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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Woman Madness (A Paper)



“I like to look at other nations and I advise everyone to do the same. National literature has little meaning today; the time has come for the epoch of world literature to begin, and everyone must now do his share to hasten its realization.” (Jost, 1974:16). That statement of John Wolfgang Goethe which is quoted in Introduction of Comparative Literature suggests the needs of studying and comparing of the literature of the world. While Guillen in his book The Challenge of Comparative Literature says that literature “speaks for all men and all women of the deepest, the most common, or most lasting human experiences” (1993:40). This implies that as long as a work of literature speaks about universal themes, it can be perceived as a part of world literature.

Based on what is stated above, a comparative study on certain works of literature is therefore relevant and significant. A comparative study is done with the assumption that each work of literature consists of universal themes that can be perceived from different angles, and thus, can reasonably be compared. A universal theme, on the other hand, may occur in any work of literature in any area of the world. Again, such a theme is relevantly comparable.

Francois Jost points out that in comparative literature, its fundamental principle is the belief in the wholeness of the literary phenomenon, in the negation of national autarkies in cultural economics, and consequently, in the necessity of a new axiology (1974:29). Jost divides the study of comparative literature into four classifications: (1) investigations in terms of influence of one work upon another, (2) studies of movements and trends, (3) analysis of works from the viewpoint of their inner and outer form / the genre, and (4) studies of themes and motif.

In line with the discussion above, this paper tries to compare two works of literature: an American work by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and an Indonesian work by Putu Oka Sukanta, “Dewi Bulan Jatuh di Batam”. This paper tries to dig out the universal theme presented in both works, that is the theme of woman madness.

This paper is dealing with the theme of woman madness which can be obviously observed in both works. More specifically, this paper will discuss how the theme of woman madness is presented in the two works.

A Brief Overview on “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Dewi Bulan Jatuh di Batam”

Before discussing their common theme, let us have an overview of the works in general. “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman between the years 1890 and 1892. This period was one of the most difficult of Gilman’s life(Goodman, ed., 1996:126). After suffering from nervous breakdown some time before, Gilman embarked on a series of major changes in her life, including her courageous choice of separation from her husband, a move across America, and a struggle to support herself through lecturing and occasional writing. This is the context for the writing of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a story which may have helped Gilman to heal, even as she put her narrator through the agonizing process of breaking down. All this says a lot about Gilman’s valuing of creative freedom and intellectual stimulation over the domestic. But more importantly, it demonstrates what is a central theme of the story and shows it to be a central theme in the author’s life: that is, her writing was a process of catharsis, of healing, of coming to terms with herself and using that knowledge creatively. Therefore, this short story is mentioned as her semi-autobiographical story.
“Dewi Bulan Jatuh di Batam” was published in “Jurnal Perempuan” number 23 which was issued in May 2002. It was written by Putu Oka Sukanta, a practitioner and writer on acupuncture, a counselor on HIV / Aids program, and she is interested in alternative cure. Not much information can be gathered from this short story, nor the writer.

The two stories are narrated from the first person point of view. The difference is that in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the narrator is the one who is said ‘mad’, while in “Dewi Bulan Jatuh di Batam”, the narrator is telling an event where a girl is said ‘mad’.

Woman Madness in “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Madness has been an important theme in literature from Greek tragedy onwards, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it has been particularly associated with women (Goodman, ed. 1996:114). The woman madness in some literary works—such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar—is described as follows: as a figure of rage, without power to alleviate her suffering or to express it in terms that make sense to society.

Phyllis Chesler stated that the thesis of her book Women and Madness is that because the mental health system is patriarchal, women are often falsely labelled as being "mad" if they do not conform to stereotypical feminine roles.

The definition above that a madwoman is a woman whose behavior is different from what society expects from a woman or because she doesn’t conform to society’s stereotypical feminine roles can be seen in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. It is the story of a woman’s increasingly tortured mental state as she tries to adjust to living in a rented home. This is a first person narration, in which much of what the narrator thinks is not expressed directly but is rather implied. The narrator loses her grip on ‘reality’ as the story progresses. The narrator here is left without the company of other educated adults for long periods of time, shut up in an unfamiliar house in a room she does not like, and generally asked to conform to a norm of ‘feminine’ behavior and domesticity which suppresses her.

The story starts with the narrator and her family (husband, baby, and sister-in-law) stay in a rented house. They stay there during summer due to their house’s repairing and also because John—the narrator’s husband—thinks that the unnamed narrator needs some time to stay away from the routine activities which make the narrator suffer from temporary nervous depression. The narrator who is described as “an intelligent and articulate woman who has been expressly forbidden to vent her creative energies and ideas in writing” (Goodman, ed., 1996:123) must be considered weird during that period of time in her society because at that time women were supposed to be passive, only think about domestic life; a woman was not supposed to be a writer—an occupation which is claimed to belong to men only. Since she is considered radically different from other women in her society, she is judged “mad”. In fact, what drives the narrator mad is confining her creative imagination. She is intelligent and has ideas and aspirations to write. However, her domestic routine, and the explicit instructions of her husband and doctor, set up considerable obstacles to her expressions of those ideas and herself. Yet, the narrator still writes to express her feeling and ideas, although she usually stops it when her husband comes, “There comes John, and I must put this away, -- he hates to have me write a word.” (Tauborg, ed. 2002:18).

Besides the “caging” of her creative imagination, the narrator is also depicted to suffer from post-natal depression which made a large number of women are put in asylums in the nineteenth century.
It is fortunate that Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous. (Tauborg, ed., 2002:18)

The quotation above shows that the narrator undergoes post-natal depression because she feels nervous whenever she is with her baby. Therefore, Mary—her husband’s sister—is there to take care of the baby. Many women are said to experience post-natal depression after delivering their babies since they are not ready yet to be a mother while society constructs a belief that women are created to be mothers. Therefore they are supposed to have intuition to be motherly. When women feel they do not fulfill this requirement to be good women, they will blame themselves.

The narrator’s double expression—she is not allowed to express her ideas and feelings in writing and she is nervous after delivering her baby—leads her to the insanity by the end of the story.

“What’s the matter?” he cried. “For God’s sake, what are you doing!”

I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder.

“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”

Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time! (Tauborg, ed., 2002: 28)

It can be concluded that the situation in the rented house makes the narrator’s mental worse. Before staying in the rented house, she has already been judged radically different from other women in her society or ‘ad’ because of her craving in writing. To cure her, her husband, John, who is also her private doctor, asks her to stop writing. John—and most other women at that time—thinks that the narrator’s creativity in writing even makes her mental health worse.

After staying in the rented house, the narrator is put in a room upstairs which used to be a nursery. “It was nursery first and then play room and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children and there are rings and things in the wall” (Tauborg, ed., 2002: 18). Being put in a room with barred windows can make the narrator feel like a prisoner. It means she is ‘caged’ double; first, she is not allowed to write; and second, her condition in such a room. Moreover, whenever she tries to express her idea to her husband, her husband ‘lovingly’ always forces her to accept the condition because he thinks that is good for her. Since he is a doctor, he thinks he know what is best for the narrator, his patient. For example, when the narrator complains about the yellow wallpaper in her room, and asks John to repaper the room, he says that
“…after the wallpaper was changed, it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on.

“You know the place is doing you good,” he said, “and really dear, I don’t care to renovate the house just for three months’ rental.”

“Then do let us go downstairs,” I said, “There are such pretty rooms there.”

Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose…” (Tauborg, ed., 2002:19)

In another part of the story, when the narrator asks her husband to leave that place early, her husband does not agree with her idea again.

“Bless her little heart! Said he with a big hug, “she shall be as sick as she pleases! But now let’s improve the shining hours by going to sleep, and talk about it in the morning!”

“And you won’t go away?” I asked gloomily.

“Why, how can I, dear? It is only three weeks more and then we will take a nice little trip of a few days while Jennie is getting the house ready. Really dear, you are better!”

“Better in body perhaps—“ I began, and stopped short, for he sets up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word.

“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. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?”
(Tauborg, ed., 2002: 23)

it an be clearly seen from the quotation above that his profession as a doctor makes John think that he knows what is the best thing for the narrator, to better her mental depression. He forces his way of treatment without listening to what he patient feels and thinks. To his opinion, the narrator knows nothing about the way to cure herself. And without John’s awareness, his way of treatment even makes the narrator’s mental disorder worse, and even at the end it leads her to the insanity.

From the discussion above, it can be concluded that the depression leading to the narrator to the madness is resulted from male domination in the patriarchal society. Man expects woman to deal only with domestic life and to be repressive. A woman is supposed to stay home only and do household chores dutifully. A woman is supposed to support her husband’s activities and not her own activities. The happiness of the husband is the most important thing, and not her own happiness. A woman is not supposed to be expressive, she should repress her feelings and ideas. A woman is not allowed to think about herself, she should regard her husband’s affairs as the first priority. A woman should be and do whatever her husband asks her. The narrator says, “… so I take pains to control myself before him, at least, and that makes me very tired” (Tauborg, ed., 2002:17). The narrator does try to do what her husband asks her to do, but it even makes her depression worse. Moreover, she cannot do one thing she likes best, writing. Elaine Showalter notes in her key study The Female Malady, as quoted by Goodman in Literature and Gender (1996:115) that “Biographies and letters of gifted women who suffered mental breakdowns have suggested that madness is the price women artists have had to pay for the exercise of their creativity in a male-dominated culture.”

Woman Madness in “Dewi Bulan Jatuh di Batam”

Similar to the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” where the narrator becomes mad because of male domination upon her, Dewi Bulan in “Dewi Bulan Jatuh di Batam” becomes mad also because of oppression which is done by male on her. Dewi Bulan—a sixteen year old girl—was taken to Batam by a ‘broker’ to be forced to be a dancer in a discotheque. She becomes a victim of woman trafficking.

Lola Wagner in her article entitled “Trafficking Perempuan dan Remaja untuk Tujuan Eksploitasi Seksual Komersial di Batam” (Women and Teenagers Trafficking for Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Batam) which was published in Jurnal Perempuan (Women Journal) number 29 gives definition that “trafficking in person adalah mencakup pemindahtanganan seseorang dari satu pihak ke pihak lainnya menggunakan ancaman atau pemaksaan dengan tujuan eksploitasi” (2003:21) (trafficking in person covers handing over someone from one person to another person by the use of threat and force for exploitation.)

As a victim of woman trafficking, Dewi Bulan undergoes oppression and suppression which then leads her to the state of insanity. To be forced to be a dancer means that Dewi Bulan is exploited to entertain men as the main consumers. It proves that women madness is resulted from this male-dominated world.

Feeling suppressed and wanting to escape from the cruel way of life, Dewi Bulan pretends to be crazy so that she is let go from the place where she is put with other female dancers working in the discotheque.
Although the two short stories have the same theme—about woman madness—the difference between them is clearly seen. In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the label ‘mad’ is given to the narrator while she herself does not seem to realize that she is mad. She tries to adjust herself with the condition which her husband considers her treatment to cure her mental breakdown. In “Dewi Bulan Jatuh di Batam”, Dewi Bulan chooses to do things which will make people around her judge her mad in order to escape from oppression and suppression done to her.


The two short stories are written in different period of time and published in different countries. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is written in 1892 by the end of the nineteenth century in America. “Dewi Bulan Jatuh di Batam” is written in 2002 at the beginning of the twenty first century in Indonesia. However, from the discussion above, it proves that woman madness is the result from male domination in the patriarchal society. By the end of the story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the narrator becomes mad because of wrong treatment for her mental depression. Yet, it is not clear whether she really becomes mad, or she pretends to be mad to escape her husband’s treatment forced upon her. The story stops when John gets fainted when seeing the narrator creeping around the room. On the contrary, by the end of the story “Dewi Bulan Jatuh di Batam”, the reader finds out that Dewi Bulan is not really mad, she chooses to be mad just to escape from her hard life. It works because at the end Dewi Bulan disappears, she runs away from the drop-in center.


Chesler, Phyllis, Women and Madness, New York: Avon Books, 1972
Goodman, Lizbeth, Literature and Gender, London: The Open University, 1996
Guillen, Claudio, The Challenge of Comparative Literature, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993
Jost, Francois, Introduction to Comparative Literature, New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1974
Sukanta, Putu Oka, “Dewi Bulan Jatuh di Batam”, in Jurnal Perempuan number 23, Jakarta: Yayasan Jurnal Perempuan, May 2002
Tauborg, Sarah, The Hudson Book Fiction 30 Stories Worth Reading, New York: McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2002
Wagner, Lola, “Trafficking Perempuan dan Remaja untuk Tujuan Eksploitasi Seksual Komersial di Batam” in Jurnal Perempuan number 29, Jakarta: Yayasan Jurnal Perempuan, May 2003

Yogya, July 2003

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