“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1899 details the story of a young woman’s descent into madness, showing clearly the symptoms that are attributed to mental breakdowns. There are many different psychological issues present within the story, including the narrator’s condition of “nerves” and the very real issue of postpartum depression, and as a result of both of these issues not being treated in the manner that is needed in order to resolve these afflictions, the narrator instead slowly drives herself to the point of insanity, from which she does not return.
“Prior to the twentieth century, men assigned and defined women’s roles. Although all women were effected by men determining women’s behavior, largely middle class women suffered” (Thomas, 2012). The narrator in the short story is more concerned with toeing the line as best she can. She is determined to do exactly what is expected of her in terms of being a dutiful wife, and doing exactly as her husband says. She avoids discussing what she wants to discuss, and avoids thinking about what she wants to think about because of her husband, John, as she says “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?” (Gilman, 1899); she has an idea as to what would assist her “nervous depression” (Gilman, 1899) as John calls it, but he does not believe that there is anything wrong with her, and believes that she should not draw more attention to herself or behave in any manner other than that which he states, so she believes that she can do nothing about her condition as a result. She goes where he says she should, and does what he says she should do so that she does not bring slander or gossip into their home, any more so than she already has as a result of being afflicted with her condition. She is very concerned with the “man knows what’s best for woman” mentality, and she strives to contain herself to that. Her expressions of self are seen in her condition of nervousness, which when described in that time period, commonly occurs when a woman attempts to conform to a standard they are unable to meet, the inevitable occurrence brought about by trying to fit a square peg into a coke bottle shaped hole. She found that when she attempted to break free from the mold, “it does exhaust (her) a good deal (when she tries) “to write for a while in spite of them” (Gilman, 1899); in other words, the mold itself is too firmly ingrained in her belief structure to be able to break free from it completely and that little attempt to do so drained her more than she thought possible, so she stopped, and went back to trying to conform.
The indication that she is also suffering from postpartum depression is evident in the comments that she makes, about how “fortunate” it is that “Mary is so good with the baby” and yet she “cannot be with him, it makes (her) so nervous” (Gilman, 1899). This condition, which “is characterized by symptoms of extreme agitation, confusion, exhilaration, and an inability to sleep or eat. (Furthermore,) it may be hard to maintain a coherent conversation with a woman who has (postpartum psychosis). She may also experience delusions, hallucinations, an altered and/or impaired concept of reality, rapid mood swings, insomnia, and abnormal or obsessive thoughts” (Beck & Driscoll, p. 47). These symptoms are clearly expressed, almost down to the letter, by the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper;” in regards to hallucinations, she sees images moving within the wallpaper itself, “the front pattern does move –and no wonder!” (Gilman, 1899). She expresses issues with her appetite as well, stating “my appetite may be better in the evening when you are here, but it is worse in the morning when you are away” (Gilman, 1899), and her mood swings are just as present, even she herself notices that she is “getting dreadfully