Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been historically viewed as either a work of supernatural horror or as a feminist treatise regarding the role of women in society. A close analysis of Gilman’s use of symbols reveals “The Yellow Wallpaper” as her response to the misogynist view of hysteria from ancient times through the nineteenth century. ” In “The Yellow Wallpaper” Gilman questions the validity of Hippocrates’s theory of the wandering uterus and Weir Mitchell’s “rest cure”.
As she wrote in her essay “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper? “[the story] was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy…” (107). By her own account, Gilman’s purpose in writing “The Yellow Wallpaper” was to educate and inform the public of the misinterpretation of hysterical symptoms. The origin of the word hysteria expresses the belief in the inferiority of women. As James Palis writes in The Hippocratic Concept of Hysteria: A Translation of the Original Texts: “Etymologically, the term usteria (hysteria) derives from ustera (hystera), the Greek word for uterus, which means an inferior position.
Thus, usteria denotes suffering of the uterus, the most inferior organ in the female” (226). The fact that the literal translation of hystera is “inferior position” reinforces the fact that from ancient times women were viewed as physically inferior to men. Since the one major physical difference between women and men is the presence of the uterus, psychological problems that were considered to be strictly female were attributed to some malfunction of the uterus.
Hippocrates first proposed in his work “The Art of Healing”that hysteria was caused by a wandering uterus (Hothersall 16). He believed that the uterus could dislodge itself in the body and wander around the female body attaching itself to other organs. Hippocrates explained that the various symptoms of hysteria, such as nervousness, depression, and hysterical fits, were caused by the uterus’s interactions with the other organs in the body. In his text “On the Nature of Women” he explains the cause and treatment of a hysterical fit:
If the uterus comes towards the liver, the female suddenly becomes speechless, and clenches her teeth, and her color comes back…In such situations, push beneath the liver with the hand and tighten a bandage beneath the hypochondria, and by opening the mouth administer a most fragrant wine, and anoint the nostrils and apply malodorous fumigations. And fragrant fumigations below the uterus. (Palis 227) Not only was the uterus capable of wandering around the body, it was believed that the womb was attracted and repelled by certain odors.
Gilman seems to address the ridiculousness of such logic when she refers to the inconsistencies in the design of the wallpaper in “The Yellow Wallpaper. ” The narrator complains, “On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind” (263). This same complaint could be used against the popular view of hysteria. The theory that the woman’s uterus dislodged itself in the body and wandered around aimlessly violates natural law.
In this respect, the ancient view of hysteria is similar to the wallpaper design since they both defy physical laws and cause pain to a logical mind. Textual evidence also suggests that Gilman uses the movement behind the wallpaper to represent the supposed movement of the uterus within the hysteric’s body. The narrator complains in her journal, “I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design” (260).
The “silly and conspicuous front design” not only refers to the wallpaper, but to the outer appearance of the nineteenth-century woman. She presented herself to society as demure, nave, and nurturing while her true character “skulked” behind her facade. Since any deviation from the norm of female behavior was anciently attributed to the uterus, the “strange, provoking, formless sort of figure” represents the womb. The narrator further describes the movement behind the wallpaper: “And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern” (262).
Just as the womb creeps within the hysteric’s body, the woman creeps behind the pattern of the wallpaper. The act of the woman “stooping down” also suggests a regression to childhood, which is also a regression to the womb. In this respect, the stooping woman wandering behind the wallpaper symbolizes the wandering uterus in the body. Another aspect of the ancient view of hysteria that Gilman confronts with her use of symbols in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the way in which the medical profession prevented the uterus from wandering about the body.
As Cheryl Meyer writes in The Wandering Uterus: Politics and the Reproductive Rights of Women: No one knew for certain how to prevent [the hysterical fit] from happening, but one cure was to anchor the uterus. This could easily be accomplished through either impregnating the woman or keeping the uterus moist through intercourse so it would not seek out the moisture of other organs. (1) Gilman employs symbols of prison and entrapment to represent the process of anchoring the uterus.
Gilman’s symbols represent the literal anchor of inequality that suppresses women within a misogynist society. The narrator’s bedroom is the most obvious symbol of woman’s entrapment in a misogynist society. She describes the history of the room in her journal: “It was a nursery first and then a playroom and gymnasium, I should judge for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls” (257). The description of the barred windows and the rings on the walls reveals the prison-like environment of the nursery.
The emphasis on the functionality as “a nursery first and then a playroom and gymnasium” suggests that the room transforms to suit all terms of imprisonment. The narrator’s inability to escape the entrapment of society’s view of women is reinforced in her husband’s refusal to remove the wallpaper. “He said that after the wall-paper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on” (258).
Given that one of the interpretations of the wallpaper is that it represents the Greek view of hysteria, the removal of this wallpaper represents the removal of the medical bias against women. Yet the husband views the removal of the symbolic wallpaper as inconsequential, since he believes that once he removes it he will be asked to remove the heavy bedstead, barred windows, and the gate at the head of the stairs. John represents the male viewpoint that once certain rights and liberties are afforded to women, women will demand to be equal with men.
Gilman attributed the lack of respect for women as one of the factors contributing to their depression. In her essay “The ‘Nervous Breakdown’ of Women” she stresses the importance of economic equality between the sexes: Even if we should remove every legal and political discrimination against women; even if we should accept their true dignity and power as a sex; so long as their universal business is private housework they remain, industrially, at the level of private domestic hand labor, and economically a nonproductive, dependent class&emdash;servants of the other sex. (71)
Gilman addresses the problems of the newly industrialized economy. It is her view that this shift in the power of economics from the wife and husband team to just the husband makes the abandoned wives “the dependent class&emdash;servants of the other sex. ” Gilman also addresses the belief that women are physically weaker than men in “The ‘Nervous Breakdown’ of Women”: …the faults and virtues, charms and failings, strength and weakness of women are being continually discussed, and one of the favorites of the disputants is the last named subject&emdash;woman’s physical weakness.
By those who deprecate the change in the position of women, their unquestioned endurance, which has enabled them work their lives long at the ceaseless cares and labors of housework, with the cares and labors of maternity as well, is held to belong only to those special tasks; and the “nervous breakdown,” which is more conspicuous when the sufferer is in business, is assumed to be a consequence of that business. (67-68) She challenges the notion that though women are physically strong enough to carry the burden of childbirth, yet they are viewed as incapable of the strength of character necessary to work outside of the home.
In this passage Gilman is challenging the prominent Dr. Weir Mitchell’s belief that hysteria, the “nervous breakdown” of women, was caused when women attempted to do the work of men. According to Dr. Mitchell, the “nervous breakdown” occurred when women were unable to handle their own physical limitations. Dr. Mitchell developed a “rest cure” which he believed cured hysterical women. Mitchell’s “rest cure” was based on the premise that women were physically inferior to men.
He believed that hysteria was caused by a woman’s inferior constitution. His “rest cure” consisted of ceasing all of the woman’s mental and physical labors. Mitchell believed that women should not seek higher forms of education because their bodies couldn’t handle the stress. He explains his reasoning in his essay “Wear and Tear”: It were better not to educate girls at all between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, unless it can be done with careful reference to their bodily health.
To-day, the American woman, is to speak plainly, too often physically unfit for her duties as a woman, and is perhaps of all civilized females the least qualified to undertake those weightier tasks which tax so heavily the nervous system of man. (110) Mitchell’s belief as a top nerve specialist that women are risking their bodily health by taxing their weak brains emphasizes the misinformation regarding the medical model of hysteria that was prevalent in the nineteenth century. Gilman had first-hand knowledge of the aftereffects of the “rest cure.
Mitchell treated her for a severe depression that followed the birth of her daughter, Katherine, during her first marriage to Charles Stetson. She notes how her experiences with Mitchell served as the inspiration behind the writing of “The Yellow Wallpaper” in her essay “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper? “: For many years, I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia&emdash;and beyond. During 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.
This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live a domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as I lived. I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over. (106) Gilman’s personal experiences with Dr.
Mitchell revealed the fallacies in his belief that overtaxing a weak brain caused hysteria. Gilman’s own experiences revealed the true cause of her melancholia: refraining from her innate desire to write. She concluded after her abstinence of writing that “work is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite…”(106). Gilman concluded that the denial of intellectual activity led to the disintegration of self-worth.
Gilman directly implicates Dr. Mitchell as a member of the medical community with erroneous beliefs regarding female hysteria in “The Yellow Wallpaper. The narrator complains of her husband’s threat of treatment in her journal: John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall. But I don’t want to got there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so! (260).
This negative comparison between John and Dr. Mitchell alerts the reader that the suppression that the narrator is exposed to at the hands of her husband parallels the oppression of Gilman by Dr. Mitchell. References to Dr. Mitchell’s rest cure are also found within the text of “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Mitchell defines his rest cure in his essay “Fat and Blood”: the rest I like for [my patients] is not at all their notion of rest. To lie abed half the day, and sew a little and read a little, and be interesting as invalids and excite sympathy is all very well, but when they are bidden to stay in bed a month, and neither to read, write, nor sew…then repose becomes for some women a rather bitter medicine. 105-106)
This patronizing view of treating women as school children who faked illness to stay home from school and then had to stay in bed all day is echoed in “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the way in which John, as the narrator’s husband and practicing physician, treats his wife. The narrator describes the rest cure as prescribed by her husband: “…[I] am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again” (255). The emphasis on work as the potential cause of hysteria mirrors Mitchell’s belief that the American woman was physically unfit for her duties in “Wear and Tear”.
Although the narrator questions the validity of the rest cure she submits to the treatment. Her reasoning is “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures [everyone] that there is really nothing the matter with one but a temporary nervous depression&emdash;a slight hysterical tendency&emdash;what is one to do? (255). This statement most likely has autobiographical relevance. Gilman explains through the voice of her character the reasons behind her submission to Dr. Mitchell’s treatment. Mitchell’s belief that the cause of hysteria is the taxation of weak minds is echoed in John’s warning to his wife.
She recalls, “He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency” (258). Although from a twentieth-century point of view suppressing independent thought is ludicrous, in the nineteenth-century it was “good sense”. Mitchell’s method of rest cure treated women as children by restricting them to bed rest and forbidding them to engage in any adult activities.
John’s view of his wife as a child is seen in “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the manner in which husband and wife interact. John and the narrator do not possess a normal adult relationship. This is apparent in the way in which John refers to his wife as “little girl” (262) and a “blessed little goose”(258). John acts more as a father figure than as a husband. In response to his wife’s complaints he responds, “Bless her little heart! …She shall be as sick as she pleases! ” insinuating that his wife is exaggerating her symptoms for comfort. He also puts her to bed like a child.
His wife recalls, “And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head” (261). The extent to which Dr. Mitchell treated his female patients as children is apparent in his essay “Fat and Blood. In regard to the rest cure he writes, “Where at first the most absolute rest is desirable, I arrange to have the bowels and water passed while lying down” (106). This aspect of the rest cure is also represented in “The Yellow Wallpaper” as the weird color and smell of the wallpaper that disgusts the narrator.
The narrator complains, “It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw&emdash;not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things” (265). She complains of the smell: “It creeps all over the house” (265). In this respect, the wallpaper symbolizes the diaper that the patient must wear. Both the wallpaper and the diaper represent the indignity of the patient’s treatment as infants. The fate of the female protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is Gilman’s response to the misogynist view of hysteria from ancient times through the nineteenth century.
The only option for women who are pigeonholed as mentally ill is to live up to society’s expectation. Yet Gilman does not end “The Yellow Wallpaper” on a pessimistic note. She offers her protagonist hope in the form of the other women trapped behind the wallpaper. The narrator realizes the reason for the wallpaper’s ever-changing pattern: The front pattern does move-and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. (265) The narrator finds solace in the fact that she is not the only woman being mistreated.
The narrator discovers that the only way to over come the yellow wallpaper and society’s misconstrued views towards women is to unite with other oppressed women. She expresses her triumph over the wallpaper: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper” (267). It is only when she unites with the other women trapped behind the wallpaper that she can start to see progress in the removal of the wallpaper. Hope for the role of women in society is also displayed through Gilman’s use of imagery at the ending.
The narrator questions her husband’s response to her success over the wallpaper: “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so I had to creep over him every time! ” (269). This image portrays the man as physically weaker than the woman since he is unconscious on the floor. The wife’s actions of creeping over him suggest physical dominance. In this image, Gilman has reversed Dr. Weir Mitchell’s theory that females are the weaker sex. After a careful analysis of the textual evidence in “The Yellow Wallpaper” it is apparent that Gilman’s purpose was far greater than scribing a supernatural tale.
Although some of her reading audience found the mental degeneration of the main character disturbing, her purpose was to reveal the horrific way in which members of the medical profession treated women. The true irony lies in the fact that Gilman avenged the misogynist stereotype of the nineteenth-century woman by engaging in an activity that was forbidden by Dr. Mitchell. By choosing to disregard doctor’s orders in order to continue her own intellectual pursuits, Gilman forged the way for other women to question the validity of the medical community’s beliefs.