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Madness in “The Yellow Wallpaper” Story by Gilman Essay

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Updated: Jun 24th, 2022

Art in general and literature in particular can be powerful tools to discuss social issues, including pointing out a given society’s flaws and shortcomings. A well-written literary piece can shed much-needed light on various problems. Yet choosing the issues to focus the work on is just half of the problem – the author also has to find a proper literary device to weave a narrative that will draw the readers in. In a best-case scenario, the synergy between the problems at the heart of the text and the device that showcases it allows addressing a wide range of serious problems. This is precisely the case with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as the author focuses on mental illness as the vehicle for the plot, showcasing the acute shortcomings of Victorian society. As the story’s main character gradually withers away, the reader faces the question of why those around her do not recognize the illness in the first place. Gilman’s use of mental illness demonstrates the shortcomings of the materialist patriarchal society that is more likely to duck under rationalizations rather than accept any alterations to the neatly organized worldview.

Before delving into the analysis, a short summary is in order. The text, represented as diary entries, reiterates the story of an unnamed woman who lives in a rented cottage with her husband John. The reader soon learns that the couple moved to the cottage on the woman’s account – John believes that she had overstrained her nervous system and the place would do her good (Gilman 648). As a means of treatment, John, who is a physician himself, forbids his wife to engage in any activity that stimulates the nervous system, such as writing or painting. The narrator admits that she does not feel well, tires easily, and is more emotional than usual. Yet she laments that those around her interpret her condition as a nervous overstrain rather than a genuine sickness that affects the mind instead of the body (Gilman 647). Confined to the nursery with nothing to do, the main character focuses her mind on the peculiar designs of the yellow wallpaper on the walls. As those around her continue ignoring the mental rather than physical nature of her problems, the poor woman slowly descends into madness.

The source of the conflict and the main cause of the woman’s unfortunate fate is not so much the mental illness itself but, rather, the refusal to recognize it as such. The main character is not alone – there are her husband and the housekeeper, and other characters mentioned in the course of the story. Yet none of them consider even the slightest possibility that the narrator’s condition may be something more than a purely physical strain on her body’s nervous system. Even the husband, who takes great care of his wife in his own way, does not recognize that this might be the case. The text introduces the reader to this central problem in the very first diary entry when the narrator exasperatedly remarks: “You see he does not believe I am sick!” (Gilman 647). Having mental health patients denying that anything is wrong with them despite the diagnosis is a familiar plot device, but Gilman puts a spin on it. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it is the patient who recognizes a problem and medical professionals who refuse to see it – and the reader is left to understand why.

Having posed the question of why John and other physicians who have seen the narrator do not register the possibility of mental illness, Gilman soon provides the first clue to the answer. Her husband is the most telling example and this respect and – not coincidentally – the one whose motivations are explained and clarified at some length. In the main character’s own words, her spouse is “practical in the extreme,” which also applies to his professional assessments (Gilman 647). John’s logical and rational approach to everything is the key factor that defines his perception of his wife’s condition. As the narrator puts it, “he knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him” (Gilma 649). John’s own rationalizations matter more for him than his wife’s pleas and testimony. This is why he does not recognize the possibility of mental illness being a real thing until it is far too late and his wife is already consumed by madness. With this in mind, it becomes all the more important to understand what are the social conditions that lead the rational husband to deny mental illness.

The first and likely foremost reason why people around the main character deny the reality of mental illness is that he is socially empowered to do so. The narrator alludes to this fact early on when she refers to her husband as “a physician of high standing” (Gilman 648). As a medical professional – and a well-known and respected one at that – John is supposed to know more about illness than a layperson, which gives him a sense of professional entitlement. He is not the only one either – the narrator mentions that her brother is a prominent physician as well, and he “says the same thing,” fully agreeing with John’s assessment of the situation (Gilman 648). The problem here is that a physician, just as any educated professional, tends to think and work within the same paradigm that he received education at. If the prevailing medical paradigm does not recognize psychology as a science, it would not have the apparatus to recognize mental illness as an entity. In other words, John’s rationalizations are so important for him because they are fully in line with the scientific knowledge of the time – which just happens to overlook the existence of mental illness.

This oversight would only be half of the problem if rational John were able to recognize the possible limitations of his scientific knowledge and professional expertise – yet, sadly, this is not the case. John is deeply entrenched within his professional field and does not let any doubts in. Whenever he speaks about medical issues, it is solely from the position of unquestionable authority that he naturally assumes – he cannot possibly imagine there can be something in medicine that he does not know. When his desperate spouse tries to convince him that her problem is mental rather than physical, he gently chastises her and all but orders to “never for one instant let that idea enter [her] mind” (Gilman 652). While he addresses this recommendation to his wife, it could well be his own motto as well. John does not allow any idea that contradicts his notions to enter his mind, and this adamant conviction that science already knows all there is to know. As a result, it prevents him from accepting the reality of mental illness even when it stares him in the eye.

Yet another reason why assuming the reality of mental illness proves too much of a challenge for the medical professionals surrounding the main character is unrestricted materialism of Victorian thought. As with many other social flaws that prevent people from seeing the existence of mental ailments, the narrator foreshadows this one early on in the story. When describing her husband, she points out that he is most only extremely rational but also “scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (Gilman 647). John is only interested in things that can be measured and assessed through direct physical contact, which is why he attributes his wife’s illness to a purely physical strain on her nervous system. When she suggests that she might be getting “better in body” but worse in mind, it immediately earns her a sharp rebuke (Gilman 652). Mental illness is not something that materialist Victorian science is able to quantify, which is one more reason why John and others prefer to ignore even the possibility of its existence.

Finally, yet another one, more aspect of Victorian social mores that prevents mental illness from being recognized as a problem within the story’s framework is the gender power structures. The main character suffering from the mental illness is female, and those who diagnose – or, rather, fail to diagnose – her are all men. Gilman consistently intertwines the themes of power obtained from professional competence and authority obtained from being male to show how they both lead to the same neglect. A description like “a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband” emphasizes that the power John wields over the narrator is dual. Surely, his opinion on all things medical weighs more because he is a doctor – but there is also a simple matter of having the authority over his wife as a husband. John is anything but malevolent, and the main charter openly admits that he “loves her very dearly” (Gilman 651). Still, the overwhelming power given to him by patriarchal social institutions leaves the narrator no room to breathe – and, in particular, no opportunity to be taken seriously when speaking of her condition.

To summarize, Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” uses the theme of mental illness to highlight the multiple shortcomings of Victorian society through the lens of a sick woman’s experience. While the main character is firmly and rightfully convinced that her problem is mental, all other characters insist on a physical explanation and posit that she had overstrained her nervous system. Firstly, it shows how the primacy of neurology over barely existent psychology was a staple of science at the time. To make things worse, medical professionals think they already know all there is to know and refuse to admit the existence of any ailments they have not yet registered. Apart from that, the sheer materialism of Victorian thought leads the characters to scoff at the very idea of an illness that cannot be physically measured and neatly quantified. Finally, gender power structures of patriarchal society make it even less likely that male medical professionals would question their decisions. Thus, Gilman’s approach to the theme of mental illness showcases how Victorian society ducks under rationalizations rooted in its social mores rather than trying to actually recognize the problem.

Work Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. National Institutes of Health, Web.

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