By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is an 1892 short story by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A powerful study of mental illness and the inhuman treatments administered in its name, the story explores a number of ‘big’ themes and ideas. Let’s take a look at some of the key themes of the story.
First, however, let’s briefly summarise the plot of the story: the narrator and her husband John, a doctor, have come to stay at a large country house. As the story develops, we realise that the woman’s husband has brought her to the house in order to try to cure her of her mental illness. His proposed (well, enforced) treatment is to lock his wife away from everyone except him, and to withhold everything from her that might excite her.
It becomes clear, as the story develops, that depriving the female narrator of anything to occupy her mind is making her mental illness worse, not better. The narrator outlines to us how she sometimes sits for hours in her room, tracing the patterns in the yellow wallpaper on the walls of her room.
She then tells us she thinks she can see a woman ‘stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern.’ She becomes obsessed with the wallpaper as her mental state deteriorates, before eventually locking herself within the room and crawling around on the floor.
Perhaps the most important theme of Gilman’s story is the narrator’s mental illness, which is present from the beginning of the story and gradually worsens as her narrative develops. Having the narrator tell her own story and provide her own observations in the form of a diary means we have unfiltered access to her thoughts and moods, and this can make parts of the story uncomfortable reading.
Gilman is obviously suggesting that the narrator’s husband, John – who as both a man and a qualified doctor is expected to ‘know what’s best’ for his wife – is misguided in his belief that rest and withdrawal from society, including her own family, is what his wife needs to improve her mental state.
At one point in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, the narrator mentions Weir Mitchell, who was a real person: a neurologist who viewed depression in women as a disorder of their nerves, or as ‘hysteria’ (a term which itself began as gendered: it comes from the ancient Greek word for ‘womb’, because only women were thought to suffer from the condition). Intellectual stimulation was frowned upon, and prolonged periods of rest were prescribed.
But although we can view the narrator’s madness as a tragic outcome of her husband’s misguided belief in his psychological, rational, and scientific approach to her illness, it is possible also to view the narrator’s ‘descent’ into madness as a perverse kind of liberation for her. In triumphantly asserting to John, ‘I’ve got out at last … in spite of you and Jane’, the narrator is taking back a form of control over her surroundings.
And given the gender dynamics at play in the story, we also need to engage with another key theme in the story: gender itself.
Women in Society.
In the late nineteenth century in the United States, women were still often dependent on men both financially and socially. John’s strict control over his wife’s behaviour and confinement needs to be understood (though not necessarily condoned) in this context.
Of course, it is worth bearing in mind the context of the narrator’s depression, too: it is postpartum depression – that is, depression that follows giving birth to her son. She has fulfilled the duty of a wife and mother, as nineteenth century society dictates, but the experience has left her suffering from depression.
It is also clear from the narrator’s diary that her own views about herself have been heavily shaped by the men in her life: not only her husband but also her brother. It is clear that she would like to keep writing to help her through her depression, but she is forbidden to do so, on the grounds that it would make her mental state worse.
Of course, there is something symbolic – when we analyse ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ from a feminist perspective, as many critics have – about the female narrator being forbidden to write or express herself. And there is something quietly triumphant about the fact that she goes ahead and writes her journal despite being told not to do so.
Related to this theme of gender and the place of women in society is the theme of marriage, which is central to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ given the narrator’s marriage to John and his strict orders concerning what his wife is and is not allowed to do.
It is revealing that John often views and treats his wife not so much like a fellow adult as like a child: at one point, he even calls her a ‘little girl’. This belittling language indicates that, well-meaning though he might be, John also does not view his wife as his equal, intellectually or emotionally. She is weak and delicate and needs to be told what to do, for her own protection.