The Yellow Wallpaper is a short-story written in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story is written from a first person perspective, that of a woman who is being isolated as “therapy” for her depression, possibly post-partum. The story details her slow descent into madness from being kept in this room, with a grotesque yellow wallpaper on the walls, to a vague conclusion. The story shows us a great deal about the suppression of women in their own marriages, the importance of being able to express one-self, and the utter uselessness of the so called “resting cure. At the time that The Yellow Wallpaper was written, women were not much more than living dishwashers, food cookers, and baby makers. They were thought to be completely dependent on their reproductive system, and that their only goal, or even purpose, in life was to make babies. Creative thought, intellectualism, higher education, all were thought to be men’s affairs, and thus too far out of a woman’s range to let her pursue them. The inequality of marriage, at the time, often kept women childlike and naive. Wives were often expected to be quiet, well-mannered, and not too smart.
The fact that we never find out the name of the the protagonist is another nod to this fact. Women were, essentially, interchangeable. She does not need a name, because she could be literally anyone. She has been dehumanized, to a point. The only things we see her husband call her are “dear” and “goose” and “little girl,” diminutive pet names that belittle the wife. Throughout the story, we see other clues to the probably constant belittling in their relationship. Referring to her “nervous condition”, her depression; “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in a marriage. He refuses to repaper the room and get rid of the yellow wallpaper that is exacerbating her delusions, saying that it will only encourage her. It could be argued that the woman retreats into her madness as a sort of coping mechanism, to pull her out a life where she is unhappy, patronized, and barred from doing the only thing she likes to do, which is journal. The Yellow Wallpaper also brings up the importance of self expression, especially for those suffering from depression. The woman who is our protagonist says, “And I know John would think it absurd.
But I must say what I feel and think in some way – it is such a relief! ” (173). The woman is only talking about that feeling that every single depressed creative person has ever felt. That need, the undeniable urge, the necessity to create and express and, in her case, write. There is something called “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” that outlines, basically, the levels of need. According to him, there are five levels that must be met, including health, safety, social, and ego, before one can even begin to think about creating and self-expression.
Obviously, Maslow wasn’t a creative person. Often, especially for depressed people, giving in to that need of self-expression will help, rather than hurt. The mental barriers placed on the narrator, possibly more so than the physical ones, are her ultimate undoing. In order to keep her husband happy, and make herself seem the perfect loyal wife who just has a touch of nervousness, she must hide all of her anxieties and fears, putting herself further into the pit of depression in order to seem like she is overcoming it.
She is constantly longing for some emotional, physical, or intellectual outlet, all of which are barred from her. John consistently tells her not to let her imagination overtake her, to not indulge in intellectual pursuits. In fact, it could be argued that her “cure” is what kick-starts her madness. She keeps her “secret journal” from him, in order to get some relief. She has to keep her mind in a constant state of forced inactivity, dooming her to self-destruction.
In fact, the wallpaper itself, and the “woman” creeping underneath it, are manifestations of the narrator’s quickly deteriorating mind and need to be creative. She starts out just trying to follow the pattern of the wallpaper from floor to ceiling. She begins to grotesque, macabre visions of disembodied eyes, strangled heads, and fungus, surely not the visions a healthy and stable mind would conjure up from a simple but ugly wallpaper pattern. Later she imagines a woman in there. The woman gets out in the daytime, is free to go where she pleases, and skulks around at night, much like the narrator wished to do.
Wallpaper is one of those things that would be seen as domestic and humble, usually a floral pattern or some other equally feminine imagery. Instead, this wallpaper torments and drives the narrator mad. Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself suffered under S. Weir Mitchell’s “resting cure,” and so it is not surprising that Gilman’s story is an attack on the cruel treatment. The Yellow Wallpaper is a large illustration of Gilman’s own story, how an already fragile mind can quickly deteriorate and attack itself when forced into inactivity, disuse, and dumbing down.
Being kept from work of any sort, the mind preys on itself to get entertainment. In fact, Gilman seems to criticize any sort of medical treatment of the time, most of which used on women, which completely took away any control of the situation from the patient. She was only a passive subject. The connection between passiveness and submission to medical treatment and a wife’s expected submission to her husband are painfully obvious, as the narrator’s doctor is also her husband. Of course he wouldn’t listen to her concerns and dears and anxieties.
She seems to imply that both forms of power are equally abused, resulting in women who have the spirit and fight brainwashed out of them, infantile shells of the strong women they could be. It is all very reminiscent of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, where the wife is also treated like just another child, to be made submissive and pliable to a man’s will. In The Yellow Wallpaper, it is made abundantly clear by Charlotte Perkins Gilman that the “cure” of the time for depression was entirely useless and in fact cruel to the patient.
By coupling it with the absolute desire one feels to be creative and expressive, often intensified in a depressed state, and the oppressive state of marriage in the 1800s, she paints the picture of a sad, unstable woman driven to the point of insanity by the treatment that is supposed to be making her better. This, along with her scathing commentary of the “resting cure,” gets her message across that patients, and women in specific, need to be listened to and given more faith to be smart and creative to be healthy and sane.