Depression in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Before starting with our subject, we shall write a brief summary of the story, as a way to lay some groundwork for our further analysis.
The story begins with the narrator, a woman who has recently moved with his husband to a big rented house while theirs is being repaired. The woman is suffering, what his husband call a “nervous depression” (Gilman 648). The woman is writing a diary, which spites his husband who would have rather she did not, as he considers it would worsen her condition. In the same way, she marvels about the house but laments she cannot leave it and go to other places. She considered that living an active life would improve her condition and that the seclusion was worsening it. Her room that used to be a nursery, and contained only a bed. It has barred windows and a hideous yellow wallpaper that turns into the narrator’s object of obsession. She begins to see the pattern and eventually realizes that its arabesques depict women behind bars. That situation makes her condition worse and turn her into a more distressed state. Ultimately, she decides to rip the paper out of the wall. In the process she feels she is becoming part of the wallpaper and starts crawling on the floor following the pattern the torn paper has made on the floor. When her husband returns from his medical visits, he founds the bedroom door locked. He asks his wife where the key is, and when he finally opens the door, what he sees makes him faint. Upon her husband’s fainting, she keeps on crawling over him.
In this essay, we shall employ the psychoanalytic literary critic to do an in-depth analysis of the subject we are referring. Although it is quite evident why we decided to use such method. Its implications for the study of the mind, and the mental state of the writer and the characters make it the most suitable to explain how the figure of depression presents itself in this short story. “Psychoanalytic criticism adopts the methods of “reading” employed by Freud and later theorists to interpret texts. It argues that literary texts, like dreams, express the secret unconscious desires and anxieties of the author, which a literary work is a manifestation of the author’s neuroses.” (Delahoyade). What interested us from the psychoanalytic approach is that the critic can do a character interpretation within a literary work, and offer that interpretation as a projection of the author’s mental state. Another important part of this criticism method is that validates the subjectivity as an important element of the literature. In other criticism methods, such as the formalist criticism that stripes the works from all “superfluous” subjective elements, leaving only the words to be analyzed. Although we cannot say that Gilman wrote her story with a Freudian, or Jungian model in mind: she produced a piece of literature that has a relation to her own psyche that cannot be left outside. In the same way, it is important to note that to Freud, all therapy and analysis start from the language. Also, like psychoanalysis, any literary work has evidence of unresolved conflicts; emotions and guilts that might be present in the work. In the same way, the author’s personal experiences play a fundamental role in the behavior of the characters in the stories.
That way, a thorough psychoanalysis of literature can be made (Murfin 508). That way, it is possible that using psychoanalytic criticism, we can find how depression presents itself in “The Yellow Wall-Paper”.
Using tools from deriving from psychoanalytic criticism, we shall expand on the following questions: How does the author’s mental state intertwines with the story? How the narrator’s behavior can be explained using psychoanalytic criticism? How the images can be explained?
How does the author’s mental state intertwines with the story? For years, Gigman suffered from severe and continuous nervous breakdowns that turned her into a melancholic person. During the third year of her condition, she decided to go to a specialist who “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 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.” (Lavander). Here we can see a close resemblance to the narrator’s fate. When her husband tells her to sleep after each meal “Indeed he started the habit by making me lie down for an hour after each meal. It is an awful habit I am convinced, for you see I don’t sleep.” (Gilman 653). However, unlike the narrator, Gilman decided to go against his physician’s intentions and went ahead with her life, finding solace in her book. However, it is important to note that the fate of the narrator was not uncommon for the women of her time.Many physicians diagnosed her illnesses as “hysteria”, and to be sent home to live a secluded life with little-to-none interactions to the world so they would not be disturbed. Gilman took the opposite road and realized that it was her work what was going to save her. In that way, writing the book turned into a therapeutical experience, and helped her overcoming her depression, turning into a prolific and successful writer.
How the narrator’s behavior and actions can be explained using psychoanalytical criticism? In a Lacanian perspective, we could say that the woman is suffering from a psychosis triggered by postpartum psychotic delirium. (Suess 79). We can see traces of her illness in the story, and upon closer examination, we can see how her mind deteriorates through the story. In the beginning, she is mildly annoyed by her circumstances, and sad she cannot see her baby. However, there is also a tad of understanding, as she considers that she being far from the baby is the best decision. “I never thought of it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all, I .can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see.” (Gilman 652). It is impossible not to think that Gilman is present in the figure of the narrator. “The Yellow Wallpaper” can be regarded as autobiography of her emotions and feelings of her depression. In the same way, both her life, and the narrator’s show the difficulties women had to be noticed, and her illnesses taken into account. However, as Gilbert notes, “Gilman’s life was plagued with pain, emotionally and psychologically, yet she lived every second to the fullest extent.” (Gilbert). Something the narrator could not do. Nevertheless, despite Gilbert’s criticism is the center on how patriarchy puts a yoke on women, we rescue some of its elements to create a picture of the author’s psyche.
How the images in the book can be explained? The primary symbol of this story is the wallpaper. We can link it to the Lacanian theory of the mirror, and consider it a reflection of the narrator’s psyche and mental state. At the beginning of the story, the wallpaper is nothing more than a mildly unpleasant presence in the bedroom. It is, as her mind, ripped and unclean. The narrator is trying to project her self on an inanimate object, as a way to relate to something to anchor her to reality, and prevent her from drifting and descending into madness. In the same way, as she relates more and more to the wallpaper, she starts to see a pattern of the arabesques. That sub-pattern showed women who seemed desperate to escape “And it is like a woman stooping down .and creeping about behind that pattern. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder – I am -gin to think – I wish John would take me away from here!” (Gilman 652). That woman on the wallpaper is nothing but her self, reflecting on the situation she is living and looking for a way to escape from it. The narrator is trapped in the conventions of her time. To Lacan, those artifices are “constructs, products, artifacts — fictions of coherence that in fact hide what Lacan calls the “absence” or “lack” of being.” (Murfin 510)
To conclude, we can say that many critics such as Gilbert and Gubar tend to consider The Yellow Wallpaper solely as a feminist work. However, while that interpretation is highly commendable and useful, we consider that doing a psychological analysis of Gilman’s works would do us a better good in terms of understanding the issues lying beneath the text. In the same way, many of the feminist critics intend to say that Gilman’s illness is the patriarchy’s fault. Since we cannot pronounce in that respect, we shall suspend our judgment. Our opinion on the subject is that repression can be a cause of depression, and given the circumstances of Gilman’s time, which is as a valid hypothesis. In the same light, to determine the reasons of the author and narrator’s illnesses is a good starting point to do a thorough analysis of Gilman’s works.
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Gilbert, K. “”The Yellow Wallpaper”: An Autobiography of Emotions by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” Gilman, “Yellow Wallpaper” Florida Gulf Coast University. Web. 1 June 2015.
Gilman, C.P. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. 1 June 2015.
Lavander, C. “Gilman, Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.”Gilman, Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper. College of Staten Island CUNY Database. Web. 1 June 2015.
Murfin, R.C. “Psychoanalytic Criticism and Jane Eyre.” What Is Psychoanalytic Criticism? Eastern Illinois University. Web. 1 June 2015.
Suess, B. “The Writing S on the Wall: Symbolic Orders in The Yellow Wallpaper.” Women’s Studies 32 (2003): 79-97. Routledge. Web. 1 June 2015.