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THE FEMALE MALADY

The Female Malady   [English Literature]

 

Elaine Showalter describes something she calls The Female Malady. What is the Female Malady? Is it a form of Dissent? Analyse how it manifests itself in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

 

The Yellow Wallpaper

 

Elaine Showalter’s view that the female malady is a form of dissent as well as a label applied to women who deviate from the social norm is feasible since psychosis is a state in which the afflicted individual can no longer find, or has become apathetic to finding, a satisfactory coping-mechanism for all that ails her. Although psychosis is often regarded as ‘de-compensating’, it can alternatively be regarded as the ultimate coping mechanism – the last resort - which in a contradictory, perverse but understandable way, saves the afflicted individual from both being and non-being, an excellent representation of which is provided by the narrator of Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.

 

The narrator cannot truly identify with her socially ascribed gender role. Furthermore, she probably retains a significant amount of guilt about this due to her love for her family and because she cannot comply with how society and her husband want her to be. She cannot fulfil her creative ambition to write because, as we shall see, she is trapped in the patriarchal power structure of which albeit unwittingly, her husband is a microcosmic representative. She has had to deny her creativity and intelligence in order to comply with the social norms prevalent at the time.

 

The yellow wallpaper is symbolic of the narrator’s increasing dissipation and the language follows this disintegration. The wallpaper has an unpleasant smell suggesting stagnation. The narrator’s mind is stagnant due to lack of stimulation. The colour of the wallpaper is not primrose or buttercup yellow, but rank, sulphuric, symbolic of nausea which represents her underlying existential morbidity. The ‘uncertain curves’ that ‘plunge off at certain angles’ and ‘destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions’ symbolise her own feelings of being unheard and incomprehensible to others and indeed, incomprehensible to herself. All she can feel is her ‘self’ dissolving as many like-minded women have also dissolved, into ghostly replicas who ‘creep’ in a void.

 

Like the indistinct pattern on the wallpaper, the narrator is losing her weak sense of psychological boundaries. She is lonely, virtually isolated. Importantly, she receives no intelligent alternative viewpoints regarding what she is perceiving.  Since the ‘self’ also needs to be curtailed by the perceptions of others, and because what the narrator is experiencing is not named or conceptualised, she loses her sense of identity and dies in spirit. The narrator being nameless parallels this idea. As she proceeds along the lines of these feelings and thoughts, her ‘self’ gradually becomes a dissociated entity known only to itself and disturbingly, this loss of self in ‘non-being’ may be the closest the narrator comes to being ‘herself’.

 

If women falling into madness is a deliberate ploy which serves as a sort of defiance or a subversive strategy because they feel that they are denied their minds by disseminated patriarchal attitudes, it is certainly a self-defeating and extraordinarily disturbing form of dissent. But of course, it is not deliberate and not as simple as that. We follow the stream of consciousness of the narrator’s dissent into psychosis and we know that the reason for it is because she has been locked in a room with barred window by her husband. She is in total isolation. She has been forced into idleness. She is depressed, perhaps post-natally. She has no writing materials, no stimulation. Her imagination starts to run riot until all power over reason is lost and she is reduced to crawling around on the floor just like the women she imagined to be doing in the yellow wallpaper.

 

The deeper theme is that Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper is symbolic of the struggle to throw off the constraints of patriarchal society in order to write and break free of absolute confinement in the domestic domain.In America, in that particular era [It was first published in 1892], middle class men perpetrated for women an ideological prison that served to subjugate and silence them. ‘The Cult of True Womanhood’ bound them to home and family in the perseverance of social stability and women were conditioned to accept it. In addition, ‘The Cult of Purity’ and ‘The Cult of Domesticity’ were the central tenets of ‘The Cult of True Womanhood.’ These were the means that men used to ensure the passivity and docility of women. Religion would pacify any desires that would cause a deviation from these standards, while submission implied a vulnerability and dependence on the patriarchal head   [Barbara Welter 373 -377]. The public sphere then, was the domain of men. Women were not to attempt to enter it because that is ‘not where they belonged’. The Cult of True Womanhood “purposely did not acknowledge the growing work force of women, did not sanction professionalism and careerism for women…..” [Papke 12]

 

The narrator’s husband is a physician. The medical profession fully condoned the teaching of The Cult of True Womanhood. They believed that ‘civilised’ females were on the delicate side and that their ‘nervous complaints’ required complete bed rest and isolation from the rest of the world and that this would aid a speedy recovery. “If anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex virtues that made up True Womanhood, he was damned immediately as the enemy of God, of civilisation, and of the Republic” [Welter 372]. The narrator’s husband is complying with this ideology. The wallpaper is symbolic of The Cult of True Womanhood. By getting beyond the yellow wallpaper, the narrator, representing women generally, defied the power which the ideology of the cult wielded over them and escaped its oppression. Women were then able to create a new ideological role for themselves which included entry into the public sphere. The Yellow Wallpaper is read on two levels. The narrator crawling over her shocked collapsed husband [although it does seem a bit odd - especially since she has gone mad!] is a symbolic triumph of womankind’s escape from confinement thus entering into the public sphere. She was caught in a devil’s advocate; she must either conform or go mad. 

 

The female ‘malady’ is essentially defined by the patriarchal ideological stance that if women break away from how they ought to behave and think in any given era, they must have something wrong with them. In large numbers, dissenting is only taken seriously if men initiate it. The Suffragette Movement is a good example of how it was first subject to ridicule as was the Feminist Movement of the early 1970s. A woman dissenting alone is in even bigger trouble. She will undoubtedly be regarded as odd and the gender politics behind her dissent will not generally be recognised because the ideology is so ingrained in both sexes.

 

Many women, in all eras, have anxiety-laden maladies of varying degrees of severity due to economic and emotional dependence. The maladies are caused by the lack of control own their own identities and by oppression and stultification.This makes the more independent thinker lose all self-confidence because she is expected to behave and think formally but her instinct, her intellect and emotions are out of syncronisation with formality. Women are ensnared in the quandary of patriarchal socio-economic structures in which they must play the game in order to survive. Dissenting or trying to swim against the current, even in a small way, can lead to destitution and dissolution. Economic dependence, even part dependence, especially for women with children, means they cannot escape the scripts written for them. Maladies must creep in to fill the void.

 

 The Color Purple

 

In Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, Celie also suffers from what can be termed as an episode of psychotic rage when she can no  longer tolerate her own inner rage and almost cuts Mr…….’s throat with a razor. Celie’s ‘malady’ is that she feels understandably unworthy and is rendered totally devoid of self-esteem. She has been raped, her children have been sold and she believes them to be the result of enforced incest. Furthermore, she is just a child herself, she is poor, she is given as a wife and skivvy to a husband who is cruel to her  and she has no money to escape. With Shug’s pivotal encouragement, Celie later learns to control her rage when she begins to work outside of the home making and selling trousers.

 

Unlike Gilmans’s narrator, the character of Celie is not isolated. Neither does she possess the choice of deviating from the norm.  She is in fact, in a much more basic and worse situation than Gilman’s middle class narrator.  Celie suffers the effects of ‘multiple jeopardy’ in that not only is she oppressed by her gender but also by her social class and her race. But Celie is a strong character at heart. Her social class situation, her ‘slave status’, the endless round of domestic chores, especially the rearing of Mr….’s many children, leave her no time for abstractions. She would not have time to entertain dark imaginings in wallpaper patterns even if she had any wallpaper. Her fears are for her very survival rather than any thoughts of thwarted ambitions. Her journey away from the restrictions on women’s lives is a very different and arduous one not least because Mr… is a physical threat to her.         

 

The character of Sofia in The Color Purple is confrontational in contrast to Celie’s general quiet forbearance. Sofia rebels when she can no longer tolerate the marital situation and leaves her husband. Due to the incident with the mayor her rebelliousness lands her in jail where she suffers terribly and is deprived of her beloved children. The long oppression almost kills Sofia’s spirit as we witness on her release from labouring for the mayor's wife. She is a shadow of the larger than life character that she used to be. We are relieved when her spirit is renewed as the ‘family’ are sitting round the table in subdued silence. Celie finally tells Mr…. exactly what she thinks of him. This long awaited outburst of Celie’s immediately restores Sofia’s equilibrium by providing a sense of justice with which she can identify.

 

The women in The Color Purple provide each other with love and moral support. This is the big difference between Gilman’s nameless narrator and Alice Walker’s characters. The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper has no companions, no moral support, nobody to restore her balance and nobody to understand her feelings. Shug in particular, acts as a wonderful catalyst for Celie. Shug’s love and Celie’s learning to trust and to read Nellie’s long-lost letters help to bridge the gap between oppression and liberation through the process of education and language acquisition which eventually lead to self-expression and self-awareness via an understanding of socio-political concepts. Both The Yellow Wallpaper and The Color Purple provide us with examples of ‘female maladies’. The difference is that The Yellow Wallpaper disturbs the soul and depletes the reader of all hope whereas the very moving Color Purple, although perhaps having a rather contrived happy ending, depicts great love and courage.

 

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