a brief critical analysis of C. P. Gilman's famous piece; it explores sanity and psychosis
|Sanity in “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Of all the sciences that exist, the science of the human brain is one of the most intangible of sciences. The study of the human condition is something that we will never be able to fully understand. Dictionaries define sanity as being mentally healthy. So who determines the amount of health, and is there a universal standard for this? These are questions we pay doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists to answer for us. So what happens when this ideal is challenged? Charlotte Perkins Gilman throws down the gauntlet in her short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” She dares us as readers to question what we know and still have yet to learn about ourselves. The novel focuses on a protagonist who takes on the patriarchal world in the guise of her husband, and in so doing, travels down a jagged path to her own mental breakdown. However, the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” seems to acquire her psychosis in order to regain her self-esteem and sense of identity.
Gilman openly admits to having written this novel as a direct challenge to the medical field and its treatment of women in the late nineteenth century. She herself faced a near mental collapse and so it is reasonable to surmise that much of the novel holds autobiographical content. “The Yellow Wallpaper” directs its attention to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the physician who prescribed for her a rest cure and “came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that [she] could see over” as written in Gilman's article for The Forerunner. She concluded by saying that her story “was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”
Gilman's short story grabs the immediate attention and appreciation of feminist readers as “The Yellow Wallpaper” draws the social line between men and women and recognizes “certain kinds of gender stereotypes” (Bennett 141). There is a hierarchy mentioned in Bennett's critique of the story, one that involves the dominance of the man and the insubordination of the woman (141). Gilman asserts this belief through sarcasm throughout the entire novel, at least up to the very end, when the tone changes drastically. The narrator quickly shows her audience of readers her resentment towards her husband, John: “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage” (Gilman 2345). It is only on paper that she may express herself, and even then, it must be executed furtively, thus emphasizing women's lack of respect and rights. Gilman paints a crass picture of this narrator's very subdued world, and captures the sympathy of female readers everywhere. It goes without saying that male readers, especially modern ones, may understand and sympathize with our narrator, but will undoubtedly read it with different eyes. “The Yellow Wallpaper” above all, “is a powerful satire on patriarchal society and values” (Bennett 142). There is a display of violence against women in general here, but not necessarily a physical violence. Bennett recounts a “soft face of oppression” (142) that the reader sees in the narrator's description of her husband, who is “very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction” (Gilman 2346).
John places numerous constraints on his wife, and while they have been well-intended, they did not take Jane's (the narrator's) feelings or concerns into account. For instance, she is to take numerous tonics, and is forbidden to do any work of any kind, much to the displeasure of Jane, who wishes to undertake some tasks, like writing. Her thoughts at the initial arrival at the summer estate are very revealing about her character. She does host her own opinions and seems to want to assert herself, but backs down because of the conventional societal restraints that existed in her time. Jane seems to shrug her shoulders in defeat as she sighs: “But what is one to do?” (Gilman 2345). Yet, there is a small amount of power in her as well, as she defiantly lets readers know that she writes in spite of her husband wishes. This rebellion foreshadows the narrator's actions and leads her to her own end, metaphorically. Something of particular note in this story is the narrator's use of descriptions. There are so many motifs and symbols used: the “delicious gardens,” the foreboding room, and of course, the wallpaper itself. Gilman utilizes anthropomorphism to give the wallpaper attributes of human form, and she accomplishes this slowly, in direct representation of the narrator's descent into madness. The more she focuses on the wallpaper, the more life she seems to breathe into it, and initially, she sees what she wants to see, and that is her escape from reality, her continuous desire of freedom. The patterns in the wallpaper tell of the narrator's foundational signs of psychosis. She describes the wallpaper as having “sprawling, flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin,” “dull enough to confuse the eye in following,” and “lame, uncertain curves … [that] commit suicide” (Gilman 2346). A more in-depth reading may indicate that the narrator has poor self-esteem and confidence, and exhibits severe signs of depression. She also discusses the color, “unclean yellow, strangely faded … a sickly sulphur tint” (Gilman 2346) only further implicating her psychosis. It almost seems that her description of the wallpaper directly represent how she sees herself. John asserts his dominance over Jane as he refuses to repaper the room and insists that Jane not let it get the better of her. Gilman may have wanted to implicate John here as partially to blame for Jane's psychosis. As the story continues, the wallpaper takes on more life, and more human qualities, such as the “two bulbous eyes” (Gilman 2347).
Jane appears to be getting better, because that is expected of her, but all the while she “lets her resistance melt into admiring analysis and begins the process of adaptation to the yellow environment” (Scott 200). Jane is determined to find the pattern, make sense of it. She uses logic, science and miscellaneous principles to do so, showing us that she is a capable and educated woman, thus making the ending all the more powerful in its statement. All the time in this house, she was bored and tired, but we soon see a turn, as Jane develops a semblance of happiness, a sense of self-purpose. The shapes in the wallpaper emanate more human qualities. The figure, still formless mid-story, skulks behind the design. We begin to see her separation from reality the more human the shape becomes, until the narrator no longer can distinguish the illusion from the reality. Initially she despises the paper, and she has become so fond of it towards the close of the novel. The narrator is honest with herself and her audience for some time, as she admits that “it is getting to be a great effort for [her] to think straight” (Gilman 2349).
While the wallpaper is the more crucial of symbols within the story, the room Jane stays in lends further discussion. Its barred windows, with nailed down furniture, signs of the wallpaper being stripped by previous tenants … leads to the conclusion that the house housed mentally ill adults and/or children. This was very provocative of Gilman to create the room this way, and truly establishes the insanity of the narrator. It offers more intricate questions with infinite and increasingly more intricate possibilities, such as whether the room caused Jane's madness, whether or not others escaped as Jane did. The color leaks out beyond the walls, staining Jane's clothes and further establishing the psychosis as a tangible concept here. Jane is writing herself into her own wonderland, she makes sense of what she initially did not understand and is becoming permanently attached to the wallpaper's developing figure as if it were her only friend, and she gradually becomes more suspicious and furtive in her attempts to find the pattern there. She becomes comfortable in this prison-like room, “her yellow world” and “leaves us wondering whether woman's freedom (the room's key) was lost with the Garden, as the story goes, or whether it creeps behind the socialization within each of our minds” (Scott 202). The narrator completely isolates herself from her husband and the rest of the real and natural world.
After the fourth of July, Jane's perception of reality begins to shift drastically and we as readers know instinctively that the narrator's sanity is near its complete collapse. We see the obsession through her jotted down notes: “there are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will” (Gilman 2349). The narrator has new eyes and the tone shifts here as well. Jane is stronger, more confidant, even her lifestyle has altered; she sleeps throughout the day to stay awake at night to observe the figure which only seems to creep around at night as she is much more subdued during the day. She hides behind her misconstrued belief that she is getting better, she claims to be more alive, and John further enables her psychosis. The paper takes on a physical smell and streaks all over the room and marks Jane's clothing. She herself gets dizzy looking at it now. It is very clear to us that she has officially lost her grip on sanity. She claims to see a woman in the paper who creeps and tries to free herself from her prison behind the paper's pattern. Jane has projected her desires onto the paper, and can no longer distinguish between the yellow world and reality. She cannot look her husband in the eye, and no longer wants to be in anyone's company but the woman in the paper. Furthermore, “[she] doesn't want to go out, and [she] doesn't want to have anybody come in” (Gilman 2354). She wants to astonish John. She literally locked herself inside the room and begins peeling the paper off the wall, as some previous tenants had started, but Jane believes she is strong enough to finish the job and is very determined to do so.
It is here at the end, where Jane is beyond any help, and has completely lost her mind, now having fused her identity with the woman she had been closely following. She has traded the prison of her marriage with John to the prison of the wallpaper, reaffirming Gilman's observations of the patriarchal society surrounding her, the narrator in her story and all other women besides. The narrator succeeds where others seemingly did not, and Jane's newfound strength was directly impacted by her psychosis. Without it, she would have remained docile and subservient to her husband, and perhaps have never come out of the “nervousness” that she was originally diagnosed with.
There continues to be a debate over whether the narrator's “developing relation to the wallpaper is a process of self-recognition, one that boldly confronts reality, even though the price is high” (Hochman 98). For me, it leaves no room for doubt, for Jane happily tells John, “Ive got out at last, in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!” (Gilman 2355). This declaration was very powerful, so unlike the narrator we see in the beginning. It was also interesting to note that she no longer refers to herself in the first person. Her descent into madness is now complete.
Gilman, I don't think, intended for readers to read this from a feministic perspective, as she wished to “discourage her readers from identifying with the narrator as the narrator identifies with the woman in the wallpaper's sub-pattern” (Hochman 99-100). Yet it most often is read as a suspense tale, not unlike the works of Edgar Allen Poe. I feel that feminist readers don't identify literally with the woman in the wallpaper; we, as female readers, will share the knowledge and experience of feeling trapped and will pity the narrator in her search for that freedom, only to find another prison of sorts.
After reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” we are left with the sense of pity for the narrator while also admiring her determination to find herself, even if it was an unhealthy form of self. The narrator seemed pleased at the end, and I wonder whether she will recognize the prison she created for herself at some point in the future. The most enjoyable part of this story is the fact it was realistic; through this personal diary, we get to know Jane in a very personal way. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a literary representation of power, more specifically that of women, who still reside in a patriarchal society. This is a novel women can call their own. Gilman couldn't have imagined the success and recognition this novel would receive, all because she sought to help at least one other person overcome her own demons, and avoid the terrible journey into madness. Sanity is something we all face and maintain control of, as we control our own actions and thoughts. Jane was weak and lost control of herself, only to find some semblance of strength in a world she created, though the rest of the world may never understand the how or why. Mark Twain once said, “Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.” I tend to agree.
Bennett, Andrew and Royle, Nicholas. Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, second edition. Pearson Education Limited: England, 1999.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Pearson Education, Inc. 2008.
Hochman, Barbara. The Reading Habit and “The Yellow Wallpaper”. American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism and Bibliography. (AL) 2002 Mar; 74 (1) 89-110.
Scott, Heidi. Crazed Nature: Ecology in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Explicator 2009 Spring 67 (3) 198- 203.