“In a heavily patriarchal society, could madness be an indirect means of escape – in a way, liberation for women?”
– An exploration of how mental illness in women was portrayed by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’.
Mentions of mental illness, self-harm & suicide.
Madness has been an ongoing theme in literature since Greek Tragedy, however in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the theme of madness became centered around and associated with women. The book ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’, by Susan Gubar and Sandra M. Gilbert, claims that female writers in the nineteenth century were inflicted with enormous anguish and frustration about the patriarchal and misogynist world that existed and how literature was dominated by men. Therefore, their anguish was portrayed through the figure of the ‘Mad Woman’. This idea by Gubar and Gilbert presented that there may have been a distinct literary tradition of women expressing their anger at patriarchal standards and expectations through mentally unstable women. In relation to the three chosen texts, the authors all had battles with severe mental disorders. Gilman experienced post-partum depression and a nervous breakdown after the birth of her first child, and later in her life, she committed suicide. Similarly, Plath had continuative mental illness and had a series of suicide attempts and finally ended her life in 1963. Their lives and stories being similar, despite large gaps in time, could reinforce the idea that women experienced an epidemic of mental distress that peaked in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ dating back to 1893 and ‘The Bell Jar’ closer to the modern era in 1963), and further, that this ‘madness’ was used as a means of escape from society’s expectations.
‘Madness’ was used as an umbrella term, between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for a variety of real, severe conditions that physicians couldn’t identify at the time (or in other words, they refused to identify because they believed it was just women ‘overreacting’). As people in the medical profession were predominantly male, it was men who determined ‘madness’ and created ideals in what is right behaviour (not ‘mad’) and what was wrong behaviour (‘mad’). Therefore, due to the patriarchal ideals which would have been standard and normal of the time, deviance from socially accepted behaviour – for women: refusal to marry (as Plath’s Esther does) and requesting to work in a male dominated career – would be categorised as madness/insanity. Additionally, emotions related to femininity and/or female hormones, were classified by men as socially deviant.
The Yellow Wallpaper 
The narrator in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, by Gilman, is engulfed by society’s expectations and is trying to conform but can’t seem to. The nameless narrator – implying the narrator is every woman – has already given birth to a child and eloped, yet she is still seemingly unhappy. Everyone else in this short story fits in perfectly with what society expects of them: Mary, the nursemaid, uses her motherly instincts as a woman to take care of the baby that the narrator was unfit to do; Jenny portrays how conventional women should function in the domestic sphere; as well as John being a doctor, suiting the couple’s middle-class background.
Additionally, John’s character was significant in demonstrating that gendered practices of medicine discriminated and belittled women’s mental and psychological disorders Gilman’s lifetime. Tangible evidence of this is the reasons for admission to an insane asylum from the late 1800s; a few, specifically gendered and disparaging, reasons are ‘imaginary female trouble’, ‘female disease’, ‘women trouble’ and ‘hysteria’.
Furthermore, regarding doctors using their power to treat undesirable female traits, the reasons for women’s admission to an insane asylum from the late eighteen-hundreds show a significant misunderstanding in female psychology, as they’re absurd and in contemporary times, offensive. Moreover, psychologists like Freud are viewed to have been sexist in their works, with him saying ‘women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own’ in his 1925 paper entitled “The Psychical Consequences of the Anatomic Distinction Between the Sexes.”
Grant Shreve says in ‘The Radicalized History of Hysteria’: ‘hysteria emerged in the late nineteenth century as a tool of patriarchal power’. I would further this to suggest that the gender roles expected of women were enforced by men to make them feel inferior, which subsequently distresses women when they cannot be what is expected of them. Men would then use this real, reasonable and logical stress experienced by women to belittle psychological disorders that women developed from the stress and unhappiness from the feeling of inadequacy.
However, Gilman also shows sexism in a less direct way – she uses symbolism in her novel to show the subtle ways in which her character is made to feel inferior to her male counterparts. For example, it is implied that the narrator as a prisoner by how she describes the house – ‘there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people’ This description, in particular, perpetuates confinement – possibly suggesting that women are prisoners to the house, as they are expected to work only within the domestic sphere.
More notably is the parallelism between the narrator and a child. The narrator lives in the ‘old nursery’, which in itself wouldn’t be significant enough to come to the conclusion of women being presented as children – but, with the addition of how her husband speaks to her, it becomes clear that the husband (assumingly representing all men) believes her to nothing but a child. He says, “What is it, little girl?” and “Bless her little heart! […] she shall be as sick as she pleases!” – despite the obvious immature treatment of his wife, the impersonal pronoun ‘she’ and ‘her’ shows how he’s speaking as if she’s not there in the room with him (as if she can’t comprehend how he’s trying to degrade her).
Another issue raised by Gilman through symbolism is confinement and gender; the ‘woman in the wallpaper’ is debated by the narrator to be ‘many great women’ – implying that this ‘Mad Woman’ in the wallpaper is the personification of female liberation as the ‘Mad Woman’ is a free woman. We see this in the way that the woman ‘in the wallpaper’ gives insight into the narrator’s emotional, intellectual and physical confinement. The narrator has no means of expression and the anger she feels is suppressed until she finally succumbs to insanity. The idea that caged women are freed by ‘madness’ could be indicated in the quotation ‘I’ve got out at last,’ Said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’ (Of which the narrator says to her husband) – Whereby we assume that the narrator has become ‘the woman in the wallpaper’ and feels she has escape, ‘I have got out at last!’.
Just before the end of the novel, there is a role reversal between John and the narrator. John faints upon discovering his wife’s strange behaviour, and she refers to him as ‘young man’ – acting as a signal of her ‘liberation’. The narrator is no longer timid, instead she has taken control of her own life, evident through treating John as a child rather than the reverse and him taking on feminine behaviour (as fainting would have feminine connotations of weakness). Thus, supporting the thesis that women indirectly use madness as a means of escape.
The Bell Jar 
The next text, ‘The Bell Jar’ uses recurring imagery of reflections and self-image; for example, Plath’s Esther doesn’t recognise herself when she looks in the mirror after her suicide attempt. But even before that, we see many different scenarios where she doesn’t recognise herself, such examples are when she looks in the compact mirror in Jay’s office and thinks a ‘Chinese woman’ is staring back at her, and the mirror given to her by a nurse at the city hospital she was admitted to where, again, her perception is distorted. Esther’s grasp on reality and identity is significantly warped by her suicidal and depressive moods, categorised as indistinct ‘madness’ of women in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, she found it easier to slit her wrists when she was looking in a mirror rather than at her wrists themselves, because – from what we can infer – she sees her mirror self as a separate entity as she no longer can recognise who she is, as she doesn’t feel whole within the patriarchal society living in. Cutting her wrists could even be symbolic as trying to set herself free from the chains placed on her by society – madness allows her to do this as the way she behaves expresses her poor mental state.
In addition, symbolism reveals how Esther feels a sense of entrapment. The name of the novel ‘The Bell Jar’ itself is a symbol for how Esther, the protagonist, feels confined. A bell jar is utilised for preserving but also keeps everything inside sealed from the outside world so that whatever is inside is isolated. The bell jar – “because wherever I sat, on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok, I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air” – is the primary metaphor used by Plath to portray Esther’s imprisonment in her own thoughts of self-doubt and depression.
Alternately, the bell jar symbol could also be a metaphor for society in general, in the way that people can be consumed and trapped in social conventions, traditions and expectations – so, the bell jar is what distorts her perception and disinhibits her from connecting with others. Moreover, when Esther is almost recovered, she feels that ‘the bell jar has lifted’ above her head, letting in fresh air and clearing her mind however that it could drop again at any moment; “How did I know that someday the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” Esther can now function normally and connect with other people but is worried that the bell-shaped jar will trap her to succumb to madness again. Although Esther is grateful to have escaped the bell jar, it does not represent a permanent change to her situation which parallels to Plath’s life.
In relation to real life, Plath also suffered pressures that drove her to attempt suicide, then recovered to only commit suicide later as her ‘bell jar’ descended once again. This symbol suggests that society’s expectations of women, synthesised into the symbol of the ‘bell jar’, is the reason Esther experiences ‘stifling distortions’ (madness), which supports the thesis of mental suffering of women due to society’s expectations, however the madness descends because of the jar, not as ‘a means of escape’ or ‘liberation’. This is notable as it shows that it may not be women specifically that use madness to set themselves free, it may just be a human response to being imprisoned in a dire situation. However, this essay is about women who have succumbed to madness and evidence suggesting that this is their solution to unachievable societal expectations.
Madness may have been the focus of both of these writers because they had an exclusive view of how women experiencing distress were treated. In ‘The Bell Jar’, Plath’s Esther was treated with electroshock treatment (a real thing that happened during the 1950s to 1970s), in order to dampen her wild imagination and leave her passive.
Passivity was a 1960s housewife ideal, and therefore this treatment tried to ‘fix’ Esther by restoring the characteristics that a woman of her age in this time should have exhibited. Similarly, the narrator in `The Yellow Wallpaper’ is somewhat similar to Plath’s ‘Esther’ as the narrator’s husband, a physician, gives her the ‘rest cure’ – which required her not to use her mind. However, the book shows that her physical and creative confinement worsened her condition. Additionally, Gilman herself admitted that after a doctor ‘put her to bed and applied the rest cure’, she ‘obeyed’ the directions her gave her for ‘some three months’ until she ‘came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over’. [Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” (1913)].
Both treatments aimed to leave the women passive, so their ambition to be writers is suppressed. This shows that doctors – predominantly men – were somewhat afraid of female success, meaning that they used their power as doctors to implement their misogynist ideals upon women. Notably, this treatment is demonstrated to affect their mental state by the writers as their boundaries between reality, imagination and feelings are blurred. These texts by Plath and Perkins-Gilman are significant in ‘feminist literature’ because they, as women, frame their own narrative on their experience with mental illnesses. Furthermore, they use their ability to express opinions and experiences though literature to critique the way of psychiatric medicine at the time and how their madness helped relieve them of societal pressures.
To conclude, the stories of ‘The Bell Jar’ and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ both depict a world of a woman who is struggling to mould themselves to suit the gender roles expected of them and how that leads to emotional decline. In, critic, Linda W. Wagner’s article ‘A Ritual for Being Born Twice: Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ she concludes that ‘disease, whether mental or physical, is an index to the human inability to cope with an unliveable situation’ . This, although generic to all human experience, helps to explain the thesis that women descend into madness as form liberation – freedom from the weight of the patriarchy’s expectations of women as the women in these chosen texts find the environments whereby, they are constrained by gender roles ‘unliveable’ and are looking for a ‘means of escape’.
You can read The Yellow Wallpaper here.
How Plath’s mental illness affected her work
The history of women and hysteria
About the writing of The Yellow Wallpaper
Symbolism in The Bell Jar
‘Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper’