The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman
“The Yellow Wallpaper” written by Charlotte Gilman is a chilling portrayal of a woman’s downward spiral towards madness after undergoing treatment for postpartum depression in the 1800’s. The narrator, whose name remains nameless, represents the hundreds of middle to upper- class women who were diagnosed with “hysteria” and prescribed a “rest” treatment. Although Gilman’s story was a heroic attempt to “save people from being driven crazy” (Gilman p 1) by this type of “cure” it was much more. “The Yellow Wallpaper” opened the eyes of many to the apparent oppression of women in the 1800’s and “possibly the only way they could (unconsciously) resist or protest their traditional ‘feminine’ work—or over-work” (Chesler p 11) by going “mad”.
In order for the reader to understand the psychology of the story, they must understand this type of diagnosis of women in the 1800’s and the supposed cure. This treatment, created by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, was a prescription of almost total inactivity and isolation. “Passivity was the main prescription, along with warm baths, cool baths, abstinence from animal foods and spices, and indulgence in milk, and puddings, cereals, and ‘mild sub-acidfruits’” (Ehrenreich and English p 49). Gilman, herself, was treated by Dr. Mitchell and underwent the same treatment as the heroine of the story.
This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to ‘live as domestic a life as far as possible’, to ‘have but two hours’ intellectual life a day’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush or pencil again’ as long as I lived. (Gilman p 1).
Many women underwent this type of treatment, which was prescribed for a host of problems but usually diagnosed as a nervous disorder. It was thought “that reproductivity was central to a women’s biological life” and a woman must “concentrate their physical energy internally, toward the womb” (Ehrenreich and English p44). Many women’s disorders were termed hysteria derived from the Greek word hystera, meaning womb. It was thought these disorders originated from the womb since this was the main aspect of a woman’s life. These types of treatments were not necessarily a need for medical attention to women’s disorders but instead a simple way to maintain the women’s role in the 1800’s: the domestic stay- at- home care-giver. Women needed to remain at home caring for man and their offspring.
Doctors and Educators were quick to draw the obvious conclusion that, for women, higher education could be physically dangerous. Too much development of the brain, they counseled, would atrophy the uterus. Reproductive development was totally antagonistic to mental development. (Ehrenreich and English p 45)
The story begins with the narrator writing in her journal. She introduces her...