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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The medical and paternalistic models of disability are outdated, ineffective, and dehumanizing.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