Depression in Literature
Minnie Wright in Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles,” Emily Grierson in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” and the narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” are all dominated by male figures, all suffer from depression, and all eventually commits violence.
In an article, originally published in the October 1913 issue of The Forerunner, titled “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,'” Gilman gives a first hand account of her experience with depression (Gilman pp). She explains that she had suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia “and beyond,” and that during the third year, 1887, she sought help from a noted specialist in nervous diseases (Gilman pp). This “wise man” put her to bed and applied the “rest cure,” to which her still youthful body responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing wrong with her, and so sent her home to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” and to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day” and “never to touch a pen, brush, or pencil again” as long as she lived (Gilman pp). Gilman explains, “I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over” (Gilman pp). She says that using what was left of her intelligence and with the help of a friend, she decided to cat the specialist’s advice to the winds, and went back to the normal life of every human being, “in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite” (Gilman pp). She was so moved by her recovery that she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in an attempt to save people from being driven crazy, and to her knowledge, it saved “one woman from a similar fate – so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered” (Gilman pp). She claims that she sent a copy of the story to the physician who “nearly drove me mad,” and although he never acknowledged it, many years later she was told that the “great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper'” (Gilman pp).
Of course, Gilman’s narrator does not recover, and the story chronicles the woman’s descent into madness, due to the advise of the male physicians in charge of her life, her husband and brother (Gilman1 pp).
In describing her husband, the narrator says, “John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (Gilman1 pp). The narrator believes that John being a physician is perhaps one reason she does “not get well faster” (Gilman1 pp). And like Gilman’s doctor, the narrator says of John, “You see he does not believe I am sick…My brother…also of high standing…says the same thing” (Gilman1 pp). She explains that she is absolutely forbidden to work until she is well again, yet she says, “Personally, I disagree with their ideas…I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good” (Gilman1 pp). Throughout the story there are references to potential violence, such as when she speaks of her baby and says, “yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous” (Gilman1 pp). And of course at the end of the story she mentions the rope she has, that even her sister-in-law Jennie cannot find, in case the woman in the wallpaper does get out and tries to escape, she can tie her, then says, “But I am securely fastened now by my well-hidden rope” (Gilman1 pp). Unlike Gilman, who recovered, the narrator succumbs to total madness.
Susan Glaspell’s story, “Trifles,” is also a story of a woman driven to madness and violence by male domination.
The first reference to Minnie’s husband, John Wright, was when Mr. Hale said, “…though I said to Harry that I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John” (Glaspell pp). When Hale found Minnie, “She was rockin’ back and forth. She had her apron in her hand and was kind of – pleating it…she looked queer…as if she didn’t know what she was going to do next” (Glaspell pp). The men in the story, especially Mr. Hale, the County Attorney, and the Sheriff, are all patronizing of the women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, who have come in to gather some clothes and a few things to take to Minnie who is being held in jail for the murder John (Glaspell pp). When the women discuss Minnie’s cherry preserves and such, and what a shame it was that the cold kitchen ruined all but one, Mr. Hale remarks, “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (Glaspell pp). The women are indeed speaking of trifles, little things, small talk, however in all that small talk they reveal clues to Minnie’s life, as well as discover the clues that led her to murder John (Glaspell pp). Mrs. Hale examines Minnie’s skirt, and remembers when Minnie “used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir. But that – oh, that was thirty years ago” (Glaspell pp). One of the things that Minnie had requested was her apron, and the Mrs. Peters believed it was “just to make her feel more natural,” however it was also most likely that Minnie wanted something to do with her hands, she could pleat the apron as she was doing when Mr. Hale found her (Glaspell pp). When Mrs. Hale discovers Minnie’s quilt block, she notes that part of the stitching was neat and even, but another part “looks as if she didn’t know what she was about” (Glaspell pp). According to Judith Russell, the play focuses on the death of an oppressive husband at the hands of his emotionally abused wife in an isolated and remote farm in the Midwest, and beneath the surface, “the collective behaviors of Mrs. Hale, Mrs. Peters, and Mrs. Wright bear strong resemblance to those of the Fates in Greek mythology” (Russell pp). Russell also suggests that when Mrs. Hale rips the stitches on the quilt block and re-sews it, it is as if she is trying to heal Minnie, to undo Minnie’s state of mind, driven there by John (Russell pp). Then in a single moment, the women, sharing only a silent look, agree to hide the dead bird from the men, thus erasing any motive Minnie might have had for murdering her husband (Russell pp). Russell believes that Glaspell’s play is based in the story of the Three Sisters who control the fate of men (Russell pp). Like Gilman’s narrator, Minnie was driven to depression, then an act of violence by the male domination.
Renee Curry writes of “A Rose for Emily,” that Faulkner “reveals the limits of gendered narrative through the narrator’s inability to understand or know Emily” (Curry pp). The men in town are portrayed as respectful of Emily, while the women are curious, and the narrator is both (Curry pp). Through the narrator, Faulkner reveals clues to Emily’s life and her father’s domination (Curry pp). Apparently, no young man was good enough for Emily, and the town had “long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door” (Faulkner pp). After her father’s death, Homer Barron came into her life, but “Homer himself had remarked – he liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elk’s Club – that he was not a marrying man” (Faulkner pp). Then after Homer disappeared, she gave china painting lessons until a new generation lost interest, and then “The front door closed…remained closed for good” (Faulkner pp). Emily’s depression caused her to become a recluse.
All three female protagonists are so dominated by male authority figures that their loneliness leads to severe depression, which in turn leads to madness, then eventually acts of violence. None of the women have active control of their lives, however, each in their own way makes a desperate attempt to take action, to seek a type of redemption for the misery and humiliation they have endured by the male figures in their lives.
Curry, Renee R. “Gender and authorial limitation in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.'” The Mississippi Quarterly. June 22, 1994. Retrieved July 28, 2005 from HighBeam Research Library Web site.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Retrieved July 28, 2005 at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/wf_rose.html
Gilman1, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper (1899).” Retrieved July 29, 2005 at http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/wallpaper.html
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” 1913. Retrieved July 28, 2005 at http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/whyyw.html
Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles.” 1916. Retrieved July 28, 2005 at http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng384/trifles.htm
Russell, Judith Kay. “Glaspell’s ‘Trifles.'” The Explicator. January 01, 1997.
Retrieved July 28, 2005 from HighBeam Research Library Web site.
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