book review, classic literature, depression, Feminism, Gothic Literature, New Woman Fiction, New Women, Semi-Autobiographical, Short Fiction, Silas Wier Mitchell, the rest cure, The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Victorian domestic codes, Victorian Literature
The Yellow Wall-Paper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, addresses both individual and societal issues contributing to women’s problems. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a prominent figure during the first-wave feminist movement in the United States. Much of her life’s work was influenced by the experiences of her early life. As Charlotte grew into a young woman, she recognized how difficult the world really was for women, and dreamed of remedying “evils and injustices,” especially those facing struggling women. But when Charlotte married Charles Stetson in 1884, but it was difficult for her to accept a life in the domestic sphere. For a woman who had been allowed to earn her own money to help her single mother, living with a man and obeying Victorian domestic codes involving the polarization of genders, which placed her in the role of the “spiritual, moral, and warm homemaker” was difficult to deal with. Eventually, Charlotte became very depressed, suffering from what was diagnosed at the time as nervous prostration. She sought the treatment of famous Victorian physician Silas Wier Mitchell. Under his supervision, she was instructed: “Live as domestic life as possible. Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” In what she calls “a moment of clear vision,” Gilman decided to stop following the doctor’s orders. She left her husband and moved to California to pursue her aspirations of helping women like herself. The result of this ordeal would become the inspiration for her famous work of short fiction, The Yellow Wall-Paper.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s auto-biographical approach to her story resulted in the conception of her famous heroine. Gilman formulated her protagonist’s struggle with her own experiences with depression and patriarchy in mind. In this way, she could get her point across, imagining a nameless heroine to narrate a reenactment of her own difficult battle. Gilman is the author of her story, but she is also a very present narrator. Despite Gilman’s personal presence in the story, her pseudonymous main character speaks to the author’s ability to represent a woman’s place in society and the domestic sphere through her fictional narrator.
Gilman’s story begins with the author’s explanation of her narrator’s many limitations by describing her husband’s control of the treatment of his wife’s nervous condition and his decision to treat her with ‘the rest cure.’ Immediately, the reader is introduced to the narrator’s ideas that her treatment; which forbids her from “work,” is not something that is going to help her get well. As a wife and woman being told not to over-exert herself, the narrator recognizes from the start that things might be different if she were allowed more freedoms.
From the beginning, Gilman makes a point to compare the positions of husband and wife, both in society and in the home. The narrator astutely comments on her husband’s high standing as a physician in opposition to her own lack of authority to make it known that she is aware of her confinement. ‘John is a physician, and perhaps-(I would not say it to a living soul of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind-) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.’ The fact that she knows there would be no point in voicing her concerns suggests a serious hopelessness on the part of the narrator. Still, her ability to slowly realize how truly unhappy she is through her writing is a sign of things to come for the reader who senses the lethargy and sadness in the voice of the narrator.
As the narrator becomes more and more aware of her husband’s restraints under the illusion of protection, she begins to feel utter discontentment and even shows signs of losing her sanity. The narrator’s visions of a woman creeping behind the pattern in the wall scare her at first. Soon, the visions become ‘clearer every day.’ The idea that the woman is seeing images in the paper makes her appear to be a pitiful and seemingly crazy individual. Nevertheless, the fact that she can deduce that her husband and his treatment have put her in this position make her less so. She acknowledges, ‘There are things in the paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.’ Knowing she is the only person who can see the wrong being done to her is what is truly aggravating her illness. This aspect of the novel is what really forms a connection between reader and protagonist, for having we all felt we have been the victim when no one else seems to see what is happening to us? It is not surprising that a woman in such a situation would become maddened and do everything in her power to break the chains which bound her. How long would you stay sane?
The more her husband ignores and emotionally harms her with his condescension, she concentrates only on the wall in the nursery where she is confined. All its intricacies become part of the problem she hopes to fix. Finally, she decides there is no resolving the problem of ‘the pattern.’ It is just too huge for one person, especially a woman. Knowing that she is trapped in such a way is more than overwhelming to her. As her emotions culminate, the story reaches is climax and Gilman overloads the reader imagery which masterfully depicts the final moments of this woman’s crumbling sanity. She describes how it feels to make brave attempts to fight for her liberty only to be knocked down again and again, ‘You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back somersault and there you are. It slaps you down and tramples you. It is like a bad dream.’
Finally, the woman feels she can take no more punishment. The narrator expresses that she has dedicated herself to being contented with the expected roles of wife and mother. She has made sacrifices to conform to societal norms. These were things which did not keep her from falling into the depths of anguish and confusion. Now, knowing that she cannot conform to the ideals society and her husband have expected of her, she is still without answers. Every time she attempts to understand her situation, the patterns in the wall-paper become a metaphor for the physical and mental agony she has undergone without hope of resolve. How much more of the same punishment can a person take? She is crying out for help and no one is listening. She writes, ‘The pattern is torturing.’ In the end, the only thing she can think of to help her escape, is to shock her husband with outlandish behavior. Locked up in the room alone, after begging him to leave and receiving a negative reply, what other options does she have left?
Ultimately, the narrator does succeed in ‘astonishing’ her husband into believing she is truly ill. Even after all her pleading, he still never takes her seriously until she is tearing the room apart. Some would say that she has broken the chains which bound her when he faints after seeing her maddeningly creeping around the attic in a rage. This line of argument has led to the feminist retort that symptoms are protest, that madness is the result of oppression, and that as women are powerless, they cannot express their discontent in any way other than madness, hysteria, or anorexia. This might very well have been the point Charlotte Perkins Gilman was trying to make in ending her story in such a disturbing manner. Although there is much unsettling about the last few pages of the story, the societal patterns mentally damaging the heroine get to the heart of why it was written.
Gilman’s portrayal of a woman who becomes mentally ill due to the conditions of her home life, only to become a misunderstood patient, does much to raise sympathy for the feminist cause. The fact that the story ends with the woman in a state of madness, suggests that a female who wished to emancipate herself in Victorian society had a serious price to pay for her freedom. Still, if enough discontent with the established order was excited, this would be a way for Gilman to begin to make the changes for women she had planned.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman once wrote that The Yellow Wall-Paper was her response to Silas Wier Mitchell’s treatment of her own nervous disorder. There is no doubt that the story also tackles larger issues involving patriarchy’s ramifications on marriage and, more broadly, on society. Along with other New Woman fiction of the Victorian Era, the story made essential steps for women’s emancipation and first-wave feminism. Today, the story remains as a reminder of the extensive divide between men and women in the late nineteenth century and how potentially detrimental medical practices were to women in the past. But it is so much more than that, it is a magnificently detailed description of a woman falling apart at the seams. The story is makes you cringe and your your heart beats just a little faster with the conclusion. While it may have been written in order to raise awareness of an important issue it remains a stellar piece of writing.
 Ibid., p. 94.
 Allen, Polly Wynn. Building Domestic Liberty: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Architectural Feminism. Massachusetts UP, 1988.
 Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. University of Wisconsin Press, 1935.
 Ibid., p. 97.