Title: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman
May 2012 is Mental Health Month (Mental Health America) and today I’m bringing you a critique of a short story dealing with a woman who succumbs to madness. My hope is that by increasing awareness of this issue, people will become proactive about seeking treatment at the earliest signs. The convalescence that the main character takes shows (I think) treatment as ignorance and abandonment.
Charlotte Gilman (1860-1935) was an active lecturer and wrote and spoke on social reform. “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written after Gilman suffered postpartum psychosis (Wikipedia).
The central character of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a wife of a physician, doesn’t believe she’s really ill. She dismisses her case as a “temporary nervous depression” (574) but is confined to bed rest in the attic for a term of three weeks. Her recovery is partly dependent on her own self-control of her imagination (575), but ironically, the method of her husband’s choosing only heightens her tendencies for the fantastical.
Almost from the beginning, the central character is repulsed by her room’s décor, “one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin […] the color is repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow” (575). While the manufactured setting of the room doesn’t change, her perspective of the room alters the setting from an unused, ugly room into something more sinister. As she focuses from bored curiosity to morbid fascination, the reader begins to see how her mind takes a turn for the worst:
“Behind that outside pattern [….] is always the same shape […] it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern […] just as if she wanted to get out” (579-580).
This change within the setting is significant; here as the woman pictures a companion trapped behind the wallpaper, she both fears this element of her imagination, which in turn deprives her of sleep at nights (581), eventually growing into a paranoid guardianship of her secret, “I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself!” (581).
The central character becomes so determined, so obsessed with freeing the wallpaper-woman she locks the door and tears apart the paper, tying herself with a rope, for she now sees herself as one of “those creeping women […] I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did? […] I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!” (584-585).
This quote shows that she has descended into madness, the mild depression as she was diagnosed at the beginning of the story has now been fully cultivated into a sickness that so came as a surprise to her husband that he fainted upon hearing what she’d done (585). To close, by leaving the overall setting of the room intact and changing the aspect of the room (the wallpaper’s appearance), then limiting the story’s time frame, Gilman gives the reader enough time to see the descent into madness.
Source Reading: Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction, 11th ed. Ed. James Pickering. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. 574-585.