Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


“Dr. Clair’s Place” (1915) is a prime example of the suffering caused by prolonged exhaustion. For Octavia Welch, this condition can only be cured by suicide. She is on her way to do just that when a doctor offers her an escape from urban demands through medical rehabilitation. The story’s narrator, a former “‘graduate patient’ of Dr. Clair, a physician who “is profoundly interested in neurasthenia—melancholia—all that kind of thing,” asks Octavia if she might do one last good deed by lending herself to scientific experimentation. 

Gilman may have modeled Dr. Clair after her own ambition. In the Forerunner's final volume, Gilman wrote the essay "The 'Nervous Breakdown' of Women,"* in which she describes the epidemic of neurasthenia and blames the condition in women on gender oppression: 

"We in America have been hustled from farms to towns, from towns to cities, from normal cities to the acromegalous monstrosities so many of us now live—and die—in. Our homes have changed over our heads from the four-square farm house, with sunlight and fresh wind on every side, to those dark lairs with cramped and cell-like rooms we call "flats." Our ears, for many ages used to comparative silence, and to sounds understood and attended to, must now attune themselves to definite disuse—a steady effort not to hear the roaring meaning-less discord about us. Some of us live, and some of us die, but to all of us living is more of a strain. These causes operate equally upon men and women, producing various degrees of nervous distress and injury; these causes have been recognized to a considerable degree, especially in their effect on men; but when the case of women comes up, other and different causes are postulated. There are special causes, operating upon women; but there are also further causes affecting both men and women, of which we will speak first. The greatest general cause of nerve strain to-day with the more "civilized" peoples is this: We have reached, through our social progress, a stage of human development which is adapted to a far higher, smoother, more beautiful standard of living; while at the same time we are withheld by the slow movement, the reactionary attitude of our minds, from attaining that standard."
. . . 
"All this strain of rapidly improving life against slowly improving conditions, wears heavily upon the nerve force of the race. We need a different environment, and we shall never come into smooth, peaceful, richly productive life until we have it. Meanwhile, women, bearing their share of this world-stress, have a heavy additional pressure upon them, both as a sex and as an industrial class" (203-4).


Gilman may also have been inspired by woman physician Margaret Abigail Cleaves. In The Autobiography of a Neurasthene (1910),* Cleaves reviews the important medical insights she gained through her firsthand experience with neurasthenia, notions that match Dr. Clair's medical philosophy: 

"SOME day there may be a different name for the condition known as neurasthenia, one that will carry with it less of opprobrium and prejudice than now. It can not, however, continue to be recognized as a condition without a pathology. It is true the microscope has not yet discovered and may not until more powerful means are available, the toxin of fatigue. . . . The toxin of fatigue exists as truly as does the toxin of fermentative indigestion, and while the discovery of the latter and its relation to dietary measures is a tremendous stride in medical progress, showing how by reason of its presence the use of certain foodstuffs interferes with all the physio-chemical actions related to normal life and function, causing the production of certain bodies with learned names which are accompanied by certain and many of the symptoms of the neurasthene and by poisoning the nerves and brain through the toxin-laden blood, it does not tell the whole story. Let the same individual have the opportunity for an ideal vacation, no stress nor strain as to the financial end, absolutely care free, provided with every comfort of luxury, . . . Exercise is not only not essential, but in these cases of chronic neurasthenic fatigue is to be avoided.
. . .
In all these weary years — not Idle ones nor useless ones, nor yet years deprived of many of the joys of life — I think could I have only realized the sheer joy in living, the intensity of my delight in having once more physical strength and mental vigor, I would have made greater effort to have overcome the neurasthenic state even at great personal sacrifice. . . . When I had finally realized all this after ten years of almost continual suffering, mental and physical, days of pain and wearying nights of pain and sleeplessness, a perpetual never ending struggle to get well and keep well, to follow the daily routine and to help in developing and building up the work, . . . Yet, as I say this, I know how inadequate it would have been had I gone simply for the sake of quiet, fresh air and sunshine, for to one with the restless, active brain which I possessed, mental work and mental stimulus was an absolute necessity, and so it is to every one. . . . But the joy in things mental, physical and perhaps spiritual did not come until there came an opportunity for three whole months in the hills where I quaffed great breaths of life-giving air and rested content in the utter quiet, while an absolutely new and engrossing interest of a scientific nature aroused and stimulated neuronic energy" (232-235).


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