A woman suffering from post-natal depression in the 1880’s with access to the best medical treatment would have been prescribed 1) extended and total bed rest; 2) isolation from family and familiar surroundings; 3) overfeeding, especially with cream, on the assumption that increased body volume created new energy; 4) massage and often the use of electricity for ‘muscular excitation”(Note 1). This was the regime endured by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who had sought Dr S Weir Mitchell’s advice during the breakdown that followed the birth of her daughter. If marriage, motherhood and the sacrifice of her working life weren’t enough to tip her into insanity, the added torture of the above regime certainly was. For Gilman the only resolution was to divorce her husband and finally hand back her daughter to his care. And then in 1892 she published her 20-page short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” into which she distilled the agony of her own experience.
Narrated by a woman who is living in temporary accommodation while her own house is being refurbished, it quickly becomes apparent that all is not well:
John is a physician, and perhaps – (I would not say it ot a living soul, of course, but this is deap paer and a great relief to my mind) – perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see he does not believe I am sick!
In C19th parlance, the woman has a “slight hysterical tendency” and she is locked away in a country estate, imprisoned in an upstairs room, where she is to rest until she gets well. With no distractions, she is not allowed to read and she really shouldn’t be writing (she hides her scribbles from her husband). The room has a barred window, there is a gate preventing access to the stairs. Her movements, if not her mind, are controlled completely by her husband. With nothing to do and no company, she becomes fixated on the hideous yellow wallpaper that decorates the room.
I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contractions. The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
As her mental anguish become more horrific by the paragraph, so her fantasies regarding the wallpaper become more gothic. There’s a woman beneath it, crawling round and round the room trying to break free. It gradually becomes clear to the modern audience that the narrator is suffering from post-natal depression, a condition worsened by the complete lack of understanding of those who are closest to her. Neither does the patient understand – she knows however that the complete lack of distraction is exacerbating her mental breakdown. So does the reader. It’s a downward spiral can only end in disaster.
The symbolism of the woman trapped beneath the wallpaper is obvious. A projected fantasy of a woman similarly imprisoned. Or is it? Could it be a ghost or even an apparition of things to come? At times both husband and sister-in-law appear entranced and affected by the paper. And the ending, which I cannot possibly reveal, allows for multiple interpretations.
Gilman’s writing is impeccable. Not sensational but very matter-of-fact and all the most heartbreaking for it. It is intense and packed with many layers of meaning. Great literature, indeed. Check out the wealth of literary criticism available. More importantly, however, is its value in social history. Depicting prevailing male attitudes, the resulting suffocation of the female and the incompetence of medical practice, it caused an uproar. One physician wrote “”Such a story ought not to be written . . . it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it”“. On a more positive note, however, it did effect a change in medical procedure. For Gilman sent a copy to her torturer, Dr Mitchell. The result? – the beginning of enlightenment and a change in his recommended treatments.
Note 1: The Yellow Wallpaper – An autobiography of Emotions by Kelley Gilbert