Melina Wojcik ’26
If The Mind Creeps, Let It: Finding Identity in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”
“I tend to gravitate towards literature focused on female hysteria and mental illness. Like The Bell Jar and Girl, Interrupted.”
This comment caught my teacher by surprise; her eyes lit up.
“Well then, I think you’ll really like ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’,” she replied, and went on to explain that it’s the first short story we would be reading in our senior year Modernism class.
She was right. That night, after finishing “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I sat at my desk in silence. I was overwhelmed with awe, and amazed by the resonance I felt. “The Yellow Wallpaper” consumed me.
The next day, the classroom was set up for a seminar. I took my seat among the seven chairs arranged in a circle and placed my three pages of notes and speaking points on the desk in front of me. The discussion began slowly. My classmates and I all sat very still and looked down at our notes, unsure of how to start. My teacher, seeking to break this awkward tension, posed a question:
“If one of Gilman’s goals is to convey a strong feminist message, does she need a strong feminist heroine? Why or why not?”
The sound of my own voice surprised me as I began to speak: “Is this to say that the narrator is not a ‘strong feminist heroine’?”
The story, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, takes place in New England in the 1800s. The narrator, whose name remains unsaid, battles her mental illness throughout the story. She is prescribed the “rest cure” by her husband, John, a respected physician. He says she has a “temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency” (648). Because of this, she is confined to a room in their summer home. The walls of this room are covered in this yellow wallpaper with a “kind of sub-pattern in a different shade (650). The narrator’s interest in this wallpaper marks her descent into madness. She notices a “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design” (650). This “figure” becomes a woman stuck in the wallpaper, trying to get out. Eventually, John’s insistence that the narrator is fine, and his denial of her mental illness, have no influence on the narrator; she rips the wallpaper off the wall, believing it will set the woman free. The narrator’s warped perspective of the world consumes her, and becomes her reality.
There I was, passionately rationalizing the delusions of a “hysteric” woman to six of my classmates. They stared back at me blankly, unsure of what to say in response. My usage of “female hysteria,” an outdated, misogynistic, “medical” term, might’ve thrown them off. And, I was advocating for two very stigmatized things, insanity and mental breakdowns, as a reasonable solution to the narrator’s situation—that might’ve created a weird first impression for my new classmates. Despite knowing this, their disinterest in “The Yellow Wallpaper” confused me, just as my emotional connection to the story confused them. As unpleasant as this moment was, their reaction, or lack thereof, reiterated my connection to “The Yellow Wallpaper” strongly. I could also see the woman in the wallpaper, and I needed to free her.
I’ve always struggled with anxiety. In elementary school, I’d call my mom from the school nurse’s office four or five times a week to complain about a stomachache or headache.
Nobody assumed it was anxiety, not even me. I seemed to cry wolf, just a lazy student wanting to get out of class. Nobody would assume the happy child was struggling so much, having no reason to be anxious.
John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him. Of course it is only nervousness (649).
I know now those “ailments” were my anxiety. My depression made itself known later, around freshman year of high school. And it consumed me my junior year, during the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic and deep into quarantine. I was forced into my own kind of “rest cure.” I spent hours in my room, just feeling and thinking.
I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time. Of course I don’t when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone. And I am alone a good deal just now (650).
I showed emotion to no one except myself. Except my reflection in the mirror and the woman in the wallpaper. Perhaps the worst part of this period in my life was my inability to do anything to help myself out of the depression, as I was too tired. The narrator speaks of her struggle with this as well. She writes about it like a diary entry (something I tried to keep as well during this time): “I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me. But I find I get pretty tired when I try” (649).
I stayed in my dimly lit bedroom the entirety of my junior year, on different doses of antidepressants, growing too tired to fight. I couldn’t do anything except give in to that heavy pressure pushing down on me. I started growing comfortable in my sadness, because I had to.
I’m getting really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper. It dwells in my mind so (650)!
I soon realized, out of survival, the way I viewed my anxiety and depression needed to change. My perspective needed to shift, or else I’d be stuck believing “John’s” statements - my own self hatred at the fact that I couldn’t help myself get better.
He says no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me (652).
I started to step back and examine my depression and anxiety. Observing the triggers and the way my mind operated, and letting it all happen. Up to this point, I viewed my struggle with anxiety and depression as something I had no control over, and yet I still blamed myself for the way it affected me and hindered my life. This mindset created a vicious cycle. Stress about something like homework would lead to a panic attack, which made it impossible for me to be productive. I’d feel lazy and incapable, and these feelings fed my depression and anxiety. And as a result, I’d have more panic attacks. I felt stuck. There was no way out of this cyclic pattern. I know now that the only way out is in.
I became the narrator, ripping the yellow wallpaper off the wall.
I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard! It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please! I don’t want to go outside… For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow. But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way (656).
By giving in to her hysteria, and resisting John’s treatment, the narrator frees herself from the shackles of self-loathing. I stopped resisting my anxiety and depression, and instead accepted their symptoms as symptoms, not parts of myself. I let myself feel them, allowing myself to validate the severity of my emotions and feel them deeply, as well as understand they were not my fault. I was the woman stuck in the yellow wallpaper, attempting to free myself from my own self-hatred. I no longer wished to be cured. I just wanted to stop fighting.
At the end of the story, John enters the room to see the narrator consumed by her hysteria, frantically ripping the wallpaper off the wall, and he faints. “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” (656)! He no longer has power over the narrator. This warped sense of victory is well-deserved, and one I felt as well while speaking about the narrator during the seminar.
The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a strong feminist heroine. It takes a strong woman to go insane. And it takes a strong woman to put aside judgment and advocate for something despite the stigma surrounding it.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/theliteratureofprescription/exhibitionAssets/digitalDocs/The-Yellow-Wall-Paper.pdf Accessed April 6, 2023.