Are You Out of Your Mind?: Representing Madness in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

Stephanie F. Craig

Stephanie F. Craig

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is, like Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ a controversial work. However, unlike James’s novella, Gilman’s short story was written intentionally to breed controversy and discussion among readers and critics.

Published in 1892, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ was written as a protest of the popular rest cure that was often recommended for hysterical or depressed women in the nineteenth-century. The rest cure, which was prescribed to Gilman by Dr S. Weir Mitchell as a solution to her extensive battle with depression, required female patients to exert themselves as little as possible, both physically and mentally (Thrailkill 526).

This meant they were to abstain from exciting activity, intellectual stress, and, in Gilman’s case, writing. The cure focused on “the body as the site of health,” as it was believed that a well-rested body would lead to a well-rested mind, rather than addressing emotional or mental distress through psychiatric means (526).

It seemed that, to Gilman’s doctor, physical rest would ultimately influence the overall physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being of an individual without the need for extraneous measures (526).

Dr Mitchell defended his cure by arguing that “as a rule, no harm is done by rest” (Mitchell 48). He stressed that extreme, structured rest is especially beneficial for women, as they will be eager to return to their normal routines once the treatment is over; furthermore, he warned that “the man who resolves to send any nervous woman to bed must be quite sure that she will obey him when the time comes for her to get up” (48).

Mitchell’s rest cure may seem sound in its basic theory — that one who is confined to rest will regain a desire for activity and good spirits upon their release. However, the way in which the cure sought to quiet women and place them in a particularly submissive position to men sparked controversy, especially from outspoken feminists.

By forcing women, particularly intelligent women, to sit back and allow their intellectual and artistic gifts to go to waste, women’s roles in academic and creative circles became compromised. Furthermore, to completely withdraw an individual from all forms of stimulation and social interaction outside of contact one or two designated caregivers allows for the possibility of adverse effects on that individual’s sanity.

When taking into account women’s often socially-driven roles in Victorian society, it is no wonder that removal from human interaction, not to mention society, would have adverse effects on their mental health.

As asserted by Mahinur Akşehir, “nineteenth-century middle-class women… were isolated, lonely, and consequently depressed” (2). This widespread depression among Victorian women likely led to an abundance of rest cures.

While some women left Mitchell’s treatment feeling refreshed and cured of their ailments, many felt that the cure was merely a form of “punitive rest” (Mitchell 46). It is this attitude towards the rest cure that prompted the creation of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’

In 1913, twenty-two years after the first publication of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ Gilman published a short article in her magazine Forerunner. The article was entitled ‘Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper’ and not only explained Gilman’s motivations when writing the short story, but also gave insight into the negative effects of the rest cure on her mental stability and recovery.

In the article, Gilman explains that an unnamed physician (whom we now know is Dr S. Weir Mitchell) instructed her to “live as domestic a life as far as possible” and “never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as I lived” (Gilman, ‘Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper’ 52).

This treatment lasted for around three months before Gilman began to fear that she was “near the borderline of utter mental ruin” (52). Fed up, she discontinued Mitchell’s treatment plan and began once again to write.

The familiarity and comfort she found in intellectual activity and writing slowly returned her to reality and ultimately led her to write ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ which contains many elements from Gilman’s personal experiences, in order to save other women from a similar fate.

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’s publication was met with somewhat mixed reviews, but Gilman was satisfied to learn that at least one woman had been rescued by her work, the woman’s family being so shaken by the text that they immediately discontinued her treatment (53). Along with her submission of the story to publishers, Gilman also sent a copy of her work to S. Weir Mitchell himself.

While she received no response from him, she was later informed that her tale had prompted him to “[change] his treatment of nervous prostration” (Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic 91-92).

Gilman describes this victory as the “best result” of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’s success (Gilman, ‘Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper’ 53); her work was serving its purpose in exactly the way she had intended. Gilman clarifies at the end of her article that ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ was “not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked” (53).

Unlike the governess of Henry James’s novella, the protagonist of Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ wavers only briefly between what could possibly be an experience of supernatural phenomena and her ultimate fate of madness.

While the definitive outcome of the narrator’s sanity differs from the open-ended question of madness of Henry James’s governess, Gilman approaches the issue through a similar method as James, using supernatural elements to make the reader question if haunting or madness is the culprit of the protagonist’s predicament.

By placing supernatural imagery and language alongside events and visions of questionable authenticity, Gilman implies that the instances of psychosis displayed by the protagonist may actually be perpetrated by supernatural beings or influences. However, the supernatural possibility becomes implausible as the narrator’s descent into madness becomes not only likely, but indisputably real.

The protagonist’s initial impression of the vacation home she and her husband inhabit while she recovers from her depression is the first instance of supernatural activity in the tale. The protagonist has been prescribed the rest cure in hopes of relieving her of the mental and emotional stress she is experiencing as a result of childbirth, and is restricted from activity by not only her husband John, who acts as her physician, but also her sister-in-law Jennie.

In order to ensure his wife’s full recovery, John rents out a country house for several weeks, to allow her to remain fully isolated from the stresses of society until she is completely cured. However, as the story soon shows, “the cure… is worse than the disease” and the invalid narrator’s “mental condition deteriorates rapidly,” rather than improving (Gilbert and Gubar, ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’ 89).

From the moment the story begins, the narrator expresses a desire that the house they are to live in would be haunted, though she admits that such good fortune may be “asking too much of fate” (Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ 1). However, once she arrives, she feels that there is “something strange about the house” and implies that there was once a good deal of conflict in the lives of the home’s previous owners. Despite her efforts, she simply cannot seem to shake the eerie feeling that she senses from the old home.

It is not until the narrator begins to describe her personal bedroom in the house that the property’s true nature becomes clear. She notices that the bedroom she shares with her husband has “barred” windows and describes the room as having “rings and things” hanging from the walls, “scratch[es]” and “goug[es]” in the floor, and a bed that “looks as if it had been through the wars” (3-5).

Although the narrator muses that it must have once been a children’s nursery or a playroom, readers may realize that the room’s furnishing indicate that it may have been intended to house mental patients.

As pointed out by Carol Margaret Davidson, neither of these possibilities acts as a positive sign for her mental state. Davidson notes that the “immediate and most disturbing implication is that she is infantilised in this former nursery,” an implication that was likely an intentional statement by Gilman (58).

Elements of the narrator’s infantilisation can be seen most distinctly in the way she is treated by her husband. John frequently dismisses her insights as whimsical musings, as seen when she asks to leave the house. Instead of accepting his wife’s intuitions about her own psychological deterioration in the house, he dismisses her claims as invalid, speaking to her as a child and telling her to “trust [him] as a physician” (Gilman’ The Yellow Wallpaper’ 9).

Sentenced to spend the remainder of the couple’s stay in the unnerving upper room, the narrator is given no choice but to find something to occupy herself with, as she has been barred from any stimuli, especially writing. The thing, unfortunately, is her room’s garish, unpleasant yellow wallpaper.

The yellow wallpaper is quite understandably the most significant characteristic of the couple’s room. The protagonist finds herself constantly annoyed by the old wallpaper’s senseless patterns and grotesque colour, claiming “I never saw a worse paper in my life” (3).

However, because she despises it so fervently, the protagonist cannot help but be drawn in by the curious distortion that comprises the wallpaper’s design. As the narrator invests more and more of her time and energy into studying it, the wallpaper quickly becomes a gauge for the degree of the narrator’s mental deterioration.
As the narrator’s mental state worsens, “the implications of both the paper and the figure imprisoned behind the paper begin to permeate — that is, to haunt — the rented ancestral mansion” (Gilbert and Gubar, ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’ 90). She soon begins to see not only patterns, but also images hidden in the layers of paper and comes to believe that she can see “people walking in [those] numerous paths” across the landscapes of the pattern (Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ 4).

The more she continues to obsess about the wallpaper, the more it appears to take on a life of its own. She begins attributing human characteristics to the wallpaper, claiming that it knows “what a vicious influence” it has on her (5). The narrator’s fixation with the wallpaper quickly transitions from an acute awareness of the design’s ugly formations into a full-fledged obsession with trying to uncover the truth behind the wallpaper’s strangeness.

Finally, the narrator’s questions about the wallpaper’s inhabitant(s) are answered as the images the narrator sees in the design converge into a single entity — the woman behind the wallpaper.

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