Doctoring "The Yellow Wallpaper"
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ELH 69.2 (2002) 525-566



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Doctoring "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Jane F. Thrailkill


"You see, healing does go on, even if not in the expected direction." 1

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, Armentières, 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 treatment 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. [End Page 525]

In American letters, perhaps the most renowned instance of a doctor disregarding a patient's words involves the eminent neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, who in 1887 treated the young Charlotte Perkins Gilman (then Charlotte Stetson). As one of her biographers 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 andmother whose physician husband takes her to the country to recuperate 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 narrative become increasingly unhinged, and the narrative ends with themaddened 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 patriarchal culture. That Gilman's contemporary reviewers did not appearto perceive its feminist meanings was construed as lending weight tothis 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...