“The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a skilfully paced short story detailing the gradual deterioration of a woman’s mental state, with an ending that creeps up on you – in every sense. I first read the story a few years ago and, as a lover of both gothic and feminist literature, the unnerving and deeply sad imagery stuck with me. During lockdown, however, it was the unabashed representation of the impact of forced isolation on a person’s mental health which prompted me to revisit it.
Perkins Gilman was an American writer from around the turn of the 19th century, who suffered from some form of postnatal depression, as we now understand it. She was treated by Dr Silas Mitchell, a renowned nerve specialist, who recommended the ‘rest cure’: a domestic life with no reading or writing, and little human interaction. Far from making a swift recovery, her depression worsened and she had a nervous breakdown. In The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), over a series of secret diary entries, Perkins Gilman depicts an unnamed young woman similarly suffering from a postnatal ‘nervous condition’. Her husband John, a physician, prescribes her with bed rest and a removal of any external or intellectual stimulation; he does not actually believe she is mentally ill, and instead watches for signs that her physical strength is returning.
“He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.”
The isolated protagonist is shut away in a country house, in a nursery covered with putrid and obnoxious yellow wallpaper which repulses her. The barred windows and bed bolted to the floor speak to the powerlessness of her position – whenever she begs John to move into a downstairs room, he dismisses her as a ‘blessed little goose’. So she remains in the room, tormented day and night. Now, Perkins Gilman takes the metaphor of walls closing in to a new extreme – the protagonist becomes obsessed with the wallpaper and a female figure she believes to be trapped within it, ‘creeping’ around behind the lurid patterns. Gradually, the figure spills out and becomes a part of the woman’s reality, representing the deterioration of her psyche: she sees other women walking about outside, and wonders if they all came out of the wallpaper; she describes how the ‘yellow smell’ has taken over the house. By the final entry, her identity has become indistinguishable from the woman in the wallpaper – John bursts into the room and is confronted with the reality of his wife’s condition, as she creeps around the ravaged walls. He faints at the sight, and in a moment of twisted vindication and gender role reversal, she tells him: “I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”
It would be reductive to claim that seclusion alone caused the protagonist’s mental decline, but it was clearly a contributing factor. Since March, it has been necessary for people all over the world to isolate in their homes away from friends and family, to protect public health. With almost 50,000 coronavirus related deaths in the UK alone, it is definitely a privilege to be in the position to acknowledge the mental strain this period has imposed. But as necessary as the steps taken have been, at times our politicians have become very much like the character of John, enforcing a policy of isolation and reassuring us that everything is going well although we can clearly see evidence to the contrary. Perkins Gilman’s frank depiction of the treatment of female mental illness in the late 19th century has never had more relevance than today; it serves as a vivid reminder of the detriment that loneliness and removal of agency can have on a person’s mental state. While I am far from seeing figures in wallpaper, this story has spoken to me like no other over the past months.
“There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.”
Image: Laura Wildgoose