Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one that has entertained and sparked debate for years, both in the literary and psychological sense. It is apparent to readers that the protagonist in the story already has a “condition”, depression, and there are certain influences in her life that take her beyond the brink of insanity (154). Three factors, to be specific, contributed to the loss of her sense of reality: The loss of maternal responsibility, the inability to write, and her husband’s efforts to isolate her.
A mother’s responsibility to her child is something that motivates a woman each day to fight negative thoughts, so it is understandable that a lack of this responsibility only added to the narrator’s obsessiveness and depression. Caring for one’s child also gives a mother her sense of purpose and meaning for her life. By revoking this routine, the protagonist was left with a damaged sense of self, making her even more prone to unhealthy obsessions, such as the “recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down” (158). Even though she does get nervous, the protagonist being stripped of her motherly duties also stripped her, at least partially, of her identity.
It is presumable that her passion for writing once helped the protagonist by allowing her to expel some of her thoughts. However, in this story, her lack of being able to write is an important factor in the question of what contributed to her insanity. The protagonist says that although she used to write, “it does exhaust me a good deal-having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition” (154). The narrator clearly has an increased sense of guilt and secretiveness, since she feels the desire (perhaps even the need) to write, but knowing her husband would disapprove if she did so. Oppressing her creativity certainly did not do any good in the situation either, since this character seems to be quite artistic. The fear of disappointing her husband, John, was also an issue that contributed to her eventual madness.
The narrator, throughout this story, repeatedly speaks of her husband’s love for her, and his desire for her well-being. Whether this is true and the husband, John, simply keeps doing all the wrong things by coincidence, or it is false and John is trying to keep her sick (which some could surely argue), his efforts to isolate and unburden her are the final key to understanding the narrator’s path to insanity. The protagonist regards John so fondly, in fact, that she feels like the inferior one in their relationship, it seems. Again, this could be an argument toward the husband making efforts to keep the narrator confined, but it could also merely be John trying his best to care for her. In any case, the toxic result of the environment and their relationship is evident as the narrator tears at the wallpaper, saying it “sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision! I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise…” (168).
Finally, his efforts to confine his wife to this house, this room, may well have made the narrator resent John. This is evidenced by the conclusion to the story, when John faints at the sight in front of him and the protagonist regards his body in the floor as an inconvenience she must now “creep over every time!” (169). Arguably, her resentment for John’s role in her loneliness and his unhealthy treatment of her came to a boiling point, and along with the other factors, drove her to insanity.
It is worth mentioning that Charlotte P. Gilman (the author) experienced a “dark fog” of mental illness precipitated by the break” of her marriage with a “Providence artist” (153). Apparently, Gilman divorced her husband after four years together, and she seemed to regard herself lucky to escape the dark situation it must have become. This insight makes the fate of the narrator as well as the theme of “The Yellow Wallpaper” interesting, to say the least, in the sense of identity of oneself. It is very possible that Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself experienced a loss of identity in her early marriage to the artist, and had to find herself all over again. It could be argued that “The Yellow Wallpaper” was the way the author saw her life if she had not broken the unhealthy cycle of her days in that time.
The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” experienced a steady decline into her warped sense of reality (apparently, one in which she thought her skin was the wallpaper and that she was trapped in it). It was not one thing, event or even one circumstance that caused her to become insane, but instead, the three aforementioned factors, combined with her preexisting illness(es). If even one of the detrimental factors in the narrator’s life had been altered or did not exist as a problem, the protagonist may have had a chance at a healthy life and sense of self, instead of peeling away at the wallpaper of her body in the end. In conclusion, the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” had the perfect set of unhealthy habits (predispositions to depression, nervousness and obsession), and her loss of identity was simply too much for her psyche to bear.
- Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Oxford Book of American Short