(The battlefield of the mind)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892)
While reading this amazingly disturbing story, one could themselves unable to help longing for a deeper understanding of what the main character was dealing with. What was the catalyst for the beginning of her mental deterioration? At what point did her husband catch on and begin to solicit help? Is it possible that her mental struggles were exasperated by the onset of postpartum depression? There are so many women who suffer from this debilitating disease, it is heartbreaking.
“In the United States alone approximately 70% to 80% will experience the ‘baby blues’” (www.postpartumdepression.org). It is also reported that 10% to 20% of new mothers will experience some type of clinical postpartum depression. As the acceptance of this form of depression is relatively new to the medical community many women have gone undiagnosed throughout time. As we endeavor to venture deeper into the known experiences of the main character and place them up against the definition of postpartum depression, it is evident that what she was experiencing was even deeper than that. Taking into consideration that she started to hallucinate, we can see that whatever she was experiencing also had an additional layer of psychosis of some sort.
As we continue to ride this train of thought it could lead one to ask, is this schizophrenia? Schizophrenia can be defined as “a chronic, severe mental disorder that affects the way a person thinks, acts, expresses emotions, perceives reality, and relates to others” (www.webmd.com). At first glance you can see a great deal of similarities with traits we see in the main character. Upon digging a little deeper into the symptoms of schizophrenia you will find a major difference between this character’s symptoms and the symptoms found in individuals who suffer from schizophrenia. Split personalities are not one of the symptoms of schizophrenia, and it is clear that our protagonist experiences a split in her personality.
So, what could it be? She is not sleeping at night but sleeps during the day. For a while she loses her appetite but starts to get it back. She becomes hyper fixated on the yellow wallpaper in her room. As her fixation on the wallpaper intensifies, she begins to see a woman inside of the wallpaper. Eventually she states very casually that the woman comes out of the yellow wallpaper during the day. Which is so interesting because earlier the main character wrote that she sleeps during the day. Lastly, and I believe that this is a major piece of the puzzle. In the end of the story, we learn the main characters name is Jane because when John, Jane’s husband was talking to her, the antagonist spoke about Jane in the third person. Which signified that the woman in the wallpaper had come completely forward. It is at this point that we discover that Jane had developed a split personality.
Was it the wallpaper that sent her spiraling so deeply into this psychosis? Jane started out just seeming to a have a little anxiety but deeply yearned to be around people. Only to transition to the point where she’s wishing that John would sleep in another room and her sister-in-law, who was her care giver would stay away as well. After loathing having to look at that yellow wallpaper for three months, she is finally able to remove it and it is at the completion of that task that “the woman” makes her full appearance.
Let’s dig into the story and see what we can find. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is an unsettling story of a woman who moves into a mansion with her family for 3 months while their home is being renovated. Her husband, John is a well-known and highly sought-after physician. They have a child together who is still very young and is unbothered by all the moving. The narrator of this story is writing in what her journal. As a result, we hear her inner dialogue over her next 3 months while living in that house, as her distain for the yellow wallpaper in her room deepens.
This psycho thriller of a story takes us on a journey through the mind of a woman who was suffering from what her husband described as a nervous condition. Sadly, her condition was far more server than merely nerves. As the woman in the yellow wall papered room began to articulate her feelings in her journal writings, they started out long and filled with her love for her husband John and her desire to not be in the yellow room. It soon becomes evident that the narrator is sinking deeper into what has only been described as a nervous condition, but this seems dangerously deeper than just bad nerves.
She describes the room that she is now in for the majority of the story as formally being a nursery. As the story continues to unfold it sounds more like a room fashioned for a mentally ill person. She describes the room as having bars on the windows to keep the children from jumping to their deaths. Also, a gate at the top of the stairs to keep them in the room.
The yellow wallpaper had been pulled on, faded, sticky, and worn. There were also scratches and gashes in the floor, as well as the gnaw marks in the legs of the bed. Lastly, she explained that the bed was nailed to the floor. Why would you need to nail the bed to the floor for children? A child would be too weak to move that bed, so those nails had to have been put there because an adult was in the room before.
As the story continues, we find that John tells his wife that she is doing so much better. She’s eating more and picking up a little weight. The narrator quickly replies that she’s only better in body but before she could say mind, she stops because of John’s reaction. He begs her to never share the other part of her truth, the fact that she was in fact losing her mind. It would seem as if John already knew what was happening and was trying to downplay it.
It is in the stories conclusion that we learn that there was a battle happening inside of our writer’s mind. The woman that she found lurking in deep within the yellow wallpaper had found her way out. On the last day after locking herself in the room and literally throwing away the key, the narrator begins to finish her mission to rid that room of its yellow wallpaper. Furiously trying everything that she can, even attempting to move the nailed down bed to the wall, going as far as to try to chew the wood legs free. At one point thinking about potentially leaving the room through the window but reasoned that she couldn’t for the bars, and that her actions would be misunderstood. Which translated to me that she knew people would think it was a suicide attempt and not her trying to capture the woman in the wallpaper.
By this point her journal writings were much shorter, she wrote more about her displeasure with John, even to the point of saying how she wished he stayed in another room. Lastly, she wrote that she believed the woman was sneaking out more during the day. In the conclusion we learn that the woman in the wallpaper had fully emerged out from her prison and to John’s dismay, she explained that she was free no matter how hard John and Jane tried to keep her locked away and that she was never going back. When John entered the room and questioned who he thought was his wife, the woman in the wallpaper responded and spoke about Jane in third person. At this point John fainted, overwhelmed by the horrifying reality. I believe that what we just witnessed was the full manifestation of a second personality as the wallpaper which I interpret as an illustration of her sanity was fully removed. Jane, John’s wife had lost her inner battle and the other women in her mind finally clawed her way out.
Mental health is still a bit of a taboo topic, especially within the Black American community. So many of us suffer in silence because we have parents and loved ones who are just like Jane’s husband John. Just telling us to get over it, relax, it’s all in your head, etc. all the while the person’s condition is worsening. It’s not until we see the person surrounded by wallpaper, covered in yellow dye, and referring to themself in third person, that we start to see the severity of the situation. We have got to start paying better attention to our loved ones and when they tell us that something is wrong, we should actually listen to them.
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