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Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author of the The Yellow Wallpaper, describes the descent into madness of a young woman at the end of the 19th century. There are two main causes for this spiral through the looking glass. The first is sociocultural in nature, revolving around the woman's traditional role in society. The second reason is more personal to the protagonist as she is purposefully kept from functions and activities that were her sole enrichments in the name of health and love.
During the 19th century middle to upper class women were faced with dichotomous roles. On one hand they were expected to be idle, fragile, not engaged in intellectual activities outside of the home. On the opposite hand these same women were expected to withstand the vagaries that were common during the 19th century such as the death of their husband or a reversal of their financial situation(i). This contradiction of roles bore heavily on women who often lacked power or control over their own lives(ii).
The 19th century was a time when middle to upper-middle class women became ornamental. Their lives revolved around image, their husbands, and as much idleness as their husbands wealth could afford them(iii). There were servants to tend to the home and servants to tend to children. An afternoon tea and shopping expedition was an acceptable, even proper, way to spend ones day as a lady. The husband in The Yellow Wallpaper cannot see why his wife should be stressed or nervous. He tells her that she is allowing her mind to get carried away and that that is her sole problem. Her illness reflects directly on him as both her husband and her doctor adding to her overwhelming sense of anguish.
The character in The Yellow Wallpaper was not only the wife of a doctor but also a new mother. The family had enough resources to rent a home and sequester her in the top-most room, away from all of the noises of daily life. She was not permitted to care for her son or to read books, to write in her journal or to have visitors. Her husband, who believed he was doing the very best thing he could for her, scheduled every hour of her day. This removal from the stresses of life was actually intended to be her cure though in the end it was the very thing that sent her spiraling into madness.
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Mrs. Gilman, the author, did herself suffer from depression after the birth of her daughter. She was prescribed the `rest cure' by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who appears in The Yellow Wallpaper, and found it to be not only ineffective but also intolerable. By her own words she wrote this short story "to save people from being driven crazy(iv)." She threw off the socially prescribed `rest cure', left her husband, and became a writer of some renown.
The woman from The Yellow Wallpaper does not preserver. In fact, she crumbles into herself becoming delusional until finally she is unable to rise out of the make believe world that her mind has created as a salve. What was the final straw that broke her? Was it her perceived abandonment by her husband? It's true that he did not believe that she was truly ill. Was it the lack of stimulus that she was forced to endure? We see her delusions become the bars that bind her as the wallpaper of her room distorts. Or perhaps, did she finally succumb, did she lose the will to be strong when society, her husband, doctors and relatives all expected her only to be a pretty shadow caring for her home? All of these things led to her descent into madness. What a safe place to be; the world of delusions, where she's freed from the prison of social construction to be just the woman she is.
i Apple, R.D. (ed.) Women, Health and Medicine in America. Chapter 6 "Historical Perspectives on Women and Mental Illness- Nancy Tomes (p. 150)
ii Apple, R.D. (ed.) Women, Health and Medicine in America. Chapter 6 "Historical Perspectives on Women and Mental Illness- Nancy Tomes (p. 149)
iii Lerner, Gerda, The Lady and the Mill Girl: Changes in the Status of Women in the Age of Jackson
iv Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1913, "Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper", article originally appeared in the October 1913 issue of The Forerunner.