What is the Rest Cure in The Yellow Wallpaper?

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

In 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' the narrator's husband prescribes her something called a 'rest cure,' which turns out to be neither. We'll learn about the history of the rest cure and how it relates to Gilman and her narrator's experiences.

References to the Rest Cure in The Yellow Wallpaper

The phrase 'rest cure'isn't explicitly mentioned in The Yellow Wallpaper, but the narrator does refer to it in detail. Her husband John is a physician who has diagnosed her as having a 'slight hysterical tendency,'or 'nervous condition.'His main medical advice is that she avoid work, strenuous activity, social interactions, or anything too stimulating. In fact, she says he 'hardly lets me stir without special direction.'In other words, the narrator is confined to the house and not allowed to do anything for herself.

The result is that she becomes isolated and bored, having almost literally nothing to do but stare at the wallpaper in her room. As you can imagine, this is hardly a healthy or productive way for anyone to spend their time, regardless of what illness they have. Eventually, the narrator loses her grip on her sanity and has hallucinations of a woman who lives in the wallpaper. However, she does break the grip of her husband's suffocating control over her, declaring: 'I've got out at last... in spite of you and Jane! And... you can't put me back!'

The Origins and History of the Rest Cure

The rest cure was invented in the late nineteenth century by Silas Weir Mitchell, a notable American neurologist, and was used widely in the U.S. and U.K. through the early twentieth century. (A neurologist is a doctor who treats brain and spinal diseases as well as other nervous and muscular disorders). Mitchell originally developed the rest cure during the American Civil War, when he treated soldiers with severe nerve damage from bullet wounds. The most painful of these cases drove patients to 'hysterical'behavior. In addition to narcotics, Mitchell prescribed a rest cure to calm them and limit movement that would keep them from healing. The cure involved four basic elements: bed rest, force-feeding/overfeeding, massage, and electrical stimulation of the muscles.

A photo of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell taken in 1909
A photo of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell taken in 1909

Later, Mitchell adapted the rest cure to treat hysteria and other nervous disorders in the civilian population. Hysteria today refers to a number of psychological personality disorders affecting both genders that causes a range of psychological and physical symptoms. However, in Mitchell's day, hysteria was thought to be a disease that primarily afflicted women. Mitchell himself developed a number of crude misconceptions about it and was known for being unsympathetic toward patients he diagnosed---often incorrectly---as hysterical. He wrote about these patients as 'the class well known to every physician,---nervous women, who as a rule are thin, and lack blood.'They were also apparently too ambitious, leading him to state that 'The woman's desire to be on a level of competition with man and assume his duties is, I am sure, making mischief.'He insisted his patients not be allowed to feed or bathe themselves, write, sew, or visit with friends or family.

As a result, both Mitchell and female hysteria as a diagnosis are now heavily associated with sexism and misogyny, especially in literature. The modernist writer Virginia Woolf was also prescribed the rest cure many times with disastrous results, and she refers to this in her novel Mrs. Dalloway.

A bored-looking young woman confined to bed (painting by Louis Lang)
A bored-looking young woman confined to bed (painting by Louis Lang)

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