Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) whom is most famous for her authorization of The Yellow Wallpaper (1891) was a women writer ahead of her time. Gilman creates a horrifying image of entrapment in the short story, illustrating a semi-autobiographical picture of a young woman undergoing the rest cure treatment by her husband, whom is also her psychiatrist. Gilman exploited the rest cure in The Yellow Wallpaper to alert other women of the damaging effects of the treatment.
In 1887 after the birth of her daughter, Gilman became severely depressed and sought treatment for nervous exhaustion by psychiatrist Silas Weir Mitchell. Mitchell’s rest cure consisted of bed rest, isolation, overfeeding, and massage/electricity on her muscles. When Gilman realized that Mitchell’s treatment worsened her depression, she left both her husband and doctor. Several years later, Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a reaction to her physician Mitchell’s prescribed rest cure. In her essay “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper?” Gilman wrote, “Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper with its embellishments and additions to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it” (Charlotte Perkins Gilman).
To contextualize the story, Gilman visualized her husband and her physician as the same person. Gilman illuminated that during her treatment, both men imprisoned her and treated her with intolerable cruelty. Gilman felt that both men manipulated her and suffocated her artistic integrity during the time she underwent treatment. In Gilman’s story, the narrator said, “John is a physician, and perhaps—I wouldn’t say it to a living soul of course, but this dead paper, and a great relief to my mind—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster” (265). Gilman illuminates that neither her husband nor her physician listened to her when she confided in them during her treatment. Furthermore, the narrator said, “It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so” (269). In this statement, Gilman highlights both men’s behavior towards her during her treatment. In the story, John did not listen to the narrator when she told him that she felt that the treatment was ineffective. In this passage she also criticizes submissive women. The narrator’s statement appears very obedient and agreeable which makes the narrator look subservient. However, John was silencing the narrator because he had no respect for her. When the narrator attempts to approach John about returning home, he responds with, “What is it little girl?” and “Why, darling,” coddling her and illuminating his lack of respect for her (269-270). He continues, “The repairs are not done at home, and I can’t possibly leave town just now. Of course if you were in any danger I could and would, but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not” (270). John does not listen to her and continues to ignore her pleas. John’s behavior towards the narrator conveys his nonexistent concern for her health and happiness. Furthermore, he does not want to be proven wrong by a woman, therefore, enforces reverse psychology, in hopes that she will discover the fault is within her, not him.
Gilman highlights the narrator’s entrapment to further emphasize her own personal struggle. In the story the narrator said, “I don’t like our room a bit. I wanted one downstairs, that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the windows, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings; but John wouldn’t hear of it” (265). Although she detested the room, she was trapped by her husband and had no means of escape. Gilman continued, “It is a big airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunlight galore. It was nursery first, and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge, for the windows are barred for little children and there are rings and things in the walls” (266). The narrator was coddled and pampered as if she were a child; however, John did not attend to her when she needed him. In fact, he rarely attended to her. Instead, he left her alone in a nursery with barred windows. When he was around, he treated her as if she were a child, not a woman. This treatment reflects the statements he says to her throughout the story. In The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman illustrates the disrespect both her husband and psychiatrist had for her through the characterization of John.
Gilman was not the only woman writer whom underwent treatment for the rest cure. According to Suzanne Poirier, “By the time he (Mitchell) died in 1914, the Weir Mitchell Rest Cure had been translated into four other languages and had committed disciples around the world, despite the growing reputation of Sigmund Freud” (Suzanne Poirier). However, Gilman was not the only woman writer prescribed to the rest cure. Poirer recognized that other well-established women writers were also prescribed (and later criticized) his treatment. According to Poirier, “Mitchell’s treatment of Jane Addams, Winifred Howells, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and the use of his treatment on Virginia Woolf caused cries of protest from all these women or their families” (Suzanne Poirer). When Mitchell’s treatment had expanded overseas, Woolf was prescribed Mitchell’s rest cure. Similar to Gilman and other women writers, Woolf criticized his treatment methods, also suggesting that her depression had worsened. Woolf deliberately mentions the rest cure in her novel Mrs. Dalloway through both autobiographical and fictional recounts. Mrs. Dalloway serves as a warning of the fatalities of utilizing medicalization for repressing grief.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story has had such an artistic impact on creative spirits alike. Here is a link to The Yellow Wallpaper R&D Trailer, which is an experimental dance piece choreographed by Paul Chantry:
And don’t forget…
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” Forerunner. Oct 1913:
271-272. Web. 21 Mar. 2013. <http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015014168648;seq=279;view=1up;num=271>.
Poirier, Suzanne. “The Weir Mitchell Rest Cure: Doctor and Patients.”Women’s Studies 10.1 (1983): 15-40. Print.
Sobin, C., and H. A. Sackeim. “Psychomotor Symptoms of Depression.” The American journal of psychiatry 154.1 (1997): 4. Print.