Discuss the characters in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

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Published in 1891, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman introduces the idea of post-partum depression. Although Gilman did not put a name to this illness, today’s physicians and psychiatrist do acknowledge this disease.  In 1903, the author wrote an explanation for why she wrote this story:

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia--and beyond. I went to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. He prescribed complete bed rest and isolation.

Other than the unnamed narrator, the character most important to the protagonist is her husband John.   Central to the story, John controls the narrator, John relates to his wife through his interpretation of the narrator’s illness; furthermore, he appears to love his wife, providing constant positive feedback.

In the beginning, the reader feels that John places in wife in a situation which leads to her loss of control. As the story progresses, it is obvious that John simply cannot see what is happening to his wife.  He is gone much of the time, and he actually believes that his regimen works with his wife. Ultimately, John treats her as a patient rather than his wife. 

Consequently, his treatment for his wife comes from the acknowledged cure for depression at this time.

  • Constant bed rest
  • Isolation
  • No disturbances

John often threatened his wife with going back into a sanitarium to recuperate. Because he was a busy doctor, John tended to leave the woman alone which added to her distress.

John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell. I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time.
Of course I don't when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone.

The unnamed narrator suffers from depression after the birth of her baby.  Succeeding in fooling her husband, the isolation and continued absence of the outside world leaves the woman only with her imagination. 

In time, her imagination begins to take over her entire being. Nothing is right for the narrator.  As the depression deepens, the woman’s senses begin to drive her to distraction. The smells, the sounds, the wallpaper—the intensity of the sensory world around begins to overtake her sanity. To further add to her horror, the narrator believes another woman lives within the wallpaper.

…she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard But nobody could climb through  that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.

Eventually, the narrator’s reality is the wallpaper, separating her from daily life.  Further and further into this fantasy and frustration, she beings to gnaw on the furniture.  The “woman” in the wallpaper symbolizes the narrator’s situation. In finding herself, she has shredded herself.   

The rest cure apparently does not work. The final scene portrays John as so shocked by the complete loss of sanity by his wife that he faints.  Where has he been when this disturbing interaction was happening with the wallpaper, the woman, and the furniture?  No longer is the wife suffering from depression; now is it madness






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