American Literature II
20 February 2019
“The Yellow Wallpaper” and the Consequences of How Women Were Viewed
“In a sick society, women who have difficulty fitting in are not ill but demonstrating a healthy and positive response.” This is a quote by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a writer who was born during the height of the feminist movement; during a time where women writers were exploding in popularity. Many men thought of female writers as, “being brainy, selfish, unladylike, and unattractive” (“1862: The Explosion of Women Writers” by Christopher Hager). These women were criticized for simply being female, and their works were seen as inadequate (Hager, par. 3). Many female literary artists fought this view, Gilman included. In fact, as the quote suggests, she herself was a feminist. In 1891, she published a work in the New England Magazine. Her biggest reason for publishing the story was because she wanted to expose how being told to never work again is not a proper treatment for any illness, though she was prescribed exactly that by a physician and nearly went insane because of it. This is where her inspiration for “The Yellow Wallpaper” came from (The Norton Anthology: American Literature). The purpose of this essay is to go through “The Yellow Wallpaper” and discuss the conflict in the story, and the consequences of that conflict for the characters involved.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is about an unnamed woman, and it seems to be in her point of view through journals. She mentions a few times that she’s writing in secret and doesn’t want her husband to know. The narrator also mentions how she is ill, and her husband, John, a physician, suggested that she do no work until she is well again. This is important to the story, because during this time, many physicians believed that women would get sick if they were reading or writing. This is evident in Gilman’s own experiences, as she wrote this story to be semiautobiographical.
When talking about why she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, she said, “For many years, I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia… I went… to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure… and sent me home with solemn advice to ‘live as domestic a life as far as possible,’ to, ‘have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again as long as I lived’ (Gilman, 523-524). Gilman followed these instructions for three months before, as she put it, she came to, “the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over” (Gilman, 524). She immediately started working once again and wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.” One can see how Gilman meant for this to reflect on what she went through, as John gives the narrator of the story the same treatment.
However, despite her husband’s instructions, the narrator continues to write in secret. Her husband is gone most of the time though, because he is a physician, so she is able to get away with it. The conflict seems to start early here. Already, her husband is telling her the way to get better is to do absolutely nothing, and to stop writing because he believes it’s making her sick. The narrator mentions that she does feel more exhausted from writing, but only because she must hide it. She often talks about the room she is living in and goes into detail about the wallpaper. At one point, she talks about two “bulbous eyes [staring] at you upside down.” She talks about how it seems to crawl up, down, sideways. As the story continues, she mentions that she sees the shape of the woman. Yet, as her mental state is obviously deteriorating, John seems to continually brush her off when she attempts to talk to him about how she doesn’t feel like she’s getting any better. He constantly treats her like a child, carrying her upstairs and reading to her, scolding her when she doesn’t do what he wants her to do, or calling her things like, “little girl,” hinting towards the possibility of thinking less of his wife.
Further, during the 19th century, mental illness was a relatively new medical field, therefore not many people knew much about it. John was a physician, but most likely knew nothing about mental illness and was not able to see the signs that his wife displayed. It could also be assumed that, had John been more present during this time, maybe he would have seen some signs of it; yet it is stated multiple times that he is gone for long hours because of work.
Throughout the story, she seems to have worse hallucinations as time goes on. For example, at one point, she talks about how the “woman behind [the wallpaper]” as she calls her, escapes during the day and “creeps” (or crawls) outside of her windows. She says, “It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight… and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines. I don’t blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight!” (Gilman, 520) This seems to add to the consequences of the conflict, as the conflict so far seems to be that her husband seems to think little of her, perhaps because she is a woman. This is evidenced by his hesitancy to believe she is sick, or at the very least, that she is as sick as she thinks. Not only that, but it is evidenced from his treating her like a child, as pointed out above.
Unfortunately, the story ends with the narrator seemingly going into complete madness. This is evidenced by her stating that she sees multiple women creeping outside her window, and she doesn’t like to look at them. She also seems to believe she is the woman behind the wallpaper as she says things such as, “I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did,” “I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!” and to John she says, “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman, 523) The story even ends with her creeping back and forth in the room, even over her unconscious husband who passed out upon seeing her in her current state. This part is extremely important, because one could see this as coming from her feeling trapped in the house. Perhaps she was the woman behind the wallpaper the entire time. Her descent into madness could have been fought or treated, but one could say it’s safe to assume that, being a woman, many people in the story assumed she was exaggerating or making a problem when there was none.
Unfortunately, this was not uncommon. As stated earlier, mental illness was a new medical field. Therefore, many physicians depended upon social norms such as heredity, environment, gender, class, or sinful behavior to determine whether someone had a mental illness (“The Language of Madness: Understanding Terminology”). The ultimate consequence of the conflict in this story is the narrator’s mental illness getting worse and worse until she had a nervous breakdown. As mentioned earlier, Gilman herself even stated that she nearly descended into madness because of a similar wellness plan by her own physician; that was the whole purpose of writing the story.
Thankfully, there was a resolution to this conflict, though not in the story. Gilman said in the end that, “Many years later, I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” (Gilman, 524) Gilman’s story had affected many different people besides just the original physician that attempted to treat her. She says that it’s, “valued by alienists,” and that, “it saved one woman from a similar fate—so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.” (Gilman, 524)
In conclusion, the point of this essay was to discuss the conflict present in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as well as the consequences of said conflict. There seems to be a few different points of conflict; the view of women in that society through John’s view of his wife, and the view of mental illness during this time through the narrator’s treatment plan as well as how she is treated by those around her. The ultimate consequence was the worsening of her mental illness. The quote used at the beginning of this essay is very fitting for this discussion. As mentioned earlier, many believed that when women worked or did any reading or writing, they would get sick. However, through Gilman’s own experiences and the experience of the narrator in her short story, she was able to prove that the opposite is true; in fact, she got more sick when she stopped working altogether. During this time, it was uncommon for women to read and write, and was against social norms. She proved her own quote to be correct. She did not fit in during her time, yet she was definitely demonstrating a healthy and positive response by fighting the stereotypes present during that time.
A lot of good seems to have come from this story, and hopefully there were many women who were saved by Gilman’s short story besides the one mentioned earlier. Thankfully, women’s rights have come a long way since then, as well as the study of mental illness. Despite this, it’s good to look at works such as these so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 509–524.
Hager, Christopher. “1862: The Explosion of Women Writers.” 1862: America Undeceived, 20 Dec. 2012, commons.trincoll.edu/1862/2012/12/20/1862-the-explosion-of-women-writers/#_ftn1.
“The Language of Madness: Understanding Terminology.” Restoring Perspective: Life and Treatment at London’s Asylum, 2009, http://www.lib.uwo.ca/archives/virtualexhibits/londonasylum/terminology.html.