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Electrified Coconuts: Gendered Explanations of Wartime Suffering

            In many ways the First World War featured the combined forces of industrialization, capitalism and science against the individual soldiers who were forced to play the pawns in the global conflict. The massive scale on which tragedy occurred between 1914 and 1918 was experienced by people worldwide with casualties in the millions and any signs of sanity obscured by human madness on a global level. The experience of the individual soldier was well remembered by German author and World War One veteran Erich Remarque in his 1928 novel All Quiet on the Western Front.[1]  Described in Remarque’s book in vivid detail, the wars greatest legacy was “shell-shock.” According to Lancet editor David Sharp in his 2006 article about military justice and shell-shock, the first recognized victim of the condition was considered at the time (1914) to “[have] been ‘rather enjoying’ his day of trench warfare in northern France and had not been afraid [up until his fateful experience with heavy artillery]” (Sharp 975). The article continues to describe the opinion of the 1914 British medical establishment[2] that the young service member was a victim of the concussive force of a nearby exploding artillery shell. It is as if to suggest that otherwise the young man was completely satisfied with the fact that the prime of his life was being spent in a muddy trench playing pawn to the world’s great powers and 20th century manufacturing. During the early 20th century throughout the various nations involved with the First World War there was a realization that it was no longer possible to assert that wartime trauma was simply a case of cowardice or laziness and more “scientific” explanations were sought (Sharp). This paper will explore the gendered explanations for shell-shock that were popularized during and after World War One as well as the ways in which those explanations led into gendered medical treatments.

Shell-shock was associated with “symptoms [that] included extreme shaking fits, weeping, shrieking, mutism, paralysis, insomnia, and the ‘thousand-yard stare’” (Cook The Great War of the Mind). The parallels between many of shell-shocks symptoms and the symptoms of neurasthenia (as a whole and final paper, the description of neurasthenia will be included from the previous section) are readily apparent. It is also apparent in the historical record that as soon as a mental condition resulting from wartime became recognized, gendered explanations for the cause of the condition were presented as well. In contrast to the explanations of internal weakness for the nervous-breakdown in women, the similar condition of shell-shock was explained in terms of a masculine or insufficiently-masculine reaction to sustained external trauma. Writing in a 2007 article from the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, Medical Researcher Ruth Rae states that

[i]nitially, it was believed that shell shock occurred after a physical shock to the brain… [when this explanation was no longer sufficient due to the high incidence of shell shock symptoms in non-combat troops] this suggestion was soon replaced with a more ephemeral explanation; the unconscious need to escape into disease, like hysteria but without the weaker, feminine connotations” (Rae 269).

The need to explain symptoms that affected both men and women in contrasting terms is significant to the ways in which gender colored the diagnosis of those in the medical field who considered their selves to be making an objective scientific analysis of the available information. Another explanation more common to the military medical establishment was that shell-shock was a “manifestation of childishness and femininity… derided as a way out of the front lines” (Cook). Despite the different takes on the condition, in each case shell-shock was first and foremost characterized in terms of gender by the medical community. Although, as witnessed in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” gender did not necessarily obscure the ability of an individual shell-shocked soldier to understand that gender had little to nothing to do with his condition.

As with any illness that is analyzed and explained through a gendered lens, the treatment of the shell-shock took on gendered characteristics as well. Affected soldiers were often subjected to various forms of external force to treat a condition that was believed to be caused by the same. Cook describes treatments from the mild to the severe involving forced isolation, gas masks filled with ether, and the ironically named shock-therapy (Cook). A particularly unsettling round of treatments is described by Dr. Dennis Duffy of the University of Toronto in his 2010 article titled “Shock Doc.”. The article is an account of the brutal techniques utilized by the Canadian psychiatrist Lewis Yealland to treat shell-shock following the First World War. In his article Duffy recounts how “[Dr. Yealland’s] job ultimately involved…‘speeding glum heroes up the line to death’… [T]he shocks went on and on – not unlike an artillery bombardment. He warned his patients that the jolts would not let up until the subject gave the doctor what he wanted. Generally, over several hours, the soldiers did so” (Duffy The Shock Doc.). A sadistic game of dominance is witnessed in Duffy’s account exacted against soldiers who in the eyes of their psychiatrist had become dominated by the overwhelming force of their enemy’s attacks. Even though treatments evolved and do not seem to typically have been as extreme as those administered by Dr. Yealland, there is a common theme throughout the various techniques. The patient’s masculinity had been compromised or destroyed due to combat. As a result of this attitude the treatment was designed to either toughen the soldier back up or hold him as irreversibly feminized.

Given the hopelessness and isolation in which many veterans found their selves following the First World War, Remarque’s execution of his protagonist Paul Bäumer reads more like an act of mercy than tragedy. The key lesson from the history of shell shock is that when people are analyzed through a rigid understanding of gender then they are almost invariably treated according to that same bias. A single misunderstood factor, in this case gender, which was considerably more complex and personal than the relevant establishments understood it to be, completely overshadowed the incredible suffering that human-beings were experiencing as a result of long-term exposure to intense emotions in a severe environment.

[1] Remarque’s novel brilliantly describes the conditions of trench warfare through the eyes and mind of his protagonist Paul Bäumer. In contrast to the gendered explanations for shell-shock from much of the medical and military establishment of the early 20th century, Remarque creates a picture of depression, detachment and terror (shell-shock) that is the result of a complex set of external and internal forces. The final scene in which Bäumer is shot by a sniper reads more as the authors attempt to commit suicide or perhaps more exactly to express his hopeless realization that no one returns from war alive. Because of the honest and cathartic way in which he relives the wartime experience, Remarque’s novel plays well as an orientation to a paper on the contrasting gendered attitudes that colored popular understandings of shell-shock during and immediately following the First World War

[2] Similar attitudes are found throughout the medical and military establishments of the major actors in the conflict during the early parts of the war.


Written by gerardhf

April 15, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Emerging Research Paper

with one comment

So I’m going to paste what I turned in to Dr. Dyke for our first history and gender writing assignment. In this paper I introduce the topic of “nervous breakdown’s” during the early twentieth century with a reference to a character from popular literature. The idea for the second paper is introducing  a nervous breakdown equivalent that is associated with masculinity (probably shell-shock or PTSD) using another relevant popular novel, movie, or song.  For the final paper I will probably combine the two into something comprehensive, although I have to make sure it isn’t going to be too cluttered. I would genuinely appreciate feedback.

Thanks. And please excuse any grammatical or spelling errors, I’m not sure that this is the copy I turned in.

Mommy Needs Some Quiet Time: Gender and the Nervous Breakdown

Popular culture during the first half of the twentieth century was overflowing with references to female personalities suffering from the debilitating effects of a “nervous breakdown.” The idea that a woman would be disposed to a breakdown as a by-product of her naturally weak character was accepted to such a degree that Truman Capote’s character Bonnie Clutter in his renowned novel In Cold Blood is casually mentioned to have spent years in bed due to a “nervous” and “timid” disposition with hardly a hint of irony or concern from the author (Capote 7).  Since the idea of the “nervous breakdown” as a diagnosable psychological condition largely disappeared from popular discourse during the second half of the twentieth century (Stearns), the question of what a “nervous breakdown” is and how gender affected its diagnosis is one worthy of investigation. This paper will explore research on the history of the “nervous breakdown” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and demonstrate the role that negative attitudes regarding women and gender played in the diagnosis and treatment of their discontent.

Prior to the adoption of the more recognizable and considerably less medical sounding “nervous breakdown,” the American physician George Beard coined the term “neurasthenia” in 1869 to encapsulate a broad range of symptoms that in contemporary American culture would perhaps be associated with depression. Writing in the medical journal The Lancet, Bill Bynum describes neurasthenia in the late  nineteenth century as “diagnosis à la mode… it explained so much, in so many patients… then ran into problems mostly because it explained too much, too easily” (Bynum “Neurasthenia”). Neurasthenia was believed to be the result of “a patient’s nervous system operating at less than an optimal setting… [i]ts primary cluster of symptoms [being], tiredness, weakness, [and] dyspepsia” (“Neurasthenia”). Neurasthenia wasn’t originally gender specific and the causes of the illness were generally considered to be physiological rather than psychological. The connection between neurasthenia and the infamous “nervous breakdown” is evident when one considers the factors that were generally attributed to the development of each malady. Historian Peter Stearns writes in the Journal of Social History that Beard blamed the development of neurasthenia on the physical hardships that accompanied life in the ever industrializing northeastern United States of the late nineteenth century (Stearns “Nervous Breakdown in 20th-Century American Culture”). Similarly, when the term “nervous breakdown” was introduced by Albert Adams in 1901, “Adams replicated much of Beard’s thinking about neurasthenia, using his new breakdown term essentially interchangeably” (“Nervous Breakdown”). With the development of the idea that stress to the nervous system will lead to a breakdown characterized by symptoms now associated with depressive disorders, gender specific explanations for the onset of a “nervous breakdown” began to enter the public discourse.

In his article, Bearns describes the two most popular and glaringly contradictory explanations from the early twentieth century for why men and women each respectively succumb to a breakdown. As described previously, Beard and other professionals attributed the development of neurasthenia or the “nervous breakdown” in men to external factors associated with the increasing pace of life in the modern industrialized world. But for woman the factors that contributed to the development of “nervous” conditions were internal factors that gradually wore down the “naturally” weak sex. Stearns describes the explanation often attributed for a women’s nervous breakdown as the “idleness scenario.” In complete contrast to the explanation given for men, psychologists often insisted that the “nervous housewife suffered from ‘bad training, liability to worry, wounded pride, failure, desire for sympathy, boredom, unhappiness, pessimism of outlook, over-aesthetic tastes… fear of death, sex problems and difficulties and doubt’” (“Nervous Breakdown”). Besides the absurdly broad nature of these explanations, there is a clear bias towards focusing on nearly every negative cultural stereotype about women in early twentieth century America. While men were the victims of outside pressures beyond their control, women were literally the victims of their gender and their “petty discontent.” It would be misleading to suggest that there was not extensive debate and disagreement in the psychological and sociological communities regarding these various explanations for nervous disorders and assumptions regarding gender, however, the explanation that focused on the frailty of women is the explanation that seems to have caught on in popular culture for the majority of the twentieth century. Truman Capote’s narrator from In Cold Blood seems so dismissive of Bonnie Clutter because of the prominent and paternalistic view of his generation that women were essentially victims of themselves, an annoyance, and weak.

What is the best way to deal with an annoying weakling? Medical Researcher Diana Martin’s article from The American Journal of Psychology titled “The Rest Cure Revisited” describes a common treatment for women suffering from nervous disorders consisting of “three core elements: isolation, rest, and feeding, with electro-therapy and massage added to counteract muscle atrophy”(Martin, “The Rest Cure Revisited”). Martin further mentions that treatments often involved extended and uninterrupted periods of bed rest during which women were not allowed access to family or friends. It would not be difficult for one to draw the conclusion that the “rest cure” was designed more as a tool to get an unhappy wife out of her husband’s “affairs” than to provide her with a relief from any sort of nervous disorder, real or imagined. Martin articulates her feelings regarding the “rest cure” in perhaps a more pointed way when she notes that “the implicit prejudices inherent in the rest cure are clear. The patient was to be infantilized and confined for her own good, and the cost… could be devastating” (The Rest Cure). In the case of the “rest cure,” women became victims not only of the personal situations they found themselves in, but victims also of a patriarchal medical establishment that equated their gender with illness.

Perhaps Truman Capote is not to blame for his implicit attitude towards his character Bonnie Clutter. Unfortunately, he missed the tragedy that was greater than the horrific murder on which his novel centered. The tragedy of generations of women who were told that they were essentially flawed, and that their very gender was a danger to their well-being.

Written by gerardhf

March 22, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


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I think that Shweder is much more concerned about his own culture than we are generally giving him credit for within the classroom discussion. A lot of the blog posts I have read so far have referenced the idea that being aware of other peoples differences and unique cultures is a good in and of it’s self. To a greater extent, that Shweder is pointing out cultural differences so that we can appreciate that everyone has differences and we need to accept the fact. I propose that Shweder is not so much concerned with multiculturalism as he is with the progression of his own culture. I think that Shweder would be quick to acknowledge that many of the cultures he analyzes have been stagnated for generations and that as often as you learn something from another culture that enhances your own, you learn of something that has major setbacks. I think that Shweder is much less concerned with various cultures learning to live together in harmony than he is with the progression of the culture he has the greatest influence over in order to increase it’s overall survivability.

The link I have posted below is from a radio program called Radiolab. Just click and press play, it’s not short but it’s about de-centering and its entertaining.

Written by gerardhf

February 2, 2011 at 2:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

This is my blog

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Written by gerardhf

January 21, 2011 at 12:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized