Desire and Insanity, An essay on ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

By Aroni Sarkar, 4th December 2019. 
Disclaimer: This work is original and the property of Aroni Sarkar. It is not authorised for any use, copies or dissemination. 

This paper will be conducting a thematic analysis of Charlotte Perkin Gillman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ describes the progression of the narrator’s sanity while being trapped in a house with an insistent yellow wallpaper. The author tackles issues such as gender roles, and treatment of mental health amongst women, in particular patients of female hysteria. She was diagnosed with depression and prescribed a ‘rest cure’ that entailed the tranquilization of all mental stimulation (Perkins Gillman 856). This bears the context of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ whereby the narrator is living in a ‘spiritually tainted’ house for a period of 3 months as part of the rest cure prescribed to her. This story addresses the complexities of desire, which is defined as something in between ‘want’ and ‘need’. It is something that is not required for survival, nor is it a luxury, but something that enhances basic life. This paper investigates 3 layers of desires – maternal, romantic or sexual, intellectual or spiritual – and their assertive nature on one’s mental health. These levels are addressed in a complex, interconnected manner by the narrator through her expression of frustration throughout the story. Firstly, the context behind the short story will be explained briefly, followed by the introduction of the different desires the narrator exhibits throughout the text. Then, an investigation will be conducted into how the author portrays the interplay between these desires. Finally, a discussion will take place on how the relationship between achieving one’s desires, and sanity is a negative correlation. This paper will argue that mental and physical oppression creates an environment for narcissism, and that the process of achieving one’s desires parallels with one’s mental progression towards insanity.

Charlotte Perkins Gillman had a troubling childhood that contributed greatly to her mental health later on in life. She was abandoned by her father at a young age and raised by an emotionally neglectful mother. She and her brother were deprived of all physical affection and emotional support as their mother wanted them to be prepared for unsuccessful or heart breaking relationships. As an adult, she was married to an artist, and supported herself independently as an art teacher and governess where she was exposed to the unfair treatment of women. Her marriage began on a negative note due to the fact that she was highly reluctant to the marriage. She believed the norms surrounding the role of wife and mother would interfere with her ambitions. Eventually, she was diagnosed with depression and was prescribed the ‘rest cure’ which involved total bed rest and no mental stimulation for a certain period of time. However, this destabilised her mental health even further and contributed to her mental deterioration (Levine 843). This contextual information is critical in understanding ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ as it reflects her real life experiences in a dramatized manner.

Gillman demonstrates an expression of intellectual and spiritual desire within the narrator. Intellectual and spiritual desires can be defined as something that enhances the creative, knowledgeable, and emotional aspects of life. The narrator begins the description of the house she and her husband John are moving to for a period of 3 months for her healing process as something “queer” (844). ‘Queer’ in this instance means something that is strange and unusual, a house that makes her uncomfortable from the very sight of it. She is put aback by this strangeness as she questions why such a house would be unattended for so long if it was not so strange. Here, there is a connection to her own situation where her diagnosis is very common among women at the time, like a house is very common, but her cure is unusual and requires isolation. Her feelings towards the strangeness of the house is an expression of her feelings towards her prescription. She describes it as a ‘haunted house’ in which she is told by her husband that it contains a lot of ‘air’ for her to absorb. The idea of consuming air here is interesting as it assumes that the various aspects that make up air, such as temperature, density, moisture, are components of a healthy environment. However, her perception of the house suggests that she thinks the air is tainted or unbalanced with spirits, therefore haunted, but John believes she needs to be here so she has to be. She accepts the fact that this house is going to do her worse instead of better because of the tainted nature of this ‘air’. This is further emphasised in her explicit disagreement with John’s and her doctor’s opinions as she says “personally, I disagree with their ideas” and that instead, engaging in her creative work would actually help her (844). She is expressing that her spiritual desire for emotional satisfaction, and intellectual desire to continue her written work is already diminishing and is going to be difficult to achieve in a house like this. She is aware however, that she has no say or power to overtly disagree and engage in active disobedience of their opinions because of the gender norms of the time where wives are supposed to be subordinate to the husband. This is expressed in her jumps between addressing herself in the first and third person. She shifts between describing her situation by saying “one” or “I”, where she distinguishes her own unique situation with the first person, but embeds herself into the broader trend of treatment of women with mental illness by using the third person (844). Moreover, she remains unnamed throughout the story unlike the remaining characters.  This assumes that her experiences are generalisable to most women at the time. 

Maternally, the narrator expresses the desire to carry the burden of staying in this hideous room so her child does not have to, however, in action it seems more neglectful than protective. She expresses that her inability to be with her child because of her condition gives her anxiety and makes her nervous, which makes the audience believe that she is a concerned mother at face value. She has a desire to be a good mother, but her condition prevents her from doing so. However, it seems as though she uses her condition as an excuse for neglectful behaviour. She repeatedly says she is unable to do certain things adequately like manage anger at John because of her “nervous condition”, however, it seems very disingenuous. The repetition of it throughout the story in cases of explaining her behaviour while in the first instance seems as a persistent awareness of her condition which in turn exacerbates it, later seems like a shrug and dismissal of the real issues and becomes preoccupied with other thoughts. The room that her husband assigns her in the house is a child’s room with restrictions such as bars on the windows and playable things attached to the walls. The bars on the window in this room represents a connection between protection and oppression. Through this image, Gillman exposes the contradictory nature of parenthood. On the one hand, parents and society in general want to protect children by creating certain restraints so they do not harm themselves, like the bars. On the other hand, those same restraints later on in life when embedded into a person’s thought process is a method of oppression and denial of free will. This connection between protection and oppression is present throughout the story because her prescribed cure is an attempt to protect her from herself, but also a method of oppressing her from her needs and desires.

These conditions of oppression creates an environment for the development of narcissism. The etymology of the word ‘narcissism’ stems from the Greek myth of Narcissus. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pond, so much so, that he killed himself with the realisation that his mirror image could not be brought to life alongside him (Encyclopaedia Britannica). This story depicts the fatal nature of being obsessed with one’s self-image. The development towards this stage is seen in the progression of the narrator’s attitude towards the figure in the wallpaper. The narrator describes an odd-shaped figure in the wallpaper, one with “a broken neck and two bulbous eyes” creating the impression that the figure is monster-like and dysfunctional (Perkins Gillman 847). She brings this figure to life from a mere image to an actual in-motion figure by claiming to never have seen “so much expression in an inanimate thing before” (847). The monster-like nature of this figure she describes is detailed further when she visualises the floor which is “scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there” (847). This description supposes that this figure has crawled out at some point, and tried to escape. The attention to detail here can be seen as her subconscious understanding that she is in some way connected to this figure, she too wants to escape this trap and be free. 

She then transitions from a devilish interpretation of the figure to a mirroring womanish one. She notices that there are various layers in the wallpaper underneath the most obvious one, and they only come out under certain circumstances of light, and this woman creeps out from behind that obvious pattern. She explains that with moonlight, the pattern on the outside layer becomes like that of bars like on the window, and the woman is behind. Here, the connection of the woman in the pattern and herself is evident as she herself seems imprisoned in a room with bars, and in the “daylight she is subdued, quiet”, just like herself when she is worn out by thinking too much (851). Instead of hating this figure and the wallpaper, she starts to get attached and protective of it, so much so that she expresses jealousy when she catches John’s sister, Jennie admiring the wallpaper. She becomes so obsessed with trying to understand this woman behind the wallpaper that she forgets to pay attention to herself, which is further aided by the fact that John was away during this period of heightened intrigue. She tries to help and stop the woman in the wallpaper as she was trying to crawl out of the pattern by grabbing a rope to tie her, and with her struggle to do so she admits that she was “getting angry enough to do something desperate” (854). This act of desperation was ultimately her suicide. John walks in to the room and faints at the sight of her, suggesting that he witnessed his wife dead in a chaotically messy room. She describes having to walk over his limp body implying that at this point, the end of the story, she has become one with the woman of the wallpaper, and is staring over the situation as a complete self. This woman, was the incomplete, ‘queer’ part of the house that made her uncomfortable from the beginning as it was a part of herself all along, and the cure for her disease. Her cure in this case, was the achievement of all her desires, and total self-control. The act of suicide, was the ultimate expression of self-control. Her obsession with this woman in the wallpaper is narcissism. She becomes increasingly intrigued the more she identifies herself with the woman, and is so determined to understand her and get close to her, that she partakes in a fatal activity, just like Narcissus. 

Gillman portrays the narrator’s romantic and sexual desires not separately, but rather in relation to her maternal desires and her narcissism. Throughout the story, it is assumed that John is a loving and caring husband doing everything he can to help his wife. At the same time, it is also assumed that this help is a form of oppression, as addressed earlier. However, the love that Gillman demonstrates here between the husband and wife seems more like a parent and child. John calls her his “little goose” and a “little girl” and even encloses her in the room which used to be a nursery (846, 850). There is no expression of physical affection in the romantic or sexual sense for the entirety of the story. This suggests that Gillman, unaware of a loving relationship in real life with a broken home and marriage, is over compensating for that lack of love. The narrator continuously repeats in the beginning half of the story that John loves her so much, and that he only wants the best for her, less to let the audience know, and more to convince herself. This addresses the other side of her maternal desires, one which was about her desires from her own mother. The narrator here, as a vessel of Gillman’s desires, wishes so much for a relationship with a parent that is loving that those desires were transferred from maternal ones to romantic ones. These desires are transferrable relatively easily because both relationships involved a subordinate-dominant dynamic. The parents, and a husband both hold a dominant, authoritarian position in comparison to the position of a daughter, and wife. 

Moreover, the narrator’s obsession with the figure in the wallpaper suggests a deviation in her sexual desires from her partner, to herself. The word “creeping out” is used on multiple occasions to describe the movement of the woman in the wallpaper. The word ‘creeping’ suggests an act that is not meant to be seen, and perhaps shameful. The fact that this woman is creeping out rather than in suggests that they want to escape certain restraints and commit an act that is not appreciated widely. This is an expression of narrator’s desires to deviate out of the socially accepted norms of sexuality. As mentioned previously, there is no expression of physical love between John and herself. However, she is openly concerned and intrigued by the woman in the wallpaper. This woman, as a mirror image of herself, becomes an outlet for loving herself. On the one hand, this could be seen as Gillman’s attempt at embedding a feminist agenda for women to love themselves as who they are and embrace themselves even at their monstrous selves. On the other hand, this could also be seen as narcissism and contributing to her obsession with herself, and her autosexuality, which means to be sexually attracted to oneself. Every interaction that the narrator has with this woman is at night, hidden, when the rest of the world is asleep. Her interactions are laughed at by John, and unseen during the day. The setting of the night-time for these interactions emphasises the potentially ‘shameful’ or non-conforming nature of such desires. 

The worsening nature of the narrator’s mental stability throughout the course of the story is in a negative correlation with her achievement of desires through alternative means. The more she tries to achieve her maternal, romantic and sexual, and intellectual spiritual desires, the less stable she becomes. When left unsupervised in a prison-like environment, the narrator had to find alternative means to achieve her desires. Intellectually and spiritually, she actively engages in not following the ‘no mental stimulation’ rule and continues to write and think. On the one hand this can be seen as her own attempt to cure herself and escape the oppressive nature of the cure. On the other hand, perhaps her mental condition was deteriorated because she did not follow the cure, regardless of its oppressive nature. Maternally, she was unable to see her own child, and deprived on proper parental care, resulting in her relationship with John being one of parental association rather than marriageable. Consequently, because of the lack of romance in her marriage, she was exposed to herself in the truest nature, the woman in the wallpaper, and grows to be attracted to her at an exponential rate. She achieved her romantic and sexual desires by being with the woman in the wallpaper, and to be with her, was to kill herself. This progression towards insanity and eventual death secures an understanding that often for women at the time, the only way to achieve ones desires, is to be vulnerable to mental deterioration. Perhaps the reason female hysteria was so common at the time was because women could not function completely while only achieving the bare necessities of life. They needed their desires addressed, the enhancement of life. However, when socially conditioned to be in an oppressive environment for most of their lives, they have to find other means of achieving those desires. Perhaps these other ways, are in fact the true ways of achieving those desires. Perhaps to have total control over your own life, is to take it. 

In conclusion, Gillman demonstrates the consequences of being unable to live intellectually, emotionally, and sexually satisfied in a dramatized, embellished manner. She draws from her own experiences and wrote this short story with the intention to expose the results of this treatment, and show it to the very doctor that prescribed it to her (Perkins Gillman 856). However, it is ambiguous whether she believes that being driven crazy as part of this cure was a bad thing or a good thing for her personally. She states in her justification, called ‘Why I Wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”?’ that “[the rest cure] was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked” (856). It is ambiguous here ‘what’ worked. Did it save people from being driven crazy or not? This ambiguity suggests that perhaps, she was glad that she went through with the rest cure because it exposed herself to a side of her mind that she had not seen before. Perhaps, that part of her mind was what was needed for her to feel satisfied with the aspects of life she thought was unattainable as a woman of her time. Therefore, the process of achieving ones truest desires is correlated towards ones progression towards insanity. 

Disclaimer: This work is original and the property of Aroni Sarkar. It is not authorised for any use, copies or dissemination. 

Bibliography

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Narcissus” Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Narcissus-Greek-mythology

Levine, Robert S, et al. “Charlotte Perkins Gillman” The Norton Anthology of American  Literature, 9th ed., vol. 1, Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 842-856.