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Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” tells the tale of an unnamed woman slipping slowly deeper into a state of hysteria. A husband takes his wife away from society and isolates her in a rented house on a small island in order to cure her “nerves.” He leaves her alone, more often than not, except for her prescribed medication, while seeing to his own patients.
The mental breakdown that she eventually experiences, likely triggered by postpartum depression, is supported by various outside factors which present themselves over time. It is probable that, had doctors been more knowledgeable of the illness at the time, the main character would have been successfully treated and sent on her way. However, due in large part to the influences of other characters, her depression develops into something much deeper and darker. A type of chasm forms in her mind, and we witness as the real world and a fantasy world merge.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a superb description of the misunderstanding of postpartum depression before the 1900s but can also act in the context of today's world. At the time this short story was written, Gilman was aware of the lack of understanding surrounding postpartum depression. She created a character that would shine a light on the issue, particularly for men and doctors who claimed to know more than they actually did.
Gilman humorously hints at this idea in the opening of the story when she writes, “John is a physician and perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.” Some readers may interpret that statement as something a wife would say to poke fun at her know-it-all husband, but the fact remains that many doctors were doing more harm than good when it came to treating (postpartum) depression.
Increasing the danger and difficulty is the fact that she, like many women in America at the time, was absolutely under the control of her husband:
"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 me can help myself out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me."
We see by this example alone that her state of mind is dependent upon the needs of her husband. She believes that it is entirely up to her to fix what is wrong with her, for the good of her husband's sanity and health. There is no desire for her to get well on her own, for her own sake.
Further on in the story, when our character begins to lose sanity, she makes the claim that her husband “pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn't see through him.” It is only as she loses her grip on reality that she realizes her husband has not been caring for her properly.
Although depression has become more understood in the past half-century or so, Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” has not become obsolete. The story can speak to us, in the same way, today about other concepts related to health, psychology, or identity that many people do not fully understand.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a story about a woman, about all women, who suffer from postpartum depression and become isolated or misunderstood. These women were made to feel as if there was something wrong with them, something shameful that had to be hidden away and fixed before they could return to society.
Gilman suggests that no one has all the answers; we must trust ourselves and seek help in more than one place, and we should value the roles we can play, of friend or lover, while allowing professionals, like doctors and counselors, to do their jobs.
Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a bold statement about humanity. She's shouting for us to tear down the paper that separates us from each other, from ourselves, so that we may help without inflicting more pain: “I've got out at last, in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back.”