The Impact of Patriarchy and Mental Health in “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Societal Norms and Women’s Mental Health
In the “Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the Narrator, who is believed to be a young woman possibly named Jane, is in a dystopia. She is married to John, a doctor who attempts to diagnose and “help” her through what is today believed to be Post Partum psychosis, with an at the time common practice of placing her in a rest house. He continuously belittled her, saying she was suffering from a temporary nervous depression, a slightly hysterical tendency.
A diagnosis that was given to many women of the time period, especially in the narrators’ common situation. The description of the rest house, the effects of it on a woman’s mind and being, as well as the constant reminder of a women’s place, say, and control over her own body, is what makes The Yellow Wallpaper an accurate and realistic warning of the social orders effect on woman’s mental health. In this paper, I argue that mental illness among women can be helped by repudiating the old social order and opening up to the truth of mental awareness.
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Imagination vs. Societal Constraints
In the beginning, the Narrator is an expressive woman who is very powerful and clear about who she is. She was very driven by her imagination as well as a way of distracting from her external situations such as her husband, newborn and womanly duties she fails to meet. She would reminisce of the time as a child, specifically the nighttime monster, as well as her seemingly joyful conviction that the country mansion they lived in was haunted.
This foreshadows the woman she eventually sees in the wallpaper when her obsession with it grows. These distractions did not stop her from acknowledging that she was mentally not well after giving birth. Also, her husband noticed her mental instability. He was the man of the home, the husband of the Narrator, as well as a doctor. He took full control of the Narrator’s body with his reigning position in comparison to the social order.
He scheduled her prescriptions for each hour of the day consisting of Phosphates, which are prescribed for patients who don’t get enough phosphorus in their normal diets, usually because of a certain illness or disease. Along with a regime of tonics, a medical substance to give you a feeling of vigor or well-being, journeys, air, and exercise. This proved unsuccessful in the end. He also preceded in forbidding her from writing, working, or socializing. These are all starting stones to the downward slope of the Narrator’s life. As well as the basics of the running of a rest house.
The Metamorphosis of Imagination
She was stripped of every possible outlet of mental relief once placed in the rest house, and the Narrator’s point of view, imagination, and expressions flipped. Her imagination took on a new dull meaning, and her negative emotions created a different lens for her. With nothing to stimulate her mind, she put her focus on the only thing that negatively stood out, which was the yellow wallpaper; over time, she became extremely fixated on the wallpaper.
This starts the process of the darkness of her mental illness taking over her. She begins a rapid sense of dissociation from herself and everyday living. This was tracked with the use of her secret journal, which she felt “was a relief to her mind.” Because of her yearning need for social stimulus. The journal only proved to take her deterioration so much; her mind became unsatisfied with the journal and started projecting her mental disintegration onto the patterns she sees on the walls, “I never saw a worse paper in my life.”
She described the wallpaper as containing flamboyant patterns committing to every artistic sin. This being true, she still finds this pattern compelling “It’s dulled enough to confuse the eye… pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provokes study.” As the wallpaper’s descriptions get more and more in-depth and persistent through the eyes of the Narrator, it starts becoming less of a pass time and more of a representation of her mental state.
The Narrator tries to understand her situation in terms of principal design. Like after she studies one strip of wallpaper, she concludes it’s not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alteration, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of.” A pattern only emerges when she considers the stripes next to one another. Dim shapes appear to resemble a woman stooping down behind the pattern. The wallpaper also changes as the light changes. At night the woman in the wallpaper’s captivity behind bars becomes as plain as can be.
Another detail she also described was the paper had a peculiar odor that crept all over the house and was stronger after a week of fog and rain. The Narrator’s fixation on the smell could be what Sigmund Freud called the return of the repress on unconscious material rising to the surface, which is part of why the Narrator becomes determined that nobody discovered the wallpapers meaning except for herself.
Breaking the Chains of Conformity: Liberation and Defiance
Although she had initially craved conversation, she decided that it does not do to trust people too much. Especially with her most frightening thoughts. Eventually, the Narrator begins to suspect that many women are trapped inside this paper “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.” The Narrator longs to free this woman or women.
So, on her last day, she locks the door and throws the key into the garden, and then she proceeds to many strange and terrifying events. Including coping with the woman’s movement, she saw in the wallpaper. When her husband entered, he was so surprised he fainted. Even during this, she continued crawling around the room. She also crawls over her husband, the very man who oppressed her. “I’ve got out at last; she announces,” in spite of you and Jane.”
Getting out, at last, involves rejecting societal norms and defying John, and breaking free of Jane, a character not mentioned until this point who may be the Narrator. This story invites people to reconsider gender dynamics and the treatment of mental health disorders.
- Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” 1892.
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- Bak, John S. “Escaping the Jaundiced Eye: Foucauldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.'” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 31, no. 1, 1994, pp. 39-45.
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