“The paint and paper looks as if a boys’ school had used it. 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 my room low down. I never saw worse paper in my life. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance, they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.”
Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman Published: 1892 Pages: 26
This is a semi-autobiographical novella depicting a view of mental health in a time when it wasn’t really spoken about. The narrative is only 6,000 words long and is from the perspective of a woman whose name is not given. The protagonist’s mental health deteriorates throughout the novella, which, while she accepts to a certain extent, she struggles to understand fully the seriousness of her lacking sanity, predominantly due to her husband telling her that she is okay.
What I loved about the writing was Gilman’s ability to use imagery and metaphors to depict one woman’s traumatic experience of the deterioration of her mental health. She never has to spell out that the narrator is depressed or schizophrenic because her narration speaks loud enough on its own.
The stream of consciousness style of writing allowed the reader to gage not only the protagonist’s perspective, but also how strongly the men around her had allowed her to believe that she was okay. Not only does this reflect the patriarchy of the time but also emphasises how isolating it can feel when your mental health is suffering. Her thoughts are filtered by other people’s perceptions and thus what she is saying only partially relays the truth. This is evident when she states: “If a physician, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one than temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – then what is one to do?” This unreliable narration – as in The Shock of the Fall – only added to her pain as it becomes evident that if her husband thinks she is okay, then she believes it must be true.
There were tell-tell signs of her symptoms throughout but Gilman worded them as such that the protagonist dealt with them as if they were nothing more than a bad mood, for example: “I’m sure I never used to be this sensitive.” Throughout the novella, the protagonist’s sanity worsens until she begins to envision a “creeping” woman coming out of the wallpaper. This woman becomes a literal projection of the narrator’s emotional state and the emotion she was forced to supress becomes personified in the creeping woman.
Obviously, I would have loved The Yellow Wallpaper to have been longer so I could experience more of the protagonist’s journey, but at the same time, the short length allowed for her experience to become relatable, as if it could have been pulled from anyone’s narration. I think that kind of relatability would be welcomed by anyone who has suffered from poor mental health.
The metaphor of the peeling yellow wallpaper really becomes a symbol for how poor mental health can affect an individual and Gilman’s powerful use of imagery still resonates with the perceptions of mental health today. I think that a narrative of only 6,000 words is either going to be awful or brilliant, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s was harrowingly stunning.