The Yellow Wallpaper

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Layers of Insanity

by Shawn Southworth

In 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In this work, Gilman shows the seemingly inhumane imprisonment of a woman suffering post-partum depression. Locked away by her husband in a Colonial mansion, she is driven to insanity by months of isolation, symbolizing a woman’s lack of equality in the 1890s. Yet, not everything is what it seems. What if this apparently straightforward tale has a darker undertone? What if the narrator is insane to begin with, and all that is recorded is her final descent into the abyss? The narrator’s descent into mental illness is chronicled throughout the story in the setting, the abhorrent wallpaper, and her relationship with her supposed loving husband.
Back in the 1800s, before public mental health institutions became government regulated, families would often create their own private facilities. This was for a selfish reason: it was less public than sending them to a facility and less embarrassing for the family. Several hints that the narrator is confined in a mental institution, private or public, are evident in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” This evidence is shown through various passages. First, when she recalls initially entering her room she states, “[T]he windows are barred for little children and there are rings in the wall” (Gilman 234). These are the kinds of objects one would commonly see in an institution: bars to prevent escape, and rings so the patients could be restrained in various ways. The rings, the bars, and the furniture being bolted to the floor all point to this not just being a random rented mansion. Two final observations further cement the idea of this being a mental intuition. First, there is a “gate at the end of the stairs” (Gilman 235) that she presumes is for children. Secondly, she writes in her journal that she is surprised that her husband managed to obtain the house for an incredibly cheap sum of money, which could be because she and her husband weren’t renting the house at all; he was merely paying for her treatment. It is common for mental patients to imagine themselves in a different situation or to make up fantasies. A definition taken from a review of “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” effectively sums up the situation: “a psychotic [is] one who has fled from the harsh reality into an imaginary one that offers some solace through the heavy price of loss of sanity” (Harris 3). The theory of the mansion being a lunatic asylum also helps shine light on her obsession with the wallpaper.
It is common knowledge that mental patients’ conditions manifest in different ways, and that is why doctors look for a range of symptoms. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator projects through the wallpaper that covers her room. This not only explains why she becomes interested in it so quickly, but also why she remains focused on it. The evidence can be found almost immediately in the story when she states, “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had! … [there is] a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes” (Gilman 236). Those lines could also be a window into why she was confined in the first place: having a mental breakdown after the death of someone close to her. It could have been the death of her own child, which would explain why she isn’t allowed to see him. Perhaps she is blocking out the memory of her son’s death. After she displays these symptoms, her family commits her, and she slowly goes mad. The wallpaper might not even be there in the first place. For instance, one passage mentions how she catches her husband (doctor) and Jennie (a nurse) staring at the wallpaper. It could very well be that the narrator has drawn on the walls, and both of them are examining it. Then, there is the woman she begins to see: “it is always the same shape… a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern” (Gilman 238). Obviously, the woman is the narrator herself, so she could be experiencing periodic episodes. The narrator seeing the woman is just her memory of her breaks with reality. As Amy Hudock explains, the narrator’s mental instability leads to delusions: “the narrator’s mind becomes confused and predictably childlike in [her] fascination with the shadows in the wallpaper.” Her mind recoils to the most basic foundation, but then again, it could have been that way the whole time. The man she calls her husband is not her husband; rather, he is merely a doctor at the institution.
The Stockholm syndrome is the idea that after spending a long time with a captor, the victim forms an emotional bond with said captor. This is what happens in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” except instead of kidnapper and hostage, it is doctor and patient. It makes perfect sense to her that a kind, intelligent gentleman who cares for her wellbeing is an easy step from doctor to husband. It would also explain why he acts the way he does, dismissing her objections and ideas as meaningless. She states that even though they are in a rural area away from town, her “husband” bought the mansion specifically to help her get well. She also shares that he is “away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious” (Gilman 235). Why is he away? Perhaps she is not alone in this “mansion”; she is merely another patient herself instead of his loving wife. This theory explains his directive to the narrator: “he says no one but myself can help me out of it that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me” (Gilman 238). That is exactly what a doctor would inform a patient in 1892, when medicine and treatment were not available, hoping it would sort itself out. He tells her to hold on to reality until he can figure out a treatment that will work. He never breaks her delusions to tell her the truth, because of the fear that she will break down entirely, losing what little sanity she has held on to. Her desire to make her “husband” happy by getting well, is supposed to aid in her treatment. A journal article by Jane Hamlet and Lesley Hopkins points out that “sometimes, if it was considered safe, [patients] were allowed to retain small objects…such as wedding rings [that] could have added much to a patient’s sense of self and identity” (1). But this doctor, who also wears a ring, equals a love that never was.
These three factors demonstrate how this seemingly sad and twisted tale has a far darker underbelly. The mind does all it can to defend one from awful truths and the nightmares of reality. Sometimes, though, it does its job too well, and things fall to pieces. In the end, the only escape our narrator finds is through the veil between reality and insanity. On the other hand, an insane asylum, wallpaper created in a patient’s mind, and a love that never was makes one hell of a good story.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Making Literature Matter: An
Anthology for Readers and Writers
. Ed. John Schilb and John Clifford. 6th
ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 231-44. Print.
Hamlett, Jane, and Lesley Hoskins. "Comfort in Small Things? Clothing,
Control and Agency in County Lunatic Asylums In Nineteenth- and Early
Twentieth-Century England." Journal of Victorian Culture (Routledge)
18.1 (2013): 93-114. Literary Reference Center. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
Harris, E. Lynn. "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden." Masterplots II:
Juvenile & Young Adult Fiction Series (1991): 1-2. Literary Reference
. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
Hudock, Amy E. "The Yellow Wallpaper." Masterplots II: Women’s Literature
 (1995): 1-3. Literary Reference Center. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

About the Author 

  “It is never too late to chase a dream.” I passionately express this slogan in word and deed to my three children who, along with my devoted husband, are my motivation to start my first college experience at thirty-eight years old.

This story bloomed in me after our instructor had given us a task to defend or prosecute an individual from one of the works we had read this semester. In this assignment we were to use research tools to support our claims. We were also instructed to write as if we were directly addressing the court while referencing the written work as evidence.
For me the choice was easy; I selected a work by Edgar Allan Poe, one of my favorite writers. I have even visited his grave in Baltimore. He evokes such passion, authenticity, and so many other hidden gems in his writings. His writings often make some readers uncomfortable because he exposes the true nature of a human heart and “The Cask of Amontillado” was no different. I knew that the narrator had to be speaking about many things that weren’t so easy to decipher, so at first the reading was offensive to many but a delight to me.
I took time to delve a little more deeply into Poe’s writing style, which helped when it came to understanding the examples of sarcasm in some of the wording used in the dialogue. I think it was no mistake he chose to name this man Fortunato either, maybe satirizing his being more “fortunate.”
To be a successful writer, one should talk about a work with others who have read it. The different points of view shared during a class discussion keep narrowmindedness from creeping in. While writing, I always keep a dictionary
handy too!


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