Eight Cousins: What would you do if you couldn’t read?

illustration by Robert Doremus

“Now, Mac, listen to me,” Rose said very earnestly, though her voice shook a little and her heart ached. “You know you have hurt your eyes reading by fire-light and in the dusk, and sitting up late, and now you’ll have to pay for it; the doctor said so. You must be careful, and do as he tells you, or you will be blind.”

This is the setting for chapter 11 (Poor Mac) of Eight Cousins. Mac is the book worm cousin. He first was struck down by sun stroke becoming very ill, and then suffered serious eye strain from his constant reading. He is now confined to a dark room, possibly for a year, to recover his eye sight: “He was forbidden to look at a book and as that was the one thing he most delighted in, it was a terrible affliction to the Worm.”

Rose reaches out to Mac, visiting him and reading to him each day. Mac is slow to warm up to Rose as he was slow to accept the seriousness of his condition, but he comes around to appreciating her.

Dark rooms

I thought about how difficult it would be to be confined to a dark room with no activity, especially the one you love the most. While I have only read a handful of books from Louisa’s time, I do see a distinct pattern of dark rooms and invalidism (sometimes imposed, sometimes not).

The common cure-all

I found this method of cure specifically for eye strain rather interesting and tried to find out more about it but struck out. One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Season blog mentioned to me that time in dark rooms devoid of all activity was seen as a common cure-all for many maladies. (basically it’s the medical profession throwing up their hands and saying there’s nothing more they can do.. She mentioned different examples including Rochester in Jane Eyre and I loved her comment, “Why does his eyesight slowly recover? Rest and a good woman I suppose.” That certainly is the case for Mac and Rose.

Medicine was in its infancy and certainly reflected what Abba Alcott lamented regarding daughter Lizzie’s last illness: “… the system of medicine is a prolonged Guess.”

from the Duke University production blog

One woman’s reaction to the “rest cure”

Often these guesses took a tragic turn. Nancy referred me to a famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Written as a series of journal entries. “The Yellow Wallpaper” concerns a woman whose physician husband prescribes a “rest cure” , a common method of treating nervous disorders in women. Deprived of all activity and totally isolated from others, the writer becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in her room. She writes secretly in her journal of the wallpaper’s colors and pattens and begins to imagine seeing a woman trapped inside. She seeks to “free” the woman by ripping down the wallpaper. Becoming fearful of her husband and generally paranoid, she ends up locking herself in the room so she can finish ripping off the wallpaper and freeing the phantom woman. Her husband, upon finally gaining entry into the room faints when he sees how insane his wife has become. She crawls over him to continue her task.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Wikipedia)

Autobiographical in nature

Gilman was a patient herself and wrote the story specifically “to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell (the proponent of the rest cure), and convince him of the error of his ways” (Wikipedia). Suffering from depression, Gilman nearly went insane herself after three months of the rest cure. She fought against it by taking up her activities again, and writing “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Danger in isolation

There is much that could be discussed here regarding the implications for women regarding these “rest cures.” Certainly the power wielded by her husband over this woman was disturbing. I was intrigued by this story,

from the Duke University production blog

knowing first hand the damage that isolation and lack of purposeful activity can do. I’ve witnessed members of my own family suffering from depression and the damage that isolation (usually self-imposed) did to them. I can’t even imagine how difficult it would be to have such isolation forced upon you, especially if no one listened to your concerns.

Lucky Mac!

Mac was certainly lucky to have Rose and so many other members of his family to take care of him through this difficult time. He may still have been deprived of reading, but he had the social interaction that is so life-giving. He was one of the lucky ones!

I encourage you to read “The Yellow Wallpaper” (it’s available online) and to read the fascinating history of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Postscript

I have to admit, reading about Mac reminded me of this classic Twilight Zone episode:

What would you do if you couldn’t read anymore?

UPDATE: Nancy posted something on her Silver Seasons blog about this subject, great post – you can read it here.


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10 Replies to “Eight Cousins: What would you do if you couldn’t read?”

  1. I must applaud you for connecting the dots between something as apparently “un-layered” as Mac’s situation and the incredibly sinister plight revealed in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. If it was a girl in Mac’s situation I probably would have easily seen that her participation in the tradition of female autonomy through reading and narrative was being subverted in a potentially oppressive way. I’m still not convinced that that’s happening to Mac either, but two women in Louisa’s thriller “A Whisper in the Dark” are locked away, (allegedly for madness, but really to exploit one’s money and deny them emotional autonomy and legitimacy) so it’s certainly a comparable theme in Alcott’s works.

    The “Jane Eyre” allusion is also interesting because solitariness for a woman is oppressive, while for a man it may be redemptive. Jane chafes at her quiet, calm existence when she first comes to Thornfield and utters a passionate defense of women’s right to a wider sphere of action (that Virginia Woolf felt disrupted the flow of the novel). Feminists theorists have long seen Jane as the double of Mr. Rochester’s made wife, Bertha Mason, who is locked in a dark room, without useful activities. (Of course, there’s been a good deal of argument over just how bad Rochester was to her and whether he might have contributed to the insanity. Personally, I don’t think Bronte meant that at all.) Conversely, Mr. Rochester transforms himself into a “will o’ the whisp” and begins his decline. It is only through enforced blindness (like the Apostle Paul) that he sees the light, but even then Jane and Rochester remain in a solitary situation reminiscent of “Paradise Lost”.

    Anyways, thanks again for bringing forward this fascinating dichotomy! Now I’m off to read “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

    1. I can hardly wait to read your comments on that! I agree that Mac’s situation is not really similar. It really was Nancy’s ideas (Silver Season blog) that she wrote to me about that started all this.

      I’m glad the dots appeared connected, I wasn’t sure! It’s just that there was so much interesting stuff. 🙂

      I haven’t read Jane Eyre since 6th grade. Gotta read that one again and soon.

  2. Ah! I remember Mac’s poor situation in “Eight Cousins”. I felt very sad for him, me, being a bookworm. To not be able to read would be horrible!

    The dark room cure-all is something I have noticed in literature and in movies about that time period. In fact, I was just thinking about this subject a couple days ago when I watched an old 1940’s movie called “Lydia”. If anything at all seemed wrong with the young lady, Lydia, then her granny would send her upstairs to rest. To me, it seems strange, when a better cure would probably be sitting outside in the sunshine, than to be cooped up in a dark room. At least, it is definitely more inviting.

    1. I’m guessing too that rest in a dark room was considered a compassionate cure considering that bleeding and leeching were common treatments! It really is amazing how much medicine has progressed although now its progression has opened up another whole can of worms.

  3. Very late reply. 😦 I actually knew the yellow-wallpaper story from “The Madwoman in the Attic” and it does connect very well to the restlessness I mentioned in Jane Eyre. I have to wonder if it’s possible that even today monotony leads to apathy and triviality?

    Knowledge of the paper grants the woman a kind of autonomy – she constructs a story and through her own intellectual exploration knows something besides the mundane details women are supposed to know. Even if people in the 19th century didn’t go so far as to label women’s ambition as madness, they connected it to Eve (especially Milton’s interpretation of Eve) which made what was permissible or even laudatory in a man a “fall” for women.

    1. “The Madwoman in the Attic” – isn’t that that huge book on women writers? Louisa doesn’t really figure in that book but it looked fascinating none the less.

      Very interesting interpretation of the wallpaper!

  4. Yes, Louisa doesn’t really figure, but the theories apply very well to her work – especially her thrillers. Can’t say my interpretation of the wallpaper isn’t influenced by “Madwoman”.

    Thanks for linking to Nancy’s post to. It just might precipitate me into research on the subject of “vital/life force”.

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