Marriage is often presented, to girls at an impressionable young age, as finding a prince charming and living happily ever after. Settling down and having a family may not be as splendid as some women fantasize. Marriages can be toxic and oppressive environments. This is true now as it was for women in the late 1800s. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the protagonist is dealing with postpartum depression, but her oppressive environment prevents her from recuperating. Women with mental illness often suffer in oppressive households.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” tells the story of a young woman suffering from a mental illness. The narrator first mentions her illness when she reflects, “I’m sure I never used to be sensitive, I think it is due to this nervous condition” (Gilman 487). She has no control of her emotions most likely due to her anxiety. Her illness is also troubling to as she laments, “[her] nervous are dreadfully depressing” (487). Her troubles stem from her separation of her child and her treatment which limits her physically and mentally. She mentions, “Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous” (488). It can be alluded that she suffers from postpartum depression and is not being adequately treated. As she is forced to remain isolated indoors, she becomes obsessed with the wallpaper in the nursery. The wallpaper as she describes began to, “look to [her] as if it knew what a vicious influence” (488). The wallpaper affects her, and her imagination runs wild as she sees a woman imprisoned within the yellow wallpaper. protagonist reaches her breaking point when she realizes that she is the woman trapped in the depths of the wallpaper. She describes how she pulled off most of the wallpaper by morning to free the young woman within the wallpaper (495). Unfortunately for the protagonist, having children left her in a state of depression and made her begin to resent her husband.
The protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” entered a marriage and treatment became an oppressive environment. Her husband became her oppressor, as tried to suppress her thoughts, and imagination. The narrator reveals that “perhaps that [he] is the one reason [she] does not get well faster” (486). She is coming to the realization that her husband is not helping her get better. When she discloses her discontentment with the yellow wallpaper, he lets her know, “[there is] nothing worse for a nervous patient than to give way to their fancies” (488). He invalidates her opinions and suppresses her feelings. Gilman reveals the protagonist’s husband, “hates to have her write a word” (487). He stifles her from her expressing her thoughts orally as well as her thoughts that are written. She does not have a choice but to obey, because during this period women were not allowed to express their opinions in their marriages. Men held all the power and they determined whether or the role their wives played in their household. The protagonist’s husband threatens that if she does not get better, he would be send her to the physician Weir Mitchell who is much worse of a physician (488). Her husband can conclude that she is mentally unfit and send her away without her consent. He has already taken her away from her actual home in the hopes that she will get better. Gilman reveals the protagonist has been separated from her child, when she confesses, “there’s one comfort—the baby is well and happy and does not have to occupy this nursery with the horrid wallpaper” (489). The narrator is suffering from postpartum depression and she cannot recover from it, because her husband’s way of dealing with her illness it to avoid it altogether. Marriage is most often presented to women as a goal and they are expected to have a family to be happy. Unfortunately for the protagonist, having children left her in a state of depression and made her begin to resent her husband. Marriage for the Gilman’s protagonist did not end happily ever after.
In the 19th century, women with mental illnesses suffered in their oppressive environments. The fate of a women depended on her husband, because historically Victorian Women were “increasingly ill-prepared for the trials of childbirth and childbearing” (Smith 658). Women would often bare children without contemplating the risks and suffered the consequences. As shown in “The Yellow Wallpaper” women would suffer from postpartum depression and it would be dismissed as hysterics. Throughout history, “hysteria has been seen as characteristically female” (Smith 653). While at this time science and medicine were advancing, the treatment women were receiving did not help them, and it often made their symptoms worsen. Women diagnosed with a mental illness were prescribed a rest-cure in which, “the patient was not permitted to leave bed or even move within without the doctor’s approval…” (Sigurðardóttir 3). This confinement was not a reasonable treatment, and this cruel punishment was not uncommon in this century. Doctors “attempted to reinforce childlike dependency in women, defined women as inherently weak, and discouraged excessive mental or physical exertion” (Morantz). Men as well, would punish women for not being a dutiful wife in their eyes. Just like in Gilman’s story often “rest-cure could be used to discipline women whose illness became a means of avoiding household duties” (Sigurðardóttir 4). Men believed women would fake their illnesses rather than believe they were suffering from depression, or anxiety. Unfortunately, women who had mental illnesses suffered greater than they should have.
Gender roles play a part in oppressive environments. Men were often seen as the superior sex especially in the late 1800s. Men held power and authority over their wives. That left many women helpless to the wills of their husbands. Though those power dynamics have shift, gender roles are still present and leave women in helpless situations. While mental illness is still a taboo subject for some, more women are being informed about the possible side effects and outcomes of childbirth. Most women cannot be put away anymore because their husbands wish it. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a cautionary tale of how gender roles can lead to harmful relationships.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, 8th ed., vol. 2, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 485-497.
Morantz, Regina Markell, and Sue Zschoche. “Professionalism, feminism, and gender roles: a comparative study of nineteenth-century medical therapeutics.” The Journal of American History 67.3 (1980): 568-588.
Sigurðardóttir, Elísabet Rakel. Women and Madness in the 19th Century. The effects of oppression on women’s mental health. Diss. 2013.
Smith-Rosenburg, Carroll. “The Hysterical Woman: Sex Roles and Role Conflict in 19th Century America.” Social Research, vol. 39, no. 4, 1972, pp. 652–678. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40970115.