The introduction of Charlotte Perkin’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper presents John (the antagonist) as a caring spouse and well-respected physician who strives to improve his wife’s mental health condition. The wife, who is an unnamed character, is diagnosed with a temporary nervous illness and John applies professional treatment and various medications among others the wife considers practical to the extreme to aid his wife in her recovery journey. One aspect of John’s approach particularly the resting cure is that it totally disregards the patient’s opinion in the treatment plan, leaving John as the sole decision-maker in his wife’s recovery.
The treatment applied is tailored along gender discrimination strategies that place a woman experiencing mental health issues especially post-partum depression in an extreme state of dependence on patriarchy. Nonetheless, given the short story’s historical background and the stigma around women’s mental health issues, the antagonist’s behavior and his choice of treatment are merely products of the chauvinistic society they were raised.
While John is displayed as a caring and loving husband and physician, he possesses various characteristics of a patriarchal social system where husbands and males hold power in various roles. Although the characters live in the Victorian era marked by significant progress in women’s rights and roles, men still make decisions on behalf of the family, own all the monetary value and property in the household, and are unlike women allowed to work and participate in matters outside the domestic sphere. Thus, John’s pampering of his wife in this case can be considered a form of control. The patriarchal tendencies are evident in John’s controlling behavior, especially the lack of an open mind toward his wife’s thoughts and opinions.
The narrator feels that her feelings and thoughts are overlooked and ignored when she states, “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him” (Gilman 648). The controlling nature of patriarchy is also evident in how John limits and prohibits what his wife can or cannot do. For instance, one of the things the writer enjoys is writing. She states, “I did write for a while in spite of them, but it does exhaust me a good deal-having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition (648). Most of the antagonist’s actions can be considered intrusive and directive to provoking levels in his wife’s mind but there is little she can do because social standards expect her to follow her husband’s orders without question.
The influence of the chauvinistic society on John’s character and choice of treatment is also depicted in how the narrator’s ailment is generally viewed in the story. Overall, Gillman’s story is a perfect example of the stigma and misunderstanding of mental health illnesses in the early 20th century. The narrator’s illness during her time was known as puerperal insanity or neurasthenia. The condition was considered a nervous or hysterical tendency for women as the ‘weaker sex’, therefore used to label the psyche of women in general as a way for men to describe themselves as stronger than their female counterparts.
The story therefore creates a character who enlightens the reader on the perception and treatment of postpartum depression in the Victorian Era especially among men. In a humorous manner, the protagonist hints at this perception as the narration starts when she states, “John is a physician, and perhaps that … is one reason I do not get well faster” (647). The narrator further admits that her husband does not believe that she is sick, which further signifies the stigma around this condition. In addition, unlike in today’s treatment approaches where patients are encouraged to build strength from within to overcome their mental health issues, a patient experiencing this problem in this era puts the needs of the spouse ahead of hers.
The narrator states, “He said I was his darling and his comfort and all he had, and that I must take care of myself for his sake, and keep well. He says no one but I can help myself out of it” (652). From this statement, there is no desire for the patient to get well for her own sake and by herself. Thus for her husband’s health and sanity and not hers, it is entirely up to the narrator to fix her mental health. Overall, the attitude towards post-partum depression and women’s issues shapes John’s behavior towards his wife and the choice of treatment.
The resting cure also reflects how chauvinistic society is for neglecting the patient’s emotional bonds with her child and other people. The kind of treatment and care as shown in the narration does not offer any medical intervention or psychological intervention the patient direly needs. From the narrator’s account, she is likely to suffer from post-partum depression because she has just had a baby. The narrator states, “It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous” (649). The treatment plan proposes isolation from society, which only leads to the loneliness that exacerbates the narrator’s condition.
Such a treatment plan suggests that women who suffer from the condition are made to feel that there is something shameful and wrong with them, hence the need to be hidden away and fixed before returning to society. Consequently, John is dismissive of his wife’s needs and seems not to be devoted to her as he is to his other patients because he does not take her condition with the seriousness it deserves. The approach, especially separation is a form of prison that violates the nurturing child-parent interactions, which is a critical element of the healing process. Consequently, the narrator begins to lose her sanity and grip on reality leading to her obsession with the patterns on the yellow wallpaper.
Gillman writes, “I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways, they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere” (Gilman 650). Instead of improving the narrator’s mental health, the treatment paves the way for an unhealthy obsession with the wallpaper and psychosis. Therefore, the resting cure depicts chauvinism as it ignores the narrator’s emotional needs since her condition is treated as a shameful women’s condition.
In conclusion, The Yellow Wallpaper enlightens readers on the chauvinistic attitudes towards critical issues such as women’s health, gender roles, and mental health issues in the early 20th century. As such, the resting cure and John’s behavior toward his wife suffering from postpartum depression are merely products of the chauvinistic society they were raised. Unlike in today’s society, it is evident from the narrator’s experience that a woman could be pushed into mental agony without the option of rejecting a treatment plan.
An illness was further exacerbated by the potential of a male-dominated society to control every aspect of a woman’s life. Consequently, being raised in such a society that undermines women may result in low self-confidence and self-identity, limiting women to defined roles and denying them an opportunity to raise their concerns or give opinions. Unlike the modern-day treatment of postnatal depression, the twentieth-century treatment lacked enough understanding of the causes because women were treated as inferior and weaker beings, hence committing them to asylum-like buildings until the depressive symptoms vanished.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The yellow wallpaper. Project Gutenberg, 1999.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” Advances in psychiatric treatment 17.4 (2011): 265-265.