Perception Versus Reality in The Yellow Wallpaper

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Published: Jun 29, 2018

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Words: 2521|Pages: 5.5|13 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Essay grade:
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In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Jane’s skewed perceptions of her surroundings, caretakers, and mental state reflect her refusal to confront the reality of her confinement to a mental institution. Supposed husband and physician, John believes “a colonial mansion, a hereditary estate” or in other words a mental asylum, seems like the perfect environment for his wife Jane (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 221). From Jane’s perspective, she resides in the old “nursery” at the top of an “ancestral hall for the summer” due to an unspecific psychological illness and being treated by her husband and sister in law. In Jane’s writings, she expresses belief and gratitude that her “case is not serious” (“The Yellow Wallpaper” 222). However, Jane has the wrong perception of her mental health and unfortunately, the serene environment will not provide the rest needed from the daily strain of life. In reality, this isolated atmosphere is such a forced solitary confinement like that of mental asylums that it eventually envelops Jane in her insanity.

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Jane’s surroundings are possibly the strongest evidence to her confinement in a mental institute rather than her perceived “colonial mansion”. Dwyer states that “asylums were intended to be just what their names implied: places where… simply unwanted and impoverished mentally ill persons could find a refuge, a… home” (1). Initially, Jane states that the home is “the most beautiful place! It is quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock…”(Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 221). Thus, this home is geographically set apart from the rest to maintain silence while literally guarded by walls and locked gates, like a mental institute. The protection set up around the home, parallels that of an asylum, as Dwyer declares; “In actuality the nineteenth century asylum was… a mixture of hospital and prison” (2). Next, Jane expresses through her writings that the scenery was visually calming for those who are mentally ill because “there is a delicious garden! I never saw such a garden large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them”; such attributes that bring about a general sense of peace necessary for recovery (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 222). Jane is evidently curious about her new surroundings when she states, “Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deep shaded arbors... Out of another I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf … I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 223). Thus, a sense of uncertainty and curiosity creeps up on Jane while staying in the home, although, overall she seems visually satisfied with its attributes. Therefore, the house is closely identical to a nineteenth century mental institute and initially creates doubt in Jane of her surroundings.

The description of Jane’s specific room clearly identifies that she is unknowingly residing in a mental asylum. “At the top of the house” is where Jane finally settles, despite the discussion with John of the possibility of lodging in another room. However, Jane seems content and explains that her new space “is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 222). These are the first solid clues of Jane’s confinement in a mental institute, as children’s nurseries have never been known to contain barred windows or chains in the walls; rather, the purpose of such elements is to restrain strong-willed and mentally unstable adults. Dwyer explains that in regular nineteenth century asylums, “patients were restrained against their will in ‘cells’ with barred windows” and some “saw their new ‘home’ as hell on earth” (2). Jane’s first reaction to the walls is gauged when she explains, “It is stripped off -- the paper -- in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.” Evidently, this fact serves as evidence of past mentally ill patients that have clawed away the wallpaper by the headboard of the “great immovable bed” because “it is nailed down… and fairly gnawed” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 222, 224, 228).

Over her time spent in the mental asylum, Jane’s opinion of the wallpaper, which is ultimately her mental downfall, is transformed from dislike to indifference to complete obsession. Jane expresses to John her dislike of the wallpaper, “The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow…” and John refused to change it, insisting “that after the wall-paper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 222-223). Jane eventually admits she is “getting really fond of the room in spite of the wall-paper. Perhaps because of the wall-paper” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 224). Jane’s mental deterioration is apparent when she imagines this mysterious woman contained by the hideous wallpaper and identifies with her struggle to get free. Trying to set the woman free by stripping off the wallpaper, Jane’s frustration is visible when trying to move the bed; “I tried to lift and push it until I was lame, and then I got so angry I bit off a little piece at one corner -- but it hurt my teeth” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 228). Evidently, the characteristics of Jane’s room, specifically the wallpaper, reflect the reality of a mental asylum and strongly influence her mental deterioration.

Jane’s caretakers, whom she believes to be her husband John and sister-in-law, Jennie, behave and respond to Jane in more a remedial sense like that of a hospital staff than merely relatives. Primarily, John treats Jane more like a patient than like a wife. Although John is a physician, Jane stresses how “John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 221). Gilman also shows the obvious pressure John inflicts on Jane because of her well-being; “He is very careful and loving, and hardly let’s me stir without special direction. I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more. He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get” (“The Yellow Wallpaper” 222). Thus, rather than merely her husband, John’s total concern for her health and efforts to cure her provide evidence of being Jane’s literal doctor. Dywer states that in a nineteenth century mental asylum, “patients were seen as troubled and irrational children who could benefit both from the institutions moral therapy and from its orderly routine” (1). John displays this parent/child relationship formed when he reprimands Jane being out of bed at night by asking, “ ‘What is it, little girl?’ he said. ‘Don't go walking about like that -- you'll get cold’ ” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 225).

Sister-in-law, Jennie’s character as “a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper”, is better recognized as Jane’s nurse. Although Jane is appreciative of her help, she is aware of Jennie’s disapproval of her having any activity, especially writing, stating, “I must not let her find me writing… I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 223). Jennie also shares the same parent/child relationship with Jane as seen between John and Jane. While Jane’s perceptions of her reality have become more absurd pertaining to the wallpaper, she tries to free the contained imaginary woman by peeling off the paper. Jane explains, “Jennie looked at the wall in amazement, but I told her merrily that I did it out of pure spite at the vicious thing” which shows that Jennie was surprised by Jane’s actions to destroy the wallpaper (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 227). In a real mental institution of the nineteenth century, Dywer explains this relationship, “Like parents, attendants sometimes loved, other times struck out at, their difficult children” (1). Although the patients could not recognize such childish treatment, most accepted it because “however great may be the distance between a father and child, it is usually less than that between a scientist and subject” (Dywer 1). Nevertheless, unlike the behaviors of relatives that are done of out unconscious concern for their ill family member, John and Jennie’s behaviors toward Jane are more curative, strict, and immature as if she is a child.

Like numerous other cases of patients residing in a mental asylum during the nineteenth century, Jane’s initial state of mind was actually better than her final state of mind. Originally, Jane appears to have a solid mind of her own and is not too worried about John treating her mental health. Jane affirms, “Personally, I disagree with their ideas… I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal -- having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 221). However, Jane admits irritability, possibly because of a mental condition, “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 222). During the next stage, Gilman shows that Jane is more aware of her circumstance; “These nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing… I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already” (“The Yellow Wallpaper” 222). At this point, Jane understands that something is mildly wrong with her and the lapse of time begins to expose and exacerbate such mentally unstableness. Discontented with her thoughts and feelings, Jane states, “I'm getting dreadfully fretful and querulous... I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time… It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 222). Ultimately, Jane’s final twisted mindset is revealed when she refers to how “John is so queer now… I wish he would take another room!” and her obsession to protect the wallpaper, “Besides, I don't want anybody to get that woman out at night but myself” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 227). Thus, Jane is no longer a woman merely suffering from a nervous condition, but rather a woman consumed by the mystery of the yellow wallpaper, thus proving the significant contrast between her primary and conclusive state of mind.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is based upon Gilman’s “own experience with the ‘rest cure’ for mental illness, and serves as a critique of the medical treatment prescribed to women suffering from a condition then known as ‘neurasthenia’ ” (Short Story Criticism, 1). Gilman admits that for many years she “suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia—and beyond” so she sought help from a “noted specialist” who “applied the rest cure” (Why I Wrote 1). Weir Mitchell, Gilman’s personal physician (who also consults in Jane’s case), instructed her to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day” and “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again as long as I [she] lived” (Gilman, Why I Wrote 1). Forbidden by John to write, Jane expresses her fear of being caught; “There comes John, and I must put this away – he hates to have me write a word” (Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” 222). However, after sticking to those rigid guidelines for about three months, Gilman states that she “came so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over” (Why I Wrote 1). Thus, the very intention of Gilman is to expose the flaws of nineteenth century medical diagnosis. Along with many others, Gilman believed the ‘rest cure’ “seemed sadistic, controlling, and intrusive” because it bound the ill to a lifeless existence bringing only mental insanity due to lack of physical, mental and social activity (Bassuk 1). Therefore, lunacy is the reality of partaking in the rest cure and residing in a mental institute, which are evident through Gilman’s personal experience and Jane’s initial and final mental states.

Although rest and relaxation can promote healthier mindsets, the solitary lifestyle forced upon Jane while living in the mental asylum produced rather negative effects. Over the course of time, Jane’s perceptions of real life become completely different from her reality. Her surroundings are tranquil and calm, but eventually the silence becomes a main factor in driving her mad. Jane’s caretakers appear to be her loving family, but in reality, have other priorities and treat Jane as if she is a naive child causing her to disconnect from those around her. Even Jane’s viewpoint of her own health and paranoia indicate that her mental faculties are slowly slipping away from her. Jane becomes a prisoner not only to the mental asylum that literally contains her, but also to her own skewed perceptions of what is taking place around her. Consequently, choosing to accept reality may be one of the most difficult things to grasp. Unfortunately, it is so much simpler to hide behind perceptions of a great future, than confront the revolting reality of fate. Had Jane accepted the reality of her confinement to a mental asylum and the seriousness of her case, she would have had the opportunity to make better judgments and avoid becoming enveloped in mental lunacy.

Works Cited

Bassuk, Ellen L. “The Rest Cure: Repetition or Resolution of Victorian Women's Conflicts?”. Poetics Today, Vol. 6. The Female Body in Western Culture: Semiotic Perspectives. 1985. Pg 245-257. Web. 5 Oct 2009.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Literature: Craft and Voice. Ed. Nicholas Deblanco and Alan Cheuse. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Pg 221-228. Print.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ ”. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Ed. Catherine Golden. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1992. Pg 51-53. Web. 5 Oct 2009.

“The Yellow Wallpaper.” Short Story Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 62. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Gale. Lee University. Web. 5 Oct 2009.

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Zenderland, Leila. “Homes for the Mad: Life Inside Two Nineteenth-Century Asylums (Book).” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 25.2 (1989): 189-190. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 8 Oct. 2009.

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