‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman published in 1892, is a seminal work in the field of feminist literature which sheds light on many important aspects of mental health and illnesses. Gilman’s works have always been famous for highlighting feminist issues. This particular masterpiece of Gilman predates the fight for women’s voting rights in the US. Gilman herself was a social activist and was very active in feminist movements during the first wave of feminism. Her works questioned women’s subjugation in marriages and patriarchal household setup and also their lack of agency and bodily as well as economic and social autonomy in the society.
The story is a detailed account of how a woman’s mental health constantly keeps deteriorating. The story opens with the narrator describing how she and her husband, John who is also a doctor, moves into a new house in the summers to help her recover from what she thinks is constant nervousness and bouts of depression post delivery of her baby. John’s sister Jenny also accompanies the couple and is their housekeeper. The room that the narrator and her husband move into has a huge yellow wallpaper which she thinks is ugly. She is keen on changing her room, but husband doesn’t agree so she is left with no other option but to live in that room.
However, living in that room with the hideous wallpaper only worsens her condition, and her fascination with the wallpaper keeps increasing by the day.
While the narrator has an active imagination and is a passionate writer, her husband disproves of her writing and forces her to rest, believing that it would cure her condition. This highlights the ordeal that Gilman faced in her personal life. She too had faced similar mental health conditions and was made to undergo a treatment called “rest cure” where she was recommended to rest and not engage in any other activities – much like the narrator in the story.
This tale is both a haunting account of one woman’s descent into madness and a powerful symbolic discourse of the fate of creative women suffocated by a patriarchal culture.
The wallpaper is a significant literary tool for us to understand the major themes and the mindsets of the characters. It is soiled, crumpled in places and triggers vivid imaginations in the narrator’s mind. The narrator keeps staring at the wallpaper for hours to figure out what is it that the pattern is trying to say. Gradually, the patterns feel like a woman constantly screaming and struggle to crawl out of the cages behind which she is held captive. The sub patterns further shows her images of more cages that the woman is trying to break and heads of multiple women on top of these cages. She keeps feeling that this eerie sub pattern was visible in a certain angle of light. She felt like the harder all these women tried to escape, the more strangled they got.
This is symbolic of the treatment meted out to women, be it in the family structure, society, or in the medical field. Women are treated as the second sex whose needs are always secondary in a patriarchal household, and are also deprived of their rights in the society. Even in the medical field, a woman’s health issues aren’t taken as seriously as men’s and are looked at with judgment and ignorance. The wallpaper, therefore, perfectly mirrors the cage called societal constructs behind which women are held captive by the men who see themselves as superior to women thus representing the trap of domestic life in which most of the women are lost and find it hard to breakthrough this trap.
Societal issues in the story
The symbolism of the wallpaper thus brings us to the main issues that the story aims to address. One of the most pertinent issues identified from the author’s way of narrating the story and describing the wallpaper is the position of women in marriage and their self identity as well as bodily autonomy. The strict line between the “household” activities of the female and the “productive” work of the male ascertained that women remained secondary in the nineteenth-century middle-class relationships which still hold relevance in the current scenario. The story shows that this gender divide kept women in a puerile state of ignorance, attempting to prevent them from fully developing. In the name of “supporting” his wife, John’s pompous assumption of his own superior knowledge and maturity leads him to misjudge, disparage, and manipulate her.
The narrator is reduced to behaving like a child throwing a tantrum seeming unrealistic or uncaring. This quote brings out the narrator’s dilemma about how she is being treated, “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 about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad. So I will let it alone and talk about the house”
Another important aspect that the depiction of the wallpaper brings out is the ignorance and stigma towards mental health and mental illnesses. The ill effects of “resting cure” as a treatment have been very clearly depicted by the narrator through the visions which she constantly keeps getting on staring at the wallpaper as she has nothing else to do to preoccupy her mind or distract herself from her triggering thoughts.
It’s not shocking that Gilman constructed her narration as an attack on S. Weir Mitchell’s counterproductive and insensitive “resting cure” for depressive episodes, given that she was nearly destroyed by it. When a mind already afflicted with anxiety is compelled into sedentary behaviour and precluded from doing any healthy productive work that could have otherwise kept the patient occupied and in a better state of mind, it can degrade and start to forage on itself, as depicted in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.
The author has clearly highlighted how negligence and misjudgements can push the victims of mental illnesses to the edge of self destruction.
“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?..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 ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.”
This quote perfectly sums up how the narrator doesn’t have agency over her own treatment and mental health – a right countless women have been denied over centuries.
Ishita Bagchi is a public policy consultant. She is an avid reader and an economics graduate with a keen interest in literature.