Tips for Thought

Behind the Wallpaper: Feminism and Mental Health

The “Yellow Wallpaper” is a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in 1892. It is considered an important early work of American feminist literature for its illustration of the attitudes towards mental and physical health of women in the 19th century. It is also lauded as an excellent work of horror fiction.

The story is written as a collection of journal entries narrated in the first person by an unnamed woman who is suffering from postpartum depression. Her husband, John, is a physician who has rented a large, old mansion for the summer in the belief that the fresh air and change of scenery will help his wife recover. However, the woman is immediately drawn to the yellow wallpaper in the bedroom that she and John are sharing. She finds it to be hideous and unsettling, but she also becomes obsessed with it.

As the summer progresses, the woman’s mental state deteriorates. She spends more and more time alone in the bedroom, studying the wallpaper and imagining the woman trapped behind it. She begins to see the woman creeping around the room at night, and she eventually comes to believe that the woman is trying to communicate with her.

In the final scene of the story, the woman has stripped all of the wallpaper from the room and torn it to shreds. She is then revealed to have crawled behind the wallpaper herself, where she believes herself to be free.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a powerful and disturbing story that explores the themes of madness, oppression, and female identity. It is a cautionary tale about the dangers of silencing women and denying them access to the resources they need to heal.

The story can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the female experience in a patriarchal society. The yellow wallpaper can be seen as a symbol of the constraints that are placed on women, and the woman’s obsession with it can be seen as a representation of her desire to break free.

What are its takeaways?

The nuanced complexities woven into “The Yellow Wallpaper” offer a multi-layered exposure of femininity, autonomy, and mental health. The unnamed protagonist’s progression into madness, catalyzed by the deceptive nature of her confinement, can be viewed as a damning critique of 19th century medical practices and societal norms. Furthermore, the text resonates with contemporary audiences, showcasing the devastating consequences of diminishing and suppressing women’s voices, reflecting broader themes of gender inequity and mental health stigmatization.

A key lesson drawn from this poignant story is the necessity of listening to and valuing women’s voices. Though a physician, the protagonist’s husband, John, consistently dismisses her experiences and emotions. His patronizing attitude and enforced isolation exacerbate her mental distress. This not only illustrates the dismissive attitude towards women’s autonomy but also underscores the inadequacies of mental health care during that era, issues that, though enriched, are not wholly absent from contemporary society.

The metaphorical resurrection of the protagonist as she spirals into madness and concurrently breaks free from the metaphorical shackles imposed by the yellow wallpaper holds a dual significance. On one level, it exposes the traumatic consequences of oppression. On another, it underscores the potential for resilience and self-emancipation amidst subjugation. The complex dance between liberation and insanity as depicted in the narrative invites readers to scrutinize the thin lines separating sanity, madness, freedom, and confinement.

The yellow wallpaper, with its grotesque, convoluted designs, serves as an embodiment of the tumultuous journey of self-realization and empowerment that women go through. Each crevice and pattern mirrors the challenges encountered by women seeking to carve out their identity and voice in a society predisposed to marginalizing them. The protagonist’s preoccupation with the wallpaper parallels the persistent struggles for gender equity and women’s rights that flood societal discourses.

Furthermore, the theme of isolation bears universal relevance. The protagonist’s confinement is symbolic of the isolation felt by those grappling with mental health issues, worsened by societal stigmatization and misunderstanding. It’s a clarion call for empathy, understanding, and the deconstruction of barriers to effective mental health care, accentuating the relevance of community and societal support in fostering holistic well-being.

What are other lessons?

The Danger of Ignorance

  • In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” ignorance plays a role in the protagonist’s deterioration. We’re reminded that neglecting to educate ourselves about mental health can lead to misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and ultimately, mistreatment of those suffering.

The Power of Self-Expression

  • The narrator’s diary serves as her sanctuary, a place where she can articulate her thoughts and feelings unrestrained. This emphasizes the importance of providing spaces for individuals to express themselves openly and without judgment to promote healing and understanding.

The Impact of Environmental Factors on Mental Health

  • The setting of the gloomy, aged mansion underscores the undeniable impact of one’s environment on mental health. A lesson here is to be mindful of how our surroundings—aesthetically and atmospherically—affect our well-being and to seek environments that uplift and nurture us.

The Necessity of Agency

  • As the protagonist grapples with the stifling restrictions imposed upon her, readers witness the dire need for personal agency. It underscores the importance of autonomy and decision-making in contributing to one’s mental and emotional well-being.

The Intersectionality of Oppression and Mental Health

  • The narrative lays bare the intricate relationship between societal oppression and mental health. It’s a reminder of the need to address systemic inequalities to pave the way for comprehensive mental and emotional wellness for all.

These lessons catalyze reflecting on and re-evaluating our approaches to mental health, offering pathways for more compassionate, informed, and holistic approaches to wellness and societal dynamics.

In sum, “The Yellow Wallpaper” transcends its 19th-century context, serving as an enduring literary piece rich in themes of gender equity, autonomy, and mental health. The protagonist’s haunting journey imparts insights, heralding the perennial necessity for societal evolution and the recognition of every individual’s right to voice, identity, and well-being. The narrative’s imagery and symbolism engender reflections on collective and individual roles in amplifying voices and nurturing holistic health for all, echoing into the contemporary era and beyond.