Studies in American Fiction Assignment Paper

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is the story of a nineteenth century woman’s decline into madness.
In a 2002 article in “Studies in American Fiction,’ Beverly Hume cites a passage from Gilman’s “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wall-Paper,” which Gilman wrote five years after her recovery from the ill effects of S. Weir Mitchell’s rest cure treatment (Hume pp). Gilman states that it was not her intention to drive her readers “crazy” with the “Yellow Wall-Paper,” but rather to “expose a serious and extreme lapse in medical judgement, or wisdom, regarding the ‘treatment of neurasthenia’” (Hume pp). Gilman writes:
For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with the solemn advice to ‘live as domestic a life as far as possible,’ to have but two hours intellectual life a day,’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as I lived.’
This was in 1887″ (Hume pp).
In Gilman’s story, however, the woman does not recover. Hume points out that because the woman in the story does not recover, the story’s “feminist message has remained problematic for many critics” (Hume pp). Yet Gilman’s observations regarding her own recovery suggests that she did not view the errors in medical judgement as insurmountable, still, the majority of the criticism about the story treats it as a dark complex chronicle of a woman’s oppression and victimization (Hume pp).
Hume writes that the story seems to be a text that “simultaneously mirrors Gilman’s ideological limitations as a feminist reformer and symbolically moves beyond those limitations” (Hume pp). The woman in the story states that the house was haunted and suggests that the wallpaper might be responsible for her nervous condition (Hume pp). She states that her physician husband and others do not believe that she is really sick or even capable of understanding her illness, thus, Gilman creates a deceptive narrative that appears as twelve journal entries written over a period of several months (Hume pp). Hume believes that rather than an account of the woman’s descent into madness, as most critics argue, it is actually Gilman’s attempt to sabotage and triumph over the authority and certainty of the husband who, “like Gilman’s nemesis, S. Weir Mitchell, is an allegedly ‘wise’ man of medicine” (Hume pp).
The woman considers her child lucky because he does not have to occupy the room with the horrible wallpaper and stresses that it is impossible for her to be with him because it makes her very nervous (Hume pp). She believes that the room was once a nursery because of the bars on the windows and the condition of the wallpaper (Hume pp). Hume states that the woman is expressing her belief that children should be kept behind bars in order to control them, yet are capable of showing their hatred and perseverance by destroying the wallpaper (Hume pp).
At first blaming the yellow wallpaper for her illness, and in the end, embracing it, “now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell” (Gilman pp). Mary Roth writes in the December 2001 issue of “Mosaic,” that the yellow wallpaper is symbolic of cultural imperialism (Roth pp). Writes Roth, “There is no question about the Oriental identity of the art: Gilman calls it ‘florid arabesque’…Domestic ornament in the nineteenth century contained sign systems that articulated a complex of attitudes about the imaginary East” (Roth pp).
Roth also points out that yellow wallpaper was a familiar character in realist fiction and was usually found to be distasteful (Roth pp). For example, George Sand wrote of her room in a Paris convent that, “the wallpaper was once yellow, or so I am told. However that may be I find it a source of constant interest for it is scribbled all over with names, mottoes, verses, all sorts of foolishness, reflections and dates, the relics of former occupants” (Roth pp).
Whether one believes that the wallpaper represents cultural imperialism or whether the entire story reflects feminine oppression is certainly open for debate. However, the story does reflect the nineteenth century male superiority over matters such as health and medicine. Since the woman in the story has a baby, one might also suggest that she might well be actually suffering from postpartum depression.

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