Contributing Factors for the Degradation in Mental Illness from “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Bartleby the Scrivenor”

Contributing Factors for the Degradation in Mental Illness from “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Bartleby the Scrivenor”

Melissa Mills Compare/Contrast October 5, 2011 Intro to Lit. MW 3:00 Contributing Factors for the Degradation in Mental Illness of the Nameless Narrator and Bartleby Until the late 1800’s when psychoanalysis was introduced, there was little to no distinction between classifications of mental illness. The female protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Bartleby of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivenor” are both characters that seem to suffer from depression.

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Gilman’s narrator suffers from a ‘temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency’ that regresses into insanity and irrational behavior as Bartley is unmotivated, passive resistant and reticent. The regressing mental illnesses of the characters are contributed by the oppression from external forces of society in this particular time, the isolation, and the power of the enabling people in their lives. In this sense, they are more similar and of greater importance than in comparing the distinction in mental illness, which was impossible at the time the stories were written.

Both “The Yellow Wallpaper” protagonist and Bartleby feel oppression from the society they live within, which more than likely had a contributing factor in their mental illness, although the oppression that Gilman’s protagonist experience is more about women’s domestic role in society as a mother, wife and homemaker, and Melville’s Bartleby felt the oppression of society when arrested and imprisoned as not conforming to the dominating ways of society. “The Yellow Wallpaper” protagonist is completely controlled by her husband/physician, John; mentally, physically and spiritually.

Her husband talks down to her and is compelled to hide her anxiety and fears from him to appear happy in the face of her depression, she is confined to the thoughts in her head which burden her with strange delusions. Bartleby on the other hand, lives in a society that is also oppressive, where he can’t exercise his own autonomy with and without the physical freedom, as he encounters in prison confinement because he would “prefer not to” leave the law office building premises when asked to by his more than accommodating boss. Bartleby can also contribute ppression from a previous job as a Dead Letter Office worker in which one can assume would contribute to depression and possibly fear. Therefore, the nameless narrator and Bartleby’s oppression is a possible aspect in contributing to their mental illness. Similarly, the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the character Bartleby both experience a state of isolation that could contribute to their mental illnesses, however, Gilman’s narrator is suffocated by the coerced isolation by John, and yet Bartleby’s isolation is a product of his own free-will.

Gilman’s protagonist is locked in a top floor room with bars on the window and minimal, controlled social interactions and forced feedings. She is isolated from true expression to her husband for fear of his thoughts about her. This isolation and repressing seems to bring about the obsession to decode the wall paper, hallucinations about a woman trying to escape the multi-layered print and irrational thoughts that she is the woman that needs to get out; all indicate mental illness.

Melville’s Bartleby isolates himself by not communicating his intentions or responding, refusing assistance and exhibiting inaction in his life. Isolation can also be seen in this story when Bartleby is imprisoned for failing to comply with authority in removing himself from the law office building in which he had previously been employed at. Both of these stories illustrate how isolation is a possible contributing factor of their mental illness.

Despite good intentions, both characters are enabled to decline in mental health and become more mentally ill as shown in “The Yellow Wallpaper” when John enables the narrator to regress by continuing treatment despite his wife’s concerns for her mental health, contrasting, Bartleby who is enabled by his boss to continue inaction at work, to live at the office to the point where the boss relocates his office, and ultimately confinement for indecision, followed by intentional death by starving.

John gives the narrator in Gilman’s story, an opportunity to express concern to her husband/physician, yet by his insensitive reaction to not listen and even persuade her to not think again about leaving for another 3 weeks, he enables her to get worse and to hide her true state of mind from him.

Bartleby, in contrast, is enabled by his own boss who when he refuses to work but keeps his job, lives in and outside of the office as a nomad and his boss simply moves the chambers to avoid the problem; all enabling him to continue to get worse. Therefore, the enabling of deteriorating mental health contributes to the mental illness in the potential to cause more damage even to the already fragile mental states of Gilman’s and Melville’s characters.

Consequently, the characters in these two stories are more similar in the experience of oppression, isolation and enabling from those in in the power of authority, possibly contributing to the declination of the character’s mental illness. Despite many differences in symptoms and behavior of these two, these are the most important comparisons of mental health in the domineering and unjust times of the late nineteenth century in American history for the misunderstood and alienated misfortunes of the mentally ill.


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