Psychology in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jan 16th, 2021


One of the reasons why Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper has traditionally been referred to as such that constitutes a high literary and philosophical value is that in it, the author succeeded in providing readers with an in-depth insight into what should be considered the emerging symptoms of one’s mental illness. Moreover, despite the fact that Gilman wrote this particular story at the time when psychology/psychiatry was remaining in an essentially embryonic state, in The Yellow Wallpaper she proved herself as a rather efficient psychologist, who never ceased being fully aware of what accounted for the conceptual deficiency of the late 19th century’s psychiatric conventions (Quawas 36). In my paper, I will aim to explore the validity of this thesis at length.

Psychological aspects of the short story

The reading of Gilman story’s few initial lines suggests that the reason why the narrator and her husband John decided to spend the summer in a secluded mansion is that this was supposed to help improving the narrator’s mental condition, as she would be spared of socialization-related distresses. According to Treichler, “Her (narrator’s) physical isolation was in part designed to remove her from the possibility of over-stimulating intellectual discussion” (61).

Nevertheless, even though that John was aware of the fact that there was a certain abnormality to his wife’s behavior, he continued denying that her mental anxieties had to be taken seriously, “You see he (John) does not believe I am sick!” (Gilman 1). Partially, the narrator herself provides an explanation as to why, despite having been an accomplished physician, John nevertheless continued referring to his wife’s pleas for help in a thoroughly arrogant manner, “John does not know how much I really suffer.

He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him” (2). This narrator’s remark helps us to understand the essence of John’s failure to prescribe his wife with the conceptually appropriate therapy, which in turn created objective preconditions for her to keep descending into madness. Apparently, just as it used to be the case with the majority of physicians at the end of the 19th century, John believed that the reason why some people tend to act in a clearly neurotic manner is that they simply do not apply enough conscious effort, while trying to suppress their visually observable mental angst.

The explanation for this is quite apparent – during the course of a given historical period, it never occurred to physicians that it is specifically the unconscious aspects of an individual psyche’s functioning that define his or her conscious stance in life, and not vice versa. Partially, this had to do with the fact that, throughout the course of this period, the discursive influence of Christianity remained comparatively strong. And, as we are being well aware of, Christianity promotes the assumption that there is a structural unity to one’s soul (psyche), which is why it cannot consist of mutually incompatible elements.

Therefore, there is nothing particularly odd about the fact in the late 19th century, the majority of physicians still continued to regard the emanations of one’s mental instability as being of an essentially physiological nature, “(In 19th century) Psychical factors came to be regarded merely as the products of certain yet-to-be determined neuro-physiological processes” (Caplan 7). This is why, even though that throughout the course of her stay at the mansion, the narrator was exhibiting more and more indications of her mental state’s continual deterioration, John could not come up with anything better but to prescribe his wife to lead a socially withdrawn lifestyle, as it was supposed to calm her down.

Apparently, John could never bring himself to consider the possibility that the worsening of his wife’s mental condition had nothing to do with purely environmental factors, which is why he continued insisting that the key to her rehabilitation was a plenty of food and sleep, “John says I mustn’t lose my strength, and has me take cod liver oil and lots of tonics and things, to say nothing of ale and wine and rare meat” (4). It appears that it simply never occurred to John that the reason why his wife was feeling progressively more disturbed is that she has been deliberately spared of an opportunity to lead a normal life.

The reading of Gilman’s story also suggests that there was another reason why John proved himself unable to properly diagnose his wife and to intervene the process of his loved one succumbing to insanity. This is because, while acting as a physician, who should have been trying to expand of his intellectual horizons, John never made even a single attempt to reconsider the legitimacy of his male-chauvinistic prejudices towards women.

In its turn, this explains why, despite the fact that he continued observing more and more signs that there was something definitely wrong with his wife; he refused to consider these signs’ possible significance. It simply could not be otherwise – in John’s mind, the narrator’s mental anxieties were simply confirming the validity of a male-chauvinistic presumption that, just as it being the case with all women, his wife was naturally predisposed to grow hysterical from time to time, “If… one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?” (1).

In other words, John thought of his wife having been less human, as compared to what he believed was the case with himself, because she experienced a hard time, while trying to keep her irrational impulses under control (Cutter 153).

Hence, the ‘therapy’, with which the narrator was prescribed by her husband, “He (John) says no one but myself can help me out of it (depression), that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me” (5). It is needless to say, of course, that the application of this kind of ‘therapy’ could hardly produce any positive results, because it was based on a thoroughly fallacious assumption that the unconscious workings of one’s psyche can be subjected to a conscious control. Yet, contemporary psychoanalysts know that this is far from being the case. Quite on the contrary – one’s conscious attempts to suppress the unconscious workings of his or her psyche can only result in the worsening of the concerned individual’s overall mental condition.

This is exactly the reason why, as time went on, the narrator was becoming ever more delirious – the mere fact that, in full accordance with John’s advice, she tried to disregard the symptoms of depression, caused her mental despair to continue becoming even more acute. This is because, apart from experiencing depression, on the account of her inability to lead a socially productive lifestyle, she started to grow progressively worried about her self-presumed inability to live up to John’s expectations.

Predictably enough, it created yet additional precondition for the narrator to continue losing her grip on things, because without being able to articulate her own unconscious fears, she allowed them to accumulate deep inside her sub-consciousness – hence, making it only the matter of time before they would break out of their psychic confinement into the realm of the main character’s consciousness. After it happened, the narrator’s ability to indulge in a rationale-based reasoning sustained an irreparable damage, because at the end of Gilman’s story she started to behave as a maniacally obsessed schizophrenic, endowed with the fictitious sense of self-identity (Bak 44).

Thus, it will not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that The Yellow Wallpaper can be referred to as a particularly powerful indictment of what used to account for the 19th century’s approaches to the treatment of mental illnesses in America. Apparently, besides having been scientifically illegitimate, these approaches were also perceptually arrogant. The fact that such an accomplished physician as John allowed his wife’s mild depression to develop into a full-scaled schizophrenia validates the appropriateness of this statement.

I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, as to the fact that the story’s main character may be well considered a victim of the 19th century’s healthcare conventions, is being fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. In its turn, this explains why, despite having been written in 1892, Gilman’s story continues to emanate an undermined literary appeal. This simply could not be otherwise, because in The Yellow Wallpaper, the author succeeded in outlining the discursive principles of what will later become known as the methodology of psychoanalysis, based upon the assumption that people’s behavior reflects the essence of their unconscious anxieties.

Treichler, Paula. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 3.1/2 (1984): 61-77. Print.

The main idea that is being explored throughout the course of Treichler article’s entirety can be conceptualized as follows: the reason why John proved himself incapable of properly diagnosing the essence of his wife’s mental inadequateness is that, while assessing the significance of her depression-symptoms, he relied upon his rationale-driven masculine logic. Author attests that the very concept of ‘diagnosis’, in the traditional sense of this word, is by definition discursively arrogant, “(Diagnosis) is a male voice that privileges the rational, the practical, and the observable” (65).

In its turn, this has led Treichler to suggest that there is a symbolic meaning to John’s attempts to help the narrator to attain an emotional comfortableness with the room, in which she was confined – apparently, he wanted to make sure that his wife would never be in a position to challenge his patriarchal authority. Therefore, according to Treichler, John’s diagnosis of his wife’s mental condition can be discussed in terms of a ‘sentence’ – by prescribing her with the ‘therapy’ of bellyful idleness, John was unconsciously trying to deny the narrator her basic humanity.

I think that in her article, Treichler came up with a number of discursively relevant observations. The author also needs to be given a credit for making the line of her reasoning logically substantiated. At the same time, however, Treichler’s argumentation, in regards to the discussed subject matter, cannot be referred to as such that represents an undeniable truth-value. This is because in her article, the author made a deliberate point in representing herself as a hard-core feminist, which I believe undermined the extent of this article’s objectiveness.

Works Cited

Bak, John. “Escaping the Jaundiced Eye: Foucauldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Studies in Short Fiction 31.1 (1994), 39-46. Print.

Caplan, Eric. Mind Games: American Culture and the Birth of Psychotherapy, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Print.

Cutter, M. “The Writer as Doctor: New Models of Medical Discourse in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Later Fiction.” Literature and Medicine 20.2 (2001): 151-182. Print.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper. Web.

Quawas, Rula. “A New Woman’s Journey into Insanity: Descent and Return in The Yellow Wallpaper.” AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Modern Language Association 105 (2006): 35-53. Print.

Treichler, Paula. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 3.1/2 (1984): 61-77. Print.

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