Catherine Perkins Gilman was an early feminist who lived an unconventional lifestyle that was not understood by the people of her time. When she a young girl, her father abandoned his family. Catherine was raised by her mother with help from her absent father’s aunts who included Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her mother did not believe in openly showing affection; this affected her emotionally when she had a child herself. When Catherine suffered from Post-partum depression, her doctor prescribed a period of rest-cure during which she had to limit all intellectual activity to only two hours a day. This period of inactivity almost drove her insane. Luckily she had the courage to break out and begin writing again. It saved her mind. This incident led her to ponder about the way women’s mental problems were viewed by the medical profession and by society.
The Relevance of the Title
The yellow wall paper referred to in the title is the one that covered the walls of the room in which she spent most of her time. With nothing to do but stare at the walls endlessly, the protagonist became obsessed with the designs of the wallpaper in which she could see women imprisoned. She thought that she was one of those women. She tries to escape from the designs on the wallpaper by tearing it off. The yellow wallpaper is the central motif in the story.
Confinement and Freedom
The rest cure that the narrator’s physician prescribes for her depression effectively confines her to a single room in the house. Conversely, he is able to enjoy his time out. This dichotomy is the main theme of the story. As time passes, the loneliness that the narrator experiences begins unraveling her mind.
The descent into madness is gradual. As she obsesses about the wallpaper, she starts seeing shapes in it. Later she perceives women trapped within its designs; she is one among them and she tries to escape by peeling off the paper. When the story begins the narrator is only suffering mild post-partum blues but the treatment her husband prescribes is so unsuitable, the woman goes mad.
In the late 1800s when this book was written, physicians tended to see women’s psychological issues as those brought about their “fragile and hysterical” nature. Therefore, the treatment prescribed was not to excite their minds but to fill their lives with killing boredom. There is no explicit mention of gender in the text but it is easy to understand that it was gender that decided the way people were treated.
The narrator is the protagonist who is suffering from mild post-partum depression. The husband who is a physician, in keeping with the practice of those days, prescribes her a long period of long rest when she is not allowed any activity, intellectual or physical. She is not permitted even to look after her baby. Though she is a writer, writing is strictly prohibited. The narrator begins initially feeling useless. Her sister-in-law who is there runs her home and cares for her child. She is not permitted any company. The husband barely visits her. To all who enquire after her, he tells that there is nothing much wrong with her save “temporary nervous depression” making it sound like a hysterical tendency. The claustrophobic conditions of her confinement aggravate the mild depression into something more sinister. As she becomes obsessed with the wallpaper, her husband and sister-in-law become remote; she does not bother about them. All her thoughts are focused on the wall paper and the women, she included, who she thinks are imprisoned there.
John is the narrator’s husband. He professes to have her interest at heat (most likely that’s true too) but he is not perceptive in anyway. He cannot understand her distress, mistaking it only for the mild nervous distress he thinks she is suffering from. He is condescending when speaking about her problems. He is so convinced that his treatment can only do good that she is not able to make him understand the horror she feels shut up in the room with only the wallpaper for company.
The narrator suffers from post-partum depression. In keeping with the current ideas, her doctor husband thinks that a rest-cure is just the thing for her. This involves doing nothing at all day long, not even caring for her infant daughter and definitely not writing, the one activity that captured the imagination of the narrator. The house is managed by her sister in law. The room that is chosen for her is a large airy room upstairs though she’d rather be in a small but pretty room downstairs. The house somehow makes her uneasy.
The husband spends his time with his patients and friends; she grows progressively distressed. Left with nothing but the wallpaper for company, she begins manically tracing the patterns on the wall. Staring at it for hours, she discerns the figure of a woman imprisoned within its designs. When the husband comes to visit her one day, she is crawling about trying to rip off the yellow wallpaper in an effort to free the woman. The husband falls down in a faint.