The Yellow Wallpaper: a 19th-century short story of nervous exhaustion and the perils of women’s ‘rest cures’

The Yellow Wallpaper: a 19th-century short story of nervous exhaustion and the perils of women’s ‘rest cures’

“These nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing”, wrote Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. Though later gaining recognition as a journalist and social critic rather than an author of fiction, Gilman is best known for this brief and extraordinary piece of writing published in 1892.

The Yellow Wallpaper enlightens the reader on women’s health, motherhood, mental breakdown and its treatment, as well as feminism and gender relations in late 19th-century America. Though many details are changed, the story is semi-autobiographical, drawing on Gilman’s own health crisis and particularly her fraught relationship with Dr Silas Weir Mitchell – who carved a reputation for treating nervous exhaustion following his experiences as a Civil War doctor – and who was brought in to treat her in 1886. In Gilman’s own words, he drove her to “mental agony” before she rejected his treatment and began once again to write.

Rest, take tonics, air and exercise. Art Gallery ErgsArt – by ErgSap

Gilman’s short story is a straightforward one. The narrator is brought by her physician husband to a summer retreat in the countryside to recover from her “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency”. There she is to rest, take tonics, air and exercise – and absolutely forbidden to engage in intellectual work until well again. The house is “queer”, long abandoned and isolated. The room her husband selects as their bedroom, though large, airy and bright, is barred at the window and furnished with a bed that is bolted to the floor. The wallpaper is torn, the floor scratched and gouged. Perhaps, the narrator muses, it had once been a nursery or playroom.

It is the room’s wallpaper, a “repellant” and “smouldering unclean yellow”, with “sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin” that forms the centrepiece of the story. The narrator spends much of her days being cared for – and often left alone – in this room, reading, attempting to write (though the subterfuge this involved leaves her weary, she noted) and, increasingly, watching the wallpaper, as it starts to take on a life of its own.

Nervous exhaustion

The story highlights the plight of many women during the 19th century. All women were seen by physicians as susceptible to ill health and mental breakdown by reason of their biological weakness and reproductive cycles. And those who were creative and ambitious were deemed even more at risk.

The protagonist of the story might have been suffering from puerperal insanity, a severe form of mental illness labelled in the early 19th century and claimed by doctors to be triggered by the mental and physical strain of giving birth. The condition captured the interest of both psychiatrists and obstetricians, and its treatment involved quietening the nervous system and restoring the strength of the patient. In her autobiography, published in 1935, Gilman wrote of the “dragging weariness … absolute incapacity. Absolute misery” following the birth of her daughter that led her to consult Dr Mitchell.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman. United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division / Wikipedia

The story can also be seen as a rich account of neurasthenia or nervous exhaustion, a disorder first defined by Mitchell in his book Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked in 1871. Neurasthenia took hold in modernising America in the closing decades of the 19th century, as incessant work was said to ruin the mental health of its citizens. Women were reported to be putting themselves at risk of nervous collapse with their eagerness to take on roles unsuited to their gender, including higher education or political activities. “City-bred” women, Mitchell concluded, might be poorly equipped to fulfil the natural functions of motherhood.

Gilman was treated with the “rest cure”, devised by Mitchell, as is the protagonist of the story; like an infant, she was dosed, fed at regular intervals and above all ordered to rest. Mitchell instructed Gilman to live as domestic a life as possible “and never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live”.

Escape from the wallpaper

It is the wallpaper that dwells increasingly on the narrator’s mind with its “vicious influence”. Behind it, dim shapes get clearer by the day, sometimes of many women, sometimes one, stooping down and creeping about behind the pattern. At the end of the story the narrator takes the opportunity of her husband’s absence to lock the door and tear away the wallpaper, the women now creeping outside in the garden. “I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?” she asks. Her husband, on opening the door, collapses as the narrator declares:

I’ve got out at last … and 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!

Was her “escape” her salvation or had she finally lost her mind? Readers are left to reach their own conclusions.

Silas Weir Mitchell.

The Yellow Wallpaper illuminates the challenges of being a woman of ambition in the late 19th century. While all women were seen vulnerable, those who expressed political ambition (suffrage reformers), or who took on male roles and challenged female dress codes (New Women), or who sought higher education or creative lives – or even read too much fiction – could be accused of flouting female conventions and placing themselves at risk of mental illness. Mitchell, largely through his treatment of Gilman and her later description of this, gained a notorious reputation, and he may well have misdiagnosed her or believed that her intellectual pursuits were too introspective.

Yet historical scholarship has also suggested that some well-to-do and educated women might also have helped shape their own diagnoses or used their illness to avoid domestic duties that they found unpleasant or taxing. Not all doctors condemned women for their ambition – many advocated more rounded lives embracing intellectual and physical pursuits alongside domestic roles. Other patients treated by Mitchell, including the critic and historian Amelia Gere Mason and writer Sarah Butler Wister, tailored their treatments to suit their lifestyles, with Mitchell encouraging their intellectual and creative pursuits.

For Gilman, her divorce proceedings, rare enough at the time to be announced as a “scandal” in various American newspapers, began in the same year as The Yellow Wallpaper was published, and she became increasingly active in the women’s movement. Writing years later about the short story, Gilman described how it was written to celebrate her narrow escape from utter mental ruin. A copy was sent to Mitchell but did not receive a response.

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