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“The Despair of the Physician”: Centering Patient Narrative through the Writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Reeher, Jennifer M.

2018, Master of Arts (MA), Ohio University, English (Arts and Sciences).
Patient narrative is often an undervalued or dismissed genre of writing in the field of literary criticism, largely because the hermeneutics of suspicion leads critics to see these texts as “misery memoirs,” as Ann Jurecic suggests. In this thesis, I argue for a new approach to reading and to criticism that moves away from the hermeneutics of suspicion and instead seeks to find conversations between patient narratives, case narratives, and popular or dominant medical and scientific texts. This shift would have readers focusing not on the ways in which an author might manipulate a story but instead on what the reader might learn from intently examining the resulting conversations. In doing so, I do not argue for a switch in the hierarchy—from doctor-patient to patient-doctor—but instead argue that both patient and case narratives have value; without both texts, we cannot have a full picture of what it is like to live with illness.

Making my argument through historical examination, I prove that by examining Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s patient narratives—those found in her letters, her diaries, and her autobiography as well as in “The Yellow Wallpaper”—alongside medical and scientific texts from her time, we can not only deepen and nuance current interpretations of these texts but we can also uncover motivations that may not be immediately apparent. While “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for example, has been considered as a critique of patriarchal medicine, a horror story, and a liberation text—among others—it has never been explicitly examined as a patient narrative. This focus allows us to delve deeper into the conversation created between “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Gilman’s nonfiction narratives; I focus particularly on how we can see the eugenic arguments within “The Yellow Wallpaper” and how these arguments are connected to Gilman’s anxieties about marriage, motherhood, and her usefulness in society.

While ignoring patient narratives makes literary critics and historians complicit in the history of silence that surrounds medical patients, I conclude that by instead recognizing the validity and the value of the patient narrative, literary critics and historians could (1) better contextualize some of the most popular and canonical texts, especially those in which illness is a significant driving factor, (2) develop a more complete understanding of what it is like to live with illness, and (3) create new frameworks through which to read patient narratives, as well as other autobiographical texts.
Thomas Scanlan (Committee Chair)
Mary Kate Hurley (Committee Member)
Myrna Perez Sheldon (Committee Member)
142 p.

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Reeher, J. (2018). “The Despair of the Physician”: Centering Patient Narrative through the Writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. (Electronic Thesis or Dissertation). Retrieved from https://etd.ohiolink.edu/

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Reeher, Jennifer. "“The Despair of the Physician”: Centering Patient Narrative through the Writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman." Electronic Thesis or Dissertation. Ohio University, 2018. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center. 21 Nov 2018.

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Reeher, Jennifer "“The Despair of the Physician”: Centering Patient Narrative through the Writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman." Electronic Thesis or Dissertation. Ohio University, 2018. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/

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