Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a Gothic Horror Tale Essay
Updated: Jan 29th, 2021
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s epistolary Gothic horror tale, the monster’s part is played by family, medicine and society. Gilman uses setting, character and irony to demonstrate the damage to women from oppressive marriage, medical paternalism, and societal expectations. Over the course of intermittent diary entries, the narrator chronicles her descent from mere postpartum depression (Merced, A Case of Postpartum Depression in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Part 1 ) into madness, hastened along her downward plunge by a putatively solicitous family, assiduous but misguided medical care, and an enviable seaside setting for recuperation.
She responds with the only weapons she possesses: writing in her secret journal, weeping, whimsy, apparent submission, dissimulation, withdrawal, and eventually, dissociation. Gilman, regards women as deserving of greater consideration than was accorded to this “little girl” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 553). Gilman’s story also advocates indirectly for all mentally ill individuals: for their humane, thoughtful, and personalized treatment (Gilman, Why I Wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”).
The narrator is characterized as sympathetic and self-deprecating character, rather than a self-indulgent malingerer. She laments, “I wish I could get well faster.” She regrets feeling “ basely ungrateful” for her husband’s care (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 548). She is acutely perceptive, sensing, early on, jarring dissonances in the situation, for example, the availability of a “colonial mansion” for short-term rental (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 547). She does not, however, trust her own judgment, since,
“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter…what is one to do?
My brother is also a physician…and he says the same thing. “ (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 547)
John dismisses the vapors of his “blessed little goose” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 549). (This is almost a tease for ‘gaslighting’ (Dirks) but is not confirmed). She cannot communicate her distress because “he is so wise, and because he loves me so” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 553). This is a deeply ironic statement, since love should make us more sensitive to the needs of a loved one, not less. When she expresses anger or frustration at his medical choices or attitude, his patronizing response stifles her.
She tells us, “But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself – before him, at least, and that makes me very tired” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 548). Anyone who has dealt with depression knows that unexpressed anger is exhausting and destructive. This is a double dose of blindness on his part: paternalistic sexism and medical arrogance, and is ultimately devastating to her recovery.
We are also cued that this character is an intelligent, accomplished writer who misses her “congenial work”, “society” and “stimulus” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 548) “advice and companionship” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 550). John notes her “imaginative power and habit of story-making” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 550). Instead of pursuing her beloved avocation, she can now merely “dress and entertain, and order things” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 549), take “journeys, and air, and exercise” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 547) and be, “absolutely forbidden to “work” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 547) CITATION Gil p 552 l 1033 .
She is largely solitary, save for her “perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 551) sister-in-law, who blames her writing for her disorder, John is often away on call. She is isolated from her baby, since, as she says, “I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 540). This deprives her of the calming and uplifting effects of oxytocin (Merced, A Case of Postpartum Depression in “The Yellow Wallpaper” , Part 2), and probably adds guilt for her inadequacy. Ironically, because sleep deprivation often exacerbates postpartum distress, she has sleep derangements anyway CITATION Gil p 552 l 1033 , since she says, “I don’t sleep much at night, for it is so interesting to watch developments; but I sleep a good deal in the daytime” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 555) CITATION Gil p 552 l 1033 .
In the face of “heavy opposition” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 547) to her writing, which could be the very means of processing her feelings1, she chooses to “let it alone and talk about the house” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 548).
Her setting then, becomes a character in her narrative. She spends time observing the ”optic horror” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 552) of the wallpaper, an exercise “as good as gymnastics“ (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 549) She hates if for its hideous pattern, “smouldering unclean yellow” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 549) color that wipes off on clothing, and for her idiosyncratic perception of a ubiquitous “yellow smell” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 556)2.
We read myriad clues to the building’s painful sanitarium past. There are rings, bars, gates, fixed bed, clawed surfaces, and an odd wall smooch, “rubbed over and over “ (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 556) in an endless round of obsessive, compulsive zoo behavior, and in general, “something strange”) (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 548).
Immured without constructive activity, she engages with this hideous wallpaper. She begins to hallucinate the prescence of a woman trapped the pattern, but sometimes perceived creeping “as fast as a cloud shadow in a high wind” from out her windows (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 556). This woman could symbolize her oppressed self, hiding her crawling (impaired, non-human?) identity “under the blackberry vines” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 556).
She finally literally interacts with the room, pulling the wallpaper off to liberate the trapped ‘woman’, hiding a rope, gnawing her bed, considering defenestration, fitting her shoulder into the smooch and crawling), and eventually locking herself in.
Fully dissociated, she sees her husband as a stranger, creeping over his unconscious body. She identifies with the wallpaper-trapped women (plural now). However, she declares triumphantly that, “I’ve got out at last,” and “ you can’t put me back! ” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 559).
The narrator thus escapes (if only mentally), the confinement of her family, doctor, and sanitarium, all of which have driven her to this point. Although John’s fundamental decency shows by his swooning (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 559), Gilman pleads for us to acknowledge that oppressive systems, no matter how lovingly imposed, are damaging to women, and all who suffer mental disorders.
Dirks, Tim. “Gaslight (1944).” 2010. Filmsite. Web.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Abcarian, Richard, Marvin Klotz and Samuel Cohen. Literature: The Human Experience: Reading and Writing. Bedford: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. 547-559.
—. “Why I Wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”.” The Forerunner (1913).
Merced, Charleen. A Case of Postpartum Depression in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Part 1. 2004. Web.
—. A Case of Postpartum Depression in “The Yellow Wallpaper” , Part 2. 2004. Web.
CITATION Gil p 552 l 1033 This would be the ideal treatment for a serious concussion, wherein the brain must heal over time, and anything that robs glucose or blood flow from that task is to be avoided (even video games).
CITATION Gil p 552 l 1033 (even without babycare responsibilities).
CITATION Gil p 552 l 1033 She is also being treated with phosphates, a powerful source of phosphorous. Freshman Biology teaches us that while necessary for life, too much phosphorous can cause the body to excrete other minerals, like Calcium and Magnesium, both of which are important for relaxation and sleep.
- “But I must say what I think and feel – it is such a relief!” (Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 552).
- The phenomenon of e mixture of visual and olfactory sensations is symptomatic of some mental disorders and brain injuries, and is called Synesthesia.
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