Reading the series of diary entries that make up the story, the reader is in a privileged position to witness the narrator’s evolving and accelerating descent into madness, foreshadowed by her mounting paranoia and obsession with the mysterious figure behind the pattern of the yellow wallpaper.
As the portrayal of a woman’s gradual mental breakdown, The Yellow Wallpaper offers the reader a window into the perception and treatment of mental illness in the late nineteenth century. In the style of a Gothic horror story, the tale follows the gradual deterioration of its narrator’s mental state, but it also explores the ways that her husband John’s attempted treatment aggravates this decline. In one sense, then, the story is a propaganda piece criticizing a specific way of ‘curing’ mental illness. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author of the story, suffered from post-partum depression and, in circumstances very similar to those of the story’s narrator, was prescribed a ‘rest cure’ by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, who is mentioned by name in her tale. She underwent a mental breakdown as a result of this enforced idleness, which forbade any form of writing or work outside of the domestic sphere. The forced confinement of the story’s narrator, and her husband’s injunctions against writing or other activity, mirror this ‘rest cure’ in the author’s life.
John, the narrator’s husband, serves also as her de facto doctor. As such, he is a model of traditional attitudes toward mental illness. He is driven purely by practicalities, prescribing self-control above all else, and warning against anything that he sees as indulging his wife’s dangerous imagination or hysteria. His refusal to acknowledge his wife’s concerns about her own mental state as legitimate, or to listen to her various requests – about their choice of room, receiving visitors, leaving the house, her writing or, of course, the wallpaper – ultimately contributes to her breakdown, as she finds herself trapped, alone, and unable to make her inner struggles understood. This feeling of powerlessness, of an inability to communicate, is portrayed with special horror to inspire empathy in a progressive reader, who may have been moved to reconsider methods such as the rest cure of Weir Mitchell.
Mental Illness and its Treatment ThemeTracker
Mental Illness and its Treatment Quotes in The Yellow Wallpaper
John is a physician, and PERHAPS—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—PERHAPS that is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see he does not believe I am sick!
And what can one do?
He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.
I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.
He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get.
The paint and paper look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off—the paper—in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.
John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious.
I am glad my case is not serious!
But these nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing.
John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no REASON to suffer, and that satisfies him.
There comes John's sister. Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing. She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!
But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase.
Dear John! He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia.
But he said I wasn't able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished.
If we had not used it, that blessed child would have! What a fortunate escape! Why, I wouldn't have a child of mine, an impressionable little thing, live in such a room for worlds.
I never thought of it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all, I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see.
Of course if you were in any danger, I could and would, but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know. You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better, I feel really much easier about you.
On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind… You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream.
At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.
It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house—to reach the smell. But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the COLOR of the paper! A yellow smell.
There is a very funny mark on this wall, low down, near the mopboard. A streak that runs round the room. It goes behind every piece of furniture, except the bed, a long, straight, even SMOOCH, as if it had been rubbed over and over. I wonder how it was done and who did it, and what they did it for. Round and round and round—round and round and round—it makes me dizzy!
And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.
I always lock the door when I creep by daylight. I can't do it at night, for I know John would suspect something at once.
I have found out another funny thing, but I shan't tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much.
John knows I don't sleep very well at night, for all I'm so quiet!
He asked me all sorts of questions, too, and pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn't see through him!
Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision!
I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.
Besides I wouldn't do it. Of course not. I know well enough that a step like that is improper and might be misconstrued.
I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!
It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please! I don't want to go outside. I won't, even if Jennie asks me to.
For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow.
But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way.
"I've got out at last," said I, "in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!"
Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!