Madness Personified in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

By Arlena Rodriguez

One of the great roles of literature is to give a living voice to past events. At its best, literature elevates historical narratives by supplying pathos and nuance to the human condition.  Such an example of historical record that contextualizes women’s roles during the 1890’s is gothic realist Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” During this time period, women of means were treated as delicate objects who supposedly had to be protected by the men in their lives. Such is the fate of the protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” This fictional piece is as terrifyingly realistic as the ethereal woman trapped inside of the yellow wallpapered wall—or, one might say—inside herself. Gilman’s unnamed protagonist reveals certain universal, fundamental truths about women during that time: even though they were regarded as mere appendages, they also had aspirations that reached far beyond the exclusive roles of wifehood and motherhood. Unfortunately, for many women, such aspirations came at a high cost. Their humanity was extirpated, and they were deemed mentally instable. One of these infelicitous women of the time was Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself. In her autobiography, she points out how “sick women” were domineered through the infamous rest-cure, which “was designed for ‘the business man exhausted from too much work, and the society woman exhausted from too much play’” (qtd. in Shumaker 591). In her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman explores the psychological impact of the oppressed women of the time by explicating one particular woman’s physical, intellectual, and emotional immurement to which she was subjected.

One of the first ways in which Gilman presents the narrator as a subjugated woman who is psychologically impaired is by revealing the symbolic and explicit physical incarceration of her surroundings. In the introductory sentences of her secret journal, the main character’s story unfolds in a purportedly temporary scenario that is referred to as an unattended “haunted house” (844). At first, it might seem natural—even imperative—that the windows of the nursery room in which she dwells are barred; after all, it is a place where free-spirited and playful toddlers first adventure into experimentation, and, of course, they must be kept out of harm’s way. However, upon further examination of its symbolic, covert meaning, it is evident that her installation in this nursery room is not only questioning this woman’s adulthood, but also her psychological ability to preserve her physical integrity. Another sad illustration of her physical withdrawal stems from her torturous hallucinations. Initially, the narrator ventures outside the house to “walk a little …down [the] lovely lane” (848). For a while, she is freed from the colors and patterns of the vexatious yellow paper. Nonetheless, her confused mind soon catches up to her, ascribing personalities to her mind’s captor (the yellow wallpaper), which eventually grows legs and is eerily transformed into “the woman.” Sadly, the protagonist is so perturbed she starts to dissect the various layers of the wallpaper, as she writes about the “sub-pattern”—the woman:

I think that woman gets out in the daytime! And I’ll tell you why–privately–I’ve seen her! I can see her out of every one of my windows! It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight. I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, 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! (853).

At this moment, it can be argued that the narrator unconsciously empathizes with the creeping woman, who attempts to free herself from the physical entrapment of the yellow wallpaper because the narrator also creeps and is locked up in her own version of the yellow wallpaper, the “atrocious nursery” room. However, the certainty that she thinks she is the woman from the wallpaper comes at the end of the story when she tells her husband that she has “pulled off almost all the paper, so [he and Jane] can’t put [her] back” (855). Paradoxically, her inability to definitively know whether or not she is insane contributes to her mental instability, further propelling her into a full-blown madness. However, the most poignant and even comical way the author presents the narrator as physically entrapped occurs in the very last scene, where she is tied to a rope, circling “the room [around her unconscious husband], like an animal in a yoke,” as Paula A. Treichler eloquently asserts in the 1984 article “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’” (74). Through her descriptions of the main character’s interactions with her environment, the author sheds light on the ways in which the narrator’s physical imprisonment incontestably contributes to her progressive madness.

Another way Gilman explores the psychological impairment of the protagonist is through the systematic demise of her intellectual abilities. At that time, women were considered the possessions of the male figures in their lives. As such, they were traded like goods among the men. A woman’s marriage was no more than the trade of a father to a husband, who acquired not a partner, but a companion, matron, and child-bearer. In the uninformed eyes of society, the protagonist had no obvious reason to be unhappy. She could count herself lucky because she marries John, a respectable physician and “caregiver” who, in spite of their peculiarly frayed relationship, “loves [her] very dearly” (849). However, John also represents the formality of that time’s status quo that presents the male gender as dominant, objective, and reasonable. Indubitably, John’s internalized misogyny and objectiveness conflict with the narrator’s intellectual urges that are suppressed. Although she believes that writing would “relieve the press of ideas and rest [her]” and “congenial work, with excitement and change, would [also] do [her] good,” these are not activities of which the husband approves (844, 846). On several occasions, the narrator mentions John’s dislike and discouragement toward her writing, forcing her to write in secret. However, it is not only John from whom she must hide her writings; she is also cautious of John’s sister Jennie, the “perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, [who] hopes for no better profession” (847). For the narrator, Jennie and John share the same notion that intellectual exercise and a vivid imagination are causing her illness. John’s pragmatic solution to his wife’s “nervousness” is a simple one: the “rest cure.” As described by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?” nerve disorder specialist and physician Silas Weir Mitchell’s recipe is not a life of “joy, growth, and service” (856). Instead, the key ingredients are to “‘live as domestic life as far possible, have but two hours’ intellectual life a day [and] never to touch pen, brush or pencil’” (856). A troubling observation noted by Professor Emeritus of English George Monteiro in his paper “Context, Intention, and Purpose in ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper,’ a Tale in the Poe and the Romantic Tradition” suggests that the gender-specific “prescriptions [of the rest cure] were almost antithetical” (44). For instance, “men were told to exchange their usual surroundings (and customary work) for more salubrious places, climes, and activities” (43). In the story, John is so invested in the rest cure that he genuinely thinks he is helping his wife. Of course, this notion comes as no surprise, since those are the instructions provided by other men such as physician Silas Weir Mitchell whom John trusts and respects. It would be fair to say that John is not the evil nemesis patriarch of the narrative. He is not abusive or cruel; instead, he infantilizes his wife by calling her “blessed little goose” and “little girl,” which can be thought of as affectionate, yet insidious (Gilman 846, 850). However, by not calling her by her name and seizing her intellectual freedom, he becomes a controlling bully who “hardly lets [her] stir without special direction schedu[ling] prescriptions for each hour in the day” (845). Not surprisingly, John’s efforts to suppress, ignore and replace the narrator’s fertile imagination and intellectual aspirations with instructions unconsciously begets the very hazard he wants to avert—his wife’s “nervousness.” The narrator’s ability to understand the game being played exhausts her so much she eventually shifts her focus and finds a substitute to a “much more exiting” life where she finds “something … to look forward to, to watch”: the yellow wallpaper. As she privately gains “control” of her life by “eat[ing] better,” napping, and being “more quiet than [she] was,” her insanity progressively worsens as she gives in to the yellow wallpaper’s full-blown madness (851). Sooner or later, the callous imposition of societal rules leads those around the troubled woman to rob her of her right to exercise her intellect.

Most tragically, emotional imprisonment emanates from the main character herself as she retreats from her family relationships and progressively fades into the riddles of the yellow wallpaper. Although the narrator has undertaken the roles of motherhood and wifehood, she fails to fulfil them, depriving herself of the emotional satisfaction of being a loving mother and wife. The protagonist never speaks of tender motherly feelings for her “blessed child” who is only briefly referenced in the story as not having “to occupy [the] nursery with the horrid wall-paper” (849). As a mother, the narrator would be expected to refer to her baby more often throughout the story. She is unable to tend to her child because “it makes [her] so nervous.” Instead, she discloses that “Mary is so good with the baby” (846). She is so emotionally invested in the enigmatic wallpaper that it consumes her every thought, with no more energy left to share with her child. In addition, she is also forced into an atypical relationship with John. Instead of the husband and wife roles, the unnamed narrator and John are reduced to acting as patient and physician. The author’s innuendo of a Freudian-like emotionally suppressed sexuality is achieved through the imagery of the unusual condition of the “immovable bed … nailed down” into the floors of the yellow wall-papered nursery (848). The narrator’s inability to do something as significant as “move the bed” in her marriage affirms that she has no power to improve her emotionally repressed sexuality. As her madness progresses, she nibbles at the legs of the bed, suggesting a dawning realization of her emotional impotence and unresolved anger. Perhaps her behavior might simply be explained as utter lunacy. After all, she speaks of the “fairly gnawed” bedstead as a mere observation as opposed to addressing it in first person, which she later does when her madness is full-blown, confirmed, and more obvious, indicating a serious detachment from reality. In the sterile, stimulus-poor environment in which the narrator’s story unfolds, she is ever more inclined to erratic, delusional emotions. A summary by Beverly Hume in her paper “Managing Madness in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’” indicates that “the narrator’s emotional ambivalence toward her child and … John … her painful attempts at self-control, and her… self-destructive tearing, creeping, crawling, … and gnawing, all suggest propensity for [frustrated] rage” and madness (5). As the protagonist becomes enslaved by the illogic of her insanity, she becomes emotionally immured in the wallpaper.

A generalized theme of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is that of a woman suffering from postpartum depression. However, there are other supplementary, farther-reaching matters at hand: the manufacturing of the crude, concealed reality of the sick mind, and more importantly, the conspicuous critique of the era, where women’s voices were silenced. Although it is unknown if the woman’s insanity might be a predisposed condition, it is evident that “The Yellow Wallpaper” gives voice to the psychological impact of oppression upon women at that time. Nonetheless, “The Yellow Wallpaper” illustrates the agony of the individual narrator, demonstrating that the physical body, the intellect, and the realm of human emotion are the three pillars that constitute a person’s psyche. When these three are taken from the narrator, she becomes a pallid vestige of a woman.

Works Cited

Hume, Beverly A. “Managing Madness in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 30, no. 1, 2002, pp. 3-20, ProQuest Central, login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/274151229?accountid=15152.

Monteiro, George. “Context, Intention, and Purpose in ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper,’ a Tale in the Poe and the Romantic Tradition.” Fragmentos, no. 17, July-Dec 1999, pp. 41-54. periodicos.ufsc.br/index.php/fragmentos/article/viewFile/6408/5931.

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Robert S. Levine, 9th ed., vol. C, W.W. Norton, 2017, pp. 844-55.

—. “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Robert S. Levine, 9th ed., vol. C, W.W. Norton, 2017, p. 856. Shumaker, Conrad. “‘Too Terribly Good to Be Printed’: Charlotte Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” American Literature, vol.57, no.4, 1985, pp. 588-99. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2926354.

Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 3, no. 1/2, 1984, pp. 61-77. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/463825.