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Robert’s Formal Blog Post on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

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John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures. John is a physician, and — perhaps (I would not say it to a 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. You see he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do? 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?  My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing. So I take phosphates or phosphites — whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?

In this passage, our unnamed female narrator confides to us the mute isolation of her suffering. That the narrator is nameless fits well with this dehumanizing theme; just as her husband does not validate her claims that she is sick, her existence and value as a human is not validated with a name. John, her husband and her doctor, fails to comprehend the true experience of her “nervous troubles.” He prescribes “phosphates or phosphites…and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise” and she is “absolutely forbidden to do work” (Section 1). Here is quite a good representation of the paternalistic medical model of disability; disability is something to be controlled and to be cured and John’s wife is someone to be controlled and treated. Her opinions are ignored because she both a patient and a woman.

The medical and paternalistic models of disability are outdated, ineffective, and dehumanizing. John, who has “no patience with faith” and who “scoffs openly at things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures,” reduces his wife to a concept and a set of technical symptoms and treatments. These broken models end up worsening her illness and failing outright; she admits herself that “John is a physician and perhapsperhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.” In many instances, doctors simply treat a patient’s symptoms and not the cause of their distress. The medical model, after all, is fueled by materialism and money.

John’s medicinal paternalism also prevents his wife from expressing her solution to her illness. She says that she believes “congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?” (Section 1). She tries to express what she knows will help her; because she is both a patient and a woman, though, her ideas are immediately dismissed. Disability has isolated her, subjected her to her husband’s control, and stripped her of her power and autonomy. She is, in a way, the madwoman in the attic.

She is disempowered by John’s medicinal and cure-oriented mindset and his unyielding paternalism. Ironically, if not appropriately, John’s power fails to prevent his wife’s complete progression into her disability/madness. Here is the oppressive failure of the medical and paternalistic models of disability perfectly personified.

What is one to do?

Written by Robert

September 28th, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Helen’s Class Summary: September 20th, 2010

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Today’s class began with the great tragedy of the Blackboard reward quizzes: some, like the woeful author of this essay, neglected to take the Jane Eyre quiz until the hour before class, or, rather, the ten minutes before class started. When Dr. Foss attempted to reboot the closed quiz for our benefit, it rudely deleted itself. Amid cries of despair, Foss, with the kind of poise only accessible to people whose children are in school, promised to ask the illustrious Reverend Jim Groom about it, and said he would let us know when the quiz was once again available. Moving swiftly forward, we began our large group discussion about Bertha Mason and her portrayal in Jane Eyre; later, in small group, we talked of Rochester’s disability.  Our class discussion focused upon reading Bertha’s disability as an identity that dehumanizes her, as well Jane and Rochester’s reactions and relationship to Bertha; in small group, we concentrated upon the problematic way in which Rochester’s disability functions at the end of the novel.

To preface our discussion, Dr. Foss cited “The Madwoman in the Attic” a feminist article from the late 1970’s by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, which posits that, in Victorian literature, there is a temptation to portray female characters as either angels or villains. We used this idea to address the contrast between Bertha and Jane’s characters, and the way that disability may intersect well with Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist reading of this text. Bertha is portrayed as a dark, hulking, almost spectral figure with features so unspeakable that, in true Victorian fashion, they are left completely undescribed. Jane, dissimilarly, is pale, thin, and plain, a sensible and well brought-up young lady with whom Rochester has many illuminating conversations, while Bertha’s mind is described as “…common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher, expanded to anything larger…” (p. 324). Bertha is entirely dehumanized by Rochester, less worthy to him, even, than his dog, Pilot. Rochester’s first wife is reduced to the role of spectacle: when Jane stares at Bertha, Jane is reminded of how normal Jane herself is.

For all that Jane is “good, gifted, and lovely” (334) to Bertha’s “manic upstairs” (335), Jane and Bertha do have some characteristics and life experiences in common. Jane has numerous encounters with extended confinement in her childhood, like her near-incarceration in the red-room in chapter II of the novel, which haunts her well into her adult life, and her tenure at Lowood School, which was little more than a jail. Jane experiences anger in these situations that could be considered similar to Bertha’s fits of rage, and perhaps Jane understands Bertha all the better for her experiences with confinement. She certainly pities Bertha, and says to Rochester: “you are inexorable for that unfortunate lady; you speak of her with hate—with vindictive antipathy. It is cruel—she cannot help being mad.” (318). This raised another question in our discussion: does Bertha behave like a wild animal because it is a function of her disability, or is Bertha simply living up to the role of the madwoman in the attic that Rochester has prescribed for her? When we discussed Richard III, we asked ourselves a similar chicken-and-egg question about whether Gloucester was naturally evil, or if his physical disabilities forced him to take up the mantle of a cruel and ruthless man.

Rochester’s attitude toward Bertha seems to change after she has been officially labeled as “mad.” Despite numerous protestations that he does not despise his wife for being mad but rather for being wicked, he was faithfully married to Bertha until he discovered that something diagnosable was wrong with her. Rochester claims to be capable of great love, but not of great love for Bertha. Foss raised an interesting question: does Bertha actually lose her status as a human being when she, apparently, loses her mind? Rochester seems to relegate her to the status of mistress: on page 234, Rochester says, “To tell me that I had already a wife is empty mockery: you know now that I had but a hideous demon.” Bertha certainly suffers the contempt, then, that Rochester’s other mistresses do. The class was reminded of the treatment of the disabled during more medieval times, when property could be taken over by a lord or another property owner when the actual owner was deemed unfit to oversee their own land.

Before Rochester is blinded unwittingly by Bertha, he tries to seek for himself a kind of spousal prosthesis: he is emotionally crippled, and in Jane he sees the kind of person who could look after him and perhaps cure him of his less desirable character traits. Bertha, on the other hand, exacerbates his worst characteristics, and Rochester believes that his treatment of Bertha and his disregard for the sacrament of marriage are the reasons he is stricken, by God, with blindness. In our small groups we discussed the problematic nature of Rochester’s blindness being dealt to him by a judging God rather than simple accident: this kind of thinking holds all disabled people accountable for their disability, and presumes that they have some sort of character defect that manifests itself outwardly though disability. We talked about how this is a narrow and fearful reaction on the part of non-disabled people. If there is universal morality or a just God to punish disobedience or defectiveness, then disability is avoidable, and therefore explainable and less frightening.
Whether Bertha’s mental disability led her to behave like an animal or if Rochester’s treatment of her is to blame, she provokes very dissimilar, though illuminating, reactions from Jane and Rochester. Jane empathizes with and pities Bertha; Rochester sees her as little more than a nuisance, a burden that he knows to be beneath him. Jane blames the disability for her behavior, while Rochester is compelled to believe that a natural wickedness has left her in this condition. Indeed, Mr. Fairfax, upon becoming blind, blames defects in his character for his plight, rather than the woman who inadvertently inflicted the damage. The disabled people portrayed in Jane Eyre are judged and punished, Bertha through incarceration and Rochester through his blindness.

Written by Helen

September 21st, 2010 at 7:34 pm

exploitation or empowerment?

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Lady Gaga's Disability Project

Lady Gaga's Disability Project

Today we analyzed images from Lady Gaga’s Disability Project (see link for more images) as a follow-up to our readings by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson.  Any further comments?

Written by cfoss

September 6th, 2010 at 10:26 pm

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