There is definitive evidence that The Yellow Wallpaper
is a reflection of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s life. The narrative is an account of a woman’s mental deterioration after the birth of her child and it reflects Gilman’s own postpartum depression. The story was first published at the end of the 19th century and is considered to be an early work of feminist literature. It clearly depicts what life was like for woman during that era and the relationship that existed between husbands and wives. “The Yellow Wallpaper” reflects the repression that Gilman felt as a woman and the way in which society encouraged women to be dependent on men.
At the age of 24, Gilman married a promising young artist by the name of Charles Walter Stetson. From the start of their marriage, Gilman became increasingly despondent and withdrawn. She gave birth to a daughter by the name of Katherine in 1885, but this event still failed to mitigate her severe fits of depression and weeping. Gilman sought out professional help and a doctor was brought in to assist her in overcoming this depression. Based on medical theories of the time, she was advised to abstain from any type of physical activity and deprave herself of any sort of intellectual stimulation.
She was counseled that it would be in her best interest to not read or write, a cruel punishment for both an intellectual and a talented writer. She was considered to be cured, but advised to never again pick up a pen. “Her doctor’s treatment was severely flawed and she found that her depression only disappeared when she was producing her art” (Bloom 129). Years later, she would cultivate these experiences into her most well known work, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
The unnamed protagonist of the story is a clear reflection of Gilman and the central themes of the story mirror occurrences in her life. The central character is taken to a country estate to recover from the depression that has commenced following the birth of her son. The men in her life, particularly her husband, advise her to get complete bed rest and ignore her suggestions that she would like to read or write. Her brother and husband are both physicians and she describes their treatment as, “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” (Gilman 1).
Although she secretly writes in her journal, it is clear that her husband retains dominance in the relationship. Her husband exerts control over her under the guise of over protectiveness. The sarcasm can be found in the narrator’s opening description of John, “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction” (Gilman 2). This is reflective of the role of women in the Victorian Age. His expectations are for her to be both a charming wife and an excellent mother. Her husband treats her like a child and addresses her in that manner. She recounts her request to move out of her depressing room, “Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain” (Gilman 3).
The symbolism of the room that John places her in is not lost on the reader. John places her in a nursery; this further enforces the idea that he does not see her as a mature woman, but as a child. The bars on the windows only emphasize her already trapped state. Her broken spirit is symbolized by the dilapidated yellow wallpaper that she focuses her obsession on. The more time that she is forced to rest in this room, the more her mind becomes captivated by the wallpaper. She eventually begins to believe a woman is trapped inside of the wallpaper. She writes in her journal, “There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day.
It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don’t like it a bit” (Gilman 6). The trapped figure is a manifestation of the protagonist’s confinement. The narrator is left with no means of escape and succumbs to her insanity. Greg Johnson emphasizes this theme in an essay for Studies in Short Fiction in which he notes that the story “traces the narrator’s gradual identification with her own suppressed rage, figured as a woman grasping the bars of her prison and struggling frantically to get free” (Johnson 525). In the end, she casts off her roles as a mother and wife and instead occupies the new role of a madwoman.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” can be considered a successful depiction of mental illness and this relies heavily on the fact that it was told in the first person point of view. Gilman effectively conveys the realities of mental illness without attempting to romanticize or downplay the seriousness of the disease. She is attempting to demonstrate the need for a woman to have access to her own creativity and form of self-expression. Her behavior at the conclusion is the result of unsuppressed rage at being confined and controlled by her husband. Additionally, she is led to this state due to her childlike spirit and overactive imagination. She has been treated like a child by John, so it is no wonder that she ends up like a child, crawling around the room on all fours.
The purpose of Gilman writing the narrative was to share her experiences with depression and also assert the fact that it was possible to be important to society without being a wife and a mother. The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” casts off these roles as did Gilman. She would eventually separate from her husband and hand over custody of their daughter to him. This happening was basically unheard of during that time. This piece along with her other writings led to her emergence as a feminist. “She felt that the cultural emphasis on women’s sexual and maternal roles has been at the expense of their social and economic development and indeed to the detriment of the human species” (Bloom 126).
Gilman felt that woman’s place in society was not a result of biology, but culturally enforced behavior. She hoped that her work would assist in ending the oppression that women had experienced. Another primary goal of the piece was for physicians to read her story and consider changing their treatment for depression. Years later she discovered that she was victorious. The doctor that had treated her had been so affected by her tale that he changed the manner in which he was treating depression.