Mental Illness in Literature: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Updated on August 8, 2014

Mental Illness in American Literature

Gilman's most famous work, her short story "The Yellow Wallpaper", published in 1892, is about a woman suffering from mental illness after of being confined to a bedroom in the attic of a vacation home by her husband, John, for the sake of her health. She becomes obsessed with the room's repulsive, yet alluring yellow wallpaper. Gilman wrote this story to bring light to women's role in society, explaining that women's lack of autonomy negatively affects their mental, emotional, and physical well-being. She used it as a call to action for readers to recognize the legitimacy and complexity of illness and benefit in therapies for treatment, namely in women, and to overcome sexism in treatment

The narrator explains the embodiment of the authors experience during her time being treated by Dr. Mitchell's "rest cure". The treatment, which includes no physical activity, mental stimulation, or hobbies, is in direct conflict with what the author needs to get well. This drives her further into madness until she descends beyond the point of getting better.

Left: Charlotte Perkins Gilman     Right: "The Yellow Wallpaper" cover
Left: Charlotte Perkins Gilman Right: "The Yellow Wallpaper" cover

Everyone suffers differently.

More than you Think

Using a psychological approach in her literature, Charlotte Perkins Gilman added complexity to the main character in The Yellow Wallpaper to show that mental illness is as multifaceted as the individual it afflicts. She used her writing to expose the negative way mental illness was perceived in society and literature’s propaganda that falsely perpetuated these misrepresentations. Gilman used her story to advocate for a better diagnosis of mental illnesses by recognizing that there is more than one cause stemming from biological and societal factors.

Slut shaming is not a new idea.

Discredit of Women's Mental Health

The author was known to direct her literature to criticize the “…patriarchal culture surrounding her” (Gilman 664) that she believed degraded women, denying their natural desire for intellectuality and creativity. This idea spilled into literature, portraying women as hysteric with little provocation and they did not possess the ability for autonomy or the need for personal lives. Not only in fiction but by psychological experts such as Freud, who claimed that women “…were sexually passive, engaging in sex only because they want children” (McFatridge) all reinforced this view that women depended on men for all measures of mental and physical health. The Yellow Wallpaper showed how a patriarchal society and a male-dominated medical profession contributed to women's mental illness with misdiagnoses and treatments that endangered women’s health. Across literature, people with madness were perceived to be mad for no reason other than their gender and that psychosis is a disgusting, violent tendency.

One in the Same

Since The Yellow Wallpaper is fiction based on real life experience, looking at the author and the main character as one psyche is the most accurate way to understand Gillman’s motives and characters. Gilman’s conflict between herself and her societal obligations, as a wife and homebound mother, drove her to seek what she hoped to be effective management of her difficulties. Her adverse reactions to Dr. Mitchell’s rest cure qualified her to speak out against the lack of understanding and treatments of mental disorders as depicted by the narrator of her short story.

Literature rarely illustrated the causes of mental illness.

Psycosis: A Stereotype in Literature

The wallpaper’s elements of humor and horror, like a sideshow, perpetuate the idea that society views mental illness as grotesque. “The narrator wants to interpret the pattern in the wallpaper, but it is difficult to comprehend the grotesque” (Hume 483). By the end of the story, the narrator becomes an animal-like figure gnawing on the bed and peeling the wallpaper (Gilman 676). Representing the mentally ill in the nineteenth century, the wallpaper is personified much like a schizophrenia person: It irritates and provokes study, is lame and uncertain, and commits suicide by destroying itself with unheard contradictions. It’s repellent, revolting unclean, sickly, and hated. (Gilman 667-668). As stated by Paul Corry of mental health charity Rethink during his interview with BBC, "In the arts it is all too easy to fall into the stereotype of portraying people with mental health problems, and in particular schizophrenia, as dangerous and violent.” (qtd. in Triggle). Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of mental health charity Sane, explained to BBC that many authors such as Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and Shakespeare had all written about characters that struggled with madness but failed to tackle the reasons of how they became that way. She suggests that possibly the most damaging book addressing mental health has been Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. She claims that people have, and still, misunderstand the whole issue and "The idea that some can deliberately change their personality like that, has made people think they are to blame" (qtd. in Triggle).

Society or Biology?

Gilman used two approaches in The Yellow Wallpaper to explain rational reasons for women’s psychosis by presenting biological and societal factors. Marjorie Wallace specifically points out that in Jane Eyre, for example, Mrs. Rochester is mad, “…but Bronte never bothers to dig deeper and tell us why she is like she is and what she is going through” (qtd. in Triggle). This is where many authors have lacked expertise by either not experiencing psychosis first hand, or by medical authors who have explained women’s mental illness as simply a biological characteristic of the weaker sex with false medical claims that women’s reproductive systems are to blame for hysteria. The Yellow Wallpaper addresses the cause of mental illness, thus aiding Gillman in becoming “…a vital force in the history of reform in the United States” (Gilman 664).

Women in 1800s suffered extreme repression.

Society

By analyzing the narrator’s position in society as a submissive wife and woman-child, Gilman presents the social aspect that contributes to female repression so severe that it could aid in pushing a woman to hysteria. To perpetuate the idea of a patriarchal society where women are incapable of any medical understanding, Freud said of Karen Horney, a psychoanalyst who broke away from Freudian theory; “We shall not be very greatly surprised if a woman analyst, who has not been sufficiently convinced of the intensity of her own wish for a penis, also fails to attach the proper importance to that factor in her patients” (Schultz & Schultz, 2009). The narrator’s husband, John, laughs at her when she fancies a haunting in the estate, discrediting her imagination by saying: “John laughs at me, of course, one expects that in marriage”. She further accepts a degraded position as her husband “…scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (Gilman 666). The accepted idea of women in society and marriage is one that can easily create false assumptions of madness by women attempting to express themselves creatively. Gilman’s idea of marriage and motherhood represented "weakness and passivity" (Berman, 39).

Source

Biology

Gilman’s second approach embodies the biological view of her illness. The fact that Gilman herself recognized that having a child had pushed her into a depression would point to postpartum psychosis with symptoms of “…cognitive impairment and grossly disorganized behavior that represent a complete change from previous functioning…that coincide with tremendous hormonal shifts after delivery” (Sit). The chemical factors of major mental illnesses were rarely consulted or even known during the time. The word hysteria, derived from the Greek word for womb, implied that this was solely a female affliction. Since many of the illnesses women experienced were chalked up to being solely “female” in nature, many psychologists and medical doctors did not see the need to explore the biological or chemical causes of such illnesses. The realization that chemicals within the body were the culprit to forms of hysteria was acknowledged to a degree, but mostly written off as a gender-related problem with no cure. “Women were more vulnerable to mental illness because of instability in the female nervous and reproductive systems” (Showalter). While realizing the fact that the reproductive system has a hand in hysteria, the true cause was not sought after. Gilman’s distain for submitting to patriarchal society sickened her on the outside, but Gillman’s chemical imbalances after pregnancy could have contributed to her depression. The narrator “…gets unreasonably angry,” with her husband and attributes her emotions to her “nervous condition” while experiencing spells of crying throughout her time of rest (Gilman 667). Tied with recently having a baby, it is reasonable to believe that a hormonal change has taken place causing unrest and weakness in the narrator. Unfortunately the possibilities of hormonal changes were not to be considered during this time. Gilman was a head of her time, though not a doctor, by understanding that there was more than one cause to such mental deterioration than simply so-called female problems.

Defying the Doctor

With fighting her role of mother and wife, and the whole of the female race not being considered equal to men, many women who desired to live what was considered a non-traditional role, sought help and were thrown back into domestic life by being programmed to think they belong in this position of domesticity. The rest cure, implemented by Dr. Weir Mitchell, failed for Gilman and the narrator. Gilman rejected Mitchell's advice and began writing. She immediately made gains toward recovery. As Berman suggests in The Unrestful Cure, “Perhaps the rest cure failed with Gilman because although Mitchell supported the idea of motherhood, she did not: She was attempting to flee from the domestic prison of the mother's world—the parasitic world of abject dependency upon men, the depressing routine of endless drudgery, screaming babies” (Berman 50). The rest cure locked her into the role of motherhood, which she naturally detested, and gave her little hope of recovering, since she realized that the cause of her suffering was in fact marriage and motherhood.

Feminism

Gilman suffered greatly from her depression and suffered even more from her misdiagnoses. Like her narrator, Gilman needed an outlet to effectively relate her experiences of gender inequality in the treatment of mental illness. It was a way for her to speak her mind during a time when women were targets of sexism, censorship, and oppression. Writing was Gilman’s salvation, while in the short story was the narrator’s cause for madness. Though the narrator wrote in secret, she was only able to document her time spent in the nursery turned bedroom in fear of being caught writing. Unfortunately, the bedroom in which she stayed resembled more of a jail than a place of comfort or rest for healing with its hideous, ripping wallpaper, bolted down bed, and bars on the windows. This description of her quarters indicates her being forcibly locked up with little option of stimulation and severe isolation with little to no human contact, as John was away much of the time and he discouraged visitors. The narrator even expressed interest to have the downstairs room with roses and floral hangings but her husband denied her desire “but John would not hear of it”. (Gilman 667) She recognized that exercise, visitations, a pleasant atmosphere, and some work would help her heal, and although writing was tiring, she found solace in it. The narrator writes “…in secret in spite of them” and goes on to say that, if found out, she would be met “with heavy opposition” (Gilman 666).

Repression and the Creative Mind

Without creative expression or therapy, many people can struggle when dealing with difficult emotions as seen in the narrator’s progression into madness. Since Gilman was only allowed to have “but two hours a day intellectual life”, was directed to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” and to “never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as [she] lived” (Why I Wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”) during the rest cure, the repression forced the narrator to turn her emotions inward in a self-destructive manner. Being directed to not give into her imagination, story-telling, and fancies, the narrator was led to believe that her “nervous condition” would spiral out of control (Gilman 669). But in reality it was the denial of imagination that caused her madness and hallucinations. The narrator was not able to “relieve the press of ideas and rest me”(Gilman 669); which translates to repression of ideas that would allow her to rest.

Source

Legitimacy and Backlash of the Mentally ill

This kind of oppression was mandated by the male-controlled society that Gilman lived in. In her story the narrator was treated like a child who, in turn, craved to please her doctor husband in order to get well according to the rest cure.But the narrator starts to realize her lack of credibility and blatantly points her finger at her husband, blaming him for her nonexistent recovery stating that “perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster”. The narrator suggests that doctors are not capable of treating her because they are not looking at the legitimacy of her disease. When the narrator says, “It is so hard to talk to John about my case, because he is so wise” (Gilman 666 & 672), she was explaining that he would not listen to her about her illness because of his arrogance in his position as a physician.

The narrator goes on to explain that John, like Dr. Mitchell did not believe that she was sick saying, “You see he does not believe I am sick!” and has only a “temporary nervous depression-a slight hysterical tendency…”(Gilman 666). In turn, the question begged to be answered is: Why would these doctors treat someone they didn’t even think was sick to begin with? Without the understanding of a mentally ill person’s perception of reality, it is not possible to find what may help them. Dr. Mitchell’s rest cure only served to create a lethargic, lazy patient too mentally inept to comprehend what they are going through in a high fat low stimulation regimen

Causes Treatments, and Testimony

Gilman’s story brought to light the negative depiction of mental illness, the possibility of biological and societal causes, and the lack of viable treatment options by qualified doctors who recognize depression-related illnesses. She used this story to prove the legitimacy of psychosis with first hand experiences and to rebuke false medical claims that women’s reproductive systems are to blame for hysteria. She wrote The Yellow Wallpaper in response to Doctor Mitchell’s poor consideration of treatment for people like herself, suffering from unseen diseases.

Sources

Berman, Jeffrey. "The Unrestful Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and 'The Yellow Wallpaper" In The Talking Cure: LiteraryRepresentations of Psychoanalysis. New York: New York University Press, 1985. Pp. 33-59.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper.'." The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on "The Yellow Wallpaper,". Ed. Catherine Golden. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1992. 51-53. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 62. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.

Sit, Dorothy, Anthony J. Rothschild, and Kathrine L. Wisner. "Journal of Women's Health." A Review of Postpartum Psychosis. N.p., 15 May 2006. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.

McFatridge, Kylie. "Freud." Psychological History of Women. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.

McMichael, George L., J. S. Leonard, and Shelley Fisher. Fishkin. "The Yellow Wallpaper." Anthology of American Literature. 10th ed. Vol. 2. Boston: Longman, 2011. 664+. Print.

Schultz, D. P. & Schultz, S. E. (2009). Theories of personality. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Triggle, Nick. "Literature's Love Affair With the Mind." BBC News. BBC, 09 Oct. 2005. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.

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    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      17 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I read "The Yellow Wallpaper" many years ago when I was a teenager. It made a big impression on me, but I didn't completely understand its significance. Thank you very much for sharing the information. I'll read the story again soon.

    • Rebeccasutton profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Sutton 

      4 years ago from Rock Hill, SC

      Thanks spartucusjones and purl3agony. It is one of my favorite pieces as well. I wish I read it earlier in life, but maybe I wouldn't have appreciated it as much. And yes, VERY important social statements, not only in mental health, but in regards to feminism as well.

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 

      4 years ago from USA

      One of my favorite pieces of literature that is still powerful and timely today. Thanks for the insightful hub. Voted up!

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 

      4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      I remember reading this back in high school and having to write an essay on it. It is a compelling story which makes some powerful social statements. I enjoyed your thoughtful analysis, thanks for sharing!

    • Rebeccasutton profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Sutton 

      4 years ago from Rock Hill, SC

      Minister Jacky, thanks, glad to head the hub piqued your interest! Gilman wrote lots of great stuff, but this was her most famous. There is also a movie, but I suggest reading the story fist. Since it's a short story, it's readily available online for free, even as a recording. You can google it :)

    • Minister Jacky profile image

      Jacky Hughes 

      4 years ago from Yarnton, Oxfordshire

      I will now be looking out for the book. Your article is interesting and I have bookmarked it to read again later.

    • Rebeccasutton profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Sutton 

      4 years ago from Rock Hill, SC

      Freud was the one who had the problems lol. Thanks for the comment :) I loved that story and relate to it in so many ways. I think it is so important to keep Ms Gilman's work alive today.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      4 years ago from USA

      I recall reading this in my Women's Stusiea class years ago. What an excellent analysis you have presented here. Freud certainly didn't help women, although I do think he was a product of his time.

    • Rebeccasutton profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Sutton 

      4 years ago from Rock Hill, SC

      Exactly! Someday my friend, someday. I know there are a lot of passionate people out there trying to make a difference.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      4 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Hey, it's a good way to create new jobs and place more people into the educational programs. Hope we get good results.

    • Rebeccasutton profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Sutton 

      4 years ago from Rock Hill, SC

      hahaha!!! Yes he would totally say that, Patty! Ad I am glad to see that funding is becoming available, now if only we could get more qualified personnel in those places!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      4 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Aha - Teddy might have liked that one. ("Bully!" good, as he would say.)

      You're right about mental illness. I see in the news lately that several US States and communities have received grants to expand mental health services - probably a good idea.

    • Rebeccasutton profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Sutton 

      4 years ago from Rock Hill, SC

      Good lord! That is horrible! Mental illness is so misunderstood. The west cure was actually for men to go out west and be men. Incredibly sexist if you ask me.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      4 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Teddy Roosevelt sat still for that and I bet it did not work.

      One religion uses the same treatment and calls it "isolation until you are well" ("get over it"). I know of two people, one in my county, who died from the treatment.

    • Rebeccasutton profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Sutton 

      4 years ago from Rock Hill, SC

      WOW! I am so scared to hear that it was still being used in the 1990s! I am not surprised that it didn't work. Such a shame for those kids and families. I hear there are many authors and other famous people had undergone the rest cure. Virginia Woolf included. Dr. Mitchell also prescribed the "west cure" for men specifically, his patients included Teddy Roosevelt. Interesting what people will come up with to cure ailments without any understanding.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      4 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      OMG! That "rest cure" is what some doctors and teachers in the suburb in which I lived in the 1990s insisted upon for kids with ADD/ADHD - actually, "school work and nothing else." No recess, no field trips, no TV, no telephone, no physical activity, no friends, no parties... It did not work.

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