Social Insanity and the General Will Subverted in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Seasons of Madness” Insanity is usually understood to be a purely mental phenomenon, in which something is severely wrong with the sufferer…
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This definition has to do less with the individual alone than with the individual in relation to the rest of society, and hinges around something similar to what Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jacob Talmon discuss in their explorations of democracy. Both men are interested in what Rousseau calls the “Social Contract,” which is essentially the individual’s privileging of society’s rights over his or her own. Although this theory do not deal explicitly with insanity, its system of social understanding serves as a good model to explain the way society constructs its ideas of madness. These social constructions, and the submission to the will of the general population, can rob a rational, normal individual of their rights and life. Rousseau’s theorizing—and Talmon’s critical response to it—are less clear than they may be, especially when applying them to something other than politics. However, two short stories which show just the sorts of thing they are talking about are Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” and al Shaykh's “Seasons of Madness,” which both show social constructions of insanity. In Gilman's story, set in 19th century America, the madness of her character is set upon her by society, but becomes debilitating and very real after she has been supposedly cured of her ailment. On the other hand, al Shaykh's story, which is set in a 20th century Middle Eastern society, portrays a madness chosen for more selfish social reasons, and which the character is able to set aside when she wants to. Regardless, both stories do show some of the dangers involved in treating madness as a purely mental phenomenon, and argue somewhat for an understanding of insanity as a social construction in some cases. Taken together, and when viewed through the political and philosophical ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jacob Talmon, the stories make a convincing argument that insanity is socially constructed, and that this can be dangerous. In most cases, when someone is labeled insane by society it is because there is something severely wrong with how their brain works, or at least how it relates to reality. However, insanity could also be understood as an individual's refusal to fit himself or herself into the consensus of what reality should be. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” this happens when the narrator constantly refuses to stop writing and using her imagination. In “Seasons of Madness,” it is apparent in Fatin’s pretended insanity, which she uses to distance herself from what her husband and family expects of her. In these cases, the individual's insanity is not so much a serious mental illness as a rejection of what society deems right and proper. This would suggest that the reason society as a whole puts those suffering from insanity into asylums may be to protect them, as well as society, from their own selfish rejections of the consensus view. On the other hand, as both short stories show, this idea is ripe for abuse: if insanity is not necessarily a mental problem, serious harm could be done to sufferers by treating them as if it is. The unnamed narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” ends up insane in truth where before she was just different to other people. Fatin at the end of her story is caught up in others’ perceptions of her as insane even though she has just admitted to being perfectly rational. Rousseau is the older theorist, and his “Social Contract,” written in the late 1700s, is considered by many a classic of political theory. In it, Rousseau famously described man as being “born free, and everywhere … in chains” (14). He argues that the way to help man be free in life is through the use of the “Social Contract,”
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