The Psychological Portrait in The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was famous in her time as a women's activist. Later, she began writing fiction. As noted in her Norton Anthology biography, Charlotte's stories often reveal her worldview. The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story written to combat the modus operandi for curing depression in her day. This cure consisted of being completely sequestered from any intellectual or artistic engagements. Her addendum to the story also makes clear she experienced this same treatment. Gilman's catalyst was to write a story that would serve as a social corrective. What we are left with today is a masterpiece of psychological suspense.
The story begins with our main character, a writer whose name is never given, imagining the house in which she is to spend her recuperation. In choosing to never name the narrator and main character, Gilman emphasizes the erasure of the individual that takes place within the story. She pictures the house in romantic terms, a colonial mansion or perhaps a haunted house. This romantic identification indicates an emotional person who puts a priority on the natural. Contrarily, her husband is portrayed in no uncertain terms. John is practical, has no patience with faith, and hates superstition. He is skeptical, and scoffs at anything that cannot be "...felt and seen and put down in figures"(658). Clearly, the preliminary material on these two characters sets them in sharp contrast with one another.
The narrator then privately blames her husband, who is also her physician, for her lingering illness. She suggests perhaps it is because he is a physician that she is still ill. She believes this lack of recovery is because "he does not believe I am sick!"(658). Later she states her husband has no idea how much she suffers, but the fact he knows there is no reason for this suffering is enough to him. However, she would never admit the conviction he is to blame to a living soul (a term we can imagine her husband would never use), but finds the assertion to be "a great relief to ...her... mind"(658). The reader learns her brother is also a physician, and supports this method of treatment. She asks the reader "if a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression...what is one to do?"(658). Any attempt on her part to question this method has been effectively undermined. At this point in the story, we begin to understand she already feels trapped.
Next, she confesses her writing does tire her. However, it is not the writing itself that wears her out, but rather having to write on the sly that she finds mentally taxing. Today, we can easily imagine this intellectual sequestering as a suitable form of torture, especially for an artistically inclined individual like the author and main...