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History, Hysteria, and Horror in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper

Women Trapped between A Fallen Eve and A Risen Mary / An article by Akankshya Narayan

Women, a multifaceted group within society, are often simplistically classified as either a virtuous Mary or a rebellious Eve. In this article, Akankshya Narayan uses Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," as a case study to explore the complexities of womanhood. This exploration echoes Simone de Beauvoir's observation that women have historically endured the label of the "second sex" in society, often relegated to subordinate positions. Furthermore, when a woman is unfairly labelled as "hysterical," it can lead to her being seen as a perceived threat. Thus, it becomes crucial to examine the historical dynamics and contexts in which women's well-being, including their mental health, has been impacted, considering the role of men in these processes.

History, Hysteria, and Horror in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper

When Jane Eyre affirms, “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will”, she attempts to secure her stature in Rochester’s Thornfield (during the 19th century) and prevent herself to fall into an imitative situation like Bertha Mason’s. The apprehension of being ensnared by the net was not uncommon in the 19th-century Victorian Era, as science became the catalyst for the enactment of this atrocity. ‘Science’ overpowered religion to surveil woman’s demeanor, and compare them to the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ woman. Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper depicts the story of the narrator (a semi-biographical embodiment of Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself), who suffers the subjugation from her physician husband under the aegis of love. Gradually, the narrator finds herself being excessively empathetic towards (and eventually associated with) the woman stooping down and creeping about behind the patterns of the yellow wallpaper. This paper focuses on the central theme of the short story, ‘Hysteria’ and the (gothic) journey of the narrator undergoing ‘rest-cure’ to treat her condition, in an endeavour to journal her stay at the ancient halls and getting plagued by the imagination and obsession for the trapped woman, Gilman (disguised as the narrator) exposes the oppression and hypocrisy of the 19th-century men, and also she traces the underlying attempt of the society to crush down intellect among women.

Source: The Eyre Guide
Source: The Eyre Guide

In the year 1887, Gilman wrote a letter to Dr. Mitchell expressing her concerns on the infamous ‘rest-cure’ for women suffering from Hysteria. She condemns the idea of confining women in a room and barring them from the world and a space for her self-nurturing. But, her letter was deliberately ignored by Mitchell, and he accused her of making observations under the influence of “self-conceit” (Gilman qt. in Knight 260) Dr. Mitchell’s remarks can be viewed as the domineering patriarchal voice of the 19th century, trying to restrict female cognizance. Moreover, the conditions of the 'rest-cure' process were harmful to the woman, locked in a room with her solitariness

Nonetheless, Virginia Woolf's 'room' that she demands should not be confused with this kind of confinement. Although Woolf stresses the importance of having one's own room for writing, the narrator is trapped behind four walls and dislikes it, as it robs her of her freedom to write.

It is tempting to understand the underlying connotations of the heroine's initial complaint that the disgusting wallpaper limits her writing abilities. As it turns out, the narrator is accusing her husband John, and his sister Jennie of constant surveillance, which prevented her from expressing herself or writing. Likewise, their scrutiny bothers her like a parasite, and constantly negatively affects her mental health.

Interestingly, at the beginning of the story, Jane (the narrator) takes the role of the spectator, belonging to the white privileged wealthy mansion, and the gothic woman inside the wallpaper is the perpetrator, who is someone “who destroys the heroine’s prospects of domestic tranquility by her anger and rebellious presence”. (qt. in Male and Female Mysteries in “The Yellow Wallpaper”). It is only after several hesitations, that she can discern her husband’s patriarchal malice and impositions that force him to label her ‘hysterical’.

 Stage actress Sarah Bernhardt in a scene from an unnamed theatre production. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Such ‘hysterical’ women were forced to undergo Dr. Mitchell’s ‘rest-cure’ technique, which meant women would be forced to stay inside the domestic sphere and were precluded from performing any activities or even interacting with the world. Gilman’s protagonist is also a patient of Hysteria and finds herself trapped inside the ‘ancient walls’. Although it is not specifically mentioned in the story, one could easily discern the aftermath of post-natal depression as the result of her worsened condition. The narrator is (possibly) suffering from depression, and finds herself in a constant battle with her isolation. It affects her so much, that she finds simple tasks like writing, to exhaust her. What makes her situation terrible is her husband’s constant judgment about her health.

During the 19th century, the Age of Enlightenment was replaced by the Age of Reason, which enforced and celebrated the idea of the ‘individuality’ of common men. While men used science as a tool to reform society, women were still forced to occupy the domestic sphere. A major consequence of imposing such regressive expectations on women was that women remained subservient, and failed to acquire virtue. As Mary Wollstonecraft reflects “Women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what deserves the name of virtue.” In this imprisonment behind the doors (metaphorically as well as literally), women were expected to look after the household chores and their children. And in this course, if any woman was found indulging in intellectual labor, or exercising her own will, then she would be labeled as ‘Hysterical’. The term ‘Hysteria’ has been derived from the Greek term Hystera which means uterus. Hence, this condition was mostly associated with women. Doctors in the Victorian Era accused women of the uterus for their mental disability. According to 19th-century medical science, the function of the uterus was the menacing brain, and hence education or career would only lead to overtaxing of the brain and result in sterility, neurotic offspring, or mental disabilities. Any sort of ‘deviation from the gender norms, (which also included seeking bodily pleasure, or to contain desire) was judged not just a sin but also insanity.’ (Theriot 18-19)

“A slight hysterical tendency” is what her husband calls the suffering and grim the narrator endures. Throughout the story, the narrator (possibly named Jane) attempts to reach out to her husband about her worsening condition and struggles to seek help that will alleviate her suffering. But, John keeps invalidating her plea and instead prohibits her from writing. This invalidation of someone’s mental health condition is also experienced by Julia in the play Fefu and her friends, by María Irene Fornés. The play concludes with Julia’s death, which was preceded by a wrangle between Fefu and Julia, as Fefu accuses her of ‘giving up of herself, and not trying to stand. In this course of action, Fefu completely inconsiderates Julia’s mental health problems (schizophrenia) and imposes viciousness on her.

While Fefu and Julia's relationship resembles that of a patronizing ableist and a subaltern with disabilities. John and the narrator's association becomes more complex than theirs; their relationship resembles that of a patriarchal couple, where the husband and wife share more similarities with the father and child. During the 19th century, this subservience was ensured by the common doctrine law, which viewed marriage as the contract between ‘master and servant’ and ‘parent and child. (qt. In The Cult of True Womanhood)

The child-like semblance is because women are advised to be innocent, while men should be coarse and powerful. Mary Wollstonecraft quotes “Children, I grant should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men or women, it is a civil term for weakness” (qtd. In ‘From a Vindication of the Rights of Women) Simone de Beauvoir calls out the absurdity of marriage, she quotes “The male is called upon…. To transcend himself toward the totality of the universe and the infinity of the future; but traditional marriage does not invite the woman to transcend herself with him; it confines her in immanence, shuts her up within the circle of herself.”

Consequently, because of such notions prevalent in society, the narrator fails to assert her free will against her husband's interests. As in the case when she craves to visit Henry and Julia but John refuses to allow it, he even prohibits writing or doing anything exciting, as an example, when she attests to breaking free of the confinement of the ‘rest-cure’ and being allowed to venture her choices and excitement and says “I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.”, John simply refuses it.

As a result of her husband's unwillingness to hear her pleas and requests, she keeps struggling with her inner thoughts and constantly defends him against her rational self, by reminding herself with thoughts like “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.”

Gradually, her style of writing changes from being a dependent wife of her ‘loving’ husband, to an enraged wife, loathing her husband, in fact calling him out pretentious, “He pretended to be very loving and kind.”, slowly she completely transcends into the woman behind the wallpaper.

Most of the hatred ness towards his husband comes due to the fact, that he governs her health, without allowing her to participate. Mostly, women in the 19th century were not allowed to have opinions about their bodies, or to know about their bodily desires, Here, Gilman tried to mirror herself as the narrator, how her theory about her health was neglected and was silenced by Dr. Mitchell. It was quite evident, that the patriarchal puppets were afraid of woman’s intellect and writing about their health. This is why Elaine Showalter emphasizes the importance, of women writing for themselves, and how significant it is to have a female writer come forward as gyyneaocritics and have space to explore their thoughts. ‘Gynecritics to Literature is Gynecology to science.’ Nevertheless, Dr. Mitchell silences Gilman, and the narrator is silenced by John when they confide about their mental health. Throughout this process of silencing, Gilman illustrates the exploitation women (patients) face at the hands of patriarchal doctors (like Mitchell), who view their patients as nothing more than commodities that should be fixed in whatever manner they deem appropriate. In her poem Lady Lazarus, Sylvia Plath condemns Nazi Doctors who saw her (which also symbolizes Jewish victims) as an 'opus', which they saved only to subject them to further suffering.

“So, so, Herr Doktor.

So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,

I am your valuable,

The pure gold baby”

(Lady Lazarus, Ariel; Sylvia Plath)

Those who suffered from hysteria faced nothing but horrors and gothic treatment. As a result, Gilman builds a gothic setting (popular in the 19th century), to convey a feeling of similitude between the narrator's mind and the setting. The story was initially perceived as a gothic genre text, and it was not until Gilman herself clarified the true intention, that critics were able to decipher the feminist voice lying under the horrors depicted by the ‘hidden woman’ of the wallpaper.

From the ancient halls to the grim room and the horrendous wallpaper, everything exudes terror to the narrator. It is the confinement inside these walls, that exhausts and scares her, similarly, she is locked in a room, and can either look outside the window or at the wallpaper. One could argue that the window represents captivity, as she cannot relate or find herself outside the window, while on the other hand, the wallpaper delineates a thrill, that mirrors her situation: of a woman trapped inside, and as the story progresses, she finds the wallpaper liberating.

Source: Literary Hub
Source: Literary Hub

She loathes the flamboyant patterns of the wallpaper, and calls it an ‘artistic sin’. Eventually, the narrator is plagued with the fantasy of this artistic sin, so much so that she begins to identify herself as that woman hidden inside, and slowly dissociates from herself. Maria Irene Fornes, in the play ‘Fefu and her Friends’, quotes “Revulsion excites women!”, and hence in theory, women's obsession with sin can be explained by their desire for agency and free will that they are forbidden from. As Mary Wollstonecraft puts it, it is insulting that women are forced to obey the condescending governance that utilizes sinister and oppressive methods to control them. The whole debate around sin and revulsion gets linked to the idea of good woman versus bad. One also finds this in the story, where the narrator falls closer to the realm of the daunting, transgressing Eve, while John's sister is more like the virgin Mary. Since there are two 'virtuous' women in the story, Mary (governess) and Jennie (John's sister), the narrator seems to have been singled out and has no one to confide in.

Furthermore, Jennie reflects the virgin Mary more because she is a virgin mother to John's child, whereas the narrator who parturitions her baby is deprived of her responsibilities as a mother (thanks to hysteria) and is instead perceived only as a 'Hysterical' woman. Interestingly, women in the 19th century who thought about or engaged in much sexual activity were also deemed hysterical.

Italian Fascist politician Mussolini says “Maternity is the patriotism of women”, and in the case of this 19th-century narrator, it becomes more difficult to cope with the apprehension of being failed as a wife, mother, and hence, woman. This feeling is borrowed from Gilman’s own experience of undergoing the turmoil of the dilemma of not being able to fit in as a Victorian woman, and instead showing an inclination to being “unfeminine”.

The literature of the 19th century focused on portraying the consequences of transgressive, daunting women like Tennyson's Lady of Shallot, Browning’s Dutchess, or Brontë’s Bertha Mason.

Over time, the narrator's schizophrenia worsened, and she eventually trapped herself much deeper into the leash while trying to liberate the woman in the wallpaper with whom she started associating herself. The narrator's story doesn't seem to end well for her, as one can only imagine the torture she must endure after her husband regains consciousness. Critics like Paula Treichler, in her interpretation of the conclusion of the story, suggest that the narrator was able to escape male-controlled discourse by authoring her language, albeit partially since societal changes are necessary to enable such liberation.” In light of the existing trope of punishing the ‘hysterical’, mad woman, the narrator's situation is somewhat rhetorical, and so the trapped woman in wallpaper that was supposed to be the cause of her emancipation becomes the cause of her short-lived triumph over her patriarchal, imbecile husband. As a result, it is concluded that Jane's hysteria allowed her to enter a space where imaginations and transgressions can be expressed - but ultimately, it led her away into an uncomfortable and challenging position, hence, the story of the ‘hysterical’ narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper, shapes into a cautionary tale, and projects a gothic (literal, and metaphorical) effect similar to the eerie woman inside the wallpaper.


Akankshya Narayan

Akankshya Narayan, a recent graduate of the University of Delhi, holds a bachelor's degree in English. Her passions encompass reading and singing, and she adeptly manages her time between reminiscing works by Plath, and Bowkowski, while vibing on Taylor and Hozier's music to satiate her literary interests.

Her literary accomplishments include her debut novel, 'The Sanctuary of Hope and Despair (2023)', now available on Amazon. Furthermore, she is also a published researcher, with her research paper featured in the International Journal of English Language and Translation Studies (2023). Her poetic talents have also graced the pages of The Indian Periodical (2022) and The Quill House (2022), while her short story was featured in Indus Women's Writing (2022).

* History, Hysteria, and Horror in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper is the first feature for Akankshya Narayan at PoemsIndia.

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