Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The Yellow Wallpaper: The flawed prescription

Mahek Khwaja 
Karachi, Pakistan

Art work exploring themes in The Yellow Wallpaper
Yellow Wallpaper Art: A Bowl with “The House”~ Tower, the Yellow Room. By Julie Jordan Scott on Flickr. CC BY 2.0. 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote her short story The Yellow Wallpaper in nineteenth-century America when gendered norms prevailed in society at large and notably in medicine.

In a previous article, “Charlotte Perkins Gilman, apostle of women’s liberation,” (2019) published in Hektoen International, George Dunea speaks at length on how Perkins’ writings are peppered with ambivalence about men, mostly holding some scientific or medicinal authority on the female protagonist. The present article is an exploration of how the very perceptive protagonist is put into a difficult situation by her physician husband and how she is able to cope with that.1

The story opens with the voice of a nameless protagonist whose only identity is being the wife of Dr. John. She describes the colonial mansion in which they are staying as “a hereditary estate,” with walls imprisoning her in a setting consistent with ancestral historic patriarchy (p. 647).2 The protagonist’s husband and her brother are physicians who enjoy this double authority over her, especially John, who thinks that her psychological state is a “false and foolish fancy” (p. 652).31

John appears to be the voice of reason. Yet in the eyes of his wife he is most unreasonable. He scoffs at her for complaining about things that cannot “be felt and seen and put down in figures” (p. 647).4 She always has to take pains to control herself before him. She is not allowed to think about her condition but must live in a reality constructed by her physician husband, living in a room formerly a “nursery,” with windows “barred” for little children and with rings and things in the wall. Any intellectual activity such as writing is prohibited, so she pens down her suffering only when she is alone in her room as if it were a crime. Because of her imaginative tendencies and sensitivity to her environment, she is called a story-maker and a nervous weakling. Her pleadings to leave the mansion to visit her cousins and to repaper the room go unanswered like those of a nagging child. John thinks she is only malingering and if he agrees to change the wallpaper she will next ask to change the furniture and other accessories. So Gilman emphasizes the lack of the physician’s empathy and understanding, also pointing out that John and his wife’s relationship symbolizes a palpable power differential between man and woman, husband and wife, reason and imagination, doctor and patient. Clearly the doctor is in every position to use or misuse the power he holds over his patient.5

We hear at this point about Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914), a medical authority who advocated bed rest and domestication as the only “moral method” for women showing abnormal brain activity (p. 2).62 Since the protagonist overflows with energy and her ideas are different from John’s, she is to be subjected to the system’s suppression and becomes victim of the institutionalized diagnosis made by her husband (p. 114).7 According to Ammari (2015), Mitchell firmly believed in containing a woman’s brain so that she would not transcend her domestic setting. And it would be up to the psychiatrist (always a male), to decide how much to allow the patient regardless of what she herself thinks or feels. Ammari (2015) explains this method as:

“The treatment included absolute isolation and confinement to bed rest for twenty-four hours per day, continued through months at times, with the watchful eye of the psychiatrist and nurse in charge of the patient, in order to ensure the patient’s mental and physical passivity. This method was designed to transform the mind from a state of excessive emotions to a state of complete numbness, till the psychiatrist in charge decides that the patient’s mind is reduced to placid contentment . . . (p. 3)”8

We see this method applied to our protagonist, who is forbidden to “work” until she is well. She is given phosphates and tonics and is prescribed not to think of her situation. Whenever she tries to express what she feels, her husband calls her “little girl” and “little goose,” holds her in his arms, and lulls her to sleep. This is the most subtle yet most harmful way to treat a woman by not even allowing her to think for herself. 9

The mental condition of the protagonist is not fully explained in clinical terms. We can assume it might be postpartum depression or perhaps some other manifestation of depression. Other factors may be involved, such as marital conflict, social or professional inactivity, and lack of emotional support from the partner. We know that the protagonist suffers from crying spells and sadness, restlessness, and irritation and there is also a hint of suicidal ideation when she says, while describing the uncertain curves on the wallpaper, that “they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (p. 648).5 Yet whatever may be the patient’s clinical condition, it should not be treated by simply locking her up in a room.10

According to Ammari (2015), Homi Bhabha’s cultural theory of “in-betweenness” should be acknowledged. Men must recognize that a woman is capable of both emotions and reason.11 Doctors should recognize that understanding a psychological condition requires logic but also transcends it. One line from the story that holds a great moral for medicine and humanity is the protagonist’s assertion: “But I must say what I feel and think in some way—it is such a relief!” (p. 651).12 That is, to affirm a person’s right to feel and reason as an individual and not as prevailing societal norms would wish them to do.

End Notes

  1. Dunea, George. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman, apostle of women’s liberation”. Hektoen International (Winter 2019). https://hekint.org/2019/02/07/charlotte-perkins-gilman-apostle-of-womens-liberation/.
  2. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. 647-656. PDF file. July 25, 2020. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/theliteratureofprescription/exhibitionAssets/digitalDocs/The-Yellow-Wall-Paper.pdf.
  3. Gilman. The Yellow Wallpaper. 647-656. PDF file. July 25, 2020.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ammari, Deema. ‘Bed Rest’ Challenged: A Liberating Treatment in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. International Journal of Arabic-English Studies (IJAES), Vol. 15, 2015: 0-145. July 26, 2020. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323445401_’Bed_Rest’_Challenged_A_Liberating_Treatment_in_’The_Yellow_Wallpaper’
  7. Ghandeharion, Azra & Mazari, Milad. (2016). Women Entrapment and Flight in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses. 10.14198/raei.2016.29.06.
  8. Ammari. ‘Bed Rest’ Challenged: A Liberating Treatment in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. 2015.
  9. Gilman. The Yellow Wallpaper. 647-656. PDF file. July 25, 2020.
  10. Patel, Milapkumar & Bailey, Rahn & Jabeen, Shagufta & Ali, Shahid & Barker, Narviar & Osiezagha, Kenneth. (2012). Postpartum Depression: A Review. Journal of health care for the poor and underserved. 23. 534-42. 10.1353/hpu.2012.0037.
  11. Ammari. ‘Bed Rest’ Challenged: A Liberating Treatment in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. 2015.
  12. Gilman. The Yellow Wallpaper. 647-656. PDF file. July 25, 2020

MAHEK KHWAJA, MA, has completed her Master’s degree in English Literature and currently works as an Editorial Assistant at the Medical Division of Paramount Books Ltd. She is particularly interested in tracing the confluence between history, literature, and medicine.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 12, Issue 4 – Fall 2020 and Volume 14, Issue 1 – Winter 2022

Summer 2020  |  Sections  |  Literary Essays

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