The Yellow Wallpaper: Autonomy & Mental Health in 19th Century
Struggles of Women in the 19th Century
Today’s women in America enjoy more freedom than ever before; however, it wasn’t always the case. Women were often looked down upon and treated like second-class citizens. Men didn’t even listen to, or respect women’s opinions, even if they were married, and these women would keep their feelings to themselves instead of being outspoken. The short story. The Yellow Wallpaper, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, portrays a women’s gradual mental breakdown, and it offers a glimpse into the perception and treatment of mental illness in the late nineteenth Century. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a writer and social activist during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
She encouraged women to become independent, but she was also going through problems of her own. She was dealing with partum depression, and in similar circumstances to those of the story’s narrator, she was prescribed a rest cure by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. She started to have a mental breakdown as a result of this treatment, and she couldn’t do any forms of writing or housework. This forced imprisonment of the story’s narrator by her husband mirrors this rest cure in Gilmore’s life. She used imagery, symbolism, personification, dramatic irony, and simile to describe her treatment by men, which led to her mental breakdown and her fantasies and torment of the yellow wallpaper.
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Nurtured by Control: Husband’s Authority
The story starts off when the narrator and her family move into an estate after the birth of her child. She would develop postpartum depression, and her husband was adamant that nothing was wrong with her. The narrator’s husband, John, is a physician, and he’s the first one to attempt to heal his wife of this sickness. He seems to care for his wife’s well-being, but he believes she is suffering from nervousness and she shouldn’t be doing anything until she gets better.
Since her husband is a respectable physician, she would never question him. He would treat his wife as a child, and when she tried to do something around the house, he would stop her. As the narrator looks around the mansion, she walks into the nursery, and the first thing she noticed was the windows which were barred for little children. As she walks farther into the room, she notices the paint and the wallpaper. She describes it as if a boy’s school had used it, and it’s stripped off and in great patches all around. She describes the wallpaper.
The Haunting Power of Yellow Wallpaper
As one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin, she would describe the color of the wallpaper. The color is repellant, almost revolting, a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. Gilman’s use of imagery to describe the first encounter with the wallpaper shows how it makes the narrator feel. She makes the wallpaper feel like an eyesore, and it irritates her to the point she doesn’t want to be in the room anymore.
The narrator writes in her journal about wallpaper. She states that I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure that seems to skulk about being that silly and conspicuous front design. This is the point where she thinks the wallpaper is coming alive, and she starts to get memorized by it. She would later state that I was really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper.
The wallpaper evokes a strong emotional response from the narrator. She says that it is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study. Gilman used imagery to make the readers understand that the narrator was educated and had an eye for details. The details in the story take the readers as a spectator into the mind of the narrator and her fantasies about the wallpaper.
The Distorted Reality: Symbolism and Irony
Gilman gives life to the wallpaper as the narrator states that It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream. She makes the wallpaper feel like an overpowered being, and it takes over your body. She states, s like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. The narrator thinks that there is a woman behind the wallpaper, and it seems to shake the patterns like she wants to get out. She also started to think that she wanted John to take her from there.
At this point, her mental health is declining faster, and it is like she is stuck but can’t find anyone to help her. Gilman uses the symbolism of the moon and how the symbol of the moon had always been inherently feminine. She makes the nighttime the only time when the narrator can do things, but she’ll rather stare at the wallpaper. The narrator noticed that the wallpaper looked more alive at night, and the woman behind the wallpaper was more visible.
As she begins to see, the wallpaper distorts and changes. Gilman uses a simile to describe those hallucinations the narrator is seeing. The narrator says the patterns look like an Interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions, and how her illusion paralyzes her like a bad dream. It provides a clear insight into the narrator’s imaginary experience as the wallpaper moves.
Gilman uses dramatic irony to describe the narrator’s relationship with John. He cares for her, but he is actually one of the reasons why she hasn’t gotten any better. He puts her on a rest cure, and she is able to do nothing around the house. John made sure she didn’t even write, and the narrator’s depression would get even worst. The narrator believed that work could help her get better. John didn’t understand his wife feeling, and rather than being a positive influence, he drove his wife insane.
The narrator tries to write, but she has to do it secretly, and she starts to think I sometimes fancy that if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus. It would have been beneficial for her to socialize and to think about her condition and how she could overcome it. The narrator needed to work, so she could get her mind off depression; instead, she was confined to a room she didn’t like. As the narrator’s mental health deteriorates, she becomes aware of the irony of her situation.
- Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The New England Magazine, January 1892.
- Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 2, 1966, pp. 151-174.
- Gijswijt-Hofstra, Marijke, and Roy Porter (eds.). Cultures of Child Health in Britain and the Netherlands in the Twentieth Century. Rodopi, 2003.
- Walker, Nancy A. Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow Wallpaper”: A Biography. University of Virginia Press, 1998.
- Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Wiley, 2008.
- Mitchell, S. Weir. “Rest-Cure: An Allegory of Women’s Writing.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 19, no. 3, 1994, pp. 591-607.