“There Is Nothing Like A Mad Woman” : An Investigation into Insanity, Isolation and the Wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilmans’ The Yellow Wallpaper.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, an American socialist feminist and author, published The Yellow Wallpaper in The New England Magazine in 1892. The Yellow Wallpaper is a short account of a woman's descent into madness via prescribed isolation, known as ‘the rest cure’. The ‘rest cure’ was coined by S.Weir Mitchell in the late 1800s in response to ailments such as hysteria or nervousness. This consisted of “extended bed rest, scheduled feeding, and isolation[...]” in the hope to ease ailments, notes S.W Blackie.
Gilman focuses on three themes which are prevalent throughout her narrative; isolation, insanity, and feminism. The exploration of these themes are necessary because “The Yellow Wallpaper between women’s discourse and self-discovery is applicable to the developments in women's literature.”
Insanity And Isolation
The beginning of The Yellow Wallpaper warps and transports the reader into a gothic Fancy, foreshadowing her eventful descent into madness. The protagonist's initial Fancy is miniscule, her inner monologue states a fear for both the house she will be residing in, and the prescribed ‘cure’ from her controlling husband; “[...] a physician of high standing[...]” Paula A.Treichler, a scholar who focuses on feminist literature, emphasises the control he exerts over his wife as he forbids her to entertain such Fancies. He leads her to believe that she “[...] must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me.” Under her husband's control, she attempts to portray herself in an overtly feminine way to ease her ‘ailments’, but once she is alone, she cries and speaks to herself illustrated when the protagonist notes “I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time. Of course I don’t when John is here[...]”
During her decline into madness, she experiences suicidal ideation as the sun shines into her room, creating an oxymoron in an attempt to illustrate the protagonists conflicting femininity and darkness which resides internally. Equally, the oxymoron can work as a critique on the 1800s patriarchal society masquerading as a positive element to politics, whilst driving women into madness. Gilman writes, “I can almost fancy radiation after all, - the interminable grotesques seem to form around a common centre and rush off in the headlong plunges of equal distraction.”
Furthermore, the protagonist begins to become unreliable. Her judgement becomes clouded by her thoughts and her paranoia begins. She writes, “I have found out another funny thing, but I shan’t tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much.” Treichler summarises her paranoia concisely by stating, “[...] this patriarchal diagnosis not only names reality but also has considerable power over what that reality is now to be.” This suggests that the initial diagnosis triggered hysteria and paranoia, rather than the yellow wallpaper itself, until it consumes her.
The reader is introduced to the yellow wallpaper early in the narrative with the potential intention for the metaphors and philosophy to write itself. The necessary contextual description of the wallpaper is as follows,
“One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide - plunge off at outrageous angles and destory themselves in unheard contradictions. The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.”
During her extensive period at the colonial manor, and occupied in the room with the yellow wallpaper, she becomes obsessive over the pattern, colours and the rot each of which are metaphors for self - reflection, toleration of oppression, and the movement of women.
To focus upon her description of the wallpaper initially is prudent. In the first instance, she refers to the wallpaper as “every artistic sin,” and “unclean.” Ford notes the use of feminine language here for historical context, women would primarily be concerned with these two elements in their life. For example, it was both the Governmental institution and Church which enforced the importance of these elements upon women. Scholars, such as Matthew Arnold who proposed a gendered-class system, consider women the weaker gender which stemmed from the belief of their intellectual inability, which is reflected in The Yellow Wallpaper.
As the passage continues, the protagonists examination of the wallpaper becomes inherently sinister referencing suicide in a pursuit to “destroy themselves.” It is possible that Gilman intended this passage to provide a succinct self-reflection and foreshadow the protagonist's fate. As the narrative persists against the protagonist's mental state, Gilman continues to focus upon these references when she writes, “There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will[...] And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern.” The self-reflection is poignant here. Due to the protagonist's weakened state, it is likely this is a reflection of herself. Alternatively, Gilman may have encouraged a duality in this passage between the state of the protagonist, and the state of the women's movement as they grow tiresome of their oppression and isolation.
The protagonist's delusions and Fancies grow grave when she begins to notice that “[...]in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamp light, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars[...] and the woman behind it is as plain as can be!” She notes that “I fancy it is the pattern which keeps her so still.” Gilman intentionally uses the “bars” to suggest the symmetry between a woman's position in the 1800s with the seemingly indefinite improval for the place of women in society.
Furthermore, Abhinaya Murthy, a literature scholar, considers Ford's attempt to illustrate that the protagonist's silence, which is representative of their lost voices, and “a surgical removal of their agency from their narratives.” This is illustrated in the forthcoming passage, “[...] there are many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes all over[...]But nobody could climb through that pattern - it strangles [...] They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white.” Within her Fancy, she attempts to help the women through the wallpaper which signifies an undertone which is throughout the text; feminism will persist.
In conclusion, The Yellow Wallpaper was disruptive amongst literary and medicinal scholars of the 1800s, and was eventually rejected by the masses. Despite these rejections, there was a prior, ongoing emergence in literature regarding ‘the mad woman’ or ‘woman in the attic’ trope. Noteworthy classics such as Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon are said to have partially inspired The Yellow Wallpaper. It is this same disruption that has evolved into the instrumental short story on women, mental health and feminism, which scholars have revisited in the wave of research. This has led to contemporary works such as The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K.LE Guin and My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.
These tropes continue to challenge the patriarchal landscape which justifies the persistence of ‘mad women’ in literature today. Women are made up of measured anger against their oppression, isolation and pseudo- insanity enforced upon them through the Conservative patriarchy. Therefore, historically this has been the only way in which women feel comfortable to express their feminine rage - to publish their novel in not so pretty prose, but anger. Yet, the way in which I perceive this movement is that, if women continue to write the ‘mad woman’ trope, and continue to write of their female rage, we may not have to experience an isolation amongst sisterhood again.