“I’ve got out at last,” said I, ” in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” Pg. 189
Charlotte Perkins Gilman is often considered a feminist writer, as her work on The Yellow Wallpaper helped bring the plight of women into the public consciousness. This was simply a byproduct of her original intent, which was just to convince one misinformed doctor to stop prescribing a “rest cure” to treat minor mental disturbances. According to the short synopsis of her life in The Seagull Reader, she suffered from depression after having her first child, and was driven to the brink of insanity by the exact rest cure that Jane is forced into in the story. I have no doubt that The Yellow Wallpaper is autobiographical in nature, and that Gilman did, in fact lose her mind for a brief period of time.
In the story, Jane is a woman who’s doctor husband thinks that she has “hysterical tendencies” and patronizes her almost as one would a small child. He takes her to an estate in the countryside where she is promptly shut off for hours at a time by herself in a room with bars on the windows and a hideous yellow wallpaper that she describes on page 174 and 175:
The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off -the paper- in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin…The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
Jane is expected to do nothing, her husband even worries when she writes. The reader is led to believe that perhaps she suffers from what would now be called postpartum depression, as she talks about her baby briefly and how nervous he makes her. Throughout the course of the book, this woman goes from talking about her husband in a positive light, to being suspicious of him and everything he says. In almost the same way, the wallpaper goes from being merely a wall covering to becoming a sinister being that aims to best her. She obsesses over the pattern and the way it changes and moves before her eyes. The book ends with her becoming one with the wallpaper in her mind. Her husband faints after finding her creeping across the floor pushing her shoulder against the wall so she doesn’t get lost as she winds around the room, and she simply climbs over him and continues on in the groove she has worn into the walls.
I am not certain whether Gilman intended for the reader to feel sympathy for the husband in this story, but I find that I can’t help it. He is a man limited by the knowledge and attitudes of his time. He is trying to help his wife get better and instead helps drive her to the brink of insanity and beyond. As the story progresses you can feel through her descriptions of him that he is growing more and more worried about her, but isn’t able to help in any real way. His fainting at the end is his final realization that she has completely lost her mind and it is too much for him.
This is actually the fifth time I have read this short story, though this time I bring a renewed sympathy and understanding to the character of Jane that I didn’t have before. When I was pregnant with my twins, I went into full labor at 23 weeks. It was also discovered at the same time that one of the boys had a two-vessel umbilical cord instead of a three-vessel one. It was at this point that my doctor decided to hospitalize me in order to keep a closer eye on the babies. I spent the next 10 weeks laying on my back, hooked up to a fetal monitor and being given round after round of drugs to keep from going into labor (not to mention the steroid shots that burned the whole length of my leg). I started out with purpose; I was going to save my babies and keep them from an extended stay in the NICU.
There is a feeling of impending doom on the Anti-Partum ward, especially when you go in as early as I did. Despite the niceties of the nurses, I got the general feeling that everyone was expecting the worst. the lowest point of my whole stay was the day when a doctor who was mostly unfamiliar with my case told me that my children could both end up being Down Syndrome and asked if I wanted to do genetic testing. It took every ounce of willpower I had not to scream at him. I knew in my heart that he was wrong, but I was angry at the insinuation that it would make any difference, or that this was the worst thing I was facing at that moment. As much as my husband and my family tried to be there for me and to understand what I was going through, I was alone in a way I have never been before. I used trash television to fill the hours until something happened that would change my situation. It was during my stay at the hospital that I started to fixate on a leaf pattern on the ceiling tiles in my room that was uneven. I spent many long hours staring at that pattern and willing it to just sprout another leaf so I could stop looking at it. To be fair, this might have been during the week that I started hallucinating that my bed was spinning and covered with snakes (they had the meds cranked up pretty high apparently).
My babies are fine, and were born at 33 weeks with no real issues to speak of and spent only a month in the NICU, but my experience has changed the way i view the world permanently. I still struggle with wanting to hide in my own little world, and I have to consciously force myself to get in the car and drive to the store on certain days. I bring this up, not because I expect sympathy, but simply because Gilman’s story unexpectedly dragged my own story out of me in a way that nothing else ever has.