Notions of Irony in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper

Updated on February 22, 2013

One element of irony which runs consistently through Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper is how the ill narrator’s treatment has adverse effects on her health and plays a role in her seemingly inevitable descent into insanity. The irony of this situation is highlighted by the fact that her husband is a doctor. However, he is never referred to as a doctor, rather as a physician. I think that the significance of this word choice is to emphasize the “physical” focus of doctors at the time during which the story takes place. They were most concerned with what they could physically touch and analyze, measure and quantify and were correspondingly hesitant to deal with the less certain realm of psychological distress. The worsening of the narrator’s mental illness is thus the result of her husband’s emphasis on treating his wife on a physical, rather than psychological level.

An example of how emphasis on the physical, rather than mental, is detrimental is apparent when John forbids his wife to write lest she become fatigued and worsen her condition. As the narrator says, it is a mental relief to write things down, but this is something her strictly physical husband can not understand. Ironically, the effort of writing in secret and keeping it hidden tires her more than the writing itself. In effect, she would be better off if she were allowed to write in the first place.

We have another case of improper treatment when the narrator longs for the company of others, particularly her socially stimulating cousins. John assures her that it would worsen her condition, and it is best for her to rest alone in her room. Of course, John is unable to see the mental threat of his wife having to spend all of her time focussing on the wallpaper, slipping into madness. The irony continues in the sense that John’s physical protection of his wife from social interaction only works to worsen her psychological distress.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman c. 1900

There is much irony in the use of environment as a means of treating the narrator. The nursery where John makes her stay is on an upper floor, out of the way of the main house (again, the negative effects of social isolation). Of course, there is also the issue of the wallpaper in the room, with which she develops a psychotic relationship. However, John does not sense this in the slightest and finds the room well-fitting for his ill wife because of the extra fresh air she will have from all the windows and high altitude of the room. The irony here is that the fresh air offers a very minimal physical benefit compared to the extreme mental harm caused the narrator by the isolation and the wallpaper.

Another irony regarding the room is that the narrator finds comfort in occupying the room as it means that her newborn son is spared of it. Ironically, her son would likely be far better off in the nursery than she. The baby would not experience the mental torment that the narrator does as a result of the wallpaper because it is for her conflated with her existing mental distress. In any case, much evidence supports the idea that infants have very poor vision beyond several feet, and that they grow to tune out familiar stimuli. Therefore, a baby would not be able to see the wallpaper well enough to dwell on the pattern and design and would also lose interest after it became familiar.

One final instance of irony comes at the end. This again ties into the idea of men as empirical and objective as well as the strong feminist message of the story. In the end, when John finds his wife circling the room in an advanced stage of psychosis, his mind is unable to process the mental phenomenon before him and he simply shuts down and faints. Ironically, the masculine need (in the context of the story) to measure and quantify turns out to be his grave weakness in the end as it becomes his downfall... literally! This ending shows how the thinking of men in the story’s time was insufficient to deal with problems of the mind and was therefore a weakness in need of reform.

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