I haven’t read anything written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman before. This short story has been on my reading list since last year. I finally read this past week. The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story that focuses on a couple who move into a house for the summer on account of the women’s failing health.
The story is narrated from the first-person point of view through diary entries. The narrator is not mentioned by name so, she will be referred to as the narrator. The narrator and her husband John move to a big and beautiful estate for the summer. She seems to be suffering from a mental health issue; the descriptions give a clear clue that it is depression, post-partum depression most likely because she just had a baby. Although in the story, it isn’t diagnosed as such. Her husband John is a physician, and he simply keeps telling her that she should take rest and shouldn’t give in to her fantasies. John keeps telling her to rest and not do anything exerting other than the household chores. He wants her to stop writing or doing anything that is intellectually stimulating for her to get better. The narrator writes these diary entries when her husband isn’t home.
They move into a big bedroom that the narrator believes used to be a nursery that has hideous yellow wallpaper. The yellow wallpaper disturbs her from the beginning, and she keeps telling her husband that they should take a different room, but he doesn’t listen. The narrators’ focus and obsession with the wallpaper go on increasing as the story progresses. The narrator keeps trying to understand the patterns of the wallpaper almost like she is solving a puzzle. John doesn’t agree with her concerns about the wallpaper and dismisses them. I think the wallpaper acts as a symbol for the deterioration of the narrator’s mental health.
The main two themes that are underlying throughout the story are –mental health and gender roles in society. John, the husband is the logical and scientific one; he doesn’t exactly understand how to explain the troubles of his wife so he sticks to getting her in better physical health. He tells the narrator that whether she believes it or not she is getting better. His reason is rooted in the physical aspects like – she is eating better and looks healthier. When in reality, her mental health is on the decline and reaches its apex during the climax.
The people around her insist she takes rest and not do anything straining even writing or visiting relatives. No one tries to understand her condition, and it is mostly treated like some form of nervousness or hysteria stemming from the narrator’s mind. Such restriction on activities the narrator finds comfort in actually has a negative effect on her. Her interest in writing and reading is hinted at as a reason for her troubles; the fancies and imaginations she has are to blame. Her husband constantly reminds her that the ‘rest cure’ as it is called is the only thing that will help her.
The second important aspect of the story is women’s place in 19th-century society. The gender roles are very specified. Even when the narrator is asked to rest, she is expected to do housework but not write. She is often treated like a child by her husband. He listens to her opinions but never agrees to anything she says; his is the last word. John is the practical and logical one, while her responses are simply emotional. He easily dismisses her concerns about everything saying he knows what is best for her. John’s sister, who comes to stay with them also, gets into this role of taking care of the house and reporting on the narrator’s activities to her brother. The narrator maintaining her diary is also sort of a rebellion on her part because John doesn’t want and like her writing at such a time. It almost feels like in the story, the author is implying, that the way women are stifled in society, they are more prone to mental health issues.
The story is narrated in a very unique way. The diary entries start getting frazzled as the story progresses, and it gets unnerving. It seems like a gothic tale in a way. Mainly the descriptions of the house and the narrator’s paranoia about the wallpaper. You can feel the increase in the narrator’s trouble as the climax approaches. Charlotte Perkins Gilman has managed to make this short story deep and meaningful in such a restrained manner. I loved reading it.
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