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The American society in the early to late 18th century was highly critical of Women and their capacity to do any work other than household work. Women were regarded as inferior creatures and expected to get married early, have children and work like a servant, cooking, cleaning and working for the house. Any attempts on a women’s part to make a career were ruthlessly put down by the male-dominated society. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman speaks of the pain, suffering, and humiliation that women underwent in the 1800s. The paper provides a discussion of the short story and analyses the theme of emotion and depression that the main character Stetson Gilman undergoes and her advent into insanity caused by the wrong treatment given to her (Boa, 1990).
Analysis and Discussion
Stetson Gilman is a young mother who is undergoing ‘post-partum depression,’ which has taken her over as she struggles with her child. In the US of the 1800s, psychiatric problem diagnosis was not so well advanced, and it was generally assumed that women with mental problems had to be encouraged to be more docile, leave other pursuits such as reading and writing, and get more involved in their family life and the upbringing of the children. Her husband, John, and brother, who are physicians are not ready to acknowledge that Stetson has a problem and refute any suggestions that she is not feeling well, but merely put down her sickness to overwork and strain (Golden, 1992).
“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? My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing“. (Gilman, p. 1).
A closer examination of the above expert shows the strong control that John had over his wife. She had been given an assortment of pills, tonics, and syrups and asked to keep away from active work and her husband administered the medicine each hour, more out of a sense of protectivity than anything else. The doctor had recommended that she should get plenty of fresh air, take up exercise and eat good food.
The inactivity caused Stetson more problems than anything else, and she longed to do something creative. The attitude of all men is the same, and the author shows that even Stetson’s brother has the same attitude. The old manor to which Stetson and her husband have moved seems ghostly to her, and when she, with her romantic mindset, suggests to her husband that there is indeed something moving around, her husband very disdainfully says that there was nothing but a draught and closes the door (Gilman, p. 2).
When Stetson, her husband, and her son move into the manor, they decide to stay in the old nursery, and this place has a very depressing effect on her. The nursery was actually a big room with plenty of windows and sunshine, and the windows had bars, presumably to prevent children from falling out. But the thing that Stetson really hated was the wallpaper, and she felt intense nervousness and fear when she looked at it.
“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. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance, they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulfur tint in others“. (Gilman, p. 3).
John, in the typical male way, is impervious to her suffering and his argument is that since there is no reason to worry, his wife should not become nervous. Though she asks implores him to at least repaper the room or even move to another place, her husband is not ready to accept this, saying that since they had leased the place for only three months, there was no point in spending money. The crazy pattern on the wallpaper is making her see new horrible things, and she feels about a spot on the paper as “There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.” (Gilman, p. 5).
The various forms in the paper seem like horrible malevolent beings that seem to spy on her and invade her privacy. Once in the middle of the night, Stetson gets up to touch the paper because she feels the presence of a lady who is watching from the wallpaper.
The yellow wallpaper has had such a profound effect on her that she has started to imagine that it creeps all over the house, and in her vivid hallucination, she finds it hovering in the dining room, in the parlor, and hiding in the hall, and she feels as if the paper is waiting to get her on the stairs. She even begins to imagine that it has a peculiar yellowy smell that is hard to define. In her descent into a nervous breakdown, she imagines that the wallpaper to be filled with many women who are making the paper move “sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over” (Gilman, p. 10).
In the final stages, Stetson undergoes a complete nervous breakdown, and on the final day, when they would leave the house, she attempts to remove the annoying paper by herself. Her main aim is to remove the wallpaper and all the horrid things that are underneath the paper. She locks out her housemaid and begins the task of removing the paper, bit by bit. The sticky glue and the fungus make her feel as if the horrible things are still underneath and trying to move out. In the final act, she locks the door and throws the key out of the window as her husband attempts to breakdown the door (Golden, 155).
The short story is a good example of what depression can do to a woman. The wallpaper is only symbolic and has triggered her nervous breakdown, and the main reason is the inactivity and the orders from her overprotective husband, who wants to cloister her and prevent her from writing. Obviously, writing acted as a safety valve for her and allowed her to release her tension and depression. But since the only outlet was blocked and since her husband paid scant attention to her needs, the wallpaper acted as a trigger for her mental condition. The story was a pointer to the sad conditions of the 18th century when the creative aspects of women were put down firmly by men.
Boa, Elizabeth. March 1990. “Creepy-crawlies: Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.” Paragraph: A Journal of Modern Critical Theory. pp: 19-29.
Golden, Catherine. 1992. ‘Overwriting’ the Rest Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Literary Escape from S. Weir Mitchell’s Fictionalization of Women.” Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ed. Joanne P. Karpinski. New York: G.K. Hall, pp: 144-158.
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Gilman Charlotte Perkins. 1880. The Yellow Wallpaper. Web.