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“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman tells the story of a young woman who was taken by her husband to a new home because he had diagnosed her with being just a tad hysterical. Gilman wrote this poem shortly after a severe bout of postpartum depression (PPD). This poem reflects the effects of postpartum depression such as insomnia, unexplained crying, and worrying about the infant. In a time period where many things were attributed simply to hysteria, Gilman wanted there to be something that said this wasn’t the case. Women could have multiple health problems, just like anyone else.
Insomnia is a disease that, while not contagious, can still be deadly. People need sleep in order to let the body and mind rest and reboot so to speak. According to the National Sleep Foundation 48 percent of Americans report occasional insomnia while 22 percent report consistent insomnia. Some of the most common causes of insomnia are stress, depression, and anxiety (“Sleep Aids and Insomnia”). In “The Yellow Wallpaper” the main character tells the reader that her husband and brother are both physicians and state that her situation is “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency” (Gilman, 9). As was common in that time period, many physicians did not think there were many real medical problems with women – that it was just hysteria. According to C. N. Soares “Although a psychiatric disorder is a strong risk factor for insomnia in both men and women depression and anxiety occur with more prevalence in women, which may contribute to the higher prevalence of insomnia.” (207).
Returning back to “The Yellow Wallpaper” there are quite a few verses that show the reader the main character was suffering from insomnia. “He thought I was asleep first, but I wasn’t, and lay there for hours trying to decide whether the front pattern and back pattern really did move together or separately,” and “It is a very bad habit I am convinced, for you see I don’t sleep.” (Gilman 139, 154). A common side effect of insomnia, or sleep deprivation, is hallucinations. Merriam-Webster defines hallucinations as “a perception of something (as a visual image or sound) with no external cause usually arising from a disorder of the nervous system…” (“Hallucinations”). The main character in “The Yellow Wallpaper” began to see women moving behind the wallpaper, trying to get out, and even saw them outside in the day time creeping about.
Another effect of postpartum depression is crying for seemingly no reason at all. The main character tells the reader, “I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time” (Gilman, 87). While a good cry every now and again can be good for a person, frequent crying or prolonged bouts of crying can be a worry. Postpartum depression usually shows itself within ten days of childbirth and it is important for the symptoms to be recognized. Depression usually comes along with an unexplained feeling of sadness or despair. X developed a thesis about three stages of adult crying – protest, despair, and detachment. This crying is often silent but intense and urges for action to be taken. The second stage, despair, is usually associated with some sort of permanent loss. The final stage, detachment is a stage where there are no tears involved and usually conveys an emotional detachment and can mean there is a feeling of hopelessness or withdrawal– which can be a sign of depression as well. (Nelson, 514). In “The Yellow Wallpaper” the woman can be said to feel frustrated because her husband does not believe that she is sick – even though she can feel something is not right. “You see, he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?” (Gilman, 8). When a person is supposed to be a caretaker they truly need to listen to their patients. Even a doctor of high standing, as John was, does not know everything. Perhaps if he had listened and paid more attention to his wife, her psychotic break could have been avoided.
A third side effect of postpartum depression involves worrying about the baby. The main character says, “It is fortunate that Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! / And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous,” (Gilman, 46-47). This can be interpreted in two different ways. The first is that she is being restricted from seeing the child, the second is that she feels nervous around the child. As she does not tell the reader anything to make them assume she is being kept from the baby, the latter seems to the proper answer. She worries about the baby so why does she not see him? Simply put – she is afraid she may hurt the child and/or be unable to handle anything to do with him. It is not a far stretch to think that someone with postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis (a much more serious version of PPD), may hurt their child or themselves. “Up to 60% of women with reported PPD have obsessive thoughts focusing on aggression towards the infant. 22% do not represent a desire to hurt the infant but over time can lead to avoidance of the infant in an effort to minimize the thoughts,” (Patel, 536).
In conclusion, the reader can see that Gilman’s character in “The Yellow Wallpaper” has suffered from all three of these symptoms of postpartum depression. The insomnia caused her visual hallucinations of the creeping women. The crying for no reason was a sign of her depression as well as frustration at her husband for not listening her concerns. Finally, she was not kept from her baby, but rather stayed away because the thought of being around him made her nervous. Gilman herself may have suffered from all of these in her own situation as she was able to convey them so thoroughly in her writing.
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