The Making of Madness

This month has been difficult.  Females and madness have been flavour of the month* and so it is that I find my mind drifting back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, not mad but most definitely vilified for her gender and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella The Yellow Wallpaper in which a male doctor prescribes a cure worse than the condition.  These women have been brewing in my mind and from this witches’ stew I’ll attempt to spin some wisps and strands into a blog.  I hope it makes sense: my self doubt has billowed in the face of instability, but I am a determined spirit and I hope you will enjoy this tardy October offering.

                                            '...a cure worse than the condition'

                                            '...a cure worse than the condition'

So let’s begin with a woman who undoubtedly knew her own mind but was let down by the men around her: Hester Prynne, Prynne-rhymes-with-sin – it’s hard not to think it in a singsong voice!  For the uninitiated:  Hester unwittingly commits adultery in Puritanical New England (bad choice, trust me) and consequently she is required to wear a red capital ‘A’ pinned to her chest to denote her sin.  Of course, Hester doesn’t take this lying down (pun unintended): as she emerges from prison with her baby, Hawthorne describes a woman not ‘dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud...’ but one whose natural beauty and grace is so powerful that it ‘(makes) a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she (is) enveloped.’  Her ‘attire’, handsewn by herself while imprisoned is notable for its ‘wild and picturesque peculiarity’: here is a woman who is unafraid to stand out even for the wrong reasons and how I admire her. 

Hester Prynne is like Series 1 Doctor Foster except it’s society that’s screwed her over and she decides to ignore the bastards and get on with her life.  She utilises her significant skills as a seamstress to maintain a role within the community, her beautiful stitching and garments coveted, and paid for, by many.  In doing so, she retains her dignity, her daughter Pearl, and allows the man she once thought she loved to reveal himself as firstly not worthy of her love and secondly to die miserably: better than poor old Gemma by the end of series 2.


In the fullness of time, Hester becomes the consummate figure of strength and humility.  Hawthorne gifts her the resilience to outgrow her ‘scarlet letter’, her label if you will, and instead become far more than the original connotation attached to it.  For the letter was chosen to symbolise her adultery and mark out her mistakes – yet in time, Hester’s graceful force transforms the meaning: ‘...the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too.’ 

In Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, the author draws upon her own experiences to produce an unsettling and finely-wrought novella.  The female protagonist follows Gilman’s own postnatal descent into depression but is then pushed further, then a little further, into the realm of horror by a writer determined to challenge the effectiveness, appropriateness and not to mention humanity of the treatment prescribed by Silas Weir Mitchell, a leading (male) specialist in women’s nervous disorders.  Whilst Gilman herself reached rock bottom (by her own account, she crawled under her own bed clutching a child’s doll) she managed to retain the sufficient wits to reject the recommended treatment and therefore recover in her own time under her own terms.  One can only deduce that Gilman’s own husband was considerably more respectful and caring than either the fictional spouse or Mitchell.

The novella is narrated by the female protagonist therefore we, as reader, are dependent upon her version of reality.  Gilman elegantly exploits the device of unreliable narrator to heavy but justified effect in order to explore the interplay between subjective perceptions and mental illness. As the narrative progresses, we are forced to question and decide upon what is real and what is not.  For example, the narrator and John, her husband, have a conversation in which he states she is doing well and that she must remain resting.  The unnamed narrator attempts to voice an alternative view, ‘Better in body perhaps –’, but is silenced with his silence ‘...he sat up straight (...) with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word.’  Of course, the missing word is mind, she knows that her mental state is insecure and she tries to communicate this but is thwarted, yet again, by an entitled male response.  ‘My darling, said he, I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!  There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours.  It is a false and foolish fancy.’ 

John’s response is so entitled by his own perception of advantage and superiority that he cannot allow his wife her own opinion instead muting her with his silent disapproval before addressing, to his own satisfaction only, her concerns.  It is tempting to draw strong parallels between Gilman’s experience and those of autistic women.  The problem Gilman was determined to challenge was, in essence, one which many autistic and ADHD females experience today.  If a woman’s perceptions are discredited by those around her, or furthermore those in positions of professional authority, then the progression of clinical and societal understanding will always be hamstrung.  Gilman uses a marital relationship in order to encapsulate the frustrating power dynamic which goes against women;  using the narrator’s decline to unpack the unpleasant consequences borne by women at the hands of a society which grants male opinion more worthy than female. Gilman’s exploration of perception and reality will always retain value for the themes and power-play exist, indeed overarch, their socio-historical context, examining with raw emotional honesty the pitfalls of perception and the perils of assumption.


On reflection, I consider these fictional 19th century women then I look forwards across a 21st century landscape and see a proliferation of women who are trapped by perception, by their own doubt or the doubt thrust upon them, by a lack of confidence which undermines the capacity to know and express their own minds.  I’ve come to consider Gilman’s novella as an act of generosity – for cannot a warning be a generous helping hand?  It is said that Mitchell adapted his treatment and Gilman came to know of at least one woman who received better care as a result of her fictional cri de coeur.  In the era before the internet allowed global support networks Gilman set out to influence through the only means available to her: literature. 

Returning to Hester, I see a woman who is able to able to forge a future with her own skills and innate aptitudes. Hawthorne creates Hester in such a fashion that the indiscretion she commits becomes questioned, transforms into a product of perception, manifest within a specific social context.   Her mistake is no permanent reflection upon her worth, as a mother, nor human spirit.  Hester pays for her error of judgement but she is allowed to move on from it and as a consequence her daughter is gifted a happy life, where both love and coincidentally money are not lacking.

As I watch the guttering candle within the hollowed-out pumpkin, I know I must somehow draw this month’s thoughts to a close.  Casting an eye around me, there are dirty dishes which signify a fun afternoon, there’s dried washing on an airer that suggests sloppy housekeeping but in fact represents a tidier garden.   If literature has taught me anything it has always suggested that meanings are multiple, ambiguous and subjective; that life itself is comprised of manifold perceptions.  Every now and then, it is worth indulging in a little reading with a more critical mind-set for the pages of fiction are but a safe playground within which to contemplate life and all its meanings.  Gilman’s novella becomes richer with contextualisation, whilst Hawthorne’s novel is within its own right is a tour de force in being a strong and independent woman.  With both women in mind and a generous glass of red wine in my hand I salute the end of October and welcome a fresh month.



*I could claim the New England setting reminded me of the Salem Witch Trials therefore forging a Halloween link but that wouldn’t be true.

Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She blogs on all things autistic and artistic for Mainspring Arts.