The Alliance Between Medical Truth and the Patriarchy in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper”

Hathitrust Digital Library, digitized copy of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” from The New England Magazine 1891-192, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924080769783&view=1up&seq=655. Accessed April 5, 2020.

“John is a physician, and perhaps — (I would not say this to another living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind) — perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster” (647). This quote, written in a diary by the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” came as a surprise to me the first time I read it. If someone is married to a doctor—giving them close and easy access to medical expertise and care—shouldn’t that be an advantage to them when they are unwell? Shouldn’t they have the utmost care and attention paid to whatever ails them? As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that that is not always the case. “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” published in The New England Magazine in 1892, follows the narrator and her doctor husband, John, as they rent a house in the countryside one summer so the narrator can recover from “temporary nervous depression” by taking in the fresh air and spending her time relaxing (really, doing nothing). She never gets better, though; she instead becomes more delirious and unstable as she fills her empty time by fixating on the patterned yellow wallpaper in her bedroom, eventually convincing herself there is a woman trapped in the wallpaper who is trying to get out. John, meanwhile, keeps trying to convince her that she is getting better, using his authority as a doctor as leverage. His character serves to personify a longstanding alliance between the patriarchy and the medical industry/notion of scientific truth. 

Throughout the story, the narrator expresses a feeling of helplessness and frustration that her own thoughts about her well-being will never be listened to due to John being not just her husband but also a doctor. The narrator feels like there is something seriously wrong (though it perhaps isn’t strictly medical), and she thinks that its cure is for her to do work that excites and stimulates her. John, however, thinks she has been too active and needs to exert herself even less, hence the summer house rental and her spending all her time in the room with the yellow wallpaper. Towards the beginning of the story, she writes, “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?” (648). The implication here is that John has the final word, not just because he is her husband, who knows her well as an individual, but also because he is a well-reputed doctor, who knows more about health and human behavior generally (and that knowledge is based in supposed “fact” that will go uncontested). He has made his verdict, and their loved ones are aware of it and seem to understand it, so there’s no changing anyone’s mind.  

Later, when she tries to bring up that she feels like she is not getting better even though he keeps telling her she is, he interrupts hers and says, “‘Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?’ So of course I said no more on that score, and we went to sleep before long” (652-653). Here he is directly exerting his authority as a physician, and she again feels unable to argue against that, his seemingly objective and factual perception of what’s best for her. And his framing it around the idea of “trust” is an addedly clever move. He’s not just saying she should believe him and his medical expertise; the word “trust” also carries emotional implications and ties in his role as her husband and how her role as his wife is to “trust” and defer to what he says. The role of a doctor and the role of a man and husband go hand in hand when it comes to determining what is best for women. Combining those roles into one person, rather than some other doctor who had advised them earlier and then not played a part in the story, emphasizes how those roles work together because John is able to seamlessly switch between them or occupy both of them at the same time.  

It is also important to note that it is not just John who acts like this; it is seemingly all male doctors. After the quote from page 648 mentioned in the last paragraph, the narrrator writes, “My brother is also a physician, and also one of high standing, and he says the same thing” (648). Later, she writes, “John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall. But I don’t want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!” (650). These two quotes paint a larger picture of the world in which the story takes place (which reflects the real world). It is not just John who has these ideas about women and their hysteria; it is other doctors as well. It is not just the narrator who suffers from this “treatment” of not being allowed to do anything fulfilling (even though a lack of fulfillment and constant subjugation is probably what makes them “hysterical” in the first place); it is other women too. These quotes show that this is a widespread positive feedback loop of the (male-dominated) medical industry reinforcing and amplifying the patriarchy’s subjugation of and infliction of mental harm on women.  

The narrator really seems to have gotten the short end of the stick in her marriage. John, as a doctor, is a bigger cog in the patriarchy machine than the average husband would be. He’s not just advantaged because he’s a man, but he has even more societal clout because of his esteemed profession, and the narrator is constantly a direct victim of both of those power structures, which have been designed to strengthen each other and which create a huge obstacle for the narrator and women in general. 

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