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“Madness has been perceived for centuries metaphorically and symbolically as a feminine illness.”Compare how madness is presented as a female illness in Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and ‘Making a Change’ alongside Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar.’ Julianna Little argues that “Madness has been perceived for centuries metaphorically and symbolically as a feminine illness.” Across literature, these feminine illnesses are presented as an extensive problem for the victim, with many complex origins. Both Perkins Gilman and Plath portray characters as victims of a rigidly patriarchal society, with certain expectations of marriage and motherhood, which ultimately contributes to their struggles with their mental health, suggesting that mental illnesses are feminine illnesses. This can be most notably seen in ‘Making a Change,’ with Julia’s struggle to meet the social expectations of motherhood. However, it is also important to acknowledge the other factors that can trigger mental illness such as a biological predisposition, seen in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ or the individual’s attitudes, which can be identified in Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar.’Rather than presenting madness as a feminine illness, Gilman’s semi-autobiographical ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ follows a woman’s descent into paranoia and insanity due to the oppressive nature of her cure, “absolutely forbidden to work until I am ‘well’ again.” A key idea in feminist analyses of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ is blaming patriarchal society for the narrator’s mental illness. The most extreme critics go as far as suggesting that the narrator isn’t even ill and that her madness is a social construct of the patriarchy. This highlights the attitudes towards female mental illness and can also be seen with Esther in ‘The Bell Jar.’  This argument brings up the debate on whether these women are labelled as mentally ill simply because they don’t fit the conventions of a typical woman, leading them to be feared by the rest of society, thus leading to them falsely being labelled as mentally ill, suggesting they are symbolically feminine illnesses. Hume highlights that “both Gilman and her narrator attempt to create an elaborate and deceptive narrative,” or more simply, the narrator’s story is meant to show the problems with the rest cure, and its contribution to the mental decline of the narrator. Due to this, I would argue that ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ reflects Perkins Gilman’s political view of psychology, and, psychological treatments. Moreover, in ‘Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,’ Perkins Gilman stated that she wanted to “reach Dr S Weir Mitchell and convince him of the error of his ways.” This highlights how the oppressive nature of the rest cure is more damaging than it is good and does in fact, contribute to female mental illness of the time. Due to this, it seems that the wallpaper itself is a symbol of the restricting nature of patriarchal society and the rest cure.Another key social factor that could be a cause of the narrator’s illness is the reliance and trust in physicians and by extension, men, highlighting how mental illness are literally imposed upon females due to their inferiority and reliance upon men. This is clearly highlighted throughout the novella, with the repetition of “but he said,” and John states “can you not trust me as a physician…?” Perkins Gilman criticises this trust of physicians, by presenting the detrimental effects on the narrator, “no one touches this paper but me- not ALIVE!” reflecting her negative attitudes towards Dr Mitchell as he subjected her to the rest cure. Hubert argues that the oppressive nature of this trust in men leads to an internalised self-oppression of the women themselves, ultimately leading to a further decline in mental state. In contrast, Perkins Gilman presents a woman who doesn’t rely on her husband in ‘Making a Change.’ The key trigger of Julia’s downward spiral is the fact that she is left alone to care for her baby, and she struggles with this expectation of motherhood. Julia’s husband, Frank, is the epitome of a traditional father, leaving Julia with the sole responsibility of the child, “Is there no way to stop that child from crying?” This highlights the contrast between the two relationships, the complete reliance in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ compared to Julia’s complete independence or separation in ‘Making a Change.’ However, it is important to consider that like Julia’s husband, John is also unaware of his wife’s experiences, despite her complete reliance on him, “John does not know how much I really suffer.” Schwarzenbach and Smith suggest that Perkins Gilman uses Julia to criticise how traditional society gives sole responsibility of childcare to the mothers. Although in two different situations, the two relationships with the men, both contribute to the characters’ struggles with mental illness, suggesting that these illnesses are specific to women, both symbolically and metaphorically. Perkins Gilman presents the entrapment of motherhood, and its social expectations, leading to the development of a mental illness, through the character of Julia in ‘Making a Change.’ This short story narrates a new mother’s struggle with the expectations of motherhood, ultimately leading to a suicide attempt. After Julia’s attempted suicide, her mother-in-law, Mrs Gordins comes to the realisation that just helping Julia with childcare is not enough to improve her mental health, but it is the social expectations of motherhood that bring her close to death, “she is so irregular with [the child]. He is nervous because she is.” Due to Julia’s success as a musician before the birth of her child, it seems that she finds the change brought by the birth of her child difficult to cope with as she is no longer independent as a working woman, and has, in some sense, become dependent on her child. Perkins Gilman confirms this in her journal ‘Women and Economics.’ Therefore, the evidence suggests that the social expectation of women giving up their careers to have children contributes heavily to the rapid decline in Julia’s mental health, both symbolically and metaphorically. I would also argue that this is still relevant in modern society, with women still having to decide between motherhood and a successful career, suggesting that society hasn’t developed despite the clearly negative effects of having to make this choice.Like Julia, Esther also encounters a conflict with the social expectations of women. In both Julia’s time (the 1890s), and Esther’s time (the 1950s), the social expectations of women remained similar. Women had limited roles and were heavily controlled by a largely patriarchal society, meaning that typically their roles were in the private sphere, within the family and home. Their main role was to marry and bear their children. They were considered not to have an identity separate from their husbands. This ideal woman is exemplified by the image of the Angel of the House, a common trope in Victorian Literature. Therefore, I would strongly argue that social expectations and attitudes cause, or at least contribute to, female mental illness, both symbolically and metaphorically. Sylvia Plath clearly highlights this in ‘The Bell Jar.’ The heroine, Esther Greenwood, shows a particular disinterest in the traditional expectations of a 1950s woman, epitomised in the character of Dodo Conway, a mother of 6 children with one more on the way. This ideal woman is questioned by Esther throughout the novel, “the whole sprawling paraphernalia of suburban childhood.” Here, Esther is criticising a perfectly beautiful, and typical family home, highlighting Esther’s unconventional attitudes towards the traditional 1950s lifestyle. Due to Esther’s strong views, she ends her relationship with Buddy Willard, an almost flawless example of the ideal 1950s American man, “how fine and clean Buddy was and how he was the kind of person a girl should stay fine and clean for,” due to her rejection of the notion of a submissive wife and mother. Diane Bonds agrees with this, drawing attention to Esther’s depression as an “intolerable psychic conflict” as a result of trying to meet the cultural expectations of the ideal woman and wife. Therefore suggesting that symbolically, female illness represents the women who don’t wish to conform to society. Many critics have argued that the bell jar represents the stifling constraints of the 1950s society, trapping Esther with no escape, therefore the bell jar eventually represents Esther’s madness. She feels trapped by both society’s expectations and her own mental illness. Additionally, the fig tree is a perfect symbol of Esther’s conflict in choosing the path she takes in life, whether she accepts the social expectations of women or whether she defies them. “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story… I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest.” Therefore, the metaphor of the fig tree reflects all unfair choices that society forces Esther to choose from. This inability to decide, or even the pressure of having to make the correct decision, could cause Esther’s unhappiness as a perfectionist, highlighting how mental illness is metaphorically a feminine illnessAs well as considering the social contributions to mental illness, it is vital to acknowledge the other risk factors in the development of female mental illness. A key element to explore is the biological predisposition for mental illness. Hume highlights Gilman’s exploration of biology as a factor of mental illness in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ If using the DSM-IV-TR, a mental illness diagnostic tool, the narrator appears to fit all symptom descriptions for postpartum psychosis. As readers, we know that the narrator has just had a child, “It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby.” Therefore, although only speculative, this argument is valid. According to the DSM-IV-TR, symptoms of postpartum psychosis include hallucinations and delusional thinking, along with disturbed sleep.  Postpartum psychosis could explain the narrator’s strange belief that her room used to be a nursery, despite no indication of this fact. Similarly, the narrator also believes that there is a woman trapped behind the wallpaper, “the woman is behind it is as plain as can be,” not only that, but she believes that this woman must be freed from the constraints of the wallpaper, “I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did.” Although this can be justified as a hallucination, it should be noted that the woman in the wallpaper could be symbolic of the narrator and her feelings of entrapment due to her experiences with rest cure. Moreover, the narrator’s behaviour is peculiar both in the 1890s and in modern society, therefore as I have noted earlier, the narrator’s diagnosis may only be based on her non-conforming behaviour, and there is in fact nothing wrong with her. However, if we ignore this factor and accept the biological implications of the narrator’s illness, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ depicts the psychological journey of the narrator from neurasthenia, the 19th century medical condition categorised by a nervous breakdown or hysteria, to pure insanity. Post highlights this, acknowledging that the narrator’s illness is caused by both biological factors and a lack of support from the people around her.As well as the biological causes of mental illness, Plath explores the individual causes of mental illness. Beck argues that “In the course of development, the depression-prone person may become sensitised by certain unfavourable types of life situations such as the loss of a parent.” So, early traumatic experiences cause the depressed individual to react more tragically to losses in their later life. In this case, Esther’s experience of the loss of her father contributes to her demise. Esther mentions her father three times throughout the novel. Just before Esther’s suicide attempt, she finds herself at her father’s grave “howling [her] loss into the cold salt rain.” Here, Plath presents a moment of mental and emotional weakness due to the premature death of Esther’s father. In the second reference to Esther’s father, she notes that “[she] was only purely happy until [she] was nine years old,” the time at which her father passed. This observation specifically points to Esther’s unhappiness as a result of her father’s death. However, we should consider that the death of Esther’s father may not be a direct trigger, but it directly links to her tendency to weight things heavier than she should, leading to a mental decline that shouldn’t necessarily happen.Beck also states that “depression-prone individuals spend their childhood setting rigid, perfectionist goals for themselves so that their universe collapses when they confront inevitable disappointments later in life.” Prior to Esther’s struggles with mental health, and her experiences in mental asylums, she lives an extremely positive life, a perfectionist’s dream. Her educational life is described as “nineteen years of running after good marks and prizes and grants…” therefore, as an extremely successful student, Esther’s life has no space for the inevitability of failure. This mindset fails Esther after her rejection from the Harvard writing programme she applies for. Following this, Esther’s depression manifests and she begins to remove herself from the world following this rejection, and she gets caught up in a spiral of isolation, “I couldn’t see the point of getting up. I had nothing to look forward to.” Arguably, she is trapped by her own madness in the symbolic bell jar. Esther particularly struggles with the fact that she is no longer able to excel in the things she valued most highly. Upon looking at ‘The Bell Jar’ and its narrative arc, we can see that the first half of the novel hints at the causes of Esther’s unhappiness; while these reasons vary, they cannot solely explain Esther’s breakdown. Esther’s predisposition due to loss and her perfectionist lifestyle are a large part of her suicide attempt, with trigger events visible throughout. Therefore, I would argue that it isn’t purely social factors that have impacted Esther so heavily.Across the three texts, we are constantly presented with women who fight the stereotypes of the ideal woman, Esther’s rebellion against being the traditional wife, and Julia’s fight against traditional motherhood. We are shown how society inputs these labels of mental illness upon women who don’t follow the rigid rules of a patriarchal society, highlighting how symbolically, feminine mental illness are simply imposed by society. I believe that women struggle more with mental illness simply because society regards strong women as insane or abnormal. Therefore, I am arguing that society causes, or constructs, mental illness. Both Perkins Gilman and Plath perfectly portray the detrimental effects of an ignorant society on women who just want support from their husbands and doctors. Both writers, although are extremely outdated, relate their heroines to today’s society, where women still struggle with what they are expected to be, and this still causes mental health struggles. I am arguing that Julianna Little’s comments remain relevant to both authors and to modern society. (2473)Beck, Aaron T. ‘The Development Depression: A Cognitive Model.’ Washington. 1974Bonds, Diane. ‘The Separative Self in Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar.’’ Women’s Studies. 1990Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Fourth Edition. American Psychiatric Association. 2000Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories.’ OUP Oxford. 1890-5 (2009 Edition)Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. ‘Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’’ The Forerunner. 1913Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. ‘Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution.’ Boston. 1898Hubert, Susan. ‘Questions of Power. The Politics of Women’s Madness Narratives.’ University of Delaware. 2002Hume, Beverly. ‘Managing Madness in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’’ Studies in American Fiction. 2002Kushner, Howard I. ‘Women and Suicide in Historical Perspective.’ University of Chicago. 1985Little, Julianna. ‘‘Frailty, thy name is woman,’ Depictions of Female Madness.’ Virginia Commonwealth University. 2015 Macpherson, Pat. ‘Reflecting on ‘The Bell Jar.’’ University of Michigan. 1991Plath, Sylvia. ‘The Bell Jar.’ Faber and Faber. 1961 (2005 Edition)Post, S L. ‘His and Hers: Mental Breakdown as Depicted by Evelyn Waugh and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.’ Literature and Medicine. 1990Schwarzenbach, Sibly A and Smith, Patricia. ‘Women and the United States Constitution History Interpretation and Practice.’ Columbia University. 2004

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