Neurasthenia, the “Rest Cure,” and Modern Life

Katie Carlin

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In 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, an American author, published “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The fictional story provides an account of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s own mental breakdown (Radcliffe Institute). In the story, the narrator suffers from neurasthenia, a nervous disease, and her doctor, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, puts forth the idea of the rest cure (Gilman). She is taken to a country home, but she is unsatisfied with the room, fixating on the aesthetics of the wallpaper (Gilman). Enduring the isolation of the “rest cure,” she starts to personify the wallpaper, stating, “[t]his paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had” (Gilman). At the end of the short story, she claims to see a pattern in the yellow wallpaper and “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure;” a woman behind the paper (Gilman). Although a fictional story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” provides commentary on neurasthenia a decade after Beard identified the disorder and an account of the patient experience.

In the 1880s, George Beard identified neurasthenia as “a disorder…that was caused by a malfunctioning of the nervous system, and if left untreated, it could result in collapse” (Harrington 142). In other words, the modern stresses of civilized life resulted in exhaustion of the individual. Neurasthenia was diagnosed when no physical illnesses were present in the patient; however, the physician issued a physical treatment. For men, the cure for neurasthenia was taking part in nature-related activities, while women were often prescribed a “rest cure” (Harrington 144). The “rest cure” was designed to remove people from their family context, deny access to visitors, limit intellectual stimulation, and allow the patient to rest without disturbance (Harrington 144).

The artifact allows us the opportunity to consider the role of the patient, the role of physicians, and the role of family. The narrator’s experience provides a first-hand account of the people she interacts with. Her husband and the physicians dictate her life, keeping her in the country despite her pleas for companionship (Gilman). She is isolated from her family, other than those designated to care for her. They do not ask about her affliction, how she is coping, or her mental stability. Instead, they focus on weight gain and physical appearance. The story provides information on how mind-body illness of the 19th century is viewed and addressed.

Gender also plays a major role in the history of neurasthenia. In the text, the narrator finds hiding her actions more tiring than the actions themselves. The view that she is weak and incapable of acting in an everyday fashion reinforces her isolation and limits her ability to acclimate back into her everyday routine. She is seen as too weak to be in charge of herself, but a man can do as he pleases. Arguably, the confinement of women and the freedom of men suffering from the same affliction shows the role and expectation of the genders at the end of the 19th century.

It is clear that neurasthenia was not equal between the sexes. In fact, the prescription of a “rest cure” disempowered women. While men were sent outdoors, women were confined to the bed and removed from the modern life stressors. For example, the narrator in Gilman’s work desires companionship, but her husband says, “he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now” (Gilman). The rejection of visitors puts unwanted strain on the narrator to recover from her affliction. The way neurasthenia is defined and the gender-designated treatment shows how people of the 19th century viewed neurasthenia as a woman’s illness. Women were given more extreme treatment because they were the weaker of the two sexes. Men could recover through relaxation, but women required isolation from modern civilization.

Other questions to consider:

How does neurasthenia tie into shellshock/PTSD and how mental illness is viewed in the 20th and 21st centuries?

How gender and illness interact in contemporary society?

How does a personal account reflect the time period? What are the limitations?

How does defining an illness create stigma?

How does stigma isolate the ill from the well?

 

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1996; Project Gutenberg, 2008. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1952/1952-h/1952-h.htm.

Harrington, Anne. The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “From Woman to Human: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” Harvard University. Accessed February 9, 2015. https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library/exhibition/woman-human-life-and-work-charlotte-perkins-gilman.

 

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