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Charlotte Perkins Gillman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper" was published in 1892 as an indictment of the medical treatment prescribed to women suffering from the condition that was know at the time as "neurasthenia," or "nervous prostration"; a condition that is now termed post-partum depression; a form of depression which results from the hormonal changes that new mothers suffer. The cure proscribed in the late 1900s was complete bed rest with no stimulation, a cure initiated by Dr. Weir Mitchell. This story of Gillman is autobiographical and intended to expose the inherent cruelties and errors of this approach to this female depression. For, this treatment of depressive women strips them of any say in their cure; moreover it deprives them of any sensory stimulation or human company, the most basic of human needs.
Gillman's narrator is the unnamed, repressed wife of John, who himself is a physician. He has called upon Dr. Mitchell to prescribe a cure for his "nervous" wife after the birth of their baby. At first, the narrator disagrees with the ideas of her husband and Dr. Mitchell, but expresses her helplessness against these men, "But what is one to do?" Instinctively, she knows what will help her overcome her "blues," but because of her repressed social position, she acquiesces to her domineering husband's judgment:
I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus--but John says the very worst thing I can do is think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.
Further, from his words to her it becomes apparent that the husband places more and more stress upon the depressed woman. For instance, whenever she says something, he contradicts her and mitigates the significance of her feelings and observations:
...there is something strange about the house--I can feel it.
I even said so to John one moonlight evening, but he said what I felt was a draught, and shut the window.
I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to be so sensitive, I think it is due to this nervous condition.
But John says if I feel so I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself--before him, at least, and that makes me very tired.
As the narrative proceeds in this vein, the reader's sympathies are drawn to this repressed, victimized woman, who is merely trying to find her own voice in a patriarchal society, a mother who is denied the company of her baby and deprived of any aesthetic pleasures other than the view out of windows of "riotous old-fashioned flowers and gnarly trees," or the sight of a bay and a little, private wharf." While she would like to write, John tells her that doing so would "lead to all manner of excited fancies."
I think sometimes that If I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.
Thus, with her creative impulses, which still try to save her, repressed, the narrator's imagination takes a "wrong turn" and she begins her descent into insanity as she separates her inner self from the exterior, perceiving "a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure" behind the hideous pattern of the yellow wallpaper of the room in which she is confined:"The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out." In her desperation, she still begs her husband to take her away. He refuses again, saying that the lease will be up in three weeks, and they can go no sooner.
Bereft of any hope of escape from the hideous room, the narrator begins to become unraveled. In a strange turn of her psyche, she decides that she now does not want to leave the room until she learns the secrets of the wallpaper, its smell, its pattern, and the woman who hides behind it, a woman she wants to be the only one to release--and tie her. To the reader, then, the narrator becomes a tragic character destroyed by the myopic visions of a charlatan and a compliant husband, whereas earlier in the narrative she has been a sympathetic character who could have been saved.
The husband John, at first perceived by the reader as unsympathetic, has now become oppressive as the dictatorial and constraining force of patriarchy--clearly responsible for the narrator's descent into insanity.
In The Yellow Wallpaper, the story is told by an unnamed narrator in first person. She slowly sinks into madness, causing us to have an idea of how crazy she has become, and allows us to sympathize with her. By using her point of view, it also gives a sense and mood of strangeness and mystery in the story and plot, by not directly letting us know of the truth.
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