from female hysteria; assuming that there is a difference.

Through the lens of Hustvedt, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, can be interpreted as an historical account of how women were essentially misdiagnosed based on their gender, in the form of a narrative. This novel addresses the role of the “Physician” in such misdiagnoses and how they refuse to attribute “hysteria” to being a psychological impairment. Hustvedt documents the belief of the Greek physician Galen, that, “hysteria was an illness that beset unmarried and widowed women who were deprived of sexual intercourse” (12). However, Gilman illustrates through her text that it is isolation and a caged consciousness that imbues hysteria, rather than “sexual deprivation”. Gilman explores this idea of deprivation of affection by accounting for the main protagonist who is a woman, with a husband and a baby. Ultimately, it is the lack of stimulus from human interaction, which allows for the gradual loss of a sense of self and of reality for the main character. The “barring” of the windows in this narrative can symbolize a caging or inhibiting of the expansion of the mind, which may also translate to the confinement that comes with being too alone with one’s own thoughts.yellow-wallpaperThe narrator of The Shaking Woman is a mirror image of the main protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” through the way in which thy both embody their mental state at the conclusion of each of the works. The women either texts, exemplify heir abnormal mental state which manifests itself into the physical realm as an extension of themselves. Hustvedt becomes “the shaking woman”, through introspection and verbal affirmation, whereas, the narrator of the “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes “the creeping woman” through merging with her subconscious. The “creeping woman” on the yellow wallpaper is projection of the narrator’s imagined subconscious and it appears as though the projection materializes as her reality with each increased interaction.

Each of the texts seem to work towards resisting the idea of “hysteria” being opposed as a psychological problem, but rather in direct relation with femaleness.

2 thoughts on “Historical Hysteria and “The Yellow Wallpaper””

  1. It strikes me that the woman “creeping” is just the kind of literary double Hustvedt describes in other texts. I wonder why she didn’t include “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

    Here’s my question: Gilman and Hustvedt are both feminists, both intellectuals, both public figures. Gilman rejects “hysteria,” while Hustvedt almost seems to hope for a diagnosis of “conversion disorder.” How does she manage to seek a diagnosis with a history of misogynist applications without compromising her feminism? Or does she?

  2. Hey there,
    I like how you tie both readings for this week together. It is evident that the main characters suffer from hysteria, but they handle it very differently. Hustvedt jumps into learning about the condition, its history, etc. while Gilman’s character is bed-bound until she’s better.

    I find it funny how the writers’ husband in Gilman’s work seems to act like he knows what’s best for her. I understand and am well aware of the fact that he’s a physician. I guess I’m going back to the concept of how people say they get what you’re going through, when that barely ever is the case. The husband doesn’t know what’s best for her because he’s never been in that situation himself. I guess tying in the feminist aspect, I wonder what this would read as if roles were reversed. Just a thought. I think it’d be interesting to read.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing!

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