Student Report: Student Seminar with Isabel Durán Giménez-Rico

Reported by Soumya Lahoti, Class of 2025

October 7, 2022, 15:00-16:30
This lecture was part of the 2022 Humanities Fall Conference: Ciencia y Caridad.

Isabel Duran Gimenez-Rico, professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, welcomed everyone warmly and had an introduction round. She started by explained why we should read sad stories. They are a way of combating sexism and many other societal vices. Humanities have grown as a way of making people aware of how others suffer; literature opens our eyes to women’s, homosexuals, and old-age people’s struggles. They work as they are all intensely sad narratives. They make us, the reader feel a sense of discomfort.

She then analyzed Carole Satyamurthy’s poem Out-patients, which deals with a woman who suffers from breast cancer and how she deals with despair and the feeling that her doctor is lying to her about how serious her condition is. In the line-by-line analysis, she comments on how the doctor reads her breast like Braille. She feels him taking over her life and making her decisions. The doctor is nice, but is he telling her the truth about her ailment, or is he trying to protect her from the reality that she is terminal? If she is a book, he is the writer, the plot master. She does not know what will happen in her future, she must wait to read her next installment, as she will be uninformed until the doctor tells her. This poem is mainly about the woes of all the women suffering from cancer.

Next, we discussed Ernst Hemingway, whose writing style is more staccato, which has been described to be like an iceberg. We analyzed the short story and tried to deduce many things about the characters that the author had not spelled out. Reading between the lines, we find out that it’s a well-off family, the child studies abroad in a boarding school in France and they have maids. We also took this opportunity to discuss storytelling mechanics, and how this story followed the Freytag pyramid. The ending was unexpected with the child thinking he will die which spurred another discussion where we discussed the morality of doctors withholding medical information from patients in favor of providing them home, the very hope which gives them the strength to defeat seemingly unsurmountable illnesses. The decision was unanimous that doctors should use their best judgment while erring on the side of transparency with the patients.

Lastly, we analyzed Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, which dealt with the unfair and inhumane treatment of women in the 19th Century. The main character is suffering from postpartum depression, but that’s not recognized by the medical practices of those times. She is belittled and dehumanized and locked away, diagnosed with “female hysteria”. The story is a commentary on the domination of women in patriarchal societies, where the main character’s husband constantly infantilizes her by calling her names like dear, little girl, and blessed little blues. Weir Mitchell, a psychiatrist, diagnoses her with tired nerves. She is to go to the countryside, with no writing, no exercise, overfeeding and is locked in a room with barred windows. This is a classic example of domestic imprisonment; it worsens her condition, causing her to spiral into paranoia, schizophrenia, and suicidal. She starts hallucinating and her lack of stimulation causes her to imagine that she could “read” the yellow wallpaper and that there was a woman behind the wallpaper.

We see the symptoms of many mental illnesses in several pages of the short story. In the end, she tears off the wallpaper and sets the woman behind loose. When her husband finally discovers her, standing aghast at the sight, she declares that they can’t put her back, as she has torn off most of the wallpaper.

We end the session more empathetic to the struggles of people from many different walks of life and a much more nuanced view of medical ethics. She gifted all the participants a copy of the book Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, parts of which were discussed in her keynote lecture, which compared the male vs the female gaze in medical media.