The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman
The Yellow Wallpaper written by Charlotte Gilman is a chilling portrayal of a womans downward spiral towards madness after undergoing treatment for postpartum depression in the 1800s. The narrator, whose name remains nameless, represents the hundreds of middle to upper- class women who were diagnosed with hysteria and prescribed a rest treatment. Although Gilmans story was a heroic attempt to save people from being driven crazy (Gilman p 1) by this type of cure it was much more.
The Yellow Wallpaper opened the eyes of many to the apparent oppression of women in the 1800s and possibly the only way they could (unconsciously) resist or protest their traditional feminine workor over-work (Chesler p 11) by going mad. In order for the reader to understand the psychology of the story, they must understand this type of diagnosis of women in the 1800s and the supposed cure.
This treatment, created by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, was a prescription of almost total inactivity and isolation. Passivity was the main prescription, along with warm baths, cool baths, abstinence from animal foods and spices, and indulgence in milk, and puddings, cereals, and mild sub-acidfruits (Ehrenreich and English p 49). Gilman, herself, was treated by Dr. Mitchell and underwent the same treatment as the heroine of the story.
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 as 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. (Gilman p 1). Many women underwent this type of treatment, which was prescribed for a host of problems but usually diagnosed as a nervous disorder.
It was thought that reproductivity was central to a womens biological life and a woman must concentrate their physical energy internally, toward the womb (Ehrenreich and English p44). Many womens disorders were termed hysteria derived from the Greek word hystera, meaning womb. It was thought these disorders originated from the womb since this was the main aspect of a womans life. These types of treatments were not necessarily a need for medical attention to womens disorders but instead a simple way to maintain the womens role in the 1800s: the domestic stay- at- home care-giver.
Women needed to remain at home caring for man and their offspring. Doctors and Educators were quick to draw the obvious conclusion that, for women, higher education could be physically dangerous. Too much development of the brain, they counseled, would atrophy the uterus. Reproductive development was totally antagonistic to mental development. (Ehrenreich and English p 45) The story begins with the narrator writing in her journal. She introduces her temporary living situation and surprisingly already shows concern over her treatment for her depression.
So I take phosphates or phosphites- whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to work until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their idea. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change would do me good. (Gilman p 726) The narrator disagrees with her cure yet she dutifully follows the prescribed treatment. She tries to justify her resignation to following the treatment due to the fact her husband and brother, who are both high standing physicians, agreed to her diagnosis and treatment.
The narrator and the husband depict a stereotypic upper class Western European/ American life. John, the husband, is the dominating figure in the narrators life, often speaking and reprimanding his wife like a child. And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head. (Gilman p731) He reassures her that this rest will help her considerably and does not allow her to write anything. He imprisons her in a room without visitors and yet the narrator consistently justifies his actions by rationalizing it as love.
John does not believe his wife to be physically ill but he seems to understand the whole idea of the rest cure and uses his status as a physician to quiet her developing mind. When his wife nearly begs to leave the house he tells her There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you trust me as a physician when I tell you so? (Gilman p 732) Though the narrator is an aspired writer, John cautions her to keep her imaginations and habit of story-making in check.
The narrator appeases her husband whenever he is around yet privately she writes in a journal. The journal entries allow the reader to see the wifes true character. She disagrees with her husband at times but will never say so. She is bombarded with a mixture of feelings towards her husband: dependency, respect, and yet unreasonable anger and annoyance. She seems to understand the role that is expected out of her as she describes Jennie, her husbands sister and housekeeper, She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession.
I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick! (Gilman p 729) It is not only the secret journal being kept, which shows her apparent rebellion but her eventual madness in her prison. Throughout the story, Gilman almost foreshadows the coming event of her insanity/rebelliousness. She indicates this throughout the journal entries how the wife does not agree with her husband and is almost relieved at his absence. She even acknowledges her escape from caring for her child by being imprisoned in this room.
I never thought it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all, I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see. (Gilman p 731) It is the yellow wallpaper in her prison that led to the narrators demise. Descriptions of the yellow wallpaper become more and more prominent as the story moves along. John agrees to repaper the room but suddenly decides against it fearing that next it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on.
Gilman p 728) Johns domineering and oppressive role over his wife is evident here. He becomes the jailor of his wifes prison by keeping the windows barred and keeping a gate at the top of the stairs. Because she is alone and bored her attention to the wallpaper becomes more and more prevalent. I lie here on this great immovable bed-it is nailed down, I believe- and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you. (Gilman p 730) She begins to see a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern (Gilman p 731).
The narrator fears this woman behind the wallpaper yet needs to study it, examine it, and catch it creeping about. Eventually she even becomes possessive over it. The woman behind the wallpaper is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that patternit strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. (Gilman p 734) Johns wife begins to see herself as the woman behind the wallpaper and the wallpaper seem to signify Johns oppression. Towards the end, the narrator has ripped the wallpaper off the walls and locks herself in her room.
Her husband discovers her, parading around the perimeter of the room, creeping just like the woman behind the wallpaper. Jane the possible name of the narrator, although never confirmed, though now mad, has achieved her independence. John finds the narrator in a mad state, reduplicating herself ad infinitum in the yellow papered walls, and out at last, despite him. (Charlotte Perkins Gilmans The Yellow Wallpaper: a Poetics of the Inside p 12) John ends up fainting. He came to the realization that his wife had traded submission for insanity.