The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and What it Means

by Harsh Kichambare

I had never heard of “The Yellow Wallpaper” before I stumbled upon a reading list of novels to read during the quarantine period. Looking for the shortest one to read, I picked it up and I was so glad I did! The short story left me with more questions than answers. What seemed like a simple story set in the late 1800s evolved into something much more and it was beyond any expectations I had of it.

In the year of 1884, Charlotte Perkins Gilman married a Doctor named Houghton Gilman. After delivering a baby girl she named Katherine, she suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety, which was relatively unknown at the time. In 1887, a doctor suggested that she should go and try the Rest Cure to combat these feelings. This ‘Cure’ involved her being quarantined inside a house, with no social interactions and she wasn’t allowed to touch a pen or a brush (her forms of expression) to make her life as much a domestic life as possible. After going through 3 months of this horrific cure, she returned back to her house. But this cure did little to ease her state of mind. This was a common practice at the time and to make people aware of the effects of this ‘Cure’ she wrote her most famous work, “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

The Yellow Wallpaper: Plot

“The Yellow Wallpaper” tells the story of a woman who shared the same fate as many did at the time. Just after delivering a baby, she is sent to this Mansion to spend a basic life. She isn’t allowed to socialize, to touch a pen or paper and all of this is mandated by her husband who is also her doctor. Her husband always has control over her life, forces her to follow his practices, and ignores the fact that she is suffering. Secretly, the woman maintains a journal that she is writing on dead papers. With nothing else to see and do, she is taken by the yellow wallpaper that surrounds her room. She describes its presence as sickly and its yellow smell, and its bizarre and disturbing patterns.

Throughout her time at the house, she starts to notice more and more of the wallpaper. She notices how the patterns are full of sprouting in endless convolutions and the print of yellow that it leaves on whoever touches it. She suggests that the longer one stays with the wallpaper, the longer it seems to mutate to be alive and changing constantly. She soon begins to see a figure standing, creeping on her all fours behind the wallpaper. She writes all of this in her Secret Journal which she keeps away whenever her husband comes to check up on her.

Soon she starts to believe that the woman in the wallpaper is actually trapped and she must set her free. One day she starts to strip the wallpaper off the walls trying to get the women out of the walls. When her husband arrives at the place, he faints seeing her and the woman continues to circle the room believing herself to be the woman that has been trapped behind the yellow wallpaper.

Interpretation

Gilman, herself had experienced the traumatic experiences one has to go through in this supposed cure. At the time, mental health wasn’t taken as seriously as it is, and hence a lot of people suffered from this. This added to the fact that women didn’t have significant rights and were perceived as weak or fragile, which had given rise to many interpretations of the novella.

Many suggest that the Yellow Wallpaper is a metaphor for the Society that is holding the woman back and is making her into a disturbing figure, a creature that creeps on all fours. Even in the story, we see that the woman suggests to her husband that socializing, exercising would be better alternatives than this rest cure. But her ideas and suggestions are dismissed as being outlandish by her husband. In the novella, the writer uses the portrayal of the woman’s insanity as a way to protest the societal oppression against women.

The woman locks up her room and doesn't let her husband enter her room because of what she is doing inside. When the husband returns bringing the room’s key with him, he faints on seeing the state of his wife. The woman crawls over him and still circles the room, ripping the wallpaper out of the wall. While many might argue that the insanity of the woman is not at all a triumph, rather a loss, many might interpret her crawling over her husband as a victory over the man who oppressed her, symbolically rising over him. This theory has gained the most traction since Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a feminist.

Gilman later claimed that she knew of one woman who was helped by the publication of her novella. The family who had supposedly put her in a rest cure had brought her back to society and that helped her recover. But even though we do not rely on such practices we still have a long way to go to look at mental health the way we do. Many of us who do face mental health issues might find ourselves entrapped by the yellow wallpaper of society. Other than the psychological impact, we still have other wallpapers in our lives that constraint us from doing what we want to become or how we want to do so.

Be it to talk about the unequal and unfair means women were treated or to make the people aware of the psychological state, Charlotte Perkins Gilman has helped construct feminism in a gothic, insightful way within her story. Her Novella was, is, and will continue to inspire people to rip the disturbing yellow wallpaper and to be free.

Happy Reading!

- Harsh Kichambare

To read more article written by Harsh Kichambare - CLICK HERE


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