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Neurological diseases are undercover agents ofmalice battling with the mind’s sanity. Similarly, women are silent crusaders waging a war for equality in literature. In early history, mental diseases were overlooked by physicians and often left untreated; however, almost every person is affected in some way. This is brought to light by determined women who realize an evolution is necessary by revealing their first hand experiences with society’s restraint. When dedicated females opt for change in the creative writing business, a great awakening to the harsh impacts of emotional instability and studies in the medical field begins. The effects of women’s role in literature and mental illnesses are described in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty, and “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner.
In the 1800s, women are beginning to unite for freedom and take a stand for the many things they feel so strongly about. For Charlotte Perkins Gilman, that is unleashing her interesting, unknown thoughts onto paper and presenting them to the public knowing criticism was to come; however, this is not going to stop her from building a following to support mental illnesses. In 1892, she writes an autobiography regarding her postpartum depression and how it ultimately changes her life. The story is about a woman who seems to have the perfect life but is struggling with heavy-heartedness so her husband, John, a doctor, rents a house in the country in hopes that she will return to normalcy. There, she spends her time in one room for the next three months and begins an unhealthy fascination with the yellow wallpaper which consumes her.
The woman’s husband and brother, both acclaimed physicians, suggested that she treat her depression with bed rest and encouraged her not to put her thoughts in writing even though the woman insisted she do so. She mentions how exhausting it is to hide her journaling from everyone but this comes as no surprise because women were never encouraged to write when mental instability was not involved. Her opinions are often overlooked by John and he patronises her by calling her “little girl” and “dear,” showing that even as an educated woman and mother, her voice is incomparable to his because she is a female. An example of this is when she tries to tell him her appetite is getting worse and he responds, “‘Bless her little heart!’ said he with a big hug, ‘she shall be as sick as she pleases! But now let’s improve the shining hours by going to sleep, and talk about it in the morning!’”(Gilman, page). John ignores important information regarding the way that she feels but continues to display the authoritative role towards her insanity by continually telling her to get some rest. This is also a prime example of how physicians in the nineteenth century reassured their patients that doing the opposite of what makes them happy will cure their health; which was disproved when the woman lost her ability to write freely and it drove her to delirium.
The yellow wallpaper acts as a symbol of confinement in the 1800s because women did not have the right to vote or express themselves. As the woman tears down the wallpaper, she is removing all that holds women back from fighting for their rights and the woman in the wallpaper helps her do so. This implies that it takes multiple female figures to make a difference in society. Rena Korb examines female confinement and suppression and how it relates to the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and women empowerment in her criticism. She begins by explaining how the limited knowledge of mental illnesses lead to a restricted “cure,” bed rest, which was backed up by specialists. Korb states, “At that time, the medical profession had not yet distinguished between diseases of the mind and diseases of the brain; problems that would now be treated by psychiatrists, such as depression, were treated by neurologists…”(2). This same treatment was used by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell whom Gilman seeked for healing her depression. However, when she was told to never pick up a pen again after declared cured, her depression stemmed from this and she was determined to write how strongly she felt against Mitchell’s methods. In turn, this encouraged other women to share their personal situations through the work of literature and contributed to expanding growth in the psychiatric portion of of the medical field.
“A Worn Path,” by Eudora Welty, is the tale of an elder, black woman, Phoenix Jackson, who goes on an annual trip to the village to get medicine for her ill grandson who swallowed lye several years before. As she brings the reader along her journey, she encounters many hallucinations which questions her mental stability and question whether or not her grandson is alive. As swallowing lye is a very serious illness for a time period where no medical advancements had been and what are the odds that Jackson’s grandson is actually alive after all these years? When putting this analysis into perspective, Phoenix Jackson seems to have an undiagnosed mental illness. While making her way through the worn path, she comes across a scarecrow but thought it was a ghost and admitted to seeing things but blamed it on her age; in reality, she could be suffering from Alzheimer’s or Dementia- as these are common illnesses for elders. Another example of her visions occurs near a stream when Welty asserts, “She imagines a boy bringing her a slice of cake but opens her eyes to find her hand in the air grasping nothing”(page number). This personal connection Phoenix Jackson believes she had at the moment was her mind bringing back the memories which were shared with her grandson. The illusions of the boy and a ghost suggest that the boy is dead and she imagines him as she fights with her desire to believe he is alive. When Jackson makes it to the village, the nurse gets frustrated with her and blatantly commands her to, “tell [the nurses] quickly about her grandson, and get it over”(Welty page number). Furthermore, the nurse’s approach towards Phoenix Jackson composes the assumption that she is wasting the nurse’s time and has made this trip many times before. She must make this trip to keep herself mentally stable and not dwell upon the likely death of her grandson. This worn path represents her life;there are many obstacles along the way that she must overcome, one being the death of her grandson.
In a criticism by Neil D. Isaacs, he explains how “A Worn Path” has many meanings woven into the story. He implies that Phoenix Jackson goes on this journey to bring her grandson’s memory back to life and it assists her mental state as she still feels like she is contributing to society by going on this trip rather than dwell on the past life of her grandson during the holiday season. He gives specific examples of the symbolism in the story such as “. . . the medicine, which the nurse calls charity as she makes a check in her books, is a symbol of love and life. The windmill represents the same duality, but lighter sides of book aspects”(Isaacs 10). The medicine is what she goes on the long journey of life for to show her undying love for her grandson. Although in reality the medicine may be a pointless and drawn out trip, it allows Phoenix Jackson to cope with her grandson because it was the only person she had left to keep her moving through the harsh beatings in the midst of society in the Old South. Eudora Welty was a white woman who published this story in the mid-1900s when civil rights were still taking place. By writing this short story, she shed a light upon mental stability in regard to grief and women empowerment among different races- two major setbacks at the time- and while doing so, she became one of the most admired writers during the twentieth century. In “A Rose for Emily,” written by William Faulkner, mental illness is described in its entirety as the main character, Emily Grierson, undergoes ideological change since her father’s recent death. Colonel Sartoris, the town’s previous mayor, suspended Emily’s tax responsibilities to the town after her father’s death but as new leaders take over, they attempt to have her resume payments. When her father passed away, women of the town offered their condolences but Miss Emily refused to believe that her father was dead-denial-which lead to isolationism and insanity. Soon after, people began to complain of an odor coming from her house so the mayor ordered lime to be sprinkled along her house. People soon begin to realize that Miss Emily was not alone in the house and a man named Homer Barron, who was her first real beau, stayed there with her; however, their relationship took a downhill slope when she realized he did not feel the same towards her. At the end of the fifth section, Miss Grierson poisons Homer Barron with arsenic and his corpse was found laying in her bed, forty years later, as a result of an unbalanced mind taking control of her actions.
Emily Grierson displays behavior that can be classified by the reader as bizarre and insane. For ages, Miss Grierson was a woman whom isolated herself from the changing world outside her home which drove her to keeping the remains of her father in her home in fear of losing him physically. According to the story, “The man himself lay in the bed. . . Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head” (Faulkner page number). Miss Emily’s mental illness once again convinces herself that it is normal to have a dead body in her house. Grierson should have had medical treatment for her emotional instability following the death of her father but at the time, medical intervention was not of easy access as it is in contemporary society. In addition to this, her isolationism would have kept her from acquiring any sort of remedy. Aside from the psychological aspects found in “A Rose for Emily,” there is also evidence of female suppression. The story dates back to the 1930s when women were treated as sexual objects that did not have a voice and typically stayed inside the home. In a criticism written by Donald Akers, women abolishment is described by granting details of Emily and her father’s relationship. In Akers view, “. . . Emily’s overprotective, overbearing father denies her a normal relationship with the opposite sex by chasing away any potential mates” (6) and, “During this lifetime, her father prevented her from having an ‘acceptable’ suiter. Thus, she rebels by associating with a man her father would have considered a pariah: a Yankee-day laborer” (7). Undoubtedly, Emily and her father had an abnormally close relationship but it also reveals how women were owned in the twentieth century. Although “A Rose for Emily” was not written by a female figure, the underlying theme of confinement towards women remains in his story.
With the help of powerful, devoted women and writers, an increase in study and advancements to the cognitive field has taken place over the past century. Female authors such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Eudora Welty took a stand for mental illness while also rebelling against societal norms in the creative writing business. Male writers like William Faulkner, equally took a stand by bringing female suppression and mental disorders out of the black hole referred to as society and demonstrated that not only female figures were allowed to voice women’s rights. Women’s continued battle for equal rights and emotional diseases has awakened humankind to new ideologies which further improve the standard of living daily. This goes to show that through literature, anyone can be heard.
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