Essay, Research Paper: Yellow Wallpaper By Charlotte Gilman

Literature: Yellow Wallpaper

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For the women in the twentieth century today, who have more freedom than before
and have not experienced the depressive life that Gilman lived from 1860 to
1935, it is difficult to understand Gilman’s situation and understand the
significance of “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Gilman’s original purpose of
writing the story was to gain personal satisfaction if Dr. S. Weir Mitchell
might change his treatment after reading the story. However, as Ann L. Jane
suggests, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is “the best crafted of her fiction: a
genuine literary piece…the most directly, obviously, self-consciously
autobiographical of all her stories” (Introduction xvi). And more importantly,
Gilman says in her article in The Forerunner, “It was not intended to drive
people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked” (20).
Therefore, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a revelation of Charlotte Perkins
Gilman’s own emotions. When the story first came out in 1892 the critics
considered “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a portrayal of female insanity rather
than a story that reveals an aspect of society. In The Transcript, a physician
from Boston wrote, “Such a story ought not to be written…it was enough to
drive anyone mad to read it” (Gilman 19). This statement implies that any
woman that would write something to show opposition to the dominant social
values must have been insane. In Gilman’s time setting “The ideal woman was
not only assigned a social role that locked her into her home, but she was also
expected to like it, to be cheerful and gay, smiling and good humored” (Lane,
To Herland 109). Those women who rejected this role and pursued intellectual
enlightenment and freedom would be scoffed, alienated, and even punished. This
is exactly what Gilman experienced when she tried to express her desire for
independence. Gilman expressed her emotional and psychological feelings of
rejection from society for thinking freely in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which
is a reaction to the fact that it was against the grain of society for women to
pursue intellectual freedom or a career in the late 1800’s. Her taking Dr. S.
Weir Mitchell’s “rest cure” was the result of the pressures of these
prevalent social values. Charlotte Gilman was born on July 3, 1860, in Hartford,
Connecticut in a family boasting a list of revolutionary thinkers, writers. And
intermarriages among them were, as Carol Berkin put it, “in discrete
confirmation of their pride in association” (18). One fact that catches our
attention is that, either from the inbreeding, or from the high intellectual
capacity of the family, there was a long sting of disorders ranging from
“manic-depressive illness” to nervous breakdowns including suicide and short
term hospitalizations (Lane, To Herland 110). Harriet Beecher Stowe, Gilman’s
aunt, also complained about this illness. When writing to a friend, Beecher
said, “My mind is exhausted and seems to be sinking into deadness” (Lane, TO
Herland 111). She felt this way for years and did not recover from so many
breakdowns until finding “real release in her writing” of Uncle Tom’s
Cabin (Lane, To Herland 111). And Catherine Beecher, another famous writer and
lecturer at that time, was also sent to the same sanitarium for nervous
disorders. As Gilman came from a family of such well known feminists and
revolutionaries, it is without a doubt that she grew up with the idea that she
had the right to be treated as anyone, whether man or woman. Not only did this
strong background affect her viewpoint about things, it also affected her
relations with her husband and what role she would play in that relationship.
From the beginning of her marriage, she struggled with the idea of conforming to
the domestic model for women. Upon repeated proposals from Stetson, her husband,
Gilman tried to “lay bare her torments and reservations” about getting
married (Lane, To Herland 85). She claimed that “her thoughts, her acts, her
whole life would be centered on husband and children. To do the work she needed
to do, she must be free” (Lane, To Herland 85). Gilman was so scared of this
idea because she loved her work and she loved freedom, though she also loved her
husband very much. “After a long period of uncertainty and vacillation” she
married Charles Stetson at 24 (Lane, Introduction x). Less than a year later,
however, “feelings of ‘nervous exhaustion’ immediately descended upon
Gilman, and she became a ‘mental wreck’” (Ceplair 17). In that period of
time, she wrote many articles on “women caught between families and careers
and the need for women to have work as well as love” (Ceplair 19). The stress
that Gilman was under of rejecting the “domestic model” of women led to her
breakdown and caused her to meet Dr. S. Weir Mitchell. She attempted to express
the tensions she felt her work, her husband, and her child in her writing. She
did her best to fight against the depression but finally “she collapsed
utterly in April 1886” (Ceplair 19), forcing her to turn to Dr. S. Weir
Mitchell, a nationally renowned neurologist in women’s nervous diseases. He
told Gilman that “she was suffering from neurasthenia, or exhaustion of the
nerves” the diagnosis required his renowned “rest cure” (Lane, To Herland
115). The treatment required for the cure involved “1) extended and total bed
rest; 2) isolation from family and familiar surroundings…” (Lane, To Herland
116). The treatment was basically a version of how to be submissive and domestic
according to the dominant social values outside of the sanitarium. After being
treated for a month Gilman was sent home and was told to “live as domestic a
life as possible…and never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live”
(Lane, To Herland 121). Having a strong love for her work and being a free
thinker and writer, Gilman would naturally consider this way of treatment a
cruel punishment. In her diary she wrote, “I went home, followed those
directions rigidly for a month and came perilously near to losing my mind”
(Lane, To Herland 121). In the late 1800’s women did not have the opportunity
to have both a career and their families. They have to give up their families if
they waned to pursue a career. Despite the great controversy she created, Gilman
decided to choose her work over her family when she divorced her husband in 1887
and moved to California. A few years later, she gave her child to her ex-husband
in order to lecture across the country. In 1890 she wrote “The Yellow
Wallpaper” in reaction to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell’s “rest cure”. In her
“Why I wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?” in The Forerunner, Gilman portrays
the “years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown” and
goes on to talk about the doctor who treated her and how in reaction to
treatment had “sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad”
(Gilman 19, 20). And she says, “the best result…years later I was told the
treat specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his
treatment of neurasthenia since reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’” (Gilman
20). Despite what Gilman said, we can sense a tone of this work being close to
her emotional and psychological reality. Besides, many studies have been carried
out to find what Gilman’s intent was in writing “The Yellow Wallpaper”.
Joanne Karpinski says, “one theme that seems to run through all her works…is
a desire for order and coherence in lived experience” (3) while Lane suggests,
“(it) is an intensely personal examination of Gilman’s private nightmare”
(To Herland 127). This implies that she wrote this story to sort through her
emotions and fears in her own life. If her revenge for Dr. Mitchell is part of
the reason in writing this work, it is also true that her creation of this story
allows her to reveal her emotional and psychological state of mind. Even though
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is just a story that is most probably fictitious,
there are amazing similarities between Gilman’s real life experience and what
is depicted in the story. Lane describes one of Gilman’s diary entry where she
wrote, “I made a rag baby…hung it on the doorknob and played with it. I
would crawl into remote closets and under beds --- to hide from the grinding
pressure of that profound distress” (To Herland 121). This is amazingly
similar to what is described of the narrator in the story, who crawls and creeps
in the corners of the room. Gilman showed her emotions in the story and tried to
discover “what happens to our lives if we let others run them for us” (Lane,
introduction xviii). The attempts to discover was hard for her “(it) must have
haunted Gilman all her life because it answered the question: what if she had
not fled her husband and renounced the most advance psychiatric advice of her
time?” (Lane, Introduction xviii). “The Yellow wallpaper” is a testament
to Gilman’s own life experience. We can feel the tough decisions she made and
how those decisions affected her emotionally as Lane puts it, “perhaps the
emotional truth and intensity of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ drained her; perhaps
it frightened her” (To Herland 127). Gilman delved deep into her emotions and
feelings in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and that is why it is Gilman’s
best-know work today (Charters 318).

Berkin, Ruth Carol. “Self-Images: Childhood and Adolescence.” Critical
Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ed. Joanne Karpinski. New York: G.K. Hall,
1992. Ceplair, Larry. “The Early Years.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A
Non-fiction Reader. Ed. Larry Ceplair. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. 5-19.
Charters, Ann. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction
(Compact Fifth Edition). Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston, 1999 Gilman, Charlotte
Perkins. “Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper'?” The Forerunner (Oct. 1913):
19-20. Karpinski, Joanne B. Introduction. Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins
Gilman. Ed. Joanne Karpinski. New York: G.K. Hall, 1992. Lane, Ann J.
Introduction. “The Fictional World of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” The
Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader. Ed. Ann J. Lane. New York: Pantheon Books,
1980. X-xviii. Lane, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte
Perkins Gilman. New York: Penguin, 1990.
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