The Issue of Mental Illness in The Yellow Wallpaper

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In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper mental illness plays a central role. The author depicts the suffering a woman faced following the birth of her child. At this time women were dependent on men to provide shelter and live a maternal life. The narrator in this story disobeys the orders of her husband who suggested she rest in order to cure herself. The room in which she stayed had a wallpaper that interested her in many ways. The reason the wallpaper interest her is because has suffered from mental illness earlier on therefore relapsing into a psychotic break.

The story begins with a scene where the narrator is questioning whether the house is haunted upon seeing it. The sense of disconnect between its appearance as a beautiful home and the inner appearance being evil life suggests she can see something no one else does. This also offers the idea that the narrator might be hiding something that is not yet visible. When she first saw the room at the top of the house she quickly objects to the yellow wallpaper. In her first journal entry, she writes, “The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off- the paper- in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and is a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.” This is the first clue that the narrator is hiding a dark and mysterious past. Similar to the house behind its grand exterior there is more than meets the eye.

The narrator is forced to hide her only form of self-expression from her husband/ doctor because she does not want him to see her as what she truly is, which is insane. In the journal article “Too Terribly Good to Be Printed” Conrad Shumaker states, “Her remarks reveal that her relationship with her husband is filled with deception on her part, not so much because she wants to hide things from him but because it is impossible to tell him things he does not want to acknowledge.” This then adds to the growing gap between how she appears to John and how she feels. As she continues to write in her diary two weeks have passed and the narrator is only getting worse. This is when we learn that she had a baby that she cannot care for it due to her “postpartum depression”. From the window of the narrator’s room, she can see the overgrown garden, the bay, and a shaded lane where she imagines seeing people walking. This shows how the narrator has the ability to give intimate objects a life similar to her own. Upon describing the room again, she claims it is damaged with splintered floors and large tears in the wallpaper, suggesting the room has a dark past.

In the third entry, she begins to fixate on the yellow wallpaper and sees her own illness reflected and its hideous patterns. The narrator writes, “But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in the full chase.”  This is when her obsession with the wallpaper grows as she continues to “watch it”. She claims there are secrets within the wallpaper that she’s keeping from John and Jennie (his sister). Given the clues, it can be suggested that she is referring to her own past and the secrets she is keeping. The wallpaper comes to symbolize the horrifying features of her life.

When the narrator tries to reason with her husband that they should leave the house early, he tried to reassure her that she is recovering from her illness. In Controlling the Female Psyche: Assigned Gender Roles in “The Yellow Wallpaper” Elizabeth Carey talks about John’s role as a husband and doctor. She states, “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.” This ultimately backfires on him by the end of the story. As readers, we are able to see the inner part of her life through her diary entries and John is completely blind to her paranoia, and the harmful effects the house and wallpaper have on his wife. The narrator’s condition only continues to worsen, as she writes “At night in any kind of light, in the twilight, in candlelight, lamp light, and where is the wall by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern, I mean, the woman behind it is as plain as can be.” The narrator’s mental conditions continue to deteriorate and she descends into her paranoid obsession with the wallpaper. There is a definite clue about the wallpaper’s role in the narrative mental state. The figure the narrator claims to see in the wallpaper is in fact a woman. The bars in which she refers is herself as feeling trapped in the room without any friends. In this case, her only form of outlet is what she writes in her journal.

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The wallpaper however has triggered her mental illness to relapse. Even though she feels as though she has made an improvement when in fact, she is in a worst state than when she got there. She also now has no intention to tell John about her fascination with the wallpaper and its “secret”. Although she is unable to see it, it is in fact an obsession. After her once failed attempt to talk to John she no longer feels the need to express herself to him anymore. Although the narrator seems to think she’s feeling better she sleeps during the day and stays up at night to watch any developments in the wallpaper. According to Ryan Tanap in Understanding Psychotic Breaks, there are a number of different factors that could trigger them. He states, “Many factors can lead to psychosis, including genetics, trauma, substance use, physical illness, injury or mental health conditions.”  Some things that we should also look for in people is “Difficulty sleeping, difficulty reading or comprehending what someone is saying, seeing shadows or flashes of light, hearing ringing or voices, and smelling or tasting things that others can’t.” These are some of the many signs that the narrator is experiencing. As she now describes the wallpaper as having a smell that disturbs her and is creeping all over the house. The narrator continues to give the wallpaper realistic features.

Her illness is now taking over the house, she writes, “It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house – to reach the smell. But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell.” The blending of sense’s here, the sight and smell seem to signal a further shift in the narrator’s mental condition. The intensity of her inner turmoil is so overpowering that she has considered burning the house. Which gives readers a glimpse into how far she has slipped into her illness. Given that the wallpaper has now taken on a smell suggesting that there is no escaping it now. Even if she were to not look at it at all, she wouldn’t be able to avoid its presence. Her shift from the beginning entries to now suggests she has given up on her fight against fantasies and has taken a different approach to her illness, while she also continues to distance herself from John. Which leaves her completely isolated from the only real form of human contact and her psychotic thoughts about the wallpaper.

In her next entry, she suggests the wallpaper’s front pattern does move. This is due to the mysterious figure of the women shaking it by crawling around fast and shaking the bars. The link between the mysterious figure and the narrator at this point becomes clear. The narrator is trapped and desperate to escape a hold of her illness and husband. She continues to identify with the mysterious woman in the wallpaper as she suggests seeing the woman escape the wallpaper during the day and creeping along on the shaded lane. She then claims that she has begun to “creep” around the room during the day while John is away. A similar term she used when describing the woman in the wallpaper. She also continues to further isolate herself away from John who she does not trust. This secrecy is clear that something unhealthy is taking place, and the narrator becomes determined to remove a part of the wallpaper. She has now completely retreated into herself and away from her journal. She writes, “I have found another funny thing, but I shan’t tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much.” In this quote, the narrator turns completely inward suggesting even her journal audience is untrustworthy. She’s unable to trust anyone and has become so paranoid that now everyone around her is a potential enemy.

Her relationship with John has also changed, instead of showing the love and kindness she once did to John she’s convinced that he is only pretending to care about her. The narrator also claims that she has insomnia which is most likely due to her mental deterioration. By John also beginning to ask more questions means he may finally be noticing progressing illness. Her last entry was on the last day of their time spent at the house. She attempts to start peeling the wallpaper off. We are told about the gnawed bedstead which contributes to the sense of evil past of the room and house. As the narrator continues to try to remove every bit of the wallpaper, she writes about the anger she feels, “I am getting angry enough to do something desperate”. Her desperate need to escape this prison of a room is increasing but escaping seems impossible.

The narrator then goes on to identify herself as a mysterious figure behind the wallpaper, “I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard! It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please! I don’t want to go outside.” (Norton 855) This new persona is more than just a ghost woman, but she has also taken on the persona of the woman stuck behind the wallpaper. This is a representation of the narrator’s madness, she has finally “broken free”. When John finally gains access to the room, he faints at the sight of his wife’s mental breakdown. However, when she speaks to him, she speaks to him as a mysterious figure, she writes, “I’ve got out at that last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” The story ends with the image of the narrator describing creeping around John’s body lying on the floor.

Finally, it is evident that the narrator was not well prior to moving into this house. However, the evil past of the house and room wallpaper helped to trigger the narrator to have a mental breakdown and relapse into her past illness. John was blinded by the experience of the doctor and perhaps his wife’s beauty that he was unable to see his wife for what she truly was. The postpartum depression and isolation the narrator was placed in, in order to recover made for the perfect storm and caused her to slip into a psychotic break.  

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