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Psychological Lens into The Yellow Wallpaper and the Life of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Updated on March 19, 2018

There is many different ways to analyze a work of literature. Sometimes a reader may want to look at a piece of writing with no preconceptions of the author or context in which the work was written. Other times to deepen our understanding of a story or any text, we look to the psychology of those producing the literature itself, to see how their experience here on earth was reflected onto the pages of their writing.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman | Source

Author

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on the 3rd of July, 1860. She attended college at the Rhode Island School of Design. She was a writer, poet, educator, and activist. Most noted of her work was her short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892). Gilman's non-fiction gained recognition as well, including Women and Economics (1898) and The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903). She was also a respected intellectual and educator, known for her lectures. She established a magazine titled The Forerunner that ran from 1909-1916. From the focus of her work, she inevitably became a voice for the women's rights movement. She married twice, birthing a daughter with her first husband and then divorcing him, marrying her cousin who she remained with until his death in 1934. After discovering she had terminal breast cancer, she committed suicide the following year in Pasadena, California in 1935.

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Summary

Published in 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper takes place in 19th century America. The short story is told from the perspective of a young woman who recently had given birth, who is being treated by John, her physician/husband for what he believes to be a "temporary nervous depression" in an old mansion he had rented for the summer. Unfortunately, medicine and psychology were still primitive in comparison to today's standards, in reality the narrator is suffering from postpartum depression, and her husband plans to treat it with the rest cure, limiting all mental and physical stimulation. Due to the solitary nature of the treatment, the narrator's condition only worsens and worsens as time goes on. She begins to obsess with the yellow wallpaper in her room, and her mental illness begins to evolve into a state of complete delusion and insanity. She eventually locks herself in the room and begins to rip all the wallpaper down. When John finally makes his way into the room he faints at the sight of his discombobulated wife.

Inspiration for The Yellow Wallpaper

Charlotte Perkins Gilman drew inspiration for The Yellow Wallpaper from her own life, and the story closely resembles reality. Following the birth of her child during her first marriage Gilman fell into a deep depression. Unlike the story, she was not married to a physician, so when she became ill she fell under the care of Doctor S. Weir Mitchell. Under his "rest cure" treatment Charlotte was restricted from writing, painting, reading, and visitations, sentenced to perpetual isolation. It can be suggested that the Yellow Wallpaper was much more of a personal criticism of Gilman’s psychiatrist S. Weir Mitchell’s treatment methods and views of women than could be seen to the outside eye without knowledge of the author's personal life. It turns out Mitchell was not only a doctor but a novelist as well, and his stories often contained submissive females who frequently suffered from mental illness, that relied on strong male characters and symptoms are alleviated by the rest cure that was given to Gilman in real life as well as the narrator in the short story. Therefore, Gilman being aware of Mitchell’s fiction, created a passive submissive female protagonist that is suffering from a mental health disorder that would be typical in one of Mitchell’s stories, and instead of allowing the rest cure to dull her into the societal assimilation that oppressive males like Mitchell hoped for, instead she goes against his orders by continuing to write, not sleep, and ultimately her madness gives her strength over her husband John’s(representing Mitchell) oppressive treatment, which symbolizes society’s expectation of a woman in the home, in marriage, and in the mind. John faints at the sight of the frenzied woman, for he cannot understand her. This in some metaphorical sense, despite her insanity, puts the narrator at a certain level of victory for 19th century women, breaking the chains civil expectation and normalcy, and also taking a stand against the ignorance of her doctor and medicine as a whole at the time.

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Ambiguous Pronunciation of Spelling of Wallpaper

Wall paper, wall-paper, and wallpaper all appear throughout the story. This at first glance may seem like an editorial mistake, but it's persistent ambiguity in spelling seems nearly impossible to be done by accident. Almost as an act of rebellion, Gilman consistently spells the word from the title differently, as the narrator is prohibited to write, this only adds to her defiance, as Gilman time and time again proved her defiance to society and patriarchy. This was just another exhibition of that defiance, and can be easily missed.

References

Golden, Catherine. "'Overwriting' the Rest Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Literary Escape from S. Weir Mitchell's Fic- tionalization of Women." In Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ed. Joanne B. Karpinski. N e w York: G.K. Hall, 1992. P p . 144-58.

Feldstein, Richard. "Reader, Text, and Ambiguous Referen- tiality ii\ 'The Yellow Wall-Paper.'" In Feminism and Psychoanaly- sis. Eds. Richard Feldstein and Judith Roof. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989. Pp. 269-79.

“The Yellow Wallpaper Summary.” Enotes.com, Enotes.com, www.enotes.com/topics/yellow-wallpaper.

“Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.” National Women's Hall of Fame, www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/charlotte-perkins-gilman/.

“Clinical Depression: Symptoms and Treatment.” The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, depressivedisorder.blogspot.com/2016/12/the-yellow-wallpaper-by-charlotte-perkins-gilman.html.

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