An Unnecessary Maze of Sign-Reading

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Author: Mary Jacobus
Editor: Thomas J. Schoenberg
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,887 words

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[(essay date 1986) In the following essay, Jacobus argues that feminist readings of "The Yellow Wallpaper," such as those by Annette Kolodny and Jean E. Kennard, fail to account for the many "uncanny" and gothic elements in the text, stating, "If Gilman wrote a minor classic of female Gothic, hers is not only a tale of female hysteria but a version of Gothic that successfully tapped male hysteria about women."]

"I may here be giving an impression of laying too much emphasis on the details of the symptoms and of becoming lost in an unnecessary maze of sign-reading. But I have come to learn that the determination of hysterical symptoms does in fact extend to their subtlest manifestations and that it is difficult to attribute too much sense to them."(SE 2:93n.)

Freud's footnote to Studies on Hysteria amounts to saying that where hysteria is concerned it is impossible to overread. The maze of signs, his metaphor for the hysterical text, invokes not only labyrinthine intricacy but the risk of self-loss. What would it be like to become lost in the subtleties of sign reading? Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," provides an answer of sorts. It would be like finding one's own figure replicated everywhere in the text; like going mad. This tale of hysterical confinement--a fictionalized account of Gilman's own breakdown in 1887 and the treatment she underwent at the hands of Freud's and Breuer's American contemporary, Weir Mitchell--could almost be read as Anna O.'s own version of "Fräulein Anna O." The flower of fiction reproduces herself, hysterically doubled, in the form of a short story whose treatment by feminist readers raises questions not only about psychoanalysis, but about feminist reading.

Freud had favorably reviewed a German translation of Weir Mitchell's The Treatment of Certain Forms of Neurasthenia and Hysteria in 1887, the year of Gilman's breakdown, and himself continued to make use of the Weir Mitchell rest-cure alongside Breuer's "cathartic treatment." Gilman later wrote that after a month of the Weir Mitchell regimen ("I was put to bed and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed, and responded with the vigorous body of twenty-six") she was sent home to her husband and child with the following prescription: "'Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. ... Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours' intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.'" Not surprisingly, she "came perilously near to losing [her] mind" as a result.1 Mitchell, who apparently believed that intellectual, literary, and artistic pursuits were destructive both to women's mental health and to family life, had prescribed what might be called the Philadelphian treatment (a good dose of domestication) rather than the Viennese treatment famously invoked by Chrobak in Freud's hearing ("Penis normalis dosim repetatur").2

Gilman, by contrast, believed that she only regained her sanity when she quit family...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420082952