Gilman Exposed in The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," is the disheartening tale of a woman suffering from postpartum depression. Set during the late 1890s, the story shows the mental and emotional results of the typical "rest cure" prescribed during that era and the narrator’s reaction to this course of treatment. It would appear that Gilman was writing about her own anguish as she herself underwent such a treatment with Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell in 1887, just two years after the birth of her daughter Katherine. The rest cure that the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" describes is very close to what Gilman herself experienced; therefore, the story can be read as reflecting the feelings of women like herself who suffered through such treatments. Because of her experience with the rest cure, it can even be said that Gilman based the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" loosely on herself. But I believe that expressing her negative feelings about the popular rest cure is only half of the message that Gilman wanted to send. Within the subtext of this story lies the theme of oppression: the oppression of the rights of women especially inside of marriage. Gilman was using the woman/women behind the wallpaper to express her personal views on this issue.
The two common threads that connect Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the narrator in her story are depression/postpartum depression, and entrapment within their roles as of women. Specifically, Gilman and the narrator are trying to escape the function society has placed on them. First, after fulfilling their expected duties as wife and mother, both Gilman and the narrator become depressed after the birth of their child. It is this depression that leads them to the infamous rest cure so widely prescribed during the late 1800’s. Linda Wagner-Martin, in her essay on "The Yellow Wallpaper" describes Dr. Mitchell’s treatment of the typical female seeking his world famous rest cure. Wagner-Martin states that the rest cure "depended upon seclusion, massage, immobility, and overfeeding; . . . [it] had at its root complete mental inactivity" (982). Carol Parley Kessler, in her essay on Gilman’s life, quotes Dr. Mitchell’s prescription to Gilman as, "never touch pen, brush, or pencil" (Kessler 158). Gilman subjects her narrator to the same prescription. You can tell from the story that the narrator wants to write and that she thinks that being allowed to do so would help her mental and emotional condition. She says, "I think . . . it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me" (Gilman 81).
Kessler further explains that Dr. Mitchell’s treatment only made Gilman’s depression worse and that eventually "she ceased to follow his regimen" (158). The character she creates in "The Yellow Wallpaper" also fantasizes about ending her regimen saying, "I wish I could get well faster" (Gilman 81). Both seem to view the rest cure as an unwanted interruption in their...