by Elizabeth Carey
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” a tale of one woman’s descent into madness, is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s response to the male-run medical establishment and the patriarchal structure of the nineteenth-century household. Gilman’s short story is a warning to her readers about the consequences of fixed gender roles assigned by male-dominated societies: the man’s role being that of the husband and rational thinker, and the woman’s role being that of the dutiful wife who does not question her husband’s authority. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman depicts a marriage in which both the narrator and her husband are trapped in their assigned roles and are doomed because of this.
The story focuses on the narrator’s “nervous condition” as she slowly loses sense of reality, the whole time being totally misunderstood and misdiagnosed by her husband, a doctor who is unable to understand a woman’s psyche and who believes the best treatment is for her to confine herself to her room and rest. The narrator says, “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?” (3). Reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” in historical context, Jane Thrailkill points out that the nineteenth-century medical establishment did not understand how to deal with women’s mental health issues, often misdiagnosing a whole host of disorders as female hysteria (545). Thraikill explains that physicians employed the “rest cure” as a way to regain control over a situation they did not comprehend. The narrator’s “nervous condition” is not hysteria but, rather, probably the result of having recently given birth. Contemporary medicine did not know what postpartum psychosis was, but that is clearly what the narrator is suffering from, as is evident in the passage in which she remarks, “It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous” (6). Thraikill claims that Gilman’s push to raise awareness about misdiagnoses of women’s mental health problems stems from the frustration she felt about her own treatment by Dr. Weir Mitchell when Gilman herself was diagnosed with a “nervous condition,” one of the most obvious cases of a doctor disregarding a patient’s words (540). In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman is showing her readers that the male doctors were not listening to their female patients.
It is these patronizing attitudes that Gilman is fighting against, and she does so by illustrating the ways that rigid gender roles have a negative effect on both women and men. John, the narrator’s husband, is represented as the rational, respected doctor who is always taken seriously. The narrator, on the other hand, is represented as overemotional; she is not to be taken seriously. Rather than being described as rational, she is described as being “imaginative.” In his commentary, Conrad Shumaker argues that the term “imaginative” is decidedly gendered—it is seen as feminine and weak (590).
Significantly, the narrator is cautioned by her husband not to give in to her imagination and her “fancies”—such as writing—the narrator says that her husband “hates to have [her] write a word” (5)—and wallpapering her room (6). John believes that if his wife represses her creative urges she will become well again and assume the role of wife and mother. Sadly, the narrator internalizes her husband’s advice, acknowledging, “I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already” (6).
Because John believes that he is supposed to function as the thinking partner in his marriage, he won’t let his wife think for herself. Most of the time when she asks John for anything or tries to tell him anything, he ignores her and calls her names, such as “blessed little goose” and “little girl.” These are names for children, and that is how John treats his wife: like a child. He says to her, “I am a doctor, dear, and I know” (12). Because he identifies himself as the more rational, and therefore more intelligent, partner in the marriage, John assumes that he knows more than his wife about her condition.
Conrad Shumaker argues that imaginative thinking undermines John’s universe. By defining his wife’s temperament as a danger, he can control the part of the world that opposes his materialistic view (592). But by repressing his wife’s artistic impulses and imagination, John leads her into the exact state that he is trying to avoid. She unravels and loses her grip on reality (590). Their marriage falls apart, and John loses his wife to madness, the very thing he had tried to avoid.
Janice Haney-Peritz argues that “The Yellow Wallpaper” ultimately shows that in a patriarchal society we are all doomed; no one can survive the rigid gender expectations placed upon them (104). If John were not so overconfident in his own reason and authority as a doctor and husband, he might have been able to help his wife. If he had listened to her, then he might not have lost her to madness. If the narrator herself had not been so willing to conform to John’s wishes and had not assumed that he was always right, then she might have been better able to stand up for herself. She might have been able to challenge her husband and get the help that she really needed. But the narrator thinks that it is not the woman’s place to question her husband. The narrator says, “It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so” (11). She naturally assumes that John knows what he is doing. She questions herself instead of him. Her condition worsens because both of them believe that John knows best. In the end both husband and wife lose because they are trapped in fixed gender roles.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader: “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Other Fiction. Ed. Ann J.Lane. New York: Pantheon, 1980. 3-20. Print.
Haney-Peritz, Janice. “Monumental Feminism and Literature’s Ancestral House: Another Look at ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Short Story Criticism 62. (2003): 95-107. Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.
Shumaker, Conrad. “Too Terribly Good to Be Printed: Charlotte Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” American Literature 57.4. (1985): 588-99. Jstor. Web. 14 Nov. 2009.
Thrailkill, Jane F. “Doctoring ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” ELH 69.2. (2002): 525-566. Jstor. Web. 29 Oct. 2009.