The Yellow Wallpaper
It’s Monday, June 21, 1897, at 102 East Sherman Street, in Hutchinson, Kansas. Julia Latimer Whiteside, 29, is visiting with Alice Lewis Smith, 36, at Alice’s business of cure baths.
As Alice prepared the cure bath for her first customer of the day, she heard the whistle of the departing Hutchinson & Southern train.
Meanwhile, Julia felt like she was on olfactory overload. What are those different smells? thought Julia. Peppermint? Ginger? Cinnamon? Cloves?
“Yesterday, I lost my gold-framed glasses in front of Silsbee & Scott’s grocery,” said Alice. “I placed a notice in today’s paper in case someone found them.”
“I hope a Good Samaritan returns them,” said Julia. “Houston and I will be leaving for California in two weeks, but I wanted to stop by and see how your cure therapy is working.”
“A lot of people have given it a try,” said Alice. “Most, but not all, are encouraged. It’s a combination of compound vapor fuming and liniment bathing. It helps cure rheumatism, asthma, eczema, chronic neuralgia, and other nervous troubles.”
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“I have a friend who normally isn’t hysterical, but hasn’t been doing well recently,” said Julia. “She’s been having emotional problems since the birth of her baby. Her doctor told her to follow the Rest Cure.”
“The Rest Cure can be helpful, but not every woman has the luxury of a full-time nurse while she stays in bed for weeks or months,” said Alice.
“It’s been weeks,” said Julia, “but she’s been forced to stay in bed 24 hours a day. It seems harsh and too isolating. There are better ways to get fresh air than by opening windows.”
“Have you been able to visit her to form your own opinion?” asked Alice.
“Her husband forbids visits from family and friends,” said Julia. “Even brain work, like writing, is prohibited because it might lead to nervous strain and interfere with recovery.”
“Do you know if the doctor sees the woman as hysterical?” asked Alice. “As you know, every patient is different, but so is every doctor. Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell is known nationally for his pioneering work on nervous disease, especially neurasthenia (physical and mental exhaustion) and hysteria, but even a Rest Cure can be overdone.”
“Agreed,” replied Julia. “You sound like you’ve been to a recent lecture by Charlotte Perkins Stetson.”
“I wish,” replied Alice. “She’s brilliant. She’s successful in many areas: lecturer, author, poet, and social reformer.”
“With her untiring leadership, someday we’ll have the vote,” said Julia. “Mrs. Addison, state president of the Women Suffrage Association, has arranged for Charlotte to deliver a number of lectures around the state over the next month. I haven’t heard if she’s coming to Hutchinson.
“I’m thinking about Charlotte’s short story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ It was published a few years ago in The New England Magazine. Do you know it?”
“I haven’t read the story,” said Alice, “but if Charlotte Perkins Stetson wrote it, she’s probably not sharing tips on hanging wallpaper or decorating the house.”
Julia and Alice both laughed. They were bright women, much more than “just” wives and mothers. They recognized Charlotte as a social reformer with courage.
“Charlotte wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ after her own complete nervous collapse and recovery,” said Julia. “When she fell into a psychotic depression, she came under the care of Doctor Mitchell.
“Her short story’s about a woman who is suffering from nervous depression, but the narrator also has a marriage that’s not working. Her husband, John, is her doctor. He recommends a treatment of inactivity, for her to rest and stay in her room, and not even write. However, she longs for a stimulating conversation and physical activity.
“After too much time isolated in the bedroom, she’s disturbed by the yellow wallpaper that’s irritating and torturing her with its formless pattern and hideous color. It smells and begins to shift, depending on the lighting. By moonlight, it begins to resemble bars.
“The point of the story is to caution that patients, often women, may be physically pampered but emotionally starved,” said Julia. “The treatment was causing, not correcting, her further mental breakdown because she wasn’t being respected and allowed to make decisions regarding her own lifestyle and health.
“Charlotte Perkins Stetson recovered after traveling west to California,” continued Julia. “That’s ironic because Dr. Mitchell promoted a rugged ‘Go West’ cure for men, while women were typically stuck in bed resting when they preferred congenial work, with excitement, and change.”
“I know that economically she promotes women making their own living and feeding themselves,” said Alice. “I’m familiar with her lecture, ‘The Heroes We Need Now.’ She begins by making it clear that heroism is made up of strength, courage, and love. Heroism always means doing something for other people, making sacrifices for others.”
“Yes,” agreed Julia, “Charlotte encourages women to go beyond being a wife or mother, to understand that we have a duty to the entire world. Despite being abused and despised, women need the courage to keep learning and living a new life.
“She ended the lecture reminding people, especially women, that a danger to progress is to try and please everyone. That’s impossible.
“According to the newspaper article I read,” continued Julia, “Charlotte cautioned that you’ll be criticized and slandered whether you sit still or whether you do the work for social change. At the end of the lecture she asks, ‘Why not find the courage to make a difference?’”
“We’re fortunate to have our lives,” said Alice. “And congratulations on being awarded first prize at the closing Jubilee concert for the best contralto solo. Your beautiful vocal solos make Hutchinson proud.”
“Why, thank you,” responded Julia.
“You’re welcome here anytime,” said Alice, “just let me know if I can be of help. I hope you, Houston, and the children have a nice trip west. How old are Houston, Jr. and Ada now?”
“Houston, Jr. turned six last week; Ada is four. How about Harry and Susie?”
“Harry’s ten, Susie’s eight,” stated Alice. “Julia, thanks for reminding me how Charlotte Perkins Stetson continues to be a risk-taker, speaking her mind, helping improve the world. She’s a model for the rest of us.”
“Not everyone thinks she’s talented,” answered Julia. “Some people, including newspaper editors, think she’s just another hysterical woman out of touch with reality, trying to change the male-dominated social order.”
“I’m reminded how fortunate I am,” said Alice. “While Fay is busy at the courthouse, I’m working outside the home, here and with rentals. I thank God I’m not trapped in bed, staring at yellow wallpaper.”
Until next time, happy writing and reading.