p.p1 ‘housewife’ shaped this time period. In The Bell

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“It takes a powerful man to handle a broken woman” 

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Compare and contrast how authors Sylvia Plath and Charlotte Perkins portray mental illness in The Bell Jar and The Yellow Wallpaper. 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) , and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) are important literary works that express cases of mental illness in women; both tell the story of a woman who is unaware of the fact that she is slowly slipping into a mental breakdown. Gilman and Plath are two female authors who wrote about mental illness in their works reflecting their own experience. Tragically, Charlotte Gilman Perkin’s (1935) and Sylvia Plath (1963) both committed suicide, and it could be argued they portrayed their inner emotions throughout the use of writing and expressing their feelings on inequality and female mentality. The negative and uneducated reaction to the main characters’ illness was similar in both works due to the lack of knowledge and sensitivity for mental illnesses. Charlotte Perkins was one of the first female authors to document about mental illness in her work, which has actually been proved to have portrayed her own personal experience. Even though Perkin’s and Plath’s texts were written some 70 years apart, they both enlighten us readers to the lack of knowledge the average person had about mental illness and diagnosis.  
Most doctors during the 19th century were not scientifically educated in the field of mental illness of psychiatry. Unfortunately, due to the lack of professional education, they relied on social ideas about mental illness to help their patients. The Victorian society was heavily expectant of women, who were required to be acceptable wives and mothers. They were also expected to be emotional and dependent and gentle, therefore being more susceptible to illness. At the time, women were completely dependent on their fathers and husbands, which meant they had no right to choose for themselves, proving why depression and anxiety were particularly common among women. The far-fetched ideology of women persisted into the late 1950’s, where the stereotypical ‘housewife’ shaped this time period. In The Bell Jar, Esther accepts the expectations of being a mother and a wife, and that its something she should strive for. This displays how hard it would’ve been for a woman to cope and live with a mental illness and go against the expectations of society, as it would make them feel even more inferior then they already were, and distanced from society’s acceptability. It can be understood that the narrator suffers from hysteria, which was actually a disorder which was incredibly common in the late 19th century, and was accepted as ‘lack of motivation, distraction and feelings of insufficiency’. She also experiences exhaustion, which she displays through her writing, and telling us that John says she must always rest to promote a quicker recovery. She is also in no contact with anyone else apart from her husband, and a select few family members, which again would would single her out to be different just because of her illness, which evidently no one was capable of understanding. During the middle of the 19th century, society saw a rise of state asylums, and, sadly, this was mostly because doctors believed the best way to cure people was to simply change their environment.
It was thought that mental illness was caused by gender, class, heredity and peculiar behaviour because any behaviour that was outside of the social norms was considered to be “madness”. Asylums became the place where undesirable citizens were removed from respectable society, and in them female patients had to perform work that was appropriate for their gender, such as: sewing and cooking, which proves that patients were not really getting the medical attention needed, hindering their recovery. Popular treatment was known as electroshock therapy. Doctors admitted that only experienced doctors could perform this kind of therapy, because it could go horribly wrong, just like Plath described it in The Bell Jar. At the beginning of The Bell Jar, we find Esther is very touched by the death of The Rosenbergs, and later reveals  The Rosenbergs’ death by execution looks ahead to Esther’s nightmarish experience with electroshock therapy, later in the novel. Their shared experience with suggests that madness may not be just a physiological issue for Esther. Madness could just be another name for people who don’t fit in with the values of mainstream society, like The Rosenbergs. Society viewed mental illness as something shameful and they were afraid of mentally ill people because the public was not informed enough about it. Due to this, they made it even harder for mentally ill people to cope with their illness and recovery, as they distanced and isolated themselves away from people for feeling different. It can be argued that throughout both texts, the authors manipulate the readers perception of the two women, and this is shown through the use of first person point of view. Readers can infer the thoughts and feelings of other characters, however must rely on the protagonists for all other information and details. However, Plath and Gilman expertly write the two women as mad through their use of writing, which I feel builds a level of trust between the character and the reader, ironically due to the fact they are mentally ill. 
Being a woman throughout the 19th century definitely was not easy, but there was a rise in the consciousness of women, they wanted their voices to be heard, and one of those women was Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Whilst she was depressed, Gilman wrote the semiautobiographical novella in 1892. It follows the story of a woman who seems happily married to her husband John, however doesn’t feel happy in herself. Her husband, being a doctor, rents a house in the countryside in hope that it will ease her constant nervousness. However, she is forced to spend time in one room alone, and just after a short three months of being confined to it we see her health deteriorate as she develops an obsession with the old yellow wallpaper accompanying her in her room. Her problem stems from the fact her husband does not believe that she is sick at all, and due to her simply being a woman, no one takes her seriously. She believes writing will help her because she is so passionate about it, however John forbids her. Due to this, she has to write in secret and this tires her out. The confinement to her room comes as no surprise, as women were not supposed to have jobs outside of their home. At the beginning of the text she expressed how she feels..  however we quickly learn that her opinions are dismissed, for example, when she though the house was haunted her husband  Furthermore, John is always patronising her. He disguises his lack of care by calling her a which also ties in with the fact that the room was used for children, so maybe he is attempting to treat her like one. This also shows that even though she is a grown woman, a mother and a writer, her opinions are not as valid as his. Later on, she tries to make him understand that she is not feeling better and that her appetite is worse, he disregards her opinion completely and again uses belittling language: which I think is incredibly condescending to anyone. John, being a doctor, believes he knows how she feels, better than she does, because he never gives her the chance to talk. Another point is the fact that he deems her case not as serious as his other patients’. John thought that there was no reason for her to suffer and that was enough for him to deem her ‘relatively healthy’. This is an example of doctor who is uneducated in the field of mental health, as he clearly does not understand her illness and what she has to be depressed about. Esther encounters something similar with her male doctors, they all display the same lack of empathy unless they see progress. Both of the doctors in The Bell Jar represent the biased existence of patriarchy presented throughout society, where men are deemed the dominant, and where women’s voices are silenced. However, it is not until Esther visits a women doctor (Dr. Nolan) that she is actually listened to, and is given the treatment options for her condition. The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” displays a lot of her fragility throughout her writing, especially when she speaks to herself; She also admits that she cries at nothing and very often, but right after she says she cries only when she is alone, not even in front of John. I feel the power John holds against her almost helps her to realise the small position she is in, she reaches a slight realisation towards the end of the book where she expresses in her writing And this also continues as a couple entries later she says “ersonally, I think this points to another problem besides her illness; she is completely unable to confide in her husband or let out any feelings in front of him, and this will completely hinder her recovery. She also may not cry in front of John simply because it makes another point of how bad her mental illness is, and she may not want to feel inferior breaking down in front of him. The yellow wallpaper itself which accompanies the narrator throughout and ultimately drives her insane, actually symbolises exactly how she feels, trapped; and the woman she thinks she sees in the wallpaper is actually her reflection and shows the feelings she has enveloped herself in. At the very beginning we understand that the narrator feels depressed, however the more time she spends with the “almost revolting; unclean yellow” wallpaper, we see her health start to deteriorate and she starts hallucinating. She’d always hated the wallpaper from the moment she saw it, and she often wondered if the previous owners hated it too.  Considering ‘The woman in the wallpaper’ is actually listed as a character, you could argue that this may be the narrators inner self, or even her better self. Gilman uses the technique of dramatic irony to allow the readers to have a wider outlook.
The oblivious way the narrator identifies that in the room there are  and  gives the readers an upper hand on how the story might climax, which also makes her seem entirely mad that she cannot see the obvious. It becomes clear to us that the yellow wallpaper room has been used to house generations of women who have rebelled against the boredom of their lives. This manipulative wallpaper drives them solely insane, which is clear through the narrator as by the end she thinks of herself as the woman in the wallpaper, which also suggests that she’s trapped as has been for a while now. When describing lines on the wallpaper, she uses equivocal language:  Personally I feel that she’s actually aware that the wallpaper is having a negative effect on her health and even though she does not commit suicide, the wallpaper acts as a significant factor that contributes to her mental breakdown. Similarly to the narrator, Esther, in The Bell Jar who holds characteristics to hysteria, she feels she loses her identity and voice, and feels unable to be productive or leave her home. Throughout the book, we notice Esther confines herself inside, and detaches from those around her, and also seeks relief in writing however also finds it difficult to express herself as discussed: This is a particularly vivid clue about Esther’s decent into suicidal depression. For a girl who spends her life working with words as a magazine intern, and as a literature major, she is always occupied and busy, therefore the thought of silence to her is terrifying. However, this doesn’t stop her from indulging in silence and her own company when she begins to isolate herself. Both Esther and the narrator’s mental disorders dramatise the lack of knowledge regarding mental illness typical of their era. Eventually, she attempts suicide as a source of escapism to leave behind all the overwhelming pressure from her mother, friends and even professors. The authors use these significant mental illness stories to critique the fact too many people were unaware of illnesses and diagnosis. However, not everyone was completely unaware of how to help women get over their illness; Esther’s mother took her to a doctor and came to visit her in the asylum, and the narrator’s husband rented a house for her to rest in, which proves they are educated enough to recognise that they need the help, just not the ways in which to give it. Furthermore, John is particularly similar to Buddy in The Bell Jar because they both do not want their partner to write; John did not allow his wife to write because he thought it was bad for her health, while Buddy thought Esther naturally would not want to write anymore when she had children. There is a big difference here because John does it out of concern and ignorance, while Buddy is just behaving prejudicially against women. Another similarity I noticed between both texts were that both mentally ill women are writers, and due to this neither of them had the strength to write anymore; after the first time she met Doctor Gordon. However, even though the narrator and Esther did not suffer from the exact same illness, the reaction they both got from their relatives and loved ones were pretty similar. They were almost afraid of them, and they did not know what to do, what to say or how to act because they did not understand the nature of their illness. Furthermore, their lack of knowledge could have possibly contributed to the progression of their illness into something even more serious, and as a modern day reader its strange to think the general public were so unaware as even now we have days dedicated purely to mental illness and it gets taught about in schools. The similarities between the two protagonist’s lives subtly suggest that these texts are not simple accounts of two women struggling with mental illnesses, but rather show the distressing signs of how they deteriorate constantly due to the lack of education behind it. Throughout both texts the males play a huge part in hindering the recovery of their partners health and mental state. There are many aspects that differ between the two texts due to the fact that they were written 70 years apart. This could explain why Plath was more open and thorough when discussing the way Esther felt because of her illness, perhaps people were a little more educated and it wasn’t such a social embarrassment to be ill. Furthermore, the treatment both protagonists received was different; the narrator was treated at home through a rest cure and what he thought was ‘best’, and Esther spent some time in asylum’s and was treated by psychologists who had vague experience, therefore making it difficult to compare. 
The end of the yellow paper is not one you would expect. We are led to believe she may commit suicide or something dangerous, however what actually happens could also be considered suicide considering she damages the woman in the wallpaper, who were are also lead to believe could now be her. The narrator strips off all the wallpaper in her room, and continues to around her room  The narrator tells John that she’s and that she’s liberated herself. The Bell Jar closes just as Esther enters her interview at the psychiatric institution, where we know she has spent the past few months recovering. Due to the novel ending there, us readers are unaware of whether the doctors think she is able to go back to college, or if she needs more therapy. Both subtly confusing endings leave the readers with a sense of suspicion and we are left intrigued as we feel we have grown a relationship and trust with both of these women.

Both The Yellow Wallpaper and The Bell Jar tell the stories of two challenged women who struggle to adapt to the lifestyle and realisation that they are mentally ill, which inevitably leads them to emotional break downs. To conclude, both works are immensely important for women’s discourse; because perhaps if it wasn’t for The Yellow Wallpaper, The Bell Jar might not have been written, and both works were particularly significant for the era in which they were written. Furthermore, both works inspired many other female writers and instigated them to write about mental illness and diagnosis from the female perspective. Nonetheless, Plath’s account of the events about her hospitalisation and her time in the asylum has proven to be more accessible to young women in the second half of the 20th century and today, making it perhaps even more influential than The Yellow Wallpaper which previously influenced Plath.

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