More Than Just Wallpaper: “The Yellow Wallpaper” By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892, tells the tale of a woman undergoing treatment for postpartum depression. In this story, the main character (who is never named) gradually becomes more and more mentally unstable, demonstrated by her changing attitude towards the Yellow Wallpaper in the room she is isolated in. It’s written in first person, allowing the reader to observe the changes in the character’s mindset as the story unfolds. It is a chilling story that leaves the reader with goosebumps and unanswered questions. It’s more than just a chilling story, though. Gilman was known for being a feminist, and experienced postpartum depression, herself. She was, in fact, given the same treatment as the main character in this story, which happened to be standard for this era. Therefore, the reader can infer that what was publicly considered just an entertaining and thrilling piece of literature at the time it was written, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ actually contains important messages about women’s rights and mental health awareness, which makes it still relevant and important to read today.

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The description of the main character’s relationship with her husband, John, gives the reader a glimpse of what life was like for women during this time. The protagonist describes her interactions with John, saying, “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition. But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself– before him, at least, and that makes me very tired”. This shows the reader how unnatural the relationship is. The main character, who knows herself better than anyone else can, is sure that something is not right, but despite her suffering she still feels that it would be wrong to express her discomfort to her husband. John essentially warns her against using her condition as an excuse to act out, and so she chooses to suffer in silence. Again, the reader sees evidence of unfair treatment towards women in the era in the way the main character is blatantly belittled by her husband. In the very opening of this story, the narrator states that, “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage”, and later on, she again says, “He laughs at me so about this wallpaper!”. In addition, throughout their conversations, she is referred to with names such as, “little girl” and “blessed little goose”. The laughter shows that she is not taken seriously, and neither is her condition. Constantly laughing at and calling a person names, even if it’s meant with harmless intentions, is a way to dominate someone. This subconsciously makes the person believe they are inferior to you. She is spoken to in the same manner someone might speak to a dog. This shows how the main character’s husband views her: she is his pet – his property. This also proves that she is not taken seriously or looked at as an equal. Thus, the story shows the reader that women during this era were treated as second class citizens, who were essentially owned by their husbands, and who were not respected or taken seriously. Seeing how the main character is deprived of basic human dignity due to her gender, it only makes sense that her mental health is completely disregarded, as well. Throughout the narration of this story, reader is shown the tragic way in which the protagonist’s illness is treated. The protagonist is essentially locked in a room with bars on its windows all day, and not allowed to work, socialize, or even write. All she is allowed to do is sit there, staring at the yellow wallpaper that she hates, all day. Unsurprisingly, she becomes increasingly unwell under this treatment, and exhibits symptoms similar to what is noted in people who have spent a significant amount of time in solitary confinement in prisons. This treatment is known as the ‘rest cure,’ and it was introduced by a neurologist-psychologist named Weir Mitchell. What’s even more shocking than the treatment, itself, is the knowledge that these practices were the norm during this era. The main character is also constantly told that she is not actually sick, by her husband, who is also her physician. She says, “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him”. Apparently, John is more concerned with believing that there’s nothing wrong than with the well-being of his wife.

Modern psychology teaches us that therapy- talking about one’s emotional turmoil in a space of acceptance and trust- can be extremely effective in helping patients recover from ailments like this. This invalidation of her pain does the opposite, and the fact that her husband is her doctor is also extremely unprofessional, and shows how lightly the matter of mental health was regarded by medical doctors. Lastly, because main character is prohibited from visiting with friends, and from working, the reader is led to infer that while the ‘rest cure’ may have been believed by many to actually benefit those suffering from these illnesses, part of the motivation to accept this ‘cure’ must have come from wanting to keep these individuals hidden from the public. While there is still a negative stigma associated with mental health now, we can only imagine that the lack of research and knowledge on these matters from the time period in this story must have made for even stronger negative connotations associated with people suffering from these issues. Gilman shows the reader how the treatment aggravated an already crumbling state of mind. Because a treatment this unfitting was accepted among medical professionals, it shows that disorders of this nature were not taken seriously enough to be researched further. Though this short story was written in a different time period and society functioned differently then, its messages are still useful in today’s day and age. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ should continue to be read, especially by college students. If people are not educated on the conditions of the past, humanity is cursed to repeat history indefinitely, and one of the most effective ways to learn about the past is not by memorizing dates, places, and names, but by hearing about these issues first hand (even through a fictional first-hand account). This type of storytelling allows people to understand how events and circumstances directly affected individuals. Most people will have to deal with mental health issues at some point in their lives, and reading a story like this may help them to understand or recognize the signs of instability. Students who read this story are taught that while some illnesses aren’t visible, they can be just as severe as externally observable ones are. Students are shown the importance of being sensitive in the ways they treat and interact with others, especially with those who are struggling with mental health or other hardships. Many students at College of Marin may not have personally experienced mistreatment like the main character of this story. Therefore, reading this story can open their eyes to the pain of others, perhaps even some of their own classmates, who are oppressed by society, and this realization might help them to empathize more with those who are mistreated. Unfortunately, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of ignorance are still prevalent issues today. College students are being trained to enter the real world as the best versions of themselves and as productive members of society. They are learning general skills, as well as specialized skills geared towards their majors and their career choices. However, no one is teaching them to empathize and cooperate with people who are different than them in various ways: people who might end up being coworkers, clients, or employers of theirs. While we can hope that most students have learned to coexist with others by the time they’ve reached college, we can’t expect it. We are constantly reminded through the media, in entertainment, in politics, etc. that there are plenty of people who still lack basic empathy and respect. The abilities to empathize with and respect all others are just as important as any other skill students will pick up during their time at College of Marin.

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is more than a suspenseful and tragic tale of a woman suffering a mental breakdown. It was, in fact, an extremely progressive piece for its time, opening the public’s eyes to the mistreatment of women and to the disregard for mental health both in the medical community and in society, as a whole. While the treatment of women and the perception of mental health have improved since the year this was written, its overarching messages are still relevant today, and are valuable to learn about, especially for young adults. This story is an important part of the English 151 curriculum, as it encourages students to examine more than just words on a page. When readers take the time to dissect this story and uncover the messages written in between the lines, they grow not only as students, but also as human beings.

03 December 2019

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