While typically examined as a feminist tract, The Yellow Wallpaper also presents us with a period piece on the attitudes of the medical community on mental illnesses. In the story, Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents to us a woman’s diary entries that reveal a progressive descent to insanity. An examination of the cause reveals many things.
The story takes place in a colonial mansion which has been rented by the woman and her husband John. From the beginning, she suspects that the mansion is haunted (9). The contrasting views of physical and mental illness are addressed first in the explanation of this setting. Apparently, the two are in this mansion for the woman to rest and to wait out home renovations. While the woman believes that she is sick, her physician-husband insists that it is a “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency (10).”
Since the woman’s view is colored by that of her husband, we see both perspectives being contrasted in the story. For example, she writes: “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition.” Yet she also explains her physical symptoms: “I take pains to control myself-before him, at least, and that makes me very tired.” (11)
John’s interpretation of post-partum depression closely resembles that of psychologists today. Post-partum depression, or more commonly, “baby blues,” is generally held to be a temporary mood disorder lasting about one month. The fact that John has arranged a stay of six weeks is either extremely coincidental and explained by the length of the renovations or reveals that he has some understanding of the disorder. However, the fact that he gives her phosphates and tonics shows his commitment to the physical realm of sickness (10). It is not the poor diagnosis of the mood disorder that causes the woman’s insanity, but rather the combination of John’s practicality to the extreme and societal pressures that keep her from getting well.
One gap that is left open adds proof to this point. The woman writes: “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus-but John says the very worst thing I can do is think in my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad (10).” The first part of the sentence is left incomplete. Her own thoughts of “more society and stimulus” are interrupted by John’s views. It suggests that the remainder of the story may be devoted to answering the question: What if the woman had less opposition and more society and stimulus? However, Gilman decidedly makes the case for less opposition by illustrating status quo in this woman’s life.
When the woman first encounters the yellow wallpaper, she finds it “a mess of sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin (13).” However, the symbolic meaning of the wallpaper develops along with the woman’s insanity. The wallpaper takes on a yellow smell (28). The front pattern of the wallpaper moves and there is a woman behind shaking it (30). Finally, she becomes the woman in the wallpaper and escapes its captivity by tearing it from the walls (36).
In explaining the movement of the wallpaper, the woman writes: “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.” Gilman is likely alluding to the fact that many women are imprisoned by the “society and stimulus” spoken of earlier. Furthermore, the woman in the wallpaper is “all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern-it strangles so; [she] thinks that is why there are so many heads.” The fact that these societal pressures strangle is evidenced by the many heads that it bears. The victims are so grotesque that the woman is led to write, “If those heads were covered, or taken off it would not be half so bad.” (30)
The extent of the problem is not limited to domestic life. Even when the woman in the wallpaper is out during the day, “she is always creeping (30).” This suggests that there appears to be no real escape for women trapped in this form of society. It is this suggestion of hopelessness as the wallpaper woman hides under blackberry vines that may be driving the woman to insanity.
John’s outlook throughout this ordeal is less than encouraging. Instead of being genuinely supportive, he is driven by his practicality and society to keep her rested. While the woman is feeling worse mentally and emotionally, John insists that she is “gaining flesh and color; [her] appetite is much better (24).” John’s failure to recognize his wife’s individual needs aggravates her mood disorder. The woman protests: “I don’t weigh a bit more, nor as much; and my appetite may be better in the evening when you are here, but it is worse in the morning when you are away (24).” This exchange suggests also that while a John may care about his wife, his best intentions are still colored by societal views. Therefore, he may work hard for her welfare, but neglect her emotional needs as many a husband in this society.
John probably exemplifies a typical male physician in this society since his brother-in-law, who is also a physician, agrees with his viewpoints (10). The fact that John “at first meant to repaper the room” when asked by his wife, but ultimately decides not to, may be a metaphor for a society that is unjust to women. John’s practicality to the extreme is a symbol of male behavior. Despite the good intentions of a male-dominated society, women still find themselves strangled by oppression.
Another aspect of John’s diagnosis merits attention. “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. So I try (15, 16).” While John is against the idea of excited fancies, he insists on overcoming these problems with will and good sense. It seems as if there is a social stigma against things that are not observable and scientifically based. Yet the final condition of the woman is based at least in part upon the energies which she represses for John’s sake. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Gilman believes the dominance men exert over women “for their own good,” as a result of repressed content, may emerge as mental problems later in life.
Throughout the story, Gilman never bothers to reveal the name of this woman to us. While it would have been easy to have her name enter the story through a secondary character, it never does. This purposeful omission suggests that the story could have happened to any woman. It adds to the strength of Gilman’s feminist message.
Whether The Yellow Wall-Paper is examined as a feminist tract or as a psychological study, the power of fiction can hardly be better illustrated. Gilman has succeeded in not only intriguing the reader with the issue of a woman’s role in the late 1800’s but also in presenting the issues involving mental and physical illnesses. While the field of psychology was not widely accepted at the time, issues involving women’s cognitive abilities were not to truly surface until the mid-1900’s with Neo-Freudian, Karen Horney. In this way, Gilman can be seen as a prophetess of not only the women’s movement, but also of the unique psychological issues that women raise.