Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s psychological horror tale, The Yellow Wallpaper, effectively uses an epistolary format and Jane’s progressing chaos and insanity in order to critique both nineteenth century marriage and Dr. Weir Mitchell’s “resting cure” for depression. The Yellow Wallpaper is a story that, hopefully, only makes sense in the context of the nineteenth century, mainly because both women’s rights and psychology in developed countries have advanced significantly over the past century. In the nineteenth century, some women were essentially held captive by their husbands in legal marriage contracts that gave husbands all the financial power. In the nineteenth century, women were expected to have strictly domestic functions, which forced women after the nineteenth century to stay subservient to men for around half a century. However, in developed countries today, women have the right to vote, hold office, start businesses, and do a whole load of activities encouraged by society, instead of being encouraged to become isolated at home by nineteenth century society. Furthermore, psychology and science have advanced so that scientists are forced to test their treatments before they are implemented, and such tests could have definitively saved tens of thousands of women from the horror of the "resting cure" if they were instituted in the nineteenth century. The main character in The Yellow Wallpaper, Jane, is expected to obey her husband at all times, and her socially enforced obedience is exactly what causes her to become a victim of Dr. Mitchell’s faulty psychological treatments. Although Jane was a free-thinking and competent individual in the beginning of the book, her husband’s dominance and insistence on using the “resting cure” treatment for her depression caused her to become mentally unstable and to eventually (as I believe) kill her husband.
At the beginning of The Yellow Wallpaper, Jane expresses doubt in her treatment, but demonstrates that she is mentally capable and a normal individual. For instance, when describing her room in the book’s beginning, Jane says, “I don't like our room a bit. I wanted one downstairs that opened on the piazza and had roses over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings! But John would not hear of it" (Gilman 2). Jane’s description of her home demonstrates that she has normal thoughts and is not attached or obsessed with any particular component of the house, unlike the way that she describes her irrational hatred of the yellow wallpaper in the latter half of the book. Jane’s confinement in the room with the yellow wallpaper is not only literally represented, but Gilman also uses Jane’s confinement as a metaphorical representation of the effect that nineteenth century society and marriage had on women. Furthermore, Charlotte Gilman also details the lack of women’s independence and freedom that was characteristic of nineteenth century homes. As Jane debates the merit of her treatment, she says, “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus — but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition” (Gilman 2). Without even considering his wife’s perspective, Jane’s husband overrules her rationality and enforces his own decision, then forbids his wife to think about the appropriateness of her treatment. Gilman is clearly critiquing how John’s, and many other nineteenth century men’s, assumption of their own superior wisdom causes women to be misjudged and dominated while the truth is lost.
As a result of Dr. Mitchell’s horribly flawed treatment and her husband’s dominance, Jane is forced to fuel her own obsessive fantasy. In her fantasy, Jane maintains some form of control over her thoughts, and these independent and free thoughts are the source of her pleasure and salvation. Jane becomes obsessed with creeping and the yellow wallpaper as the mental strains of her confinement drive her insane. Jane’s condition becomes clear when she begins thinking irrationally as she states, “I don’t like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did” (Gilman 10). Since Jane is an unreliable narrator due to her mental condition, her writings and descriptions are difficult to take literally and are likely warped. This critique of Dr. Mitchell’s treatment and the metaphorical and physical confinement of women by their husbands is particularly damning because Gilman takes readers through Jane’s slow and terrible descent into insanity. I think that Gilman’s story and critique is particularly compelling because readers easily learn to hate the way that John treats Jane through the epistolary nature of the book.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. N.p., n.d. United States Library of Medicine. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.