The Yellow Wallpaper had been a part of the academic course on understanding mental health in my university. The story tactfully captures the way the mental health of women had been deeply disregarded until the late 20th century. The discourse on mental illnesses was lopsided for women as even psychological theorists hailed from the same society that continued to suppress women as inferior. Therefore, women in any state of mental health were swiftly termed ‘hysterical’.
“Not only is the actual word “hysteria” gendered — it once referred to an exclusively female disease, a mental illness thought to be caused by a malfunctioning uterus — there is a very long history of critics using accusations or innuendo about women’s mental health or emotional stability in order to shut down their political voices” – Sady Doyle. The Yellow Wallpaper is a semi-autobiographical masterpiece by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, published in 1892, that delves deep into the same and accounts for the experiences of a woman with post-partum depression.
Plot line and relationship between the characters
The protagonist of the story is the narrator as she maintains a daily journal, and this is the ultimate source of our knowledge about the advancement of her mental health condition. A young wife and mother in her early 30’s, she suffers from an unrecognised illness soon after the birth of her second child. Diagnosed with neurasthenia and prescribed the ‘rest cure’ by her physician husband John, the family shifts to a countryside villa where she is supposed to take rest from any kind of physical exhaustion or even creative efforts, on the advice of then famous physician Silas Weir Mitchell.
The discourse on mental illnesses was lopsided as even psychological theorists hailed from the same society that continued to suppress women as inferior.
On one hand, the narrator is seen to try her level best to be the perfect wife to her husband and the perfect mother to her children (though the reader cannot be sure if the second child is alive). On the other hand, she becomes restless with all the restraints on her and therefore finds solace in writing (when her husband is not around).
The narrator is cut off from all kinds of human interaction except with her husband John, her sister-in-law and the caretaker of the baby, who again no one is sure exists. The couple stays in a room on the first floor, which has hideous yellow wallpaper that fills the narrator with disgust. But with time, she starts locating patterns in the wallpaper and begins to find comfort looking at it all day and night.
The protagonist’s husband believes that his wife is suffering from nothing more than a “slight hysterical tendency.” His antagonism stems from his rationality and personal anxiety about creativity and is clearly fixed in his authoritative position as husband and doctor. She, however, sees her husband as loving and caring, and therefore justifies the rigid schedule that her husband forces on her: “It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.” John calls her a ‘little girl’ or a ‘blessed little goose’, and patronizes her saying, “she shall be as sick as she pleases”. He even threatens her that if she doesn’t try to get well faster, she will be sent to Weir Mitchell.
Soon, she can see the entire silhouette of a woman trapped behind the wallpaper and all her time and energy is spent in trying to free that imprisoned woman. She is most active at night, when the moonlight intensifies the suspense in the room, and also when the narrator is almost free from the strict daytime regimen of her husband. The more the wallpaper becomes alive, the writer is less inclined to write daily in her journal, which she now thinks of as only ‘dead paper’, unable to give her peace.
The protagonist’s husband believes that his wife is suffering from nothing more than a “slight hysterical tendency.”
The language in the story becomes very choppy and it is nothing more than some disconnected thoughts, a disjointed stream of consciousness. This refers to how much the narrator has been engulfed by the wallpaper and the reliability of the narrative can be brought into question here. On the last day in the book, she locks herself up in the room and succeeds in ripping off the whole wallpaper. When John comes in, she shouts, “I’ve got out at last. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back”.
The social and historical context of mental illness
In the 18th century, neurasthenia was categorized as a nervous disease. By the 19th century, this viewpoint changed and neurasthenia came to be recognized more often as hysteria. The word ‘hysteria’ has its origin in the Greek word for uterus, and therefore explains the wandering uterus theory for explaining ‘hysteric’ tendencies in women, as developed by Freud. The story is set in American society in the late 19th century, well before post-partum depression was a recognized mental illness. Women were generally believed to have a weak constitution and ‘mental issues’ were very common after childbirth. They were prevented from meeting their family members, friends and often, even their own child.
What is the ‘rest cure’?
Before psychotherapy was popularised in America by the visit of Freud in 1909, the dominant belief was that the exhausting lifestyle under the demands of the industrial society resulted in nervous breakdowns. To offer a solution – S. Weir Mitchell devised his ‘rest cure’ therapy, a regimen of forced bed rest, restricted diet and a combination of massage and electrical muscle stimulation in place of exercise. On one hand, this cure proved to be really useful for getting over physical exhaustion, but was detrimental for people, mainly women, suffering from mental illnesses.
Whether the diagnosis corresponds to nervous diseases, hysteria, or neurasthenia, the fact remains that the narrator is forced to undergo a treatment that suppresses her creativity and emphasizes her inferiority to men. The medical doctrine of the time was ultimately sexist and oppressive. The author (and narrator) was forced to endure the ‘rest cure’ in order to suppress her creative inclinations and allow her to take on the role of a proper wife. One cannot help but wonder how many other ‘nervous’ or ‘hysterical’ women have suffered the same fate.
The Yellow Wallpaper is an exaggerated version of the story of a woman suffering from what was then called neurasthenia, and what we define today as post-partum depression. Yet, it is a beautiful and honest depiction because it has been written from the point of view of the ‘patient’. Earlier, psychological or psychiatric diagnosis and treatment were done without the consent of the patient (in this case, the husband’s consent was enough), and often the wrong treatment could be detrimental for the person.
She can see the entire silhouette of a woman trapped behind the wallpaper and all her time and energy is spent in trying to free that imprisoned woman.
With the development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), proper classification of diseases and scientific standardization of symptoms have taken place. This has significantly helped root out the sexist and oppressive nature of medical society towards disorders mostly, and wrongly, associated with women.
The situation hasn’t changed much even in today’s time. Despite the development of DSM and ICD, the everyday discourse around the mental health of women continues to be sexist. Issues like premenstrual syndrome are far from being normalised and hysteria is attached to all women alike. Even depression or anxiety disorders are disregarded as being moody, touchy, irrational or being too emotional
What Charlotte Perkins Gilman hoped to achieve by penning down this experience is what one hopes to address through this piece as well – recognising that mental health issues exist among women. They are not innately ‘hysterical’ and the world needs to stop shutting down women who dare to voice their opinions by labelling them with internally misogynist terms.
Gilman, C. P. (1995). The Yellow Wallpaper (006th ed.). London, U.K.: Penguin Books.
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Lucy Dillamore Illustration