Melanie is a Communications major at SIUE minoring in Literature. Pronouns: She/her
by Melanie Mosby
I’d like to unpack the idea that People are not only born mad but they can also be driven to madness, and The Yellow Wallpaper is a perfect example of this. In my own readings of this piece, I am always pushed towards the idea that the narrator was not always mad, but that John induced this madness in her by depriving her of her creative outlets and social contact, gaslighting her, and making her feel guilty.
The narrator and her husband’s relationship is founded on frequent banter and teasing; however, the teasing only ever seems to come from John. There are many instances in which the narrator tries to have a serious conversation with John, and he turns it around on her, making the subject into a joke or dismissing her concerns altogether. We can see the first hints of John’s manipulation and how this affects the narrator’s perception of herself while she thinks about her husband. “You see he does not believe I am sick,” says the narrator. Since he is a “physician of high standing,” the narrator dismisses her own feelings in favor of John’s (Gilman 647). Even in instances when the narrator does start to admit to herself that John may be wrong, he uses this as an excuse to blame what he thinks of as her lack of sense and resulting hysteria. “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes… But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control” (Gilman 648). John uses his belief that the narrator is not in the right state of mind as an excuse to manipulate her into thinking and feeling how he wants her to think and feel. When our narrator wants to leave her country home and go back to the city, John tells her, “you really are better dear, whether you see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know” (Gilman 652). In this moment, John uses the fact that he is a doctor to justify his controlling tendencies toward his wife and to prove his rightness in every argument. Even if the narrator seemed completely well, her husband would still use the ambiguity of her mental stability as a tool in arguments to assert his opinion of what is right.
The next tactic John uses to induce madness in his wife is depriving her of her creative outlets. The narrator laments, “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good” (Gilman 648). She explains that she is forbidden to “work” until she is well again (Gilman 648). Though both her physician brother and husband recommend this, the narrator continues to feel longing for writing, and even begins to write in secret. One theory we may entertain is that John wishes for his wife not to write so that no one may find out that she is sane, because she’s being monitored and manipulated by her husband under the guise that she needs professional help. As most creatives will attest, creating is an outlet for stress, and the deprivation of creativity could have been a contributing factor to our narrator’s unhappiness and eventually her madness. Another instance of John’s monitoring his wife’s thoughts appears on page 648 when the narrator states, “John says the very worst thing I can do is think about my condition” (Gilman). This is a red flag for me, as it gives me the sense that John doesn’t want his wife to think about her treatment or how she is feeling, and he only wants her to be a submissive catalyst for whatever behaviors he deems as acceptable for her to partake in. If she thinks about her condition too much, she may find that John is wrong and/or that his treatment isn’t working.
There are only three characters in this story — not including the woman in the wallpaper — and this leads to envisioning a very lonely life in this mansion for our narrator. She longs for company in the same way that she longs to write, asking John for permission and being denied, much like a child or a hospital patient. John and his wife discuss having their cousin Henry and Julia to visit, to which our narrator says, “he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillowcase as to let me have those stimulating people about now” (Gilman 649). This is one of the first examples of John using the narrator’s condition as an excuse to not have company, despite his wife’s loneliness. Another example of this occurs later, when the narrator tries to have a serious talk with John and practically begs him to let her visit Henry and Julia. After their conversation concludes, the narrator states that “he says I wasn’t able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there” (Gilman 651). Not only is John completely dismissing the narrator’s feelings in this instance and making false statements that he cannot prove, but he is also essentially cutting her off from her family. This will only contribute to her feelings of isolation and depression.
Our narrator is practically dependent on her husband, counting on him for all her physical needs and blindly taking his advice on every aspect of her life. She addresses this by saying, “John takes all care from me” (Gilman 648). This seems sweet in the context of this small section, but in relation to the entire story we can see that John takes care of his wife so that he has total control over her body. His wife has lost autonomy over her physical body at this point, as he performs treatments and gives her prescriptions despite her disagreement with his diagnosis. Eventually the narrator isn’t even allowed to make decisions about her own room and house, as she says that she asked John to remove the wallpaper from her bedroom. “At first, he meant to repaper the room, but afterwards 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. He said that after the wallpaper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then the gate at the head of the stairs, and so on.” (Gilman 649). John is depriving her of autonomy here by denying her the right to change the decoration in her room, but he is also gaslighting her by telling her that her wanting the wallpaper changed is just a silly fancy and that there’s actually nothing wrong with it. Not to mention, all the things he mentioned would be “next” as a result of changing the wallpaper are measures taken to ensure his control over her and to limit her autonomy. Bars on the windows, the heavy bedstead, and a gate at the top of the staircase are all things meant to keep her up in her room and not allow her to escape unless he allows it.
The first instance of narrator’s imposed guilt occurs when she says, “I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!” (Gilman 648). What she does not seem to realize is that even if she were trying to help John or to take up more responsibilities, he would find a way to inhibit her from doing so because he wants her to feel helpless. This tactic is being used to make the narrator dependent on her husband so that he can easily control her. When speaking of how careful her husband is with her, she says, “I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more” (Gilman 648). It’s strikingly strange that a person could ever feel guilty for their partner taking care of them. The narrator’s wording in this quote above raises the questionable possibility that perhaps the narrator is aware that she is capable of doing more, but she also knows that her husband would never allow it. As she repeats many times, “What is a person to do?” (Gilman 648). She has become indifferent to her husband’s control. She tries to have a serious conversation with him about her condition, but he dismisses it and concludes the conversation for her by using guilt. “I beg of you for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!” (Gilman 652). By using their child as leverage, the narrator’s husband makes her feel like she is making her condition worse by worrying about it or mentioning its existence at all. Once again, John dismisses her feelings about herself as “foolish fancy” (Gilman 652).
Even though the narrator obeys the orders of her doctor/husband outwardly, insight into her internal thoughts through her writings points towards the possibility that she has some doubts about her own diagnosis. However, she can’t do anything but listen to him, because he has so much control over her. Whether this control is maintained by means of depriving her of things that will relieve her stress, such as visitors and writing; depriving her of her own autonomy and training her to be dependent on him; or guilt-tripping her into believing she is well for the sake of their future, all these tactics allow Dr. John to control every aspect of his wife’s life. John’s behavior is entirely calculated and manipulative, and our narrator would agree— even though she probably wouldn’t say so. “John is a physician, and perhaps— (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind–) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster” (Gilman 647).
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, The Literature of Prescription Exhibition, 2009. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/theliteratureofprescription/pdf/The-Yellow-Wall-Paper.pdf