Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” relays to the reader something more than a simple story of a woman at the mercy of the limited medical knowledge in the late 1800’s. Gilman creates a character that expresses real emotions and a psyche that can be examined in the context of modern understanding. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” written in first person and first published in 1892 in the January edition of the New England Magazine, depicts the downward spiral of depression, loss of control and competence, and feelings of worthlessness that lead to greater depression and the possibility of schizophrenia.
The beginning emphasis will be on the interaction and roles of the husband and wife in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which are based on the male dominated times of the late 1800’s. The main character, a woman whose name is never revealed, tells us of the mental state of mind she is under and how her husband and his brother, both physicians, dismiss it. “You see, he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do? If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency — what is one to do?” The doctors seem completely unable to admit that there might be more to her condition than just stress and a slight nervous disorder even when a summer in the country and weeks of bed-rest have not helped. It might be thought that it is a simple matter of a loving husband being overprotective of his ill wife, but this assumption is quickly washed away by his arrogant attitudes, combined with his callous treatment of her that only serve to compound the problem.
“At first he meant to repaper the room, but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies”. John treats his wife in a manner that gives her reason to doubt herself and her capabilities. Her husband John has explicitly forbidden her to do certain things, although we are never told why; but it can be assumed that it is because of her frailty that some of these activities have been taken away from her. As such being prohibited to work and not being able to contribute to the household as a proper wife and new mother she begins to feel helpless. “So I… am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas.” Additionally, she has been told not to write: “There comes John, and I must put this away — he hates to have me write a word.” With no creative outlet her mind starts to find things upon which to dwell, things that only she can see.
Virtually imprisoned in her bedroom, supposedly to allow her to rest and recover, she slowly starts to go insane. Without compassion or an outlet for her creativity, her mind turns inward and focuses on her now increasingly shrinking universe. She has no say in the location or the decor of her room. “I don’t like our room a bit. . . But John would [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5u7t0TuAnKU] not hear of it.” She is not allowed visitors, “It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship . . . but he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now.” In large part because of this oppression, she continues to decline. “I don’t feel as if it was worthwhile to turn my hand over for anything and I’m getting dreadfully fretful and querulous.” However by keeping her a prisoner in a room with offensive wallpaper and very little to occupy her mind, John almost forces her to dwell on her psyche. Prison is supposed to be depressing, and she is pretty close to being a prisoner.
The story does hint to the fact that John knows he could have done more but simply does not seem to want to be bothered with the effort of such an endeavour for his wife. He never acknowledges that she has a real problem until the end of the story, at which time he fainted. John could have obtained council from someone less personally involved in her case, but the only help he sought was for the condition of the house and the baby. He obtained a nanny to watch over the children while he was away at work each day: “It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby.” He also had his sister Jennie take care of the house. “She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper.”
There is one instance, however, when he does talk of taking her to an expert for assistance, “John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.” Nevertheless she took that as a threat since Dr. Mitchell was even more domineering than her husband and his brother. Perhaps, if she had been allowed to come and go and do as she pleased her depression might have lifted, “I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.” It seems to her that just being able to tell someone how she really feels would have eased her depression, but her husband would not hear of it because of the embarrassing consequences it could bring to the family name. Thus, John has made her a prisoner in their marriage where her opinions are pushed aside, and her self-worthiness questioned.
She does have a rebellious spirit in her and the fact that this spirit is being crushed is the final nail towards her insanity. Her desperation is almost like someone being buried alive and screaming knowing that there are people just above but who seem not to hear or care. Her reaction is to seek to prove her husband wrong, “John is a physician, and perhaps . . . perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster . . .” While putting on an appearance of submission, in actuality she was frequently rebelling against her husband’s orders. She writes when there is nobody around to see her, and she tries to move her bed, but always keeps an eye open for someone coming. As her breakdown approaches she actually locks her husband out of her room, “I have locked the door and thrown the key down into the front path.
I don’t want to go out, and I don’t want to have anybody come in, till John comes. I want to astonish him.” This forces him to see that he has been wrong, and, since she knew he could not tolerate hysteria, to eventually drive him away. While there is supporting evidence that her husband’s treatment of her was a major contributing factor to her madness, the possibility also exists that her madness was caused by an internal illness which, given the level of medical knowledge, her husband was unable to deal with appropriately. As mentioned in the beginning of this essay, Gilman creates a character that has real emotions and a real psyche that impresses upon the reader that she is slowly deteriorating into a mental illness known as schizophrenia (a disintegration of the personality). This illness, however it manifests itself within the personality of someone is usually highlighted through a variety of symptoms. The leading character exhibits these symptoms sporadically throughout the story.
To begin with, one of the more obvious of her symptoms is her irrational obsession, displayed by relentless thoughts of and about, the yellow wallpaper that wraps the walls in her room. It is a room that she feels captured by and her obsessions start from the beginning of the story. “I never saw a worse paper in my life,” she says. “It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study” Taken in isolation, this kind of observation might appear to be harmless to the uninformed observer, but as her obsession with the wallpaper grows, so does her dementia. At one point she describes lying on her bed and “follow[ing] that pattern about by the hour . . . I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of conclusion”.
Interconnected with the first symptom of irrational obsession is that of thought processing disorder. This disorder can range in severity from a vague muddiness of thinking to a complete breakdown of one’s mental processes. The first real clues that she is having trouble controlling her mental state of being comes into focus when she states, “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes . . . I take pains to control myself — before him, at least, and that makes me very tired” She tries to discuss her feelings rationally, but this only brings a “stern reproachful look” at which she gives up and returns to her room. Again her condition is revealed a few pages later when remarking that, “It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight”.
Soon, other noticeable changes in her mental state start to take shape. She slowly begins to show symptoms of paranoia, yet another unfortunate schizophrenic trait. She speaks of how happy she is that her baby is not exposed to the same torturous existence that she has to endure in her room with the yellow wallpaper. “Of course I never mention it to them any more — I am too wise, — but I keep watch of it all the same” Even the mistrust of her “caretakers” is further evidenced when she says, “The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John. He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look” When catching Jennie looking at the yellow wallpaper, she thinks to herself, “But I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself?” This type of paranoia is a firm indication that her psychological state is continuing to deteriorate towards complete schizophrenia.
Another in the list of common symptoms of schizophrenia that the protagonist exhibits is hallucination. Of these hallucinations, one is when she “sees” people walking in the paths that she views from her bedroom window. As her condition worsens, she begins to have other hallucinations, this time focused on the yellow wallpaper itself. This is noticed when she exclaims, “At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it [the wallpaper] becomes bars! The outside pattern, I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be”. In addition to her mental hallucinations, she starts to also have ones where she can smell things as well, “the only thing I can think of that it is like is the colour of the paper! A yellow smell”.
The climactic stage of her hallucinations comes when she realizes, “that woman gets out in the daytime!” It is at this point that her deranged thought processes become a coping mechanism to help her deal with her mental state of being. She passes into a full schizophrenic state and transforms from a helpless, self-pitying woman, to one who feels, in her mind at least, that she has broken free of her shackles. She feels that she has gained a sense of control, no matter how false that sense may be, as she says, “I don’t want to go out, and I don’t want to have anybody come in, till John comes. I want to astonish him”.
Much has changed by the end of the story, so much in fact that in the end it is she who is metaphorically and literally creeping over John, who has fainted after seeing her in a deranged state of being. This is in contrast to their interactions up to this point when it was John who usually dictated and condescended her. The fact that the protagonist in this story is schizophrenic is supported by various bits of evidence. However, the question that remains to be answered is why a diagnosis of schizophrenia is important to interpreting “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” Schizophrenia is a logical choice in that it explains why the protagonist behaved in the way that she did. For her to overcome her submission to an environment that has sought to oppress her, she had to discard the personality within her that was meek and mild.
This is a common defence mechanism of the mind in order to deal with situations it perceives to be uncontrollable. It is quite possible within the realm of psychological study that the combination of the stress of childbirth, post-natal depression and the mental strain of having to repress her emotions triggered the schizophrenia. This terrible condition may have resulted from the bonds she felt would not allow her to express herself as a human being, mother and wife, a freedom that she so desperately needed. Her slide into madness, as a way to deal with her entrapment, is similar to a caged animal that, when backed into a corner, will fight for its life.