Mental Health Issues in Literature and History

There was a call for papers for 19th century American literature and topics from within that. I thought of my most interesting section in freshman comp and literature at CC2.

One of the stories in the book was “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It is the story of a woman who goes crazy from the prescription for her postpartum depression. It was from this story that the whole unit grew.

First, we read “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” discussing the insanity in them and also the gothic elements (since similar gothic elements exist in “The Yellow Wallpaper”). We discussed questions of whether or not it is insanity to believe something that is patently untrue. We talked about the definition of insanity in terms of living with other people or not being able to do so. And we talked about the typical expectation of crazy people to hear voices (or sounds) that no one else can hear because they do not exist.

Then we moved into a discussion of women’s historical experiences with mental instability.

Before we read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I told them of one experience I have had with insanity.

After that I had the students freewrite about their experience with insanity in any form. I had them write for a few minutes about the most insane thing they’d ever seen.

Then I asked them, what was their definition of crazy?

My personal experience, expressed much more specifically in my class, made it possible for students to feel safe orally sharing stories and one or two did so.

After that we read “Yellow Wallpaper.” We discussed its history and surrounding information such as Gilman’s explanation for writing the work, an English teacher’s explication of the story, and the history of mental health and women in the United States.

For instance, Governor Winthrop wrote in his Journal on 13 April 1645:

Mr. Hopkins, the governor of Hartford upon Connecticut, came to Boston, and brought his wife with him, (a godly young woman, and of special parts,) who was fallen into a sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding and reason, which had been growing upon her divers years, by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing, and had written many books. Her husband, being very loving and tender of her, was loath to grieve her; but he saw his error, when it was too late. For if she had attended her household affairs, and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, etc., she had kept her wits, and might have improved them usefully and honorably in the place God had set her.[2:225]

I introduced Nellie Bly at this time. Her work Ten Days in a Mad-House is relatively short. And it does a good job of making clear the situation for women in asylums at the time. Time limitations can be eased by picking particular sections. (Some chapters are less than a page long.)

Love’s Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity explains the focus on the part of the doctors on questions about her lovers and everyone’s giggles over the judge’s description of her as someone’s darling.

To relieve some of the depression of the whole unit, we also talked about her world tour . This is an amazing story of courage on the part of a woman who knows what the world can do and since it ends happily, it relieves some of the gloom this unit creates.

There is a YouTube on Nellie,
that is living history. It is short and introduces the students to her. There are other YouTube videos available on her.

Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” talks of a kind husband with a life that is circumscribed not by physician or barred windows but by society’s expectations. The shortness of the story, the simplicity of the narrative line, and the shock of the ending makes it a favorite in English classes. We discussed the expectations for women in the day, in terms of education, work, and family. We also discussed the differences in working women and ladies. (This comes up in Nellie Bly and can be either examined there first or after the reading discussed here.)

The third literary work in this second section which we read in this section was Susan Glaspell’s Trifles. This play is complicated in ways that are more understandable having read and discussed women’s issues and mental health issues in the day. Though it is from a later era, the differences are not extreme, since it is about a farming community, a more conservative, less changing group than, for instance, a story about a woman in the city in the same era.

This unit allowed us to talk about women’s issues, to place women’s issues in a historical context which explained some anomalies the students had noticed in life around them, and to discuss mental health and insanity in a way that was unthreatening and thoughtful.

I am also thinking about using part of this in the class on Writing in the Behavioral Sciences to introduce the kinds of issues there have been historically.

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