Hypothesis: The author of The Yellow Wallpaper portrays insanity as a form of rebellion against the society the narrator lived in.
Since reading and studying Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, I have concluded that Gilman has portrayed insanity as a form of rebellion against the society the narrator lived in, that is America in the nineteenth century. Through analysing two critical essays on Gilman’s purpose of the text and the actions of the narrator, I have found both similar ideas that do correlate with my hypothesis, and I also have found contrasting ideas that do not align with my hypothesis. The differences in the critic’s opinions are influenced by their time periods. The two main critics and time periods I studied were Rena Korb (1998) and Beverly A. Hume (2002). These two critics show both similar, yet differing views on whether the narrator successfully rebelled against the society she lived in. Rena Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and has written for a large range of educational publishers. Dr. Beverly A. Hume has taught American literature at universities. Thus I feel these two critics are sufficiently qualified to discuss The Yellow Wallpaper.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a semi-autobiographical short story, about the treatment of women in the nineteenth century. These women were prescribed the ‘rest cure’ for nervous disorders and ‘hysterical tendencies’ by a famous physician, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell. Submission and obedience of women to men was prevalent in the nineteenth century and features heavily in this story, also. (3) The ‘rest cure’ necessitated patients to remain in bed, isolated from friends and extended family, and were discouraged from creative expressions, such as writing. The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper suffers from post-natal depression and is forced into confinement in a bedroom, in order to rest and recover. She develops an obsession with the wallpaper in her bedroom.
Rena Korb (1998) believed that Gilman’s narrator is unfairly trapped by her society and it’s expectations of men and women, and their place in society. She must obey her husband’s decisions, who has full control over her. His behaviour and control over her is due to the gender expectations of the 19th Century. As a result, she must “seek relief [and escape from her husband] elsewhere: in the yellow wallpaper.” (1) The narrator builds a relationship with the yellow wallpaper in the bedroom she is confined to, as she can visualise images of a woman in the pattern of the wallpaper. At first, she has a deep dislike for the wallpaper, however “her initial discomfort decreases as she sees mirrored in the wallpaper her own existence.”(1) The narrator details her relationship with the wallpaper through regular diary entries through which the story is told, “I don’t know why I should write this. I don’t want to. I don’t feel able. And I know John [her husband] would think it absurd. But I must say what I feel and think in some way - it is such a relief.” (p 651)
I agree with Korb here, that the narrator recognises her own trapped life, and visualises a woman in the wallpaper, who is free to move as she pleases, to that she relates to. Furthermore, this visualisation and diary writing shows us how the narrator is rebelling against John and her society, as she continues to write despite his wishes for her not to. John, who is a physician himself, believed, just as many other physicians at the time, in the ‘rest cure’ for treating women with ‘hysterical tendencies’, and conditions that nowadays would be classified as post-natal depression. As the narrator says “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency - what is one to do?”. (p 648) Her own brother was also a high standing physician, which means she