The Patriarchal Silencing and Isolation of the Madwoman





            What does it mean for one to be “mad”?  The simple dictionary definitions of the word offer only a slight insight into the world of someone considered by society to be mad. defines “mad” as “Suffering from a disorder of the mind; insane” or “lacking in restraint or reason; foolish.”  The only problem with these definitions, though, is that there is no mention of the need for restraint, only the lack thereof, or the necessity of incarcerating someone who is considered mad.  Yet, many “mad” people, especially women, are or will be locked away – kept from a society in which they might be able to flourish if they were not considered “mad,” receiving therapy or some kind of treatment that might one day assist them in joining society as “sane” individuals. 

Madness--as a label or reality--is not conceived of as divine, prophetic, or useful. It is perceived as (and often further shaped into) a shameful and menacing disease, from whose spiteful and exhausting eloquence society must be protected.

                                                                                                (Chesler 75)


The examples of women being treated in such a way are present throughout literary history, many times as “fictional” pieces that suspiciously mirror the life or experiences of the female author.  There have been two women writers in particular who have voiced their opinions on the insanity and the treatment of women through almost autobiographical fiction.  Chronologically, Charlotte Perkins Gilman came first.  The author of the short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman created a first-person account of a woman’s descent into madness and the way she is treated by those around her throughout her ordeal.  Throughout the story, the unnamed narrator is pitted against the main male character, her husband John, over their differing viewpoints on her condition and its treatment.  As did many in the 19th Century, John is of the opinion that isolation and simplicity will help to cure his wife of her “nervousness.”  On just the second page of the story, the narrator states:

            If … one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the

            matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what   

            is one to do? … I take phosphates or phosphites – whichever it is, and tonics, and

            journeys and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well

            again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas.  Personally, I believe that congenial work,

            with excitement and change, would do me good.

                                                                                                                            (Gilman 10)


Although the narrator feels that she knows what is best for her, she succumbs to the ideas of the male figure in her life out of a sense of obligation and inferiority. 

            Sylvia Plath, writing The Bell Jar approximately sixty years after Gilman created her unnamed narrator, brought the treatment of depressed women and institutionalization to the forefront with her vivid account of a young woman’s depression, suicide attempt, and subsequent hospitalization at an asylum.  Just like the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Plath’s protagonist, Esther, is a strong, opinionated, talented and creative woman who mostly has no choice but to submit to the treatments that are offered to her.  On a number of occasions, Esther is isolated from the people that she loves, either in an actual hospital after her attempt at overdosing on pills, or in an asylum.  She spends most of the last quarter of the book in the latter, hoping to cure herself and go back to being what she considers to be the well-adjusted woman who existed before her trip to New York. 

            The important point to note is that in both of these texts, the women are silenced, isolated or “treated” by men.  There has been a need throughout time for the patriarchal cultures that these women lived in to silence and isolate them.  If madwomen had a voice, a man’s culture would be threatened by their intelligence.  A patriarchal culture is based upon the idea that the man is in charge – the breadwinner, the head of the household.  A woman who challenges this mentality is refusing to conform to a patriarchal society’s standards of whom she must be and therefore, in many instances, is considered mad. Once a woman is considered mad, her voice exists to a man only to upset the normal life that he has built and to challenge the idea of the man being first.


The Opinions and/or Ambitions of the Madwoman

            In the quote on the previous page, it is quite obvious that Gilman’s narrator has her own opinions about how she should be treated.  “Personally,” she thinks that John’s ideas are wrong.  This narrator begins the novel as a strong woman, one who seems determined to get “better” and see her baby.  As the narrator is all alone, with no one taking her side or asking for her opinion, she is not allowed to write or to exercise her mind in any way.  Writing, in itself, seems to be a man’s job.  In their book, The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar state,

            Because they are by definition male activities … writing, reading and thinking are

            not only alien but also inimical to ‘female’ characteristics … If male sexuality is

            integrally associated with the assertive presence of literary power, female sexuality

            is associated with the absence of such power.

                                                                                                (Gilbert and Gubar  8)


Gilman’s narrator is dealing with an absence of this literary power, not being allowed to write while she is being “cured” of her condition.  Throughout the story, she makes references to the fact that she must hide it when she is writing, for fear of what her husband, the nanny or anyone else may think.  She also hides the fact that she is seeing something, or someone, in the wallpaper, lamenting, “I had no intention of telling him it was because of the wallpaper – he would make fun of me.  He might even want to take me away.”  (Gilman 28)  The fear of incarceration has prompted this woman to keep her actions a secret, letting them fester in her head until she almost becomes the woman in the wallpaper, held in by bars.  Toward the end of the story, she describes the woman that she sees, telling us,

            At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by

            moonlight,it [the wallpaper] becomes bars!  The outside pattern I mean, and the woman

            behind it is as plain as can be. 

(Gilman 26)


The narrator feels a certain sort of trepidation toward her husband, who silences her and keeps her from performing the male functions of reading and writing. The fact that she sees the woman in the wallpaper behind bars just enforces the idea that she is terrified of being locked away by her husband if his “rest cure” fails to work.

 Plath’s Esther, on the other hand, finds that it is actually her “sickness” that keeps her from writing, which is what she would like to do as a career, instead of getting married and having children.  As Esther starts losing more and more sleep, her work begins to suffer and she even sees her handwriting begin to decline.  Esther’s ambition places her in a tough situation, as men mostly dominate the world of writing at the time that she is growing up.  In becoming mad, Esther loses her ability to perform the man’s roles of reading and writing and ends up in an asylum, where she is least likely to be able to feed her creative energies.


Conforming to the Female Role

            As previously noted, a man silences Gilman’s main character.  Her husband John, also a physician, believes that she should be isolated in their room, without contact with her baby, and not allowed to work, or write, for the duration of the time that she is there.  The problem with this is that, through her journal entries, the reader begins to feel that perhaps the isolation is making her crazier, and the story ends with the narrator, obsessed with the “people” she thinks live under her wallpaper, climbing over John’s limp body after he has fainted at the sight of her.  John’s treatment of his wife seems close to a treatment of S. Weir Mitchell’s, who actually treated Gilman herself in 1887.  Mitchell came up with what was called the “rest cure” and people all over the world applauded it.  The “cure” itself included the following “key elements”:

            …isolation, complete physical rest, a rich diet of creamy foods, massage, and electrical

            stimulation of disused muscles, and complete submission to the authority of the

            attending physician.  All physical and intellectual activity was prohibited.  A patient was

            lifted out of her own social and familial milieu and transported to a neutral environment

            tended only by a nurse and her doctor.

 (Thrailkill  7)


The basic idea here is that a woman can become so burdened by housework and the raising of children, that when her nerves become stressed and/or she shows signs of hysteria, the only possible treatment is to shut her away from the very things that have made her “nervous” in the first place, thus enforcing the theory that the man isolates the woman in the hopes of making her “normal” again. Taking away the narrator’s right to create is forcing her to conform to who John would like her to be – a quiet woman in the room with the yellow wallpaper, easily swayed and conveniently isolated.  In this way, the narrator is being forced to give up her ambitions by a patriarchal society and marriage where the man dominates and the woman listens.

            Esther is an interesting character in that she does not conform to her society’s ideas of how a woman must live her life in order to be considered “normal.”  Unfortunately, Christina Rivera-Garza noticed a very important point when studying institutions from as early as the 1910s.  She states in her article that “General Asylum psychiatrists working during the early 1910s detected symptoms of moral insanity in women who failed to conform to the models of female domesticity.”  (Rivera-Garza 657) In other words, when a woman decides not to conform to the normal female roles that a patriarchal society expects, she is considered mad and morally insane.  Esther, with her dream of becoming a distinguished writer, doesn’t stand a chance.

 There are two important sides to Esther.  She is torn between doing what a patriarchal society expects her to do, which is to get married and raise a family, keeping her pureness in tact in the years leading up to such events. But the independent side of Esther wants to have a career as a writer, and although she repeatedly states that she “never wanted to get married.  The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from” (Plath, 82), Esther also worries a great deal about “pureness” and what is expected of her as a woman, even stating, “When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue.” (82)  As a result of the fact that Esther is torn between two identities – what is expected of her and what she actually wants – she is oppressed by society around her and is seemingly punished for not conforming to the normal female role of wife and mother, by being isolated from the world that she knows and being forced to succumb to electric shock therapy.

 The men around Esther view her independence as a threat and perhaps as one of the reasons that she has gone mad in the first place.  It seems to be implied that if she had just found a good man and gotten married, her worries about such “unimportant” things as writing and a career would not have driven her to a suicide attempt.  The silencing of Esther begins, first and foremost, with Dr. Gordon.

Dr. Gordon is a character that deftly represents the patriarchal pressures placed upon Esther.  She has distrust for Dr. Gordon from the very beginning of their doctor-patient relationship.  She says that she “hated him” the minute she “walked in through the door.”  (128) Dr. Gordon is a character that holds Esther back, treating her like a child, even asking her to send her mother in to his office after their second session to suggest electric shock therapy, instead of bringing up the subject to Esther during their appointment.  He fails to nurture her and relies on machines to make her better, instead of communicating with her about her fears and feelings.  As soon as Dr. Gordon asks to speak to Esther’s mother (a conversation that we find out later is about his notion of electric shock therapy being the best thing for Esther), Esther says, “I didn’t like the idea of Doctor Gordon talking to my mother one bit.  I thought he might tell her I should be locked up.” (Plath 135)  Again, the reader is faced with the woman’s fear of isolation and silencing at the hands of a man. 

Dr. Gordon wants Esther to forget her pain through shock treatments instead of easing or understanding it by herself.  The dialogue between Esther and Dr. Gordon is sparse and does not seem to help Esther in any way, but even though the reader would think that he doesn’t know that much about Esther or how she is feeling, he suggests the electric shock therapy – quickly and rashly, almost as if it is the answer for everything that could be wrong with her.  Esther tells him that she is not sleeping, not eating and not reading, silently hating him for the happy family photograph that is sitting on his desk.  Esther’s behavior is exactly the slight behavior that is exhibited by women who are seemingly “punished” for their behavior.  In her book, Women and Madness, Phyllis Chesler addresses this problem:

… the real oppression of women--which leads to real distress and unhappiness; the conditioned female role of help-seeking and distress reporting--which naturally leads to patient "careers" as well as overt or subtle punishment for such devalued behavior; the double or masculine standard of mental health used by most clinicians--which leads to perceiving the distressed (or any) female as "sick," whether she accepts or rejects crucial aspects of the female role.

                                                                                                            (Chesler 148)


As she is not conforming to the normal female roles of simply sleeping, getting married and having children, Esther is punished with the electric shock treatments that she dreads from there on out, until she meets Dr. Nolan.

 Dr. Nolan is a female doctor who is very honest and upfront with Esther.  The differences between Esther’s treatment by Dr. Gordon and by Dr. Nolan can be staggering.  Through Dr. Nolan, Esther receives the same kind of treatment that Dr. Gordon inflicted on her, but instead of having such a horrible experience, she finds that Dr. Gordon had the procedure performed incorrectly.  Dr. Nolan informs her, “If it’s done properly, it’s like going to sleep.”  (Plath, 189)  When Esther’s doctor is female, the shock treatments are calm and peaceful, but when her doctor is male, they are horrid and painful. Plath is telling us that treatment for madness in women is like punishment when administered by a man, but can actually help a woman to grow and recover when given by a female. Dr. Gordon and his treatment silence Esther, as she doesn’t want to share her feelings anymore for fear of it happening again.


Madwoman as Monster: Man’s Need to Make the Madwoman Ugly


            The idea of the madwoman as a monstrous form is one that is discussed in detail in The Madwoman in the Attic.  In a sense, the woman who has lost control of her senses, to a man or to the patriarchal society in which she has been raised, is naturally flawed, and is unable to get a good grasp on the life that has been laid out before her – the life of marriage and domesticity.   

            In a sense, the women in both The Bell Jar and “The Yellow Wallpaper” transform into what the men in their lives would consider monstrous forms.  Throughout literary history, the idea of a woman as a monster has graced the pages of many works.  This idea is perhaps best explained by saying that the perception of female characters as monsters vilifies women and exemplifies the man’s fear of woman.  “Male dread of women, and specifically the infantile dread of maternal autonomy, has historically objectified itself in the vilification of women…” (Gilbert and Gubar 34)  It seems that these monstrous women are not able to be trusted with their own health and/or well being, in the minds of their male counterparts.  For example, Bertha, the madwoman in Bronte’s Jane Eyre, is kept a secret, locked away in the attic.  At one time a supposedly beautiful woman, Bertha is reduced to almost non-existence by Rochestor, who most likely assumes that her isolation is for his own good as well as hers.  One has to wonder if his motives are truly selfish or just those of a man who has grown up to believe that a woman should be aesthetically pleasing to the eye.  By feeding into a fear of spending his lifetime with a monster such as Bertha, who “is mad,” with her “shaggy locks” and “bloated features” (Bronte 439, 441), Rochestor allows himself to silence his wife and isolate her, with only Grace Poole as her companion and caregiver.  This image of the monstrous woman is very close to that of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

            At the beginning of the story, the unnamed narrator of Gilman’s text seems to be a normal woman who disagrees with her husband’s diagnosis of her “nervousness” and the rest treatment that he prescribes.  As the story moves on, though, she becomes more and more agitated and grows to hate the room that he has placed her in with the yellow wallpaper, of which she says, “The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.”  (Gilman 25) The narrator’s transformation into a monstrous, insane woman happens gradually, as she becomes more and more obsessed with the people she thinks are “creeping” behind her wallpaper.  At the end of the story, the reader gets a chance to see just how monstrous John thinks his wife has become, when the narrator asks, “Now why should that man have fainted?  But he did, right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”  (Gilman 36)  As John has fainted at the sight of his transformed wife, the reader becomes witness to the monstrous image that has taken hold of her as a result of her silencing and the fact that she feels too inferior to tell John of her misgivings about her treatment. 

            Then there is the question of why the narrator chooses yellow.  Not only does the color upset and aggravate her, but it is in stark contrast to the lush, green gardens and “velvet meadows” (Gilman 18) that surround the colonial estate in which she is being kept.  In her article, “Managing Madness in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ Beverly Hume addresses this question:

            Why does this narrator choose ‘yellow’ instead of ‘green’?  Although some critics have

            suggested that the narrator’s response is the only sane one possible in the domestic

            and medical nightmare she describes, Gilman may also have wanted to illustrate a final

            and fatal error made by her ‘wise’ narrator, who does, after all, consciously choose the

            artificial daylight and domestic world of the yellow wallpaper over that of the green

            garden outside. This yellow world is one in which a ‘woman’ can only become

            imprisoned, unable to recognize her rage, and unable to move (or barely creep) beyond

            her delusions.Transforming into this woman, the narrator becomes as monstrous,

            frightening, and unpredictable as she imagines the yellow wallpaper to be.

                                                                                                                         (Hume 3)


This point of view gives reason to the idea that the wallpaper is what has made the narrator into a monster.  In choosing to mull over the yellow wallpaper instead of the lush greenery outside, the narrator is allowing herself to be stuck in her prison, inside the room with the wallpaper.  The wallpaper looks ugly, smells sour, and apparently, the yellow rubs off onto the married couple’s clothes, but still it is what the narrator chooses to focus on in her personal asylum.  In concentrating so much on the wallpaper and its “inhabitants,” the narrator becomes as ugly and monstrous as the paper itself, allowing John and his idea of rest as a cure to conquer her sense and logic.

At one point in The Bell Jar, Esther becomes monstrous as well, before she is put into isolation at an asylum, when her physical appearance changes from that of a normal young woman to the unrecognizable face she encounters in a mirror after her suicide attempt.  Esther definitely has some issues with self-image, as most of her worries throughout The Bell Jar have something to do with the way others look at her.  She worries about whether or not she should stay a virgin, she always mentions what she is wearing or how a lack of sleep is affecting her appearance, and when she wakes up after her suicide attempt and looks in the mirror, she breaks it after seeing what she looks like:

            At first I didn’t see what the trouble was.  It wasn’t a mirror at all, but a picture.  You

            couldn’t tell whether the person in the picture was a man or a woman, because their hair

            was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head.  One side

            of the person’s face was purple, and bulged out in a shapeless way, shading to green   

            along the edges, and then to a sallow yellow.  The person’s mouth was pale brown, with

            a rose-colored sore at either corner.  The most startling thing about the face was its

            supernatural conglomeration of bright colors.  I smiled.  The mouth in the mirror cracked

            into a grin.  A minute after the crash another nurse ran in … Anybody could drop a

            mirror.  I didn’t see why they should get so stirred up.

                                                                                                                        (Plath 174-75)


One can infer quite a few things from this passage, the most significant being that it could be that Esther doesn’t in fact, drop the mirror, but actually breaks it in a fit of hysterical rage that could be attributed to the state of mind that she is in after her suicide attempt and isn’t cognizant enough to remember doing so.  The image of Esther as a monster is even more defined by the use of words such as “supernatural” and “sallow yellow.”   Being preoccupied with her appearance to others has affected Esther since even the very beginning of the novel when she is in New York, worrying about how she fits in with the other girls, who are “yawning and painting their nails and trying to keep up their Bermuda tans.” (Plath 4)  The shock of seeing her horrid and now monstrous reflection in the mirror seems to drive her to have a fit, allowing her nerves to get the best of her, making her the perfect candidate for institutionalization.  Esther is not only transformed into a monster, but she also loses her identity as a woman when she cannot distinguish whether or not the face in the mirror is female.  By destroying her monstrous form in breaking the mirror, Esther is making herself into even more of a monster, violent and unaccepting of the changes that have occurred within her psyche and also to her physical self.  Later, Esther becomes isolated from the outside world, much like Bertha Mason and Gilman’s narrator.  The isolation of the monstrous woman is an example of a patriarchal society condemning and punishing the women because of their hideous transformations.  In Esther’s case, it is after her discovery of her appearance and the outburst with the mirror that she becomes isolated in an asylum, which one can assume may not have happened if she hadn’t thrown a fit at the sight of her own reflection.


Childbirth, Virginity and the Domestication of Women

            Can the idea of childbirth drive a woman mad?  In the case of Plath’s Esther, it just may have been one of the contributing factors in her illness.  Esther is reluctant to fall into the female role of becoming a domesticated housewife and mother.  She often gets visibly upset about the fact that she might someday be expected to marry Buddy Willard.  Throughout the novel, Esther makes comments about her fear of becoming a mother and of falling into the role that will keep her from pursuing a career as a writer.  In having the dream of pursuing a career as a writer in the first place, Esther is challenging the assumption that women exist only to please and serve men. Esther is allowing herself to treat the ideas of motherhood and domesticity as choices in a society that often does not offer a choice.  She is trying not to succumb to the social pressure to adjust and conform, or be judged as psychotic.  As Esther worries that she cannot be both a poet and a mother, the stress of it all drives her further into madness.   The expectations of women have made Esther dread the idea of becoming a mother because she feels that the larger life of being able to keep her career and have a family at the same time is unattainable – she will have to choose one or the other, and society expects her to choose the latter, which is not the favorable choice in Esther’s opinion.  Toward the end of the novel, Esther speaks with Dr. Nolan about these fears.

            How easy having babies seemed to women around me!  Why was I so unmaternal and

            apart?  Why couldn’t I dream of devoting myself to baby after fat puling baby … If I had

            to wait on a baby all day, I would go mad.

                                                                                                            (Plath 222)


Esther is afraid that there is something wrong with her because she does not want to have children and from a patriarchal society’s viewpoint, she is absolutely right.  Her dreams of having a successful career are not considered normal in the time in which Esther is coming into womanhood.   These comments come at the same time that she is waiting to be fitted for a diaphragm, finally deciding that she does not need to conform to society’s ideas of what she should be as a young woman in the early 1960s – a virgin girl with a yearning to get married and raise a family.  In deciding to pursue a purely sexual relationship with a stranger and to stop seeing Buddy, she is taking what she feels is the first step toward independence and relieving herself of the burden of her virginity.  As Esther climbs onto the examination table in the doctor’s office to be fitted for her diaphragm, she thinks to herself,

            I am climbing to freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person,

            like Buddy Willard, just because of sex, freedom from the Florence Crittenden Homes

            where all the poor girls go who should have been fitted out like me, because what they

            did, they would do anyway, regardless…

                                                                                                            (Plath 223)


Esther has decided not to be a pawn in a man’s world.  She realizes that male ownership stems from childbirth and family.  The birth of a child gives the man power over the woman, forcing her to stay at home in domestic suffocation and take care of the child and her husband.  By being fitted for a diaphragm, Esther is ridding herself of the patriarchal ownership and oppression that comes with motherhood, and also the virginity that has weighed on her nerves for practically the entire novel, becoming a free woman of her own accord.

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator has already fallen into the role of wife and mother, only to have it taken away when John decides that she is contending with a bout of “nervousness.”

It is as if she is being punished for letting herself get away from her responsibilities and delve into a world where she is considered ill and unable to take care of her child, but it also seems as though she does not really want to take on her responsibilities as a mother.  As she is kept away from her child longer, she becomes more detached from reality and less able to distinguish between real life and the life moving around on the inside of the yellow wallpaper in her room.  The life of domesticity that she has seemingly been accustomed to thus far has been taken away from her, and the effect that her isolation has on her “unveils not only the ills of the rest cure treatment and a repressive domestic culture … but also her hatred for a domestic (and maternal) role she has no desire to assume.” (Hume 2)  In a sense, the narrator has chosen a life of “creeping” over the promise of a reunion with her baby at the close of her treatment and the curing of her condition, as a result of the fact that the treatment does nothing but isolate her, which makes her more unstable.


Institutionalization and Isolation


As stated earlier, each main character – that of Gilman’s tale and of Plath’s novel – is at some point kept away from the actual workings of society and its day to day life as a result of her sickness or state of mind.  Keeping the madwoman locked away has been a recurring theme throughout literary history, in many reputable works. “By the end of the nineteenth and throughout the twentieth centuries, the portraits of madness executed by both psychiatrists and novelists were primarily of women.”  (Chesler  73)  For example, Gilbert and Gubar base the name of their book, The Madwoman in the Attic, on the story of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre.  In Hebrew mythology, the first woman, Lilith, is banished for her refusal to conform to what is expected of her by a patriarchal society.  In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator is kept in a room that she does not like in order to make her rest and not work or take care of her child.  And in The Bell Jar, Esther spends a good amount of time in one institution or another after her suicide attempt.  It seems to be expected that if the madwoman is put away long enough, she will emerge normal, cured and without any underlying hysteria or depression, or perhaps completely forgotten about, as in the case of Bertha. 

Given the custodial nature of asylums and the anti-female biases of most clinicians, women who seek "help" or women who have "symptoms" are actually being punished for their conditioned and socially approved self-destructive behavior.

                                                                                                (Chesler  79)


Isolation is often used as a punishment of sorts, forcing the women to think that if they can “get better,” they will be able to resume their lives as they were before their incarceration and be relieved of their “self-destructive behavior.”

            The asylum itself, according to Michel Foucault, “must represent the great continuity of social morality.” (Foucault 257)  By placing these women in institutions, the patriarchal society in which they exist is supposedly protecting morality and the normality of life itself.  In putting all of the madwomen in one place, “the asylum reduces differences, represses vice, eliminates irregularities.”  (Foucault 258)  The idea of the asylum is a segregation of sorts in that it is a place where people who have allowed their sicknesses to get the best of them receive treatment together and without those who are perceived as normal by society’s standards.  The asylum can take different forms, either as an actual mental institution or as a room where someone is placed to overcome her sickness, like the narrator in Gilman’s story. 

            Although the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not lumped together with other madwomen in an actual asylum, she is isolated nonetheless, the hopes of her husband for rest to cure her weighing heavily on her shoulders.  The room that the narrator is placed in “is a room whose wallpaper reduces an artistic and articulate woman to a beast, stripped entirely of her sanity and humanity and left crawling on all fours in circuits … about the room.”  (Bak 1)  The idea of the isolation of the madwoman is where the Foucauldian concept of Panopticism comes into play.  The paranoia that can result from constant supervision affects the narrator as the story and her illness progresses.  As her condition gets worse, she begins to think more and more that she needs to hide her behavior from John, for fear of being locked away.  She tells the reader, “I always lock the door when I creep by daylight.  I can’t do it at night, for I know John would suspect something at once.”  (Gilman 31) She does not want John to find out that she sees someone in the wallpaper for fear of being judged and watched even more closely, or perhaps being put in an asylum with all of the other women suffering from her nervous disorder.  In an article that he has written on the concept of Panopticism in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” John S. Bak explores the idea of surveillance and paranoia.  He asserts that by the end of the story, the narrator has become a “paranoid schizophrenic,” (Bak 4) and that

            In believing that she has finally broken free of this internal prison – the Victorian mind-set

            her patriarchal society has instilled in her – she has essentially released herself from the

            external bars and rings that John (or all nineteenth century men, for that matter) uses to

            restrain her.

                                                                                                            (Bak 4)


The idea here is that the institutionalization and constant observation of the narrator have caused her not only to progress to a much more severe condition than she started out with, but to fear and distrust her husband and the patriarchal values for which he stands.

            In The Bell Jar, Esther is not just placed into a room by herself, but into two different asylums where she is constantly looked after, judged and “treated” for her depression.  The bell jar itself is a symbol of isolation.  The idea of a bell jar – a glass vessel that is open at the bottom and closed at the top like a bell, that is often used to hold in important particles – is that something can be kept inside of it successfully, and carefully observed.  Because of her depression, Esther feels that she is inside the bell jar, unable to connect with the outside world, the society in which she has been brought up, in any meaningful way except to offer an example of madness to those around her. 

            Phyllis Chesler offers a discussion of asylums in Women and Madness.  She calls the effect of men being treated like women in institutions “debilitating” but never answers the question she herself asks:  “What about the effect of being treated like a woman when you are a woman?”  (Chesler 75)  As women crowd asylums, many for not conforming to female roles of domesticity, like Esther, it is often forgotten that the way that mad people are treated as helpless human beings is exactly how women have been treated throughout time.  Chesler also says that, in these asylums,

Experimental or traditional medication, surgery, shock, insulin coma treatment, isolation, physical and sexual violence, medical neglect, and slave labor are routinely enforced. Mental patients are somehow less "human" than either medical patients or criminals. They are, after all, "crazy"; they have been abandoned by (or have abandoned dialogue with) their "own" families. As such, they have no way--and no one--to "tell" what is happening to them. 

                                                                                                (Chesler 75)


And so the focus is brought back to the most obvious point.  The women that are placed in isolation seem to have given up on being domesticated wives, mothers and pillars of society at some point in time, and are therefore being punished for not conforming to what is considered “normal” behavior for women.  The isolation and hospitalization of these women are forms of silencing the stronger, more opinionated and more stubborn women who refuse to accept the rules of a patriarchal society.   Whereas isolation is shown to the women in these literary works as a tactic that will help to make them better and able to return to a more normal life by society’s standards, they are actually being punished and shut away to hide their abnormalities from the same society that claims to want to help them.



            The “madwomen” of literature have been treated as inferior creatures to their male counterparts throughout literary history.  Plath’s Esther spends so much of her time worrying about these men, the same men that have silenced her and subjected her to treatments that may have even worsened her condition, that it takes her actually putting herself first and removing the men from the equation for her to leave her isolation and return to society.  Esther’s self-image and incessant concerns about virginity, marriage and childbirth lend to the “sickness” that worsens and then gets better throughout the novel.  Gilman’s narrator is also silenced by a male influence and shut away from society, leaving her to wonder what others will think of her when they learn of the thoughts and ideas that manifest themselves in her mind as she is kept away in her yellow prison.  Each woman’s condition is made worse by the supposed treatment that she is receiving from the various people in her life. 

            The patriarchal silencing of women throughout the history of literature has lent to many feminist theories treating the subject as an injustice to women and proof of the fact that the male influences in their lives help to make them mad in the first place. It becomes necessary for the madwoman to be silenced so that the lives and values of men can be preserved.

In Women and Madness, Phyllis Chesler puts all of this in perspective with examples from real life.  She lists the names of four women: Elizabeth Packard, Ellen West, Zelda Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath, and then states:

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these four women were hospitalized for various psychiatric "symptoms." All were uncommonly stubborn, talented, and aggressive. Some became socially withdrawn: they no longer cared how they "looked," they refused to eat, they became sexually disinterested in their husbands. One woman "heard" things. Two others repeatedly attempted to kill themselves. Ellen West and Sylvia Plath finally committed suicide when they were in their early thirties.

                                                                                                (Chesler  45)


       These symptoms seem impressively similar to the symptoms seen in Esther and in Gilman’s narrator.  If this is what has happened in reality, how far away can these texts be away from the truth?  Both The Bell Jar and “The Yellow Wallpaper” can be observed as semi-autobiographical texts that almost warn the reader about the treatment of women who are considered mad, abnormal or nervous.  Each writer is, in many ways, offering her opinion of the treatment of these women through the craft of writing, effectively showing the reader that it very much matters whether one is male or female in the world of psychiatric evaluation and treatment.  And perhaps when the madwoman is no longer silenced, the world will actually see that she was never mad in the first place, just creative and independent in a world of patriarchy and oppression.




Works Cited


Bak, John S.  “Escaping the jaundiced eye: Foucauldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins

            Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper.’”  Studies in Short Fiction. 31.1(1994) 39.


Bronte, Charlotte.  Jane Eyre.  1847.  New York:  Random House, 2000.  Modern Library

            Paperback Edition.


Chesler, Phyllis.  Women and Madness.  New York:  Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997.


Foucault, Michel.  Madness and Civilization:  A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.  New

            York:  Random House, 1965.


Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar.  The Madwoman in the Attic:  The Woman Writer and the

Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.  1979. Connecticut: Yale University, 2000. Second Edition. 


Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.  The Yellow Wallpaper.  1892.  New York:  The Feminist Press, 1996. 

Revised edition. 


Hume, Beverly.  “Managing Madness in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’”  Studies in American

            Fiction.  30(2002).


Plath, Sylvia.  The Bell Jar.  New York: Harper & Row, 1971.


Rivera-Garza, Cristina.  “She Neither Respected Nor Obeyed Anyone.”  Hispanic American

            Historical Review.  81.3-4 (2001) 653-688. 


Thrailkill, Jane F.  “Doctoring ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’”  John Hopkins University Press.  ELH  69.2

            (2002) 525-566.