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"The Yellow Wallpaper," written in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is a chilling study of insanity. It is a bitter story of a young woman driven to insanity by a "loving" husband-doctor, who imposes Mitchell's "rest cure."1 This short story vividly reflects a woman in torment.
This story starts out with a hysterical woman who is overprotected by her "loving" husband John. She is taken to a summer home to recover from a nervous condition. She is told to rest and sleep; she is not even allowed to write. "I must put this away,--he hates to have me write a word." This shows how controlling John is over her as both husband and doctor. She is "absolutely forbidden to "work" until" she's "well again." Here, John seems to be more of a father than a husband. Like the husband in Ibsen's A Doll House, John is being the dominant person in the marriage: a sign of typical middle-class.
Although the narrator feels desperate, John tells her that there is "no reason" for how she feels; she must dismiss those "silly fantasies." In other words, John treats her like a child and gives her reason to doubt herself. "Of course it is only nervousness," she decides. She tries to rest, to do as she is told, like a child, but suffers because John does not believe that she is ill. This makes her feel inadequate and unsure of her own sanity.
He "does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him." She feels that she should be "a good girl" and appreciate the protective love John offers to her. "He takes all care from me, and I feel so basely ungrateful not to value it more. . . . He took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose. . . . He said I was his darling and his comfort and all he had, and that I must take care of myself for his sake, and keep well." In telling her to keep well, John just expresses more doubt about her having any real illness.
She tries to discuss her feelings, but this brings only a "stern reproachful look" and she goes back to bed. "Really dear you are better," John says over and over.
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John enforces the inactivity that pushes her deeper into madness. John, the "loving" husband-doctor, imprisons her in a room that has no escape. This room has bars on the windows and a "great immovable bed" which "is nailed down." John has made her a prisoner in their marriage. Her opinions are pushed to the side, not important. Her developing insanity is a form of rebellion and a crucial turning point towards her own independence. It also shows that when an animal is caged, when it is backed into a corner, it tends to fight back. Her fight for and with the woman in the wallpaper symbolizes her fight for independence, her struggle to survive.
This story also portrays the violent anger that accompanies the narrator's fight to free herself. She sees the wallpaper as something that is strangling her, restraining her: she acts out wildly. "I wasn't alone a bit! As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her. I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper."
She begins to creep and crawl within her madness. She detaches herself from the perceptions of others. In the final scene John faints and she creeps over him and says, "I've got out at last. . . . And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!" This says that once independence is achieved, you don't need to rely on someone else for your survival; you now have yourself to back you up. She has achieved her independence from her submission to John as his "blessed little goose," but at what price? She has traded her sanity for her independence.
Gilman once wrote, "Women's subordination will only end when women lead the struggle for their own autonomy, thereby freeing man as well themselves, because man suffers from the distortions that come from dominance, just as women are scarred by the subjugation imposed upon them." 2
Women can only gain their independence by refusing to be submissive and by exercising their own minds.
Hill, Mary A. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896. Temple University, 1980: 150-152.
Lane, Ann J. To Herland and Beyond. The life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 1990: 5.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Ann J. Lane, 1979: v-xxiii.
1 S. Weir Mitchell was a well-known Philadelphia neurologist who specialized in women's nervous disorders. His famous "rest cure" forbade Gilman herself to write and sharply limited her reading time. This treatment almost drove her mad.
2 from To Herland and Beyond.