Loss of Sense of Reality in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Charlotte Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a haunting first-person narrative that tells a story of a twenty-six-year-old woman who is suffering with postpartum depression. The storyline is relatively simple: a nameless woman is put in an attic of an isolated country mansion by her physician husband to help her overcome a “temporary nervous depression” (Gilman 12). As the narrative unfolds, the reader observes the heroine go through the process of mental and psychological deterioration, as she gradually sinks into a psychotic delirium. “The Yellow Wallpaper” brings up a plethora of issues regarding womanhood, mental illness and social isolation. With the use of first-person narrative, Gilman guides the reader through the subjective perception of a woman who is suffering from mental anguish and, instead of receiving help, finds herself amid the agony of psychosis. Thus, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not a tale about a haunted house, it is a description of how a person loses a sense of reality.
Setting and Premise
The narration begins with the main character and her husband arriving at the country mansion for the summer. Even though the mansion strikes away by its spaciousness, it is totally deserted. At first, the heroine seems to be pleased by the esthetics of the new place, but soon, she presumes that the mansion might be haunted, as she sees a completely empty greenhouse. Judging by the opening to the main plotline, the narrative may seem like a classic gothic Poe-esque horror-story about haunted palaces. However, the premise is deceptive, as “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a certain guide-map for a mind that it spiraling into the depths of insanity.
From the very beginning of the story, Gilman’s heroine confesses that she is mentally sick. Her vulnerable mental state is exacerbated by her husband’s decision to lock her in an attic where he intends to keep her until “she is well again” ignoring her wishes to stay in a room with an opening to the garden (Gilman 13). Instead, he insists on keeping her in an upstairs room that used to be a nursing facility for other mentally sick women.
As the heroine gets totally isolated, the only way left for her to deal with her emotions is by writing in a journal that she calls the “dead paper”, as she is put in the conditions of not being able to speak truthfully to “a living soul” (Gilman 23). The little room serves as an allegory of the inner state of the heroine. As she is locked in the room, she also gets locked within her own sick mind without a chance of breaking through into the external world. This launches the uncanny process of her spiraling into madness and total loss of her sense of reality.
Yellow Wallpaper as a Symbol of Mental Entrapment
The first thing that the heroine perceives when she is put in a room is the yellow wallpaper. She hyperbolically describes it as “the worst paper that she has ever seen” (Gilman 19). As the story unfolds, this yellow paper becomes the only thing that provides the heroine with a sense of control, as she eventually develops a certain obsession over it. The yellow wallpaper becomes a point of merging of the heroine’s inner and outer states. The author portrays a mind that desperately seeks another perceiving subject to interact with and, starting with the perception of human heads in the patterns of the wallpaper, ultimately creates an illusory figure of a woman.
Gradually, the yellow wallpaper becomes a center of the woman’s reality. Throughout her life, she was unable to find any life purpose or meaning in her existence. Her life was constrained by the cages of patriarchal society where she was totally dependent on the decisions made by the men around her, be it her brother, her husband, or her doctor. The yellow wallpaper eventually merges into a subconscious symbol of her being. As her insanity evolves, she transfers the desire to break free from the restrictions imposed on her by her husband and the societal patriarchal limitations onto the imaginary woman figure behind the bars of the wallpaper.
It is not by chance that her consciousness draws a female figure – it is a shift of her own internal state onto an object perceived in the external world. She describes the female figure behind the wallpaper as “stooping down and creeping about”, as she tries to do this same but from the reality that she is trapped in (Gilman 28). Thus, the yellow wallpaper serves as a symbol of never-ending attempt to escape the cage of the heroine’s mind, as well as her life circumstances.
Plot Denouement and the Triumph of Madness
The apogee of her delirium starts at the point when her obsession with the wallpaper reaches its peak. Eventually, the heroine starts to strip the yellow wallpaper off the wall, as she desperately desires to set free the woman that she perceives as being imprisoned inside of it. As she rips off the paper, she starts to see other women who had been captivated in this room before her.
The yellow paper now becomes a symbol of her freedom and simultaneous confinement. In an ultimate state of paranoia that the heroine finds herself in by the end of the story, she makes an attempt to hide the signs of her delirious obsession. She succeeds to rip off most of the paper from the wall. In the final scene, the husband enters the room and sees his wife creeping along the walls. He gets horrified by what he sees and faints, and the heroine steps over him every time she stumbles over his body, as she keeps circling around the room in her psychotic agony.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a record of a tempestuous inward journey of a deeply unhappy woman on a verge of madness. Through this story, Gilman grotesquely demonstrates the process of sublimation of the psychological chaos within the heroine amid the absence of external ways of self-expression. As she is restrained of her creative freedom of expression, she gets caught within the borders of her own mental anguish and ever-growing chaos. Her husband by forbidding her to have any ways of self-expression sentences her to getting lost within her own insanity.
As much as this book is a story of madness and confinement, it is also a story of inability to be heard and understood. This forced entrapment of a human psyche within its own microcosm grows into anger and, ultimately, sinks in the depths of the unconscious from which there is no visible way out. Thus, this book is about a human getting taken over by the demons of their subconscious as they get caught in a rut without an escape route.
Gilman, Charlotte. The Yellow Wallpaper. BiblioBazaar, 2010.