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Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" is told from a first person point of view narrative. This means that the unnamed main character serves as the narrator. However, since this narrator is slowly descending into a mental breakdown, we cannot venture to say that the story is objective, nor reliable: everything we know is told by a woman who is undergoing a series of terrible circumstances as a result of her post-partum depression. Yet, the story is effective in style, combining an allegorical title with a daring and challenging topic for treatment.
The title of the story is allegorical to the narrator's mind. The woman, who is supposed to be taking post-partum rest for her depression in a remote house, spends her day inside a room in which the wallpaper begins to annoy her. She believes that there is a woman trapped within the paper and she slowly increases her obsession with it. In the end, she tears up the paper and finally breaks down. This is a symbol of the magnitude of her desperation; of being trapped inside a room with no intellectual respite, and with no way of expressing her real needs and emotions.
Finally, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is unique in that it addresses a real issue which had not received enough attention (during Perkins Gilman's society), which is the psychological health of women. Women, in their socially-imposed roles of wives, mothers, and nurturers, were never analyzed under the light of psychology. If anything, a post-partum depression would have been classified as "hysteria" or plain "nostalgia". Little was known during this time about the effects of hormonal imbalance, or about the effects of childbirth in women; women were expected to give birth, no questions asked.
Hence, we can conclude that "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a story that breaks the mold in terms of the topic that it treats, and that it effectively tells the story of a woman in need by using her as first person narrator. This helps us look inside the mind of a woman about to break down, and teaches us how society has forgotten to address the true needs of females.
The literary style of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is that of the "unreliable narrator." The story is told from a first-person perspective, with only one point-of-view, and so there is no way of telling if the reader is getting the whole truth. Without a second point-of-view, or even a third-person narration style, the story can only be seen from one angle: the narrator, who is suffering first from post-partum depression and then from an increasingly severe mental breakdown.
This style is seen in many stories, from realistic crime fiction to fantasy and space opera. By re-reading the story with an understanding of the narrator's unreliability -- not dishonesty, but instead the inability to speak objectively -- the story can develop multiple meanings and interpretations. As "The Yellow Wallpaper" is deliberately a story about gender roles and cultural conventions, its interpretation usually remains the same regardless of the reading, but there could be a case made for the narrator's mental instability legitimately requiring her isolation, in another context.
The Evils of the “Resting Cure”
As someone who almost was destroyed by S. Weir Mitchell’s “resting cure” for depression, it is not surprising that Gilman structured her story as an attack on this ineffective and cruel course of treatment. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an illustration of the way a mind that is already plagued with anxiety can deteriorate and begin to prey on itself when it is forced into inactivity and kept from healthy work. To his credit, Mitchell, who is mentioned by name in the story, took Gilman’s criticism to heart and abandoned the “resting cure.” Beyond the specific technique described in the story, Gilman means to criticize any form of medical care that ignores the concerns of the patient, considering her only as a passive object of treatment. The connection between a woman’s subordination in the home and her subordination in a doctor/patient relationship is clear—John is, after all, the narrator’s husband and doctor. Gilman implies that both forms of authority can be easily abused, even when the husband or doctor means to help. All too often, the women who are the silent subjects of this authority are infantilized, or worse.
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