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“I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did? Her husband, on opening the door, collapses as the narrator declares: The Yellow Wallpaper illuminates the challenges of being a woman of ambition in the late 19th century.
Mitchell, largely through his treatment of Gilman and her later description of this, gained a notorious reputation, and he may well have misdiagnosed her or believed that her intellectual pursuits were too introspective.
Yet historical scholarship has also suggested that some well-to-do and educated women might also have helped shape their own diagnoses or used their illness to avoid domestic duties that they found unpleasant or taxing.
Neurasthenia took hold in modernising America in the closing decades of the 19th century, as incessant work was said to ruin the mental health of its citizens.
Women were reported to be putting themselves at risk of nervous collapse with their eagerness to take on roles unsuited to their gender, including higher education or political activities.
Not all doctors condemned women for their ambition – many advocated more rounded lives embracing intellectual and physical pursuits alongside domestic roles.
Other patients treated by Mitchell, including the critic and historian Amelia Gere Mason and writer Sarah Butler Wister, tailored their treatments to suit their lifestyles, with Mitchell encouraging their intellectual and creative pursuits.Hilary Marland does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.University of Warwick provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.All women were seen by physicians as susceptible to ill health and mental breakdown by reason of their biological weakness and reproductive cycles.And those who were creative and ambitious were deemed even more at risk.Though many details are changed, the story is semi-autobiographical, drawing on Gilman’s own health crisis and particularly her fraught relationship with Dr Silas Weir Mitchell – who carved a reputation for treating nervous exhaustion following his experiences as a Civil War doctor – and who was brought in to treat her in 1886.In Gilman’s own words, he drove her to “mental agony” before she rejected his treatment and began once again to write. The narrator is brought by her physician husband to a summer retreat in the countryside to recover from her “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency”.In her autobiography, published in 1935, Gilman wrote of the “dragging weariness … Absolute misery” following the birth of her daughter that led her to consult Dr Mitchell.The story can also be seen as a rich account of neurasthenia or nervous exhaustion, a disorder first defined by Mitchell in his book Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked in 1871.Perhaps, the narrator muses, it had once been a nursery or playroom.It is the room’s wallpaper, a “repellant” and “smouldering unclean yellow”, with “sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin” that forms the centrepiece of the story.