The Woman Behind the Wallpaper: Infantilisation and Autonomy in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) depicts a woman who is driven to insanity by her belief that ‘The front pattern does move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!’ Gilman’s short story functions as rejection of the infantilisation of women, the medical beliefs, and the misunderstood nature of mental illness present in Victorian England.

In 1885 Gilman gave birth to her daughter and was diagnosed with a form of nervous hysteria, which the modern reader would call postpartum depression. The cure for this mental illness was ascribed by the esteemed neurologist Dr. S Weir Mitchell. Upon visiting Mitchell in 1886, Gilman was told to follow the maxims of ‘the rest cure,’ Mitchell’s own invention. She was to be isolated and bedridden (for up to two months) and fed and cleaned by a nurse.

‘I was put to bed and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed… after a month of this agreeable treatment he sent me home, with this prescription: “Live as domestic a life as possible… And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.’

During this treatment Gilman’s health declined rapidly and, years later, having partially recovered from the trauma of ‘the rest cure’ she produced The Yellow Wallpaper.

Her short story highlights the absurdity of giving a mental illness a physical cure. At the beginning of the story the protagonist explains that her husband is a physician, and suggests ‘perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.’ This line emphasises the lack of autonomy women were given over their own treatment and, shown by the protagonist’s reluctance to admit the above thought to anything other than ‘dead paper,’ their own beliefs.

As the sinister tone of the story unravels the reader perceives a metamorphosis from the wife of a respected physician to the elusive, nameless creature that is the woman behind the wallpaper. This transformation is a way for the protagonist to maintain her own grasp on freedom, however weak that grasp may be.

The representation of the protagonist’s delusions is a warning against infantilising women. She attributes such great importance to finding out how the pattern moves that she destroys the wallpaper in an act of rebellion, and in doing so encourages her deluded belief that she is in control. At the height of her insanity she informs her husband ‘I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’

Gilman’s story functions as a call to arms against a the lack of freedom women had over their own care. In her article ‘Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,‘ Gilman writes that ‘It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate — so terrfying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.’ However, while Gilman considered her story to be a success, the modern reader will note how the woman was saved by her family allowing her to resume her normal life. Gilman’s story certainly made a dent in feminist literature (and Mitchell’s pride), but the battle for women’s autonomy still continued.

 

 

 

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