Mental illness is an insidious monster that affects far more people than many realize. Despite being common, it leaves little visible signs to show how much someone is suffering. Depression, in particular, is a mental condition that can often go completely unnoticed until it is too late. In the late 1800s, depression was often diagnosed as hysteria or neurasthenia. These diagnoses would often be followed by a prescription of strict rest referred to as the rest cure. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a short story that depicts the rest cure and how it can prove detrimental to the patient that it was trying to cure. Gilman strategically develops the narrator’s sentence over the course of the narrative, demonstrating the effects that the rest cure has on women’s mental health, which is to say that the rest cure fails to appropriately treat depression.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is told from the first-person perspective of an unnamed narrator through her journal which acts as a framing device for the story itself. The narrator is stated to have presented with symptoms of depression prior to the start of the story. Due to the state of the understanding of psychology at the time, the rest cure is prescribed by her physician husband. The story itself begins with the narrator sequestered to implement this rest cure. The narrator’s confinement serves to exacerbate her depression and it grows in strength over the course of the story. The story ends with an ambiguous scene where the narrator does something with a rope that is so shocking that her husband faints.
At the time “The Yellow Wallpaper” takes place, it was common for women presenting with a wide range of mental health symptoms to be prescribed a treatment known as the rest cure. The San Francisco Call writes that “[c]ertain diseases require rest more than medicine; some, indeed, can only be cured by rest.” Here, it is clear that the rest cure was advertised as a mere practice of medicine. Furthermore, the accompanying images with this description portray an image of relaxation and ease that comes with the rest cure. Thus, the sentiment of those who prescribed the rest cure was that it was a matter of luxury and removal of stress.
However, other perspectives offer a more dismal view of the rest cure. Kate Materson, a journalist with the Evening Star, writes “[h]appily for the American nation, Neurasthenia is now classed as a purely feminine complaint.” With this, she laments that the nervous condition that is diagnosed in women is reflected in men, but men do not receive a medical diagnosis while women do. It seems that during this time period, there was at least some recognition that the minds of men and women were more alike than some believed but the medical treatment did not reflect that fact. “The Yellow Wallpaper” serves as a fictional yet accurate account of this point of view that the confinement from the rest cure is cruel and does not serve to cure its patients.
Some modern analysis of the story observes a parallel to be drawn between the sentence of a medical diagnosis and the sentence of a judicial ruling. Paula Treichler, a professor with the University of Illinois, writes that “diagnosis is a “sentence” in that it is simultaneously a linguistic entity, a declaration or judgment, and a plan for action in the real world” (70). Treichler highlights the parallels between a medical diagnosis and a judicial sentence. She also describes the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as escaping this sentence. Treichler writes “her madness will no doubt commit her to more intense medical treatment… her husband has merely fainted, after all, not died, and will no doubt move swiftly and severely to deal with her” (67). Treichler presents an interpretation of the final scene of “The Yellow Wallpaper” of the narrator escaping from her sentence, if only temporarily.
The ambiguity of the ending of “The Yellow Wallpaper” may even extend to the narrator’s madness itself. Jürgen Wolter, a professor with the Free University of Berlin, writes that the narrator’s insanity is a “face value” interpretation of the narrator’s behavior (207). Though he continues to write that the insanity is “a melodramatic hoax turning the tables… on her doctor husband” (207). With this, Wolter insists that regardless of if the narrator’s insanity is real or faked, the manifest effects of it are distinctly present. Because the framing device of the story is the narrator’s journal, the reader must carefully read the details of the story to interpret what is happening through the madness (real or fake). It also means that any conclusions that can be drawn about the final events of the story will inevitably be shrouded by some amount of ambiguity.
The narrator’s sentence begins before the story itself begins. As the story is told through the framing device of the narrator’s journal, the first entry in this journal is the narrator’s reaction to prior events. In these events, the narrator’s husband, a physician, declares that “he does not believe I am sick” and prescribes the rest cure (131). In effect, this is the narrator’s husband passing judgment and issuing the sentence of confinement upon the narrator. To follow the analogy of court proceedings, the narrator also mentions that she appealed her case in front of her brother, who is also a physician, but he enforced the sentence just as John insists. The narrator’s brother upholds the opinion of the narrator’s husband and also concludes that the narrator should be confined for rest.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the narrator’s sister-in-law takes on the role of a warden in a prison. As the narrator develops a sense of restlessness and begins to rebel against her confinement, it is the sister-in-law who most immediately observes such violations and acts to stop them. The narrator even specifies that the journal itself must be hidden from the sister-in-law because “she thinks it is the writing which made me sick” (136). Thus, the narrator is forced to be circumspect about her actions. It is this circumspection that serves to further deepen the narrator’s mental illness. Rather than heal her depression, the rest cure has driven the narrator to madness.
This allegory culminates with the rope at the end of the story. The narrator states that “I’ve got a rope up here that even Jennie did not find” (145). This indicates that the narrator’s husband and sister-in-law intended for the character to not have access to such a rope as a precaution against what the narrator might do with it. Some, such as Treichler, interpret the rope as symbolic of freedom. After all, a rope can be used to escape confinement by using it to scale down the walls of a prison. However, there is another possibility for what the rope represents, a noose. Much like a prison sentence sometimes ends with a death sentence, the narrator’s sentence of confinement might end with her death. This would explain why she mentions the bars over her window making leaving that way impossible (146). It would explain why the narrator claims that “I don’t want to go outside” even as she is “securely fastened… by my well-hidden rope” (146). It is clear that the narrator does not intend to use the rope to leave the building but has a different use in mind for the rope. The narrator’s husband losing consciousness in shock at seeing his wife at the end indicates that he did not anticipate her committing suicide. There is no indication in the story that he took specific steps to prevent suicide and may not have even considered it a possibility before it was too late. Unfortunately, death is the result for many who suffer from either the diagnostic sentence of depression or the judicial sentence of prison.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, edited by Peter Straub, Library of America, 2009, pp. 131-147.
Materson, Kate. “The Woman with Nerves.” Evening Star [Washington, DC], 13 March 1910, p 8. Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers.
Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 3, no. 1/2, 1984, pp. 61–77. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/463825.
Wolter, Jürgen. “‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’: The Ambivalence of Changing Discourses.” Amerikastudien / American Studies, vol. 54, no. 2, 2009, pp. 195–210. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41158426.
“The Value of Rest.” The San Francisco Call, 28 December 1902, p 10. Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers.