Review by Elsie Ohem
Many readers of English literature would also like to know about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s contribution to psychological literature. The Yellow Wallpaper is popular in its genre for the fact that it brings a woman’s voice to the forefront, while at the same time highlighting spousal oppression and extreme medical practices of the time. Without digressing too much, The Yellow Wallpaper illustrates 19th century attitudes that many health care professionals had towards women’s mental health. Much to our disadvantage, being a woman living in much of the developed world during the 19th century called for an overarching abuse of the term “hysteria.” A small history of the term can tell you that hysteria, stemming from the Latin hystericus often referred to a woman’s uncontrollable psychological stress. This “stress” converted into physical symptoms that somehow indicated a woman’s misbehavior (including, but not limited to, a woman’s overdramatic or attention seeking behavior) that eventually lead to a woman’s physical and/or solitary confinement. As such, Gilman’s first-person short story about a wife confined by her doctor husband for expressing hysterical behavior is regarded as a prominent feature in women’s psychological literature.
But let’s not get too riled up here.
The Yellow Wallpaper powerfully voices a woman’s desire to self-express her freedom in becoming something different, as well as a woman’s desire to be acknowledged as an individual with authority. In some ways, Gilman mirrors women’s thoughts and feelings about marriage and about being a woman in the 19th century (mirroring current issues is one of the things literature does best). An author’s highlight of historical occurrences or behavior better situates a contemporary reader to understand an individual’s world view. As such, readers become empathetic, emotionally relating to the characters of a certain time period and also, when applicable, the author’s time period. Who would have known then that Gilman’s piece would open the door for compassion towards women writers and a their situation? Much credit is owed to Gilman’s valor in writing a story that today still haunts contemporary readers. I digress.
Gilman’s story is perhaps one of my top favorite shorts for the fact that the first-person account meanders in its narration to capitalize on the narrator’s complex thought pattern. It allows readers to experience the narrator’s suppressed frustration and it also allows us to read an account filled with satire. For example: Jane (the wife/assumed narrator) speaks of being ungrateful for her husband’s close, hourly care of her prescriptions:
I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more. He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air that I could get. ‘Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear,’ said he, ‘and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time.’ So we took the nursery at the top of the house.
At first glance, the reader can assume that perhaps Jane truly needs her husband to observe her actions and to provide her with care—an observance that Jane feels guilty for not valuing more. However, a second close reading shows a manipulation of words into a satirical situation involving women and society. The phrase “takes all care from me” can be read as a bump at gender roles and appropriate male/female behavior when married. The icing on top, so to speak, is the sentence “so we took the nursery at the top of the house.” The fact that Jane is put into a nursery for her care only intensifies the social placement of women and women’s duty in marriage (and other institutional realms of society) during the 19th century. That is, women were to view their husbands as authorities (i.e. the husband doctor) on health, behavior, and temperament. Women were, so to speak, treated as children—unable to rationally think for themselves.
A second, but not least, example comes when Jane is attempting to tell her husband John that she wants to leave the place:
I thought it was a good time to talk, so I told him that I really was not gaining here, and that I wished he would take me away. ‘Why darling!’ said he, ‘our lease will be up in three weeks, and I can’t see how to leave before. The repairs are not done at home, and I cannot possibly leave town just now. Of course, if you were in any danger, I could and would, but you really are better, dear; whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know. You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better, I feel really much easier about you. […] It is only three weeks more and then we will take a nice little trip of a few days while Jennie is getting the house ready. Really dear you are better.’ ‘Better in body perhaps—‘ I began, and stopped short, for he sat strait up and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word.
This scene is unique for its direct satire against the medical professionals who believed in “rest cures.” At this moment, John is dictating his authority over his wife by insinuating that he “knows” Jane is improving because he is a doctor. However, what Jane attempts to tell her husband by stating “better in body” is a strike against health professionals’ constant reliance on the physicality of a patient’s needs, without thought to environmental stresses that trigger mental illnesses. This scene also mirrors Jane’s lack of agency as an individual with opinions about her own health, further indicating how women struggled to express their voices.
So what are contemporary readers to make of this story? Research points out that different interpretations, including feminist, “yellow journalism,” and medical, illustrate that Gilman aimed to express a divergence in thought between male and female behavior, as well as an expression of female angst and liberation. Also, Gilman’s own interpretation of her story shows that she aimed to express the consequences of misdiagnosis in mental institutions during the time. Pivotal in The Yellow Wallpaper’s narration is its ability to satirically bifurcate sanity and insanity—a satire that is based on what is deemed wrong in a society dominated by masculine authoritative beliefs. This satire exposes a horrific consequence of women’s sanity when their opinions, voices, and agency are oppressed by domineering authorities. It is a story that paints a picture of potential ramifications towards female agency, through the lens of insanity.
A take away for practicing writers:
The Yellow Wallpaper is a one-of-a-kind read for understanding the strength of a first-person narrative. Playing around with voice and creating situations that are psychologically insane can be tricky, especially if you want to sound believable. In looking at the narration in this story from an outside point of view, the reader can begin to examine the story’s outline and the characterization of the main voice. It is by examining this characterization that the reader can see the way the character’s “downfall” from sanity to insanity is interwoven with what the first-person narrator wants the reader to know (exclusivity with the audience). This relationship is key to crafting a well-plotted first-person narration, as well as a key feature for psychological literature (think of Poe!).
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935) was a prominent American feminist, sociologist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and a lecturer for social reform. She was a utopian feminist during a time when her accomplishments were exceptional for women, and she served as a role model for future generations of feminists because of her unorthodox concepts and lifestyle. Her best remembered work today is her semi-autobiographical short story The Yellow Wallpaper which she wrote after a severe bout of postpartum psychosis.