Unveiling Madness

Exploring the Complex Layers of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman"

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in Hartford in 1860. She grew up in poverty, and she lived with her mother and brother after her father abandoned the family. Gilman spent much of her youth in Providence, Rhode Island, and while she had very little formal education, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design for two years (1878-1880) and supported herself there as an artist designing greeting cards.

She was a prominent American humanist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, American feminist, and a lecturer for social reform. She was a leading theorist of the women’s movement in the United States. She was a utopian feminist and served as a role model for future generations of feminists because of her unorthodox concepts and lifestyle. Much of her work focused on women’s unequal status in marriage and their need for financial independence. While she is best known for her fiction, Gilman was also a successful lecturer and intellectual. One of her greatest nonfiction works, Women and Economics, was published in 1898. A feminist, she called for women to gain economic independence, and the work helped cement her standing as a social theorist. In her famous treatise, Women and Economics (1898), Gilman theorized that women could never be truly independent until they first had economic freedom. She married Charles W. Stetson, an artist and she gave birth to a daughter. She soon proved to be unsuited to the domestic routine of marriage, and after a year or so she was suffering from melancholia, which resulted in complete nervous collapse. Charlotte Perkins Gilman suffered a very serious bout of post-partum psychosis – nervous disorders. This was an age in which women were seen as "hysterical" and "nervous" beings; thus, when a woman claimed to be seriously ill after giving birth, her claims were sometimes dismissed. Gilman experienced severe depression and underwent a series of unusual treatments for it. This experience is believed to have inspired her best-known short story "The Yellow Wall-Paper" (1892).

In 1890, Gilman wrote her short story "The Yellow Wallpaper", which is now the all-time best-selling book of the Feminist Press. She wrote it in June 1890, in her home of Pasadena, and 1892, she published her famous semi-autobiographical story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It is regarded as an important early work of American feminist literature for its illustration of the attitudes toward the mental and physical health of women in the 19th century. The story is about a woman who suffers from mental illness after three months of being closeted in a room by her husband for the sake of her health. She becomes obsessed with the room's revolting yellow wallpaper. Gilman wrote this story to change people's minds about the role of women in society, illustrating how women's lack of autonomy is detrimental to their mental, emotional, and even physical well-being. This story was inspired by her treatment of her first husband. The narrator in the story must do as her husband (who is also her doctor) demands, although the treatment he prescribes contrasts directly with what she truly needs;  mental stimulation and the freedom to escape the monotony of the room to which she is confined. "The Yellow Wallpaper" was essentially a response to the doctor (Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell) who had tried to cure her depression through a "rest cure" involved living as domestic a wife as far as possible having 2 hours of intellectual life a day and never touching a pen, pencil or brush. It does not work and to show how she treated herself and her progress, She sent him a copy of the story. Gilman wanted to warn others about the dangers of this rest-cure in her story. She did not intend to drive people crazy but to save people from being driven crazy. 

The Yellow Wallpaper is the first-person narrative of the 19th century. The unnamed narrator has recently given birth to a child and suffers from a mental breakdown after giving birth. The young woman who is married to a doctor spends all of her time in the country mansion. The narrator is imprisoned within her marriage her social order and her house. Her husband isolates her for 3 months in a room. John says that she needs to rest and do nothing including interacting with people, socializing, working, reading, writing and even seeing her baby. The story shows us the husband "man" has the superiority to forbid a woman’s behaviors and acts and he has almost complete control over his wife. So we can see the gender roles in the 19th century. Thus, the wife is left with very little to do except stare at the yellow wallpaper. She starts to experience postpartum psychosis which are result of a drop in hormones like estrogen or progesterone. As a result of this disease, women may have confusion, disorientation, hallucinations, and paranoia. The narrator becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in time. At first, she says she finds the color of the wallpaper disgusting and irritating. After weeks, she thinks that the wallpaper is mesmerizing and appealing. She spends hours each day looking at it, tracking it, and trying to follow the pattern to its stopping point but she has difficulties because the patterns move and change with the sunlight and the moonlight. As time passes her paranoia gets worse and she becomes more obsessed with the color and the smell of the wallpaper.  

After a while, she thinks that a woman is trapped behind the pattern and she is creeping around the wallpaper and trying to get out, the narrator sees hallucinations. She projects her mental disintegration onto the patterns that she sees on the wall. The woman who is captivated by the patterns symbolizes her captivity. The wallpaper represents the structure of family, medicine, false treatment, and tradition in which the narrator finds herself trapped. The yellow wallpaper symbolizes society and patriarchy. Wallpaper is domestic and humble, and Gilman uses this nightmarish, hideous paper as a symbol of the domestic life that traps so many women. Eventually, the narrator begins to suspect that many women are trapped inside this paper and she wants to free a woman or women. Here, Gilman tries to demonstrate that any woman can face this kind of illness that a deteriorating marriage may cause. On her last day in the house, she feels that she must have helped the woman in the wallpaper to escape. She locks her door and begins to tear away the wallpaper, which represents her desire to free herself. She feels trapped in the room and inside the wallpaper. The narrator finds her hidden self and her eventual freedom.

At the end of the story, the narrator creeps around on the floor in the room and she rips out all the wallpapers. She creeps along the wallpaper when her husband, John, walks in. She tells him that she is free and that she has liberated herself. He faints and she continues to creep around the room.

We can see that this kind of rest cure was thought to improve a woman’s mental health, however, confinement and inactivity only deteriorate the narrator’s mental health. She becomes more and more obsessed with the yellow wallpaper, the color, and the smells. Her preoccupation with twistings and turns becomes to hallucinatory delusion. So, the treatment that her husband gives her, seems to make her insane. Gilman shows us the 19th-century patriarchal oppression of women with their husbands. John infantilizes and controls her, speaking to her like a child, giving orders that she must obey, and restricting her freedom to an extreme degree by modern standards. The narrator is not free both physically and mentally. As a wife and a woman, she must conform to society’s norms but her need for freedom of expression reveals itself. She was so suppressed that she saw a woman who tried to get out, behind the bars of the yellow wallpaper and creeping woman outside her windows. She feels trapped by her surroundings and her husband’s directives and her madness rises to the surface because of the limitations of the society. The woman’s role is limited in this story, her real identity is taken from her. She can not be a mother, or manager of the house and can't work.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman defends that women need meaningful work suited to their abilities, her story intensifies the limitations put on women to show the mental decline that results. Gilman examines the confining gender roles that were imposed on women of the time. She has transformed her experience of enduring this rest cure into a story. She invites us to reconsider gender dynamics, the oppressive nature of gender roles, women’s place in society, and the treatment of mental disorders resulting from birth.

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