Three years of my life as an EU student of English Literature at the University of East Anglia,England.
I finally got my Nervous Narratives essay back: I got 66%! I’m very happy about that and so relieved too! 😀 I really liked this module and already miss it, but it’s a good thing it’s behind me now.
I chose the module because I’ve always wanted to study mental illnesses in literature and was hoping to do either this one or “Madness and Medicine” (about women’s writings I think). The idea of madness really fascinates me, but what’s even more fascinating to me is how much of a social construct it is.
I feel like I have learnt so much through this module and what I particularly liked about it was the fact that the same nervous illnesses kept coming up throughout history (from the 17th century to nowadays) under different names. As we studied, sometimes they were seen as “cool” and sometimes they were rejected and used as a tool for oppression.
So that’s basically what Nervous Narratives was about, and what a great module! I wouldn’t mind doing another semester on it, despite finding a lot of the primary reading we had for it (especially the first weeks) challenging and not that enjoyable. BUT! There are tons of books I had to read for university that I didn’t like, but I love studying every single text! It’s made me want to study this topic in more depth. I don’t know if it’ll be possible but I know of a few books that could be very interesting, such as Mad, Bad And Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present.
All the modules I have done so far at university were, more or less, about the context in which the books under study were written and how social and political changes affect or influence the authors.
That was the starting point for my essay. We were free to come up with our own question, but mine derives from Freud’s case study Dora: “The problem with hysterics was that they did not conform.” I worked on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (if you don’t know it, go read it right now!).
I really wish I could share my whole essay with you but I don’t think I’m allowed to do that unfortunately. I could also talk about it for ages but I don’t want to bore anyone with a 3000+ words essay… So here’s my introduction – it should give you a good idea of what my essay was about and what I tried to demonstrate.
In a nutshell: nervousness is a tool for patriarchal oppression in a time of female liberation and Mitchell’s “rest cure” reinforced or created the illness.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has been a symbol of female emancipation since its publication in 1892. Through the Gothic trope of the mad woman in the attic, Gilman draws a portrait of Victorian society and the ways in which patriarchy was maintained. However, the story goes beyond tension between sexes: the female protagonist, suffering from post-partum depression, is diagnosed with ‘temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency’1 by her physician husband. Her treatment consists of rest and isolation. She undergoes a version of the rest cure, which was introduced in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century by neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell. Like many women of her time, Gilman herself suffered from what was then called neurasthenia – a new term for hysteria. Her disastrous experience of Mitchell’s cure sheds light on the story and its ending. This essay, however, will not compare the narrator’s experience to that of the author; rather, I will use Gilman’s writings as a representation of an alternative mode of femininity emerging at the fin the siècle: the New Woman. This essay studies ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in relation to mental disorders within the context of its publication. The analysis of the story will open a discussion regarding the mechanics and failings of the rest cure. I will argue that the problem with hysterics was that they did not conform – to society’s standards and as sick patients. This essay puts ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in dialogue with historical changes and demonstrates that, instead of curing illnesses, the rest cure reinforces neurasthenia and causes madness. Moreover, I argue that the story participates in medical discourse and shows that the rest cure was a tool for patriarchal oppression against social changes.