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Mental Illness In "Yellow Wallpaper" By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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‘Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Mental illness is an issue that is all too familiar. However, it is perturbing that a significant section of the society still experiences difficulty in accepting mental conditions. Mental illness currently represents a significant proportion of the global disease burden and is considered by physicians to be a common health problem (Beer 197). Unlike the evolving medical practice, the society remains obsolete in its perception of mental health conditions as victims are still met with stigmatization and rejection. The general reception of the society on the matter serves to deteriorate further the conditions of patients who are mentally challenged.

In the ‘Yellow Wallpaper’ by Gilman, the main protagonist who is a married woman is diagnosed with a mental condition. However, her condition only gets worse as time gradually elapses. Similar observations may be attested in the modern society as the community refuses to be informed and instead maintains an unwelcoming attitude. Patients with mental illness have a fair chance of recovery, but the oldfangled presumptions and beliefs of the society curtail any possibility of treatment and recovery.In ‘Yellow Wallpaper,’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman addresses an issue that was and continues to be a concern primarily because its outcome could be fatal.

The theme of mental illness is not one that many authors prefer to integrate into their literature due to its controversial status amongst the society. The narration is made from a series of diary entries by the protagonist, therefore, giving the reader a first-person experience (Hall 118). Unlike other narratives, the reader is welcomed into the personal thinking and creative mind space of the main character. As one indulges in the riveting confessions and thoughts of the writer, they witnessed the evolution of her thoughts and accelerated the descent into madness. The protagonist suffered from a severe case of depression after the birth of her son, and her condition only got worse after she began experiencing a series of paranoia, obsession, and nervousness (Gilman 265).

Her husband, John, who is a physician, diagnoses her with hysteria and takes full liability for her treatment and recovery. After the realization that his wife’s condition did not seem promising, John opted to take her to a beautiful country house for her convalescence. Therefore, it is rather unfortunate that the house would be the trigger of the narrator’s mental illness (Martin 737). Before the arrival at the house, the narrator’s mental condition was foreshadowed by incidents of nervous breakdowns, fatigue, and constant paranoia. Upon arriving at the house, the narrator is quick to acknowledge that the house was haunted, a possibility that she hinted to John who quickly dismissed it. The narrator describes her husband as a realist who viewed the world from a different angle as hers (Gilman 652).

Her description of her husband reveals that the narrator felt isolated and misunderstood by her companion which contradicts with the foundation of a marriage. Consequently, the protagonist felt detached from the reality and often indulged her imagination for relevance. Hence, the attitude of those close to a mental illness patient directly impacts the treatment process.In the journal entries, the narrator reminisces of her childhood and how different it was. She identifies with the fact that she was not like the other children who sort enjoyment from playing with toys. The narrator explains that she obtained a significant amount of thrill from just staring at walls and the ceiling and watching how these inanimate objects came to life (Gilman 653).

While one may merely overlook the peculiar ways of her childhood, it is evident that the mental health problems she is suffering from were not a result of postpartum depression. The narrator portrayed signs of mental illness from a tender age and being in the 19th century, mental illness was perceived as taboo. Parents would lock their children in the cellars and basement of their houses to hide them from the world (Hall 124). Thus, it is unsurprising that the parents of the narrator chose to look the other way. One can only speculate that had the protagonist received help in such an early stage of the ailment then maybe her condition could have improved.Mental health illness is often compared to a ticking time bomb. The implication elaborates that one cannot hide mental illness for eternity since a moment will arrive when the condition will reveal itself (Beer 198).

The narrator had been wrongfully diagnosed by her husband to have hysteria. John did not have an in-depth comprehension of her mental illness history and thus concluded that the narrator’s condition was as a result of postpartum. However, judging from her confessions and flashbacks to her childhood, the narrator portrays symptoms of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that reveals itself later on in the adolescence stage or like in this scenario, early adulthood. The mental condition is intrinsic meaning that a child is born with it, but it stays hidden only to manifest itself later on in life (Gilman 265).

Children suffering from the condition usually have an introverted personality and relate better with animals and other inanimate objects than with fellow humans. Therefore, another factor that could have led to the deterioration of the narrator’s mental condition was the wrong diagnosis.When a disease is wrongfully diagnosed, then the treatment process is equally not practical since the ailment being treated is not the pertinent one. John’s perception of his wife’s condition played a significant role in his wife’s outburst (Martin 738). The narrator explains that the husband compelled her to give up writing which has been scientifically proven to have a therapeutic effect on individuals. Additionally, John had brought the wife to the country house to isolate her from the real world purposefully (Gilman 650).

The narrator acknowledges to having missed her son and family during her three months stay at the house. Contrary to common fallacy, patients who have mental illness are not all violent and hence should not have to be separated from their loved ones (Hall 117). The connection of the patients to the real world is maintained by the proximity to their loved ones who serve as a conduit. Isolating these individuals from the world, only activates their imaginations further. John’s role as her de facto doctor is undeniably overstated.Prohibiting the narrator from writing may as well have been the propellant that pushed her to the brink of madness. As indicated before, writing is more than mere art. It serves as a creative outlet for emotional and psychological stress amongst individuals. Even though John had good intentions for his wife and probably assumed that the treatment method he used would be useful, it is evident that his actions aggravated the situation (Martin 736).

Compelling the narrator to spend time idly sitting alone in their bedroom, only gave a window to the illness to manifest itself. The narrator began to complain about the yellow wallpaper and how she hated the patterns and its smell. This implied that the protagonist spent a long time staring at the walls in the room mainly because she had no other way to occupy herself (Beer 211). Therefore, when she began to see the figure in the wallpaper move, her imagination and hallucinations had taken a toll on her. Her rationality and attachment to reality had escaped her. The enforced idleness initiated her mental breakdown. When the narrator began seeing the image behind the wallpaper, it was not initially clear who it was.

Nonetheless, as time went by it became more transparent to her that the person trapped behind the wallpaper was a woman. The vivid vision of the woman trying to break free behind the wallpaper is a mental depiction of her reality (Hall 125). The narrator felt trapped, helpless, and isolated which was a result of her forceful confinement by her husband who had become elusive during their stay at the house. Despite John’s expertise in the profession, he still treated mental illness with the same retrograde approach as the rest of the society. One would expect a doctor to have an open mind as far as mental illness is concerned, but instead, he blatantly refuses to accept that his wife may be seriously ill and instead hides her away from the public eye (Gilman 649).

Denial has been a significant cause of fatality amongst critical illnesses and it worse when a patient’s support system is the afflicted party. Towards the end of their stay at the house, the narrator becomes accustomed to the wallpaper and even makes a rather exciting discovery of the “yellow” smell that she claimed emanated the whole house. The narrator explains the woman’s fidgeting and creeping behind the wallpaper as an effort to break free (Beer 199). She sees her creeping to the window that faced the garden in anticipation.

The narrator’s description of the mystery woman’s behavior was a mirror reflection of her actions as she crept into the room and occasionally peered through the window watching the garden. At this point, it is apparent that the mystery woman behind the yellow wallpaper was the narrator. Just like the figure trying to break free, the narrator felt constricted and limited. She felt a strong urge to be free, hence the reason she looked at the garden (Gilman 265). In her mind, the garden represented a free existence where she was not bound to a bed and an unproductive and a beautiful world where creativity would be appreciated. The narrator had a better understanding of her mental condition than John and occasionally brought it up in her diary. For instance, she stated, “John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious. I am glad my case is not serious!” (Gilman 649).

The entry shows that the narrator felt her sanity slip away with every passing second but could not tell her husband because of his apparent denial. She even states at one point that John did not allow her to talk about her condition because it would only make her sad (Gilman 650). The reality of the matter was that the narrator was already unhappy and talking about her condition would have been the more refreshing contrast to what her husband upheld. Therefore, when she eventually accepted her condition, the narrator began to free the woman trapped behind the wallpaper by tearing it up in one night. In essence, the narrator felt she was freeing herself.

In conclusion, mental disorders are diseases just like the rest. However, pleas for removing stigmatization from the midst of the society have fallen on deaf ears. From the 19th century, mental illness was viewed as a taboo and victims often isolated from the world as evident in the “Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman where the narrator was taken to a country house away from her family as part of her treatment. Factors such as denial and stigmatization have been portrayed in the story to be one of the major causes of failure of treatment. Mental illness patients have been wrongly perceived to be violent and as a result, are often taken away from their loved one which only causes them to be detached. The society’s reception and attitude towards mental illness possess the ability to make the treatment and recovery process more effectual.

Works Cited:

Beer, Janet P. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ on Film: Dramatising Mental Illness.” Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1997, pp. 197-213.
  • Gilman, Charlotte P. “‘Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper?’.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, vol 17, no. 4, 2011, pp. 265-269.
  • Gilman, C. P. Yello Wall-Paper. The New England Magazine, 1892, pp. 647-656
  • Hall, Donald E. “The Queerness of “The Yellow Wall-Paper”.” Queer Theories, 2003, pp. 115-129.
  • Martin,, Diana. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Yellow Wallpaper”.” American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 164, no. 5, 2007, pp. 726-756.
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