Tag: medicine

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892)

John and the narrator have rented a colonial mansion, “a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house,” where the narrator can rest from an illness her physician husband John, who “scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be left and seen and put down in figures,” does not believe she has, though he is treating her and manages her hourly prescriptions. “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.” He is also controlling and patronizing. He doesn’t let her have the room she wished they’d taken on the first floor. “He hates to have me write a word.” All activities are discouraged. But she writes, from a room with atrocious yellow wall paper that commits “every artistic sin,” and “when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide.” The narrator has just had a baby but was separated from it because of her illness. It’s post-partum depression to our eyes, but to her husband and the rest of her family, it’s an invention, a conceit, an indulgence, an ironic twist on the blame: it’s all in your head.

Actually, it’s all in the wall-paper, which gradually becomes the narrator’s doors of perception. Gilman’s device is simple and ingenuous. The paper is a mirror to the narrator’s slow degradation as she slowly unmoors herself from John, with the occasional snide aside (“I suppose John was never nervous in his life”) while the patterns in the paper take on life, little by little as if sucking the life out of her: “There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside-down.” At first the wallpaper oppresses her with its ugliness but then becomes her. The story’s obvious limitation is the coherent narration throughout: a woman losing grasp of life as she knew it would not know to write sop lucidly. That suspension of disbelief is the accepted deal with Gilman. It can’t be resolved. Although we also don;t know whether this is memoir or testament. The patterns in the wallpaper become her testament: “On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.” She supposedly improves, at least according to how she reports John reacting, but she is only degrading further, talking about burning the house, “creeping” about the room, demolishing the paper as if to free the souls within, and herself. The paper had been a reflection of her prison, her prison a reflection of her society, starting with her husband.

The prison is still full of guards and inmates.

Hawthorne, “The Haunted Quack” (1831)

“The Quack Doctor” (Arallyn)

Hawthorne’s humor and satire, more contemporary than this rarely read tale lets on. The narrator is on a slow boat to Niagara, traveling on a canal boat to Utica. He’s forgotten to bring a book. He’s bored. He finds one and gets all engrossed in it until awoken from a “dreamy state” by the self-reproaching moans of a man calling himself a murderer. So we’re not sure this isn’t a continuation of the narrator’s dream. The man is Hyppocrates Jenkins. He was apprentice to a quack, a man who “was no more a doctor than his jack-ass,” working out of an office whose “single window commanded a view of the church-yard, in which, it was said, many of the Doctor’s former patients were quietly slumbering.” The “doctor” dies, Jenkins picks up the practice, becomes sought after for his crazy concoctions until one old woman, wonderfully described, falls ill and imbibes one of his inventions. The description of the woman has that touch of Balzac’s portraits:

“I dare say you have met with that species of old women, so frequent in all country towns, who, seeming to have outlived the common enjoyments of life, and outworn the ordinary sources of excitement, seek fresh stimulus in scenes of distress, and appear to take a morbid pleasure in beholding the varieties of human suffering, and misery. One of the most noted characters in the village was an old beldame of this description. Granny Gordon, so she was familiarly denominated, was the rib of the village Vulcan, and the din of her eternal tongue, was only equalled by the ringing of her husband’s anvil. Thin and withered away in person and redolent with snuff, she bore no small resemblance to a newly exhumed mummy, and to all appearance promised to last as long as one of those ancient dames of Egypt. Not a death, a burial, a fit of sickness, a casualty, nor any of the common calamities of life ever occurred in the vicinity, but Granny Gordon made it her especial business to be present. Wrapped in an old scarlet cloak–hat hideous cloak! the thought of it makes me shudder–she might be seen hovering about the dwelling of the sick. Watching her opportunity, she would make her way into the patient’s chamber, and disturb his repose with long dismal stories and ill-boding predictions; and if turned from the house, which was not unfrequently the case, she would depart, muttering threats and abuse.

She takes the concoction and seems to die. Jenkins panics, thinks he’s killed her, throws out all his inventions in the river and disappears from town, now finding himself next to this stranger on a slow boat to Niagara and seeing the ghost of the old woman haunting him. “I plainly saw that he was a little disordered in his intellect,” goes the narrator. “To comfort him, however, I told him, that if he had killed fifty old women, they could do nothing to him, if he had done it professionally.” Once there, the sheriff and a posse are at the docks. He thinks they’re there to arrest him. They’re there because they’ve been looking for him, thinking he was kidnapped, and were ready to try the old woman’s husband for murder for having spoken of wanting to kill him. The old woman never died. “She was only in a swoond.” They celebrate him, bring him home, where he resumes his quackery.

It’s as fitting a tale for modern health care as any: Medicine as quackery, as superstition, and doctors as misplaced heroes. And malpractice.

Hemingway, “Indian Camp” (1924)

Hemingway’s passport photo, a year before the publication of ‘Indian Camp.’ (Wikimedia Commons)

In “The Hartleys” and “River” tradition of shocking endings, the dead one in this case not being a child, but the father of a child being born: a very small difference, as the man’s suicide, so willfully orphaning the child, is a form of murder.

Nick and his father board a boat that an Indian rows to an Indian camp, with Nick’s Uncle George on board as well. A woman is in a difficult labor. Nick’s father will perform a cesarean. On the way to camp, Nick’s father has his arm around the boy. Nick admires his father, deifies him, though his father will shatter his ability to withstand so much admiration when the gore of the operation overtakes the scene. The father of the baby is in a bunk above the scene, turning to face the wall. The woman has been screaming. His quiet is telling. The doctor celebrates the birth:

As they row out, Nick asks his daddy if dying is hard. “”No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.” And that final, searingly beautiful image in spite and still: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” The arm stretched around him at the beginning of the story.

The Indian’s terror may have been Hemingway’s: his wife Hadley went into labor with their first child while he was away. He was terrorized at the thought of anything going wrong and of getting there too late. He transferred the fear, and took it beyond its human limits: a literary leap that serves other purposes in the story but that still seems, in and of itself, a touch gratuitous. But then, in light of Hemingway’s suicide, was it not merely premature projection? “He couldn’t stand things, I guess.” The woman meanwhile has no name, no face, no presence but those screams.