Charlotte Perkins Gilmman’s work “The Yellow Wallpaper” was published in 1892. Charlotte grew up in the height of women’s suffrage during the Progressive Era. Women’s organizations were working to gain the right to vote but also economic equality and social reforms were on their agenda (“Progressive Era to New Era“). Pair this context with the simultaneous ever growing concern for the state of care for the mentally unstable in the late 1880s, it stands to reason that Charlotte was most likely exposed to conversations and texts about mental health. The social context, what Charlotte was exposed to, and her passion for activism and feminism influenced her work. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” Charlotte utilizes layers of symbolism to portray her disapproval of the treatment methods for mental disorders. She also sheds light on how insanity was viewed from an inside and outside perspective. Although Charlotte was an avid activist and feminist, her piece focuses mainly on the state of mental health care through subtle jabs at harmful treatments .
Charlotte weaves a plot that subtly displays and disputes what was considered standard treatment for mental instability. The main narrator in the story is a supposedly mentally ill wife who is married to a prominent doctor. One of the first controversial methods of treatment Charlotte introduces is isolation portrayed in the setting. The narrator’s dear husband, John, has taken her to an estate that he has rented to give her a change in scenery and in essence, isolate her from her writing, friends and family. The story is filled with inner struggles between what the narrator thinks is best for herself versus what her husband demands. Although this husband/wife relationship role theme does tug at feminist heart strings, it can be argued that the louder message Charlotte is tackling in this piece is the state of treatment for mental health.
The plot reveals that the narrator recently had a child, which could be a cause for her mental state as we now know more about postpartum depression. Another hinted cause could be her stifled creativity. Multiple times throughout the text, the narrator thinks that creative writing would be a healthy outlet. Though writing or working of any kind was frowned upon during her “treatment.” The text is transitionally organized with the narrator initially being self-aware that those around her believe she is unstable, to wondering if she is in fact ill, and then truly exhibiting insane behavior with her creeping around the yellow wallpapered room. Resulting in the dramatic scene of her crawling over her fainted husband as she assumes the identity of the woman trapped behind the yellow wallpaper of society plastered in her isolated room.
Disapproval of Mental Health Treatments
In the text, the narrator makes reference to being disgruntled that her husband would like to send her to Weir Mitchell if she does not make improvements. This gives hints to the author’s disapproval of the then accepted mental practices of the day. Weir Mitchell was renown for his rest cure which involved bed rest, diet, electricity, isolation and environment change (“Mitchell’s Rest Cure”). In fact, her husband was already putting into place isolation and encouraging her not to write or work.
This led the narrator to do what she thought was best for herself in secret. She quotes her skepticism by stating, “John is a physician, and perhaps…that is one reason I do not get well faster…” She goes on to say, “Personally, I disagree with their ideas… I did write for a while in spite of them…” (pg 653). She wrote in secret and thought about the idea of potentially being insane despite her husband’s demands for denial. The narrator reveals herself to be a creative thinker. Her thoughts about personifying items and vivid imagination with regard to the pattern of the wallpaper in her assigned room are thoughts she knows her husband would not approve of, thus she kept them to herself. Her stifled creativity paired with isolation in the yellow room created an overgrowing fascination and fixation on the wallpaper itself. This fixation consumed her routines and caused insomnia.
Charlotte further hints of her disapproval of mental treatments in a slight reference to dizziness. Spinning patients until their brain settled into a more “normal” state was a treatment that was practiced (Nemade, Rashmi, “Historical Understandings of Depression”). On page 654, Charlotte wrote, “There is a very funny mark on this wall, low down…a long, straight, even smooch, as if it had been rubbed over and over… Round and round and round- round and round and round- it makes me dizzy!” Again, a slight jab at treatments actually making patients worse. Isolation and roaming in circles around the yellow room with time drove the narrator truly mad.
Mental Distress From an Inside Perspective
From an inside perspective, the narrator deals with pressures from society, shame, and hiding any signs of illness in the cover of dark. This leads to the multi-layered symbolism of the wallpaper itself.Charlotte reveals two layers to the wallpaper when she wrote, “But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so- I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design” (pg 650). The front design, that the narrator finds so frustrating, symbolizes the “silly” views and social norms of how a sane person must act. The formless figure who continues to develop behind the bars of the front pattern is later revealed to symbolize mental insanity in the form of a woman, our narrator.
These symbols layered with day and night give a whole new perspective on the pressures of mental instability by those suffering on its edge. The narrator notices a difference in the wallpaper patterns from daylight to moonlight. “By daylight she (the second pattern) is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour” (pg 653). This shows that the initial pattern during daylight symbolizes the restraints of society. It keeps the narrator still and quiet, calm and subdued coinciding with the view of expected “normal” female behavior at the time. She goes on to express that the “societal” pattern strangles any woman who dare try to squeeze through and be as they are.
Furthermore, the narrator’s transition between sane metacognition of how she is responding to her treatment to displaying more severe symptoms. She begins to wonder if indeed she is mentally unstable when she states, “…it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind the pattern. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder– I begin to think– I wish John would take me away from here…” (Pg 654). She has started to open the possibility that the woman behind the pattern is her and her insanity. In the next step of her questioning she tries to bring her concerns to John who would prefer to deny the problem as facing it would be accepting a bigger problem. When his wife asks to leave he states… “Really dear you are better!” within which she replies, “Better in body perhaps-” (pg 654). He retorts by telling her for the sake of her child it is too dangerous in her state to entertain the idea that she is not better in mind.
Symptoms escalate as she stays in her isolated surrounding. She begins to see the woman from the wallpaper. “I can see her out of every one of my windows! It is the same woman, I know for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight…” (pg 654). As she begins to see this woman more often she sets aside her desires to leave isolation and embraces the idea that it is her task to aid this woman’s escape at night. She even becomes possessive of the wallpaper, “…John is so queer now… I wish he would take another room! Besides, I don’t want anybody to get that woman out at night but myself” (pg 654). If one were to make the connection that the women in the wallpaper symbolizes the narrator’s madness, it would make sense that she does not want her husband to see her acting mad by day. Therefore, she keeps all her actions private when it comes to the hidden woman and her freedom. As in life, mental illness is surrounded by stigma. The afflicted suffered alone, hidden from society, never bringing to light their different behavior.
Mental Distress From an Outside Perspective
Charlotte also lets her reader peek into the outside perspective of mental instability. She hints at how the narrator feels about John’s sister. That she is the social ideal of a woman. “She is a perfect and an enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick…” (pg 650). We can assume from John’s sister, Jennie, about how some women viewed the mentally unstable as different, or their differences (in this case the narrator’s creativity and writing) were outside the norm therefore likely to be the cause of her afflictions.
We also get a glimpse into the male perspective from John. The narrator recounts her husband’s opinion when she states, “He says no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me” (pg 652). This reveals that even from a physicians point of view, they thought mental instability could be controlled with self-control. Not taking into account that this medical condition could be chemical or caused from an external event leading to treatments that further incited insanity.
Regardless of a lack of knowledge or understanding of the causes or implications of the treatment, in the beginnings of the story, the narrator makes it clear that her husband and his sister want her to be whole. This is the case until almost the end where the narrator transitions to a state of paranoia about Jennie touching the wallpaper or her husbands changing demeanor. It is revealed that this change in demeanor could be out of concern and how mental illness can affect the family while the paranoid narrator states, “John knows I don’t sleep very well at night, for all I’m so quiet! He asked me all sorts of questions, too, and pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn’t see through him! Still, I don’t wonder he acts so, sleeping under this paper for three months. It only interests me, but I feel sure John and Jennie are secretly affected by it” (Pg 655). If the paper indeed symbolizes both societal norms versus mental insanity, the narrator agrees that John and Jennie are affected by her battle with the wallpaper and in tern her battle with insanity. The same can be said today, as family members who are afflicted with mental illness indeed impact those around them.
In conclusion, Charlotte Perkins Gilman does an elaborate job of appealing to her reader’s emotions. We feel a sense of pity for the narrator and her attempts to take control over her isolation and her separation from work and friends. Charlotte sneaks in hints of disdain for popular treatments of hysteria and depression and weaves this narrative with feminist themes. The reader is poised to question if the narrator was indeed mentally insane to begin with or did the treatment itself cause her to lose her sanity? With so few hints about why the narrator is labeled ill in the first place, we are left to wonder what her initial illness was. Other than a lack of energy and drive after having a baby, no stated proof was revealed that she was acting abnormally. The very questions readers are grappling with are the core of Charlotte’s message. What does it mean to be insane? How does society view and treat insanity? In our quest to be sane, do we in fact do more harm than good?
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