All seems well for the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous work, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” She initially seems to live a quaint life: a large colonial mansion, a loving husband, and a newborn baby. However, as the story progresses, we see the steady disintegration of her mind and the layers of her life unfolding before our eyes. The narrator is isolated in her room in accordance with the prescription of the resting cure—a practice she found only exacerbated her symptoms—by her doctor after being diagnosed with “nervous depression.” Written in the first person, “The Yellow Wallpaper” recounts her daily movements and feelings and her descent into insanity in the form of journal entries. During this, she—as an artist herself—continuously remarks on the yellow wallpaper in her room. She begins to see things in the paper, specifically a woman who she believes is taunting her. By the end of the story, we see her take on an almost demonic form as a result of her declining mental state and, consequently, she begins tearing the wallpaper with her teeth and creeping laps around the room. 

So, is “The Yellow Wallpaper” purely a work of entertaining fiction? Perhaps it is a cry for help? Or is it the musings of a psychopath? If we delve deeper into the life of its author and understand its historical context, we may be able to conclude that Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an autobiographical form of political and social satire, highlighting the follies of the medical industry concerning mental health, as well as the oppressive nature of androcentric culture in the 19th century.

After her father left her family, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, moved around from school to school and, as a result, her education was deeply affected. Despite having around only five years of education by the age of 15, she managed to attend the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. She met fellow artist Charles Stetson and soon they had a child. Her experiences with depression—most notably postpartum depression after the birth of her child—and the various treatments prescribed to her as a result of them, are believed to have greatly inspired “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

The basis of the story revolves around a woman suffering from a mental illness. The study of Psychiatry in the 1800s, despite being traced as far back as the ancient Indian writings of the Charaka-Samhita (a text that outlines various practices of ancient Indian medicine), was still in its infancy. Many of the practices of 19th century English psychiatry were primitive and, as a result, many of those who suffered from mental illness were negatively affected. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of those people.

She wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a way to alert other women of the dangerous effects of the resting cure, prescribed to her by real-life psychiatrist Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, who she later grew to despise. In her 1913 article in the Forerunner, on why she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,”  she states that  “[d]uring about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country . . . he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me and sent me home . . . I went home and obeyed those directions for three months, and so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.” (Gilman). With Dr. Mitchell’s prescription, Gilman found herself on the brink of insanity, an experience that identically matches the experiences of her character in the story. She later writes that she threw away all of her doctor’s suggestions and devoted all of her time to writing “The Yellow Wallpaper.” At its completion, she sent a copy of the story to Dr. Mitchell himself. He never formally responded.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s writing on the ineffective practices of psychiatry in the late 19th century shows that not only did the medical industry neglect the treatment of mental illnesses, but it also showed its feelings of ignorance towards the subject of women’s health. We see in “The Yellow Wallpaper” as the narrator writes a simple, yet effective statement, “But what is one to do?” The narrator, after all, took the resting cure because her husband, who also doubled as her psychiatrist, told her to. We see that the husband, even with his medical knowledge, was quick to dismiss the narrator’s mental illness. She is trapped in a situation where she has to decide whether to trust her husband—the love of her life and her doctor—or her own gut feeling. The narrator writes, “John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster,” (Gilman 305). She knows that what her husband is prescribing to her is not doing her any good but the hold that he has on her prevents her from making up her own mind and tending to her own mental needs. She sums up her dilemma in this thought, “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I will confess it always makes me feel bad.” (Gilman 305).

Being dismissed for having a mental illness in the 19th century was one thing, but another reality that the narrator had to face was the fact that she was a woman in the 1800s. As stated before, being sick, and being a woman during this time, was definitely not the most advantageous combination. Women’s health was often overlooked during this era and led doctors to inappropriately diagnose them based on genetic differences from men. This depiction of women’s health and the medical industry’s blasé attitude towards female pathology and mental illness is not an isolated incident in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Countless other pieces of fiction deal with similar subjects. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre deals with very similar circumstances as the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the form of its antagonist, Bertha Mason. Mason, born of a wealthy Creole family from Jamaica, is thrown into a hasty marriage with Mr. Rochester, leading to an unhappy and emotionally unstable relationship. The newlywed Mason begins to lose her grip on reality and succumbs to her “insanity.” Her husband locks her up at the top of his castle, almost in a Rapunzelish fashion, leaving her to rot and for him to try to carry on with his life, ignoring her presence. At this point, she is depicted as a homicidal madwoman, animalistically crawling on all fours around the castle. This is not unlike the description that Gilman gives to the narrator. Trapped in an unsatisfying marriage, unstable mental conditions, set in the 1800s, etc. As a matter of fact, their trademark “crawling” as if they were demons is a significant detail that appears in both stories. If this shows anything, it shows that the narrator’s experience as an “insane woman” is not all that uncommon for the time.

As stated by the University of Toledo libraries, “Women were especially vulnerable to inadequate diagnoses and treatment in 19th century America. It was commonly believed that most physical ailments of women were caused by their sexual organs or mental disorders, resulting in painful, sometimes lethal treatments.” The latter was the case for the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Because she was a woman, her husband downplayed her illness as a result of her overactivity (for a woman). Obviously, this diagnosis was wrong, and resulted in the narrator’s symptoms to become exacerbated to the point of insanity.  She was dealing with a war on two fronts in a sense: her husband was dismissing her because of her mental illness, and he was dismissing her because she was his wife.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is most noteworthy for being an active feminist who succeeded in shining a light on the oppressive effects of androcentricity, especially at a time when men believed that a woman’s place was in the kitchen. Gilman’s rich family history is practically built on social reformers. She is the niece of three famous women who left their mark on American history: activist and suffragette Isabella Beecher Hooker, education reformer Catharine Beecher, and famous author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Each of these women’s works helped form Gilman’s ideas of the female experience in America, but it was Gilman’s 1898 book, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, that cemented her as one of the greatest feminist theorists of the late 19th century. Elements of her feminist agenda are seen in the pages of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Western feminism in the 19th century was just starting to gain traction as a result of the women’s suffrage movement. Although her views on women voting were a little blurry, Charlotte Perkins Gilman always made sure she was up front about her feminism. She made it clear that females are crucial to the development and the progression of society as a whole and that female social and political advancement is halted because of the oppressive nature of androcentricity. She once wrote, “The ideal woman . . . was not only assigned a social role that locked her into her home, but she was also expected to like it, to be cheerful and gay, smiling and good-humored.” She disapproved of society’s expectations that women should be submissive and stay at home, and only cater to their husband’s needs, and not their own. The hold by the patriarchy was so strong and influential that conduct literature was written. This type of book outlines the “proper” behaviors of women in 19th century society. Critic Dale Bauer writes, “worked to shape a normative vision of the responsibilities of motherhood, [and instructed] middle class American women in how to raise a child to assume his or her proper place in the growing capitalist economy and the new culture of commodities,” (Bauer 64). These types of books give historical context to Gilman’s fight against a male dominated society.

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator reflects Gilman’s concerns about oppressive marriage and the role of women in society. The narrator is isolated in her own house, while her husband works and gets to travel outside and have the benefit of outside communication. She is left to do nothing substantial and, as a result of her isolation, she begins to feel resentment towards her husband and the system that put her in a cage. This mirrors the isolation felt by housewives at the time; they were left at home to tend to all things home-related and were continuously marginalized as a result. They were forced to live a life of reluctant servility. Critic Denise Knight writes, “The wallpaper pattern signifies the symbolic suffocation of women in an oppressive patriarchal society, as suggested by the images of “strangled heads and bulbous eyes” (MS, 461-62)… We can view the deflection as a form of subterfuge, since proper Victorian women were discouraged from displaying anger.” She also claims that by the end of the story, the wallpaper comes to represent, “the external manifestation of the narrator’s internalized rage.”

Gilman left little doubt about her stance on mental illness and feminism. Through her experiences as both a woman, as well as a person who has struggled with mental illness, her qualifications to write about the plight of women’s health in the 19th century are not to be understated. We see her inject her experiences with mental treatment, particularly the infamous “resting cure,” into her work and as a result, she makes a valid plea to offer more effective help to those suffering from mental illnesses. Concerning her ideas on gender dynamics, she explains, “There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver.” She takes away the genetic differences between men and women to show that equality amongst the sexes is necessary for the betterment of society. In the end, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not just a piece of short fiction, but a call to action to reform the abusive nature of the patriarchy and the medical industry’s ignorance of mental illness in the 19th century.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, and Dale M. Bauer. The Yellow Wallpaper. Bedford Books, 2009.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’” Literature: An Introduction

to Fiction, Drama, and Writing. Edited by X.J Kennedy and Dana Gioia, 8th compact ed.,

Pearson, 2015. pp. 316-317

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction,

      Drama, and Writing. Edited by X.J Kennedy and Dana Gioia, 8th compact ed., Pearson,

  1. pp. 304-314

Knight, Denise D. “‘I am getting angry enough to do something desperate’: The Question of

Female ‘Madness.’.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Thomas J.

Schoenberg, vol. 201, Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center,

http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1420082956/GLS?u=ccmorris&sid=GLS&xid=82

a029a. Accessed 5 Mar. 2018. Originally published in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” by

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Dual-Text Critical Edition, edited by Shawn St. Jean, Ohio

University Press, 2006, pp. 73-87.

Tuttle, Jennifer S., and Carol Farley. Kessler. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: New Texts, New

Contexts. Ohio State University Press, 2011.

“Women’s Health Care.” University of Toledo, 9 June 2016,

www.utoledo.edu/library/canaday/exhibits/quackery/quack4.html.

 

Jeremy Paraan’s critical essay “The Yellow Wallpaper” won second prize in the Seventh Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. He is a freshman majoring in Design.