Charlotte Perkins Gilman The Yellow Wallpaper Essay

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Medical Misunderstandings and Gender:



“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman



“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a brief psychological study of a woman slowly going mad over the course of an imposed rest cure, prescribed by her physician-husband. The story illustrates the extent to which limited knowledge of the female psyche and a refusal to treat women as intelligent, independent beings ironically produces the types of behaviors the psychological treatment of the era was supposed to prevent. Both women and men are guilty of limiting women’s voices when women attempt to escape the conventional confines of motherhood and domesticity. Although the main character’s love of reading and writing is a constant and sustaining force in her life, she is denied it when it is assumed her illness is due to her refusal to conform to conventional roles.



As noted by history professor Hilary Marland, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is very much a product of its historical era and contains specific references to what were seen as uniquely female complaints. “All women were seen by physicians as susceptible to ill health and mental breakdown by reason of their biological weakness and reproductive cycles. And those who were creative and ambitious were deemed even more at risk” (Marland). It is not simply that the heroine is suffering from a personal crisis or malady. She is living in a world where the very state of being female is regarded as a malady or a disease. Women were viewed as being innately less intelligent and this was not something which could be overcome. In fact, if women tried to engage in intellectual study, they were seen as attempting to be like men and were more rather than less vulnerable to illness. The woman in the story appears to be in an unhappy and unequal marriage but the idea that marital troubles might be at the source of her frustrations are never entertained, because marriage is seen as the natural life outcome for women.



Gilman openly based the short story on her own experiences with a so-called rest cure that was supposed to quiet her nervous agitation. But unlike her nameless heroine, Gillman was prescribed her cure by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, who gained fame for treating what was then called nervous exhaustion in Civil War veterans and today would likely be called PTSD (Marland). Gilman’s first husband was an artist but in her short story she alters the facts of her own life to make a point about the overwhelmingly male perspective of the medical profession (“Charlotte Perkins Gilman”). Her brother is also a physician.

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She is surrounded by uncomprehending men who view her only in terms of the common, medically-accepted diagnoses of the era. “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” she says (Gilman). Even when surreptitiously writing on her own, she is afraid to criticize her husband, as the surveillance of patriarchal society is always observing her, including John’s sister.

Before the rest cure has fully begun, there are signs that the woman has a more adversarial rather than a loving relationship with her husband as one might expect. “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?” she says (Gilman). Her husband insists on speaking for the two of them as a couple, even when his wife contradicting what he says. He has the authority medical knowledge and his gender.



The narrator regards the prospect of being discovered by her husband and violating his prescription as something fearful. “There comes John, and I must put this away,--he hates to have me write a word” (Gilman). The orders by the physician not to use her mind and her husband are conjoined in the story, suggesting that men exercise tyranny over women both through the medical profession and in marriage. Marriage as well as a medical prescription denies women the ability to write and pursue intellectual professions, particularly after they have given birth like the narrator.



A number of literary critics have attempted to provide a diagnosis for the central character. She has recently given birth, and the medical profession’s failure to understand postpartum depression may also be one of the reasons her treatment is so inappropriate. In the era in which Gilman was writing, “puerperal insanity, a severe form of mental illness labelled in the early 19th century and claimed by doctors to be triggered by the mental and physical strain of giving birth” was a common diagnosis (Gilman). Again, the fact that giving birth was viewed in pathological terms highlights the extent to which the simple act of being a woman was viewed as suspect in Gilman’s era. Childbirth was….....

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Works Cited

Anderson, Margaret. “19th century Childbirth.” University of Adelaide. 26 May 2018. Web. http://adelaidia.sa.gov.au/subjects/19th-century-childbirth

“Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” Biography.com. 26 May 2018. Web. https://www.biography.com/people/charlotte-perkins-gilman-9311669

Crowder, Sarah. “Feminist Gothic in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Lone Star College.
26 May 2018. Web. http://www.lonestar.edu/yellow-wallpaper.htm

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” 1899. 26 May 2018. Web. https://csivc.csi.cuny.edu/history/files/lavender/wallpaper.html

Marland, Hilary. “’The Yellow Wallpaper’: A 19th-century Short Story of Nervous Exhaustion
and the Perils of Women’s ‘Rest Cures.’ The Conversation. 27 Feb 2018. 26 May 2018. Web. http://theconversation.com/the-yellow-wallpaper-a-19th-century- short-story-of-nervous-exhaustion-and-the-perils-of-womens-rest-cures-92302

Martin, Diana. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.” 1 May 2007.
26 May 2018. Web https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/ajp.2007.164.5.736

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