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Literature: Yellow Wallpaper

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In “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the unnamed
protagonist is suffering from postpartum depression, which is caused by the
rapid changes in levels of hormones such as estrogen, progesterone and thyroid
due to the birth of a child. This depression can be brought on by stress and
isolation right after birth. In this short story the protagonist was brushed of
by her husband John, who is a medical doctor as having a temporary nervous
condition. In this situation, if the protagonist was effectively treated instead
of being isolated, which allowed the depression to escalate to a severe form,
she would have steadily gotten better. Instead the protagonist began to develop
postpartum psychosis, which is the most severe postpartum reaction. During this
time “woman will experience a break with reality which may include the
experience of hallucinations and/or delusions. Other symptoms may include severe
insomnia, agitation, and bizarre feelings and behavior” (Depression After
Delivery, Inc. 3). “The Yellow Wallpaper” takes place in the late eighteen
hundreds when psychological disorders were dismissed as temporary nervous
conditions, and unless there was something physically wrong with the person, the
individual had to be isolated from any stimulating activities. Isolation seemed
to be the best antidote for psychological disorders in the late eighteen
hundreds, although, it only made the disorder worse. John only worsens his
wife’s disorder by taking her away for the summer and placing her in an old
house that is “quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three
miles from the village” (Barrett 193). John once again isolates his wife from
any stimulating activities and forbids her to work...”and am absolutely
forbidden to “work” until I am well again” (Barrett 192). The protagonist
personally disagrees with their ideas when she states, “that congenial work,
with excitement and change would do me good” (Barrett 192). John did not allow
her to write either, although, “[she] did write for a while in spite of
them” (Barrett 193), but she did not dare let John or his sister Jennie catch
her writing. One of the first symptoms of postpartum psychosis is the experience
of hallucinations, which are “sensory perceptual distortions, such as seeing,
hearing, smelling, feeling or tasting sensations that others would not sense and
do not exist outside of ones perception” (Depression After Delivery, Inc. 3)
and delusions, which are false fixed beliefs. The protagonist begins to get
hallucinations/delusions when she unwillingly accepts the upstairs nursery
instead of the downstairs room that opened into a piazza and had roses all over
the window. She illustrates this by saying, “But John would not hear of it. He
said there was only one window and not room for two beds, and no near room for
him if he took another” (Barrett 193). Once situated in the room she develops
a fixation for the yellow wallpaper. The protagonist begins to follow the
pattern about by the hour. She starts “at the bottom, down in the corner over
there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time
that I will follow that pointless patter to some sort of conclusion” (Barrett
197). Finally, from being in that room so long she begins the hallucinations.
This is noticed when the protagonist points out that the front pattern does
move-and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a
great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and
her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still,
and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them
hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb
through that pattern-it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.
Then the protagonist continues by saying, I think that woman gets out in the
daytime! And I’ll tell you why-privately-I’ve seen her! (Barrett 202) As
these hallucinations are going on the protagonist keeps these emotions
bottled-up and doesn’t allow anyone to be aware that she is having them.
Another symptom that the protagonist has is severe insomnia, which is difficulty
in initiating or maintaining sleep. She shows her inability to sleep when she
says, “ he thought I was asleep first, but I wasn’t, and lay there for hours
trying to decide whether that front pattern and the back pattern really did move
together or separately” (Barrett 199). The protagonist consistently stays
awake at night staring at the wallpaper pattern on the wall. John then sees the
need for his wife to sleep more, so he makes her lie down an hour after each
meal. The protagonist feels this is a very bad habit when she says, “It is a
very bad habit, I am convinced, for you see, I don’t sleep” (Barrett 200).
The protagonist doesn’t sleep well at night either, due to her growing
fixation with the wallpaper... “I don’t sleep much at night, for it is so
interesting to watch developments” (Barrett 200). The third symptom that the
protagonist is suffering from is agitation, which are feelings that often excite
or trouble ones mind. The protagonist seems to become angry with her husband
John very often now, although, he has not done anything wrong to agitate his
wife. I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never use to be
so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition. But John says if I
feel so I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control
myself-before him, at least, and that makes me very tired. (Barrett 193) The
protagonist starts to become agitated with the yellow wallpaper as she continues
to stare at the wall. “I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and
the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd
unblinking eyes are everywhere” (Barrett 195). The protagonist also
demonstrates bizarre (strikingly out of the ordinary) feelings and behavior. She
illustrates this behavior by constant crying for no apparent reason. “I cry at
nothing, and cry most of the time” (Barrett 196). The wallpaper seems to
continuously dwell her mind, which is bizarre in itself, because no one should
by obsessed over nonsense things like wallpaper. “It dwells my mind so”
(Barrett 196)! The protagonist also starts to become unusually weak... “half
the time now I am awfully lazy, and lie down ever so much” (Barrett 197). She
continued to demonstrate her bizarre behavior when she said, “this bed will
not move! I tried to lift and push it until I was lame, and then I got so angry
I bit off a little piece at one corner-but it hurt my teeth” (Barrett 203).
She even contemplates jumping out of the window... “I am getting angry enough
to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be and admirable
exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try” (Barrett 204). Towards the
end of the story the protagonist reaches complete mental instability. At this
point the protagonist has reached the worst part of her disorder. She presents
this instability when she says, “I wonder if they come out of the wallpaper as
I did” (Barrett 204). At this time she is confusing reality with her
imagination. “I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it
comes night, and that is hard” (Barrett 204)! The main reason of this
statement isn’t just her madness, but it is how she feels. The protagonist
feels that she can be herself during the day when John is not around, but at
night she has to pretend to be a totally different person. At the end of the
story John and Jennie become aware of what is going on with her. “What is the
matter?’ he cried. “For God’s sake, what are you doing!” I kept on
creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. “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!” No way should the man have fainted?
But he did, and right across my path by the wall so that I had to creep over him
every time! (Barrrett 204) Throughout “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Gilman makes
it evident that the protagonist is suffering from some type of postpartum
reaction, that has been left untreated by her husband. She was able to vividly
portray a woman’s descent into madness, due to her own fit with a similar
disorder. Gilman wrote the story to effect change in the treatment of depressive
women. She once stated “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save
people from being driven crazy” (Barrett 185).
Barrett, Eileen and Mary Cullinan, ed. American Women Writers: Diverse Voices
In Prose Since 1845. New York: St. Martin’s. 1992. Depression After Delivery,
Inc. Depression After Delivery. Belle Mead, New Jersey. 1996.
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