Intersections with Madness Project: Gendered Power Dynamics in The Yellow Wallpaper

by Kathryn McGehee

Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses the unreliable narrator to paint a dramatic descent into madness by a woman isolated by her family in the name of health. The short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” seems to open as a ghost story and has all the elements of gothic horror—the old and creepy house, the skeptical partner writing off the main character’s concerns, a specter making itself known through the narrative. But something insidious lives within the subtle cruelty of the dialogue. The speaker’s husband, John, paternalistically has removed every creative outlet that could help her cope and has isolated her away from anyone or anything that could possibly overwhelm her “delicate” state. In fact, she has been “absolutely forbidden to work until…well again,” due to a “temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency,” (Gilman, 648). Instead, the narrator is left during the day near the watchful eye of the nursemaid who is in charged in the care of the speaker’s child, or her husband’s sister. Without any healthy outlet, the narrator is left with her newfound hyper fixation on the wallpaper of her bedroom: an ugly yellow wallpaper that seems to move. Is there a ghost trapped in the walls, or has the speaker been slowly driven made by the restrictive patriarchal beliefs Victorian society clung to regarding women—or is she actually sick?

At the narrative’s opening, the reader is given a glimpse of the subtle power dynamics taking place between the narrator and her husband, John. He seems on the surface to care for her wellbeing. He is concerned for her health and part of arriving at this residence is for the wife’s own convalescence while their home is under renovation. But like any other Victorian marriage, John hold all the power in their relationship, and in society at large. The typical Victorian woman was barely a step up from a child. She was also her husband’s ward and lacked the agency to move freely in the world of society. Furthermore, John’s chosen career in medicine further emphasize his authority as a man of science and a skeptic. When our unnamed wife expresses her trepidations at staying in the old house, she admits that John

…laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in a marriage. John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, and intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures. John is a physician….” (Gilman, 647)

The other authority in her life, true to Victorian society, is her brother. Both men have written off her mental struggles a temporary thing, a curable hysteria that only needs rest from all work and a removal of overstimulation. And the “rest cure” treatment which imprisons the speaker is tragically common to the time. He dismisses the speaker’s concerns in nearly most things, either as an impracticality or just another fit of fancy from her sex or her illness.  And the narrator seems to bow to that authority, leaning on his apparent ‘wisdom,’ even when everything in her body has reason to distrust that authority. From intuition about her own needs perhaps?

John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies. (Gilman, 649)

John’s warning repeats itself in her head as she deals with the strange things she sees in the bedroom walls. But sadly, also, John’s tendency toward rationality and leaning on the, albeit flawed, science of the day, has led to his dismissal of his wife’s urges for a visitation with friends, or even the chance to sleep in a different room.

Unfortunately, this prescribed rest treatment lines up with the beliefs of the day—that at the crux of hysteria in women is the pursuit of too much stimulus or burnout from trying to inhabit male social spheres, such as academia. Our narrator, like our author, is very much a writer. In the story, she must sneak her writing to odd hours, just to fulfill that primal need to maintain one’s identity through a trial. Yet the paternalistic view of the day, as illustrated in Plain Talk about Insanity: It’s Causes, Froms, Symptoms, and the Treatment of Mental Disease, worried that any such pursuit could put women in danger for their very sanity:

the same girls are apt to be quick, brilliant, ambitious, and persistent at study, and need not stimulation, but repression. For the sake of a temporary scholarship, they risk their health at the most susceptible period of their lives, and break down after the excitement of school life has passed away. For sexual reasons they cannot compete with boys….the list would be long of young women whose health of mind became bankrupt by a continuation of the mental strain commenced at school. Any method of relief … should be welcomed, even at the cost of the intellectual supremacy of women in the next generation. (Fisher, 1873)

Fisher declares the cause of feminine hysteria to be overstimulation, especially when females take on those more “male” spheres of academic rigor. The cure is rest, and by rest they mean the total removal of any kind of stimulus. T.W. Fisher warns well meaning family about falling for any kind of sympathy or voiced “exaggerations” by the patient and warns that loved ones should stay away until emotions can be regulated to prevent relapse until self-control is totally re-established (Fisher, 62). And so, our narrator is denied the chance to visit with beloved nearby friends, and denied anything that could be interpreted as “work,” from household duty to simply engaging in writing. It is for this same reason also that Nellie Bly is initially stripped of her own writing implement when she is admitted into the Blackwell Island Asylum during her expose Ten Days in a Mad-House—another example of the denial of the female voice for reasons of paternalism (Bly, 41). The result, in the name of “rest,” is the removal of the agency of the female voice entirely.

Our speaker has been muted by circumstances, infantilized, and stripped of her voice through dismissal and gaslighting by those who claim to love her. Writing is her last vestige of personal power, that which also gives her life, her coping mechanism and voice. And here she is having to sneak and scramble her writing past the watchful eye of the same spouse who prescribed the activity’s very absence. This secret journal, though, is what builds the story for us to read. It is her last remaining voice. Still, we never learn the narrative’s name. Her identity is written out of existence first by this fact. Furthermore, she exists only in relation to her husband, as his wife, and from him, never by name, but always by terms of saccharine endearment.  She is his “darling,” his “dear,” his “blessed little goose,” his “little girl” with a “little heart.” Every pet name he has for her is a diminutive of herself, at best. Even where John means well, his caring has become a great cruelty which also strips our narrator of hope as well as self. Without hope, one can deteriorate into depression or madness easily. And she struggles to speak up against the subtle social systems keeping her at bay.  “I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time,” writes our narrator (Gilman, 650). The inability to speak up for herself to her husband, even when her body knows the doctors are wrong about her real needs, has led to a mourning of her loss of self. Or perhaps this is just a symptom of her depression? Even when she begs for change, her arguments fall on deaf ears and the science of the doctors wins out over her desires and needs. She is painfully lonely, especially during the day when John works, yet in her room she remains confined finding both comfort and repulsion.

The space her every being is transfixed and repulsed by reduces our speaker further, just the same as John. Her first reaction to the house as a unit is a positive one. She hopes for a bedroom downstairs opening to a piazza, but John rejects this request and insists on more room for the two of them upstairs.. This room is described as “a nursery first, and then a playroom and gymnasium,” (Gilman 649). The windows are barred, to prevent children from harm, yet adding to the prison like aura of the space as the story unfolds. The wallpaper’s descriptions evolve with our heroine’s mental decline. At one point the undulating lines of the pattern capture her imagination—at another, it is a “debased Romanesque,” (Gilman, 651). Yet, the paper seems to have an undulating and ever-changing pattern, depending on the speaker’s mood at each time of writing. She is disgusted by it, and knows right away she wants a change, and at first her husband agrees: “At first he meant to repaper the room, but afterwards he said 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,”lest she possibly fall into some slippery slope of requesting more household repairs. (Gilman, 649). A very good argument can be made for the presence of a toxic mold in the wall, as the narrator’s horrible visions do get worse when wet weather makes everything in the house damp, the smell penetrates the speaker’s senses, the wallpaper stains whatever it touches, and it is difficult to figure out from the unreliable narration if the mushroom shapes are a part of the wallpaper’s design or really coming out of the wall.  The space permeates their life, magnifying the drama between human beings. The speaker, at one point, states her relief that the baby is not staying in “this nightmarish room” (Gilman, 651). However, there seems to be an irony here—the true inhabitant of the space is someone with even less power than the baby downstairs. The narrator is the true child of the nursery, her mental state and her husband’s infantilizing gaslighting having diminished the speaker down to a rebellious specter hiding in the walls of her psyche, behind the window prison bars. Her voice was stripped entirely in this space, so her ghost must now howl on the story’s last page.

During the second entry into the narrative, we discover our narrator’s status as a new mother when she expresses her trepidation toward being around her own child: “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” (649). And here we have our first hint at what really could be going on. Today we might recognize postpartum depression, or even a postpartum psychosis, exacerbated by the tight restrictions set by her husband’s prescribed rest cure. While the speaker’s diagnosis at the time was most likely a blanket “female hysteria,” we know today how specific and debilitating post birth mental illness can be. I suffered from it so bad after the birth of my child that I am hesitant to have any more children myself. Luckily, unlike our narrator, I was encouraged by the medical professionals in my life to engage in my creative pursuits—they were not taken from me.

There is a great sadness that creative pursuits that could serve as a healthy outlet for unquiet minds were back in Gilman’s time considered “work” to be barred in the prescribed “rest cure.” I am not sure where I would be without my art. It should be obvious; a human starved for human attention and stimulation will get dangerously stuck in their own head.

Is the speaker’s supposed hysteria a symptom of postpartum psychosis, or a ghost in the wallpaper haunting an already fragile mind? Or is the narrator’s madness and mental decline the result of gaslighting, neglect, and the decimation of her own voice, of the constant dismissal at the blame of her husband and the social expectations of the time? Or is there yet another cause to the madness—perhaps a toxin hidden in the wallpaper itself, a lethal yellow mold eradicating the speaker’s own mind slowly? However, I don’t think that was the author’s intent. Such a reading may only be possible in our contemporary society, after the discovery of molds. Gilman’s short narrative seems to do more to spread the awareness of how delicately insidious the implied beliefs about the nature of women are to the woman entrapped by them. When a person is stripped of their agency in any way and for any reason, a slow loss of self can lead to the loss of self as experienced by our storyteller. If her husband got out of his ego just once, humored his “darling” wife in her requests just once, believed her just once, then this whole mad tale of yellow wallpaper may never have transpired.

Works Cited

Bly, Nellie, “Ten Days in a Mad House,” Miscellaneous Sketches: Trying to Be a Servant and Nellie Bly as a White Slave 1864-1922, Ian L. Munro, New York, 1877

Fisher, T.W. Plain Talk about Insanity: Its Causes, Forms, Symptoms, and the Treatment of Mental Diseases. Alexander Moore, 1873

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, The Literature of Prescription Exhibition Materials, 2009.