Throughout the centuries, people have struggled to comprehend the complexity of the human brain. It has fascinated scientists and artists alike, as they try to understand or even decipher its intricate ways. The concept of mental illness is considered to be a modern and relatively new notion; however, it is actually a ubiquitous yet previously concealed matter. Charlotte Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a perfect case of hidden mental illness and all the shame and ignorance that accompanied the topic in the 19th century. It is also a tale of women’s oppression, degradation and neglect.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story published in 1892. The story details the struggles of Jane, the wife of a physician, who suffers from postpartum psychotic delirium. She is locked in a room, hidden from the rest of the world, under the pretense of a “rest-cure” prescribed by her husband. The narrative follows Jane’s own diary entries in which she describes her descent into madness. According to Suess (2003), Gilman’s story displays “how women have been socially, historically, and medically constructed as not only weak, but sick beings”. Since she has been deprived of companionship, exercise, and any other form of stimulation, the woman becomes increasingly fixated with the yellow wallpaper. She needs intellectual stimulation because she doesn't have anything else to do but gaze at the walls. Her confinement may not be the sole reason behind her psychotic breakdown and hallucinations, but it is a catalyst that plays a major role in accelerating her collapse.
Figure 2: Phyllis Luedke’s The Yellow Wallpaper Environment: Bedroom (2020)
The men in the story seem to be in total control of Jane’s life, trapping her in a room, forcing her to “rest” and forbidding her to do what she loves the most: writing. Although it is done in private without her husband’s knowledge, the narration in of itself is a rebellion against the patriarchal rules. Jane’s mental disorder emerges from her pregnancy and consequent birth to a baby boy. This event should've been one to celebrate, especially during the 19th century, instead it causes Jane immense pain as she describes her postpartum feelings: “I cry at nothing and cry most of the time” (Gilman, 1892). Her mental struggles are extremely worrying to her husband as he is ashamed of what people might think. Quawas (2013) argues that “in the nineteenth century, women, as agents of moral influence, were expected to maintain the domestic sphere as a cheerful, pure haven for their husbands to return to each evening”. Jane does not fit into the narrow social criteria. Instead of offering his medical help as a qualified physician, he takes her away to a secluded house and locks her in a room. Her husband’s social status seems to prevail over his marital and professional duties towards his wife.
The story was widely ignored for the first 50 years after its publication as it included sensitive and taboo subjects. Shumaker (1985) argues that the reason behind this rejection is that the 19th century audiences “were not prepared to understand a tale of mental degeneration in a middle-class mother and wife”. Thus, Gilman’s story was far ahead of its time, extremely avant-garde and subsequently prohibited. However, the modern reader pities the neglected protagonist, suffering alone and trying to escape her horrendous reality. The woman in the wallpaper is much like Jane herself: silenced, trapped and trying to escape. She eventually does to the woman in the wallpaper what she wishes to be done to herself. She frantically destroys the wallpaper to free the woman behind it, and consequently frees herself from the social and marital constraints. Furthermore, Jane reveals her true mental state at the end of the story and reverses the gender roles.
Figure 3: Sacha Kyle’s and Sandy Nelson’s twelfth Oran Morshow (2015)
The author herself struggled from mental trouble which makes the tale partly autobiographical. Shumaker (1985) claims that “Gilman's autobiography describes her development and abandonment of a dream world, a fantasy land to which she could escape from the rather harsh realities of her early life”. Similarly, Jane has a vivid imagination and an artistic eye that discerns the details around her in a creative and innovative way. Writing is her only coping mechanism but it is shut down by John. Shumaker (1985) continues by mentioning that “her husband has to keep reminding her that she "must not give way to fancy in the least" as she comments on her new surroundings”. This creative restraint in addition to her imprisonment leads to her mental deterioration.
People struggling with mental illnesses were portrayed as “sick” and in desperate need of a cure. John does not believe that she is indeed troubled and just prescribes her some rest. However, her actions contradict his words as he traps her like a madwoman, like an infected person sent into quarantine. This troubles her further as she is neglected by the one person that is supposed to support and care for her. According to Hume (2002), “her entrapment seems the direct result of an oppressive patriarchal culture and medical establishment, but also because she feels unable to do anything more than "creep" against the absurd strictures imposed upon her by her physician-husband John”.
To sum up, Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a feminist story that tackles the theme of mental illness and its consequences. The protagonist struggles as she is ostracized and exiled from her society. Jane eventually breaks free from the norms of the 19th century patriarchal society that held her in a tight grip. She is liberated in the eyes of the modern reader but was seen as a hysteric and crazy woman back when the story was first published. This novella mirrors Gilman’s own struggles and her innovative and unconventional attempt to escape her rough and close-minded reality.
Gilman, C. P., & Lane, A. J. (1981). The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader: The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Fiction. Woman's Press.
Hume, B. A. (2002). Managing Madness in Gilman's" The Yellow Wall-Paper". Studies in American Fiction, 30(1), 3-20.
Quawas, R. (2006). A New Woman's Journey into Insanity: Descent and Return in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association, 2006(105), 35-53.7
Shumaker, C. (1985). “Too Terribly Good to be Printed”: Charlotte Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper”. American Literature, 57(4), 588-599.
Suess, B. A. (2003). The Writing's on the Wall: Symbolic Orders in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Women's Studies, 32(1), 79-97.
Figure.1 Claire Mannle (n.d) Bare Portland- The Yellow Wallpaper [Illustration], Pintrest.
Figure.2 Phyllis Luedke (2020) The Yellow Wallpaper Environment: Bedroom [Digital Illustration], Art Station.
Figure.3 Sacha Kyle (2015) Sandy Nelson’s twelfth Oran Morshow [Photograph], Glasgow Theatre.