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Misogyny and Mental Illness: The Yellow Wallpaper

ISABELLE LLOYD tells us why everyone should read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper.

 The Yellow Wallpaper is one my favourite literary texts. I first studied it during my A-levels, and I can honestly say it was what drew me to studying English Literature at university. Although I loved reading books before then, analysing them had never seemed too appealing. However, Gilman's short story has so much to give, in terms of finding deeper meanings, that it changed my whole perspective. There are dozens of ways the imagery in this short story can be interpreted.

Written in the late 19th century, the story follows a young woman who has been diagnosed with hysteria. Her husband takes her to a house to stay for a few weeks while she is recovering, but she is told to follow the rest cure - a treatment which involved resting all day with minimal mental stimulation. The unnamed young woman who narrates the story most likely has post-natal depression, however this was an unrecognised diagnosis back when the text was published. As she continues to follow rest cure, she begins seeing things in the wallpaper of the room she is staying in. She believes women are trapped within the wallpaper, unable to escape, which parallels the confinement to patriarchy she experiences in her own life. 

One of my favourite things about this story is the fact that it is partially based upon Charlotte Perkins Gilman's own life experiences. Like the protagonist in the story, she too suffered from hysteria and was forced to follow the rest cure. It was only when she felt this treatment was about to drive her to a mental breakdown that she decided to cast aside all advice she had been given by physicians and do what she thought was best instead. She recovered and wrote The Yellow Wallpaper in attempt to discredit the rest cure. And eventually, though not for many years, Weir Mitchell, the creator of the rest cure, read Gilman's text and stopped prescribing the treatment to women. 

Another thing that I love about The Yellow Wallpaper is how clearly it shows the oppressive treatment of women during the nineteenth century. The protagonist is mocked, patronised, and overlooked by her husband, John, throughout the piece. He does not believe her illness to be real and laughs at things she is genuinely worried about. The narrator feels trapped, which is why she associates herself so much with the women she believes to be trapped behind the wallpaper. This was commonly how women were treated during this time and it is important to remember just how far the feminist movement has come.

If you haven’t read The Yellow Wallpaper, I would highly recommend it. It is available for free online. Despite being only around thirty pages long, there is so much to gain from Gilman’s writing and so many ways you can interpret it. Enjoy!

Written by Isabelle Lloyd

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