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"The Yellow Wallpaper": A Women's Diagnosis

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An Incorrect Diagnosis?

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, depicts the progression of the narrator's mental illness from the first-person perspective of her journal. The narrator's identity isn't revealed in The Yellow Wallpaper, but she can be identified as a woman with a mental illness. John, the narrator's physician husband, describes her mental illness as "temporary nervous depression" but she feels her illness is more serious. Despite the narrator's pleas, that she has a more serious illness, John refuses to alter his course of treatment.

John's Diagnosis

In The Yellow Wallpaper the narrator suggests that she believes that John's diagnosis of her was incorrect. She asks, "If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?" Here the narrator suggests that her illness is more serious than "temporary nervous depression", but she feels powerless because of John's public diagnosis.

Upon reading The Yellow Wallpaper, many believe that John misdiagnosed the narrator. In Paula Treichler's article Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in The Yellow Wallpaper, Treichler argues that John's diagnosis serves as a restraint on the narrator's behavior. Treichler says, "Once pronounced, and reinforced by the second opinion of the narrator’s brother, this diagnosis not only names reality but also has considerable power over what that reality has to be: it dictates the narrator’s removal to the ‘ancestral halls’ where the story is set and generates a medical therapeutic regimen that includes physical isolation, ‘phosphates and phosphites’, air, and rest.”

The narrator's diagnosis was imposed upon her by her husband John, and verified by her brother; it is noteworthy that these two figures are both men. Treichler argues that the narrator's diagnosis is a metaphor for man's will being imposed upon women's discourse. Treichler says, "The diagnostic language of the physician is coupled with the paternalistic language of the husband to create a formidable array of controls over her behavior.”

Women's Treatment

According to Treichler's article Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in The Yellow Wallpaper, John's diagnosis and treatment of the narrator serve to control her speech. Treichler says, "Because she does not feel free to speak truthfully 'to a living soul' she confides her thoughts to a journal—'dead paper'—instead." Instead of speaking freely to her husband John, that she believes her condition is more serious than temporary nervous depression, she confides these personal thoughts in her private journal. As part of the narrator's regimen, she is prevented from speaking about the severity of her illness. When the narrator suggests that she is not mentally better John says, "My darling, I beg of you, for my sake and for our child's sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind"(Gilman). John discourages the narrator from speaking and thinking of her illness. As a woman, the narrator is powerless over her condition. Treichler says, “I use ‘diagnosis,’ then as a metaphor for the voice of medicine or science that speaks to define a women’s condition.” In the late 1800s, when The Yellow Wallpaper takes place, men controlled the institutions of science and medicine. In The Yellow Wallpaper, the male influences of John, and the narrator's brother dictate her diagnosis and situation.

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According to Laura Vergona in her blog titled Analysis of The Yellow Wallpaper Through the Psychoanalysis and Feminist Lens, "Women have been restrained by the image that women are helpless, and that men know what is ultimately best for them." This is absolutely true in the case of The Yellow Wallpaper. John doesn't give the narrator any control over the treatment of her illness. When the narrator suggests that John remove the yellow wallpaper in her room because it makes her feel uncomfortable, John refuses. The narrator writes, "At first he meant to repaper the room, but afterward he said that I was letting it get the better of me and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies." The wallpaper makes the narrator feel uncomfortable, but as a male authority figure, John has the final say over the wallpaper. John's treatment and diagnosis may have worsened the narrator's condition. Vergona believes that John's treatment of the narrator, including his refusal to remove the yellow, agitated the narrator's mental illness. Vergona says, "Instead of working with her towards getting better, he isolated her as if she needed to be alone to get better," Vergona continues, "I believe that being alone was the problem for her."

Tearing The Yellow Wallpaper

While reading The Yellow Wallpaper it becomes apparent that John's treatment of the narrator is not working. The narrator's writing becomes progressively more erratic, as she becomes more obsessed with the yellow wallpaper. The narrator describes the yellow wallpaper as a painting, she writes "Looked at in one way each breadth stands alone, the bloated curves and flourishes, a kind of 'debased Romanesque' with delirium tremens—go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity" (Gilman). Toward the end of the story, the narrator becomes convinced that there is a woman trapped inside the wallpaper. The narrator writes, “Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out. The front pattern does move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it.” At the end of The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator tears the yellow wallpaper from the walls.

According to Vergona's analysis of The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator's solitary state leads her to insanity. Vergona says, "She sees figures in the wallpaper, and begins to think about all of the other women who are imprisoned just as she is." Vergona argues that the narrator's imprisoned state as a woman leads her to insanity and ultimately tears down the wallpaper.

According to Treichler's article Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in The Yellow Wallpaper, the yellow wallpaper is a metaphor for women's speech. According to Treichler when the narrator tears down the yellow wallpaper and frees the imaginary women behind the paper, she metaphorically reveals a new vision of women's speech. Treichler says, "As she steps over the patriarchal body, she leaves the authoritative voice of diagnosis in shambles at her feet. Forsaking 'women's language' forever, her new mode of speaking—an unlawful language—escapes 'the sentence' imposed by patriarchy." After tearing down the wallpaper and stepping over John's unconscious body the narrator is able to speak freely of her diagnosis and illness.

I agree with both interpretations of Gilman's work. John ignored the narrator's pleas for a more serious diagnosis. John dismissed the narrator's concerns as women's speech. Therefore the narrator's illness, left untreated, progressed until she had a breakdown, and tore down the wallpaper. In this sense, The Yellow Wallpaper serves as an allegory of the importance of taking women's speech seriously.


Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, vol. 3, no. 1/2, 1984, pp. 61–77. JSTOR, JSTOR

Vergona, Laura. “Analysis of The Yellow Wallpaper through the Psychoanalysis and Feminist Lens .” The Yellow Wallpaper, Weebly, 15 Mar. 2014

© 2018 Ryan Leighton

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