The Yellow Wallpaper: a Stifling Relationship

Topics: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, Feminism Pages: 5 (1624 words) Published: March 9, 2005
Husband-Doctor: A Stifling Relationship In Gilman's "the Yellow Wallpaper" At the beginning of "The Yellow Wallpaper", the protagonist, Jane, has just given birth to a baby boy. Although for most mothers a newborn infant is a joyous time, for others, like Jane, it becomes a trying emotional period that is now popularly understood to be the common disorder, postpartum depression. For example, Jane describes herself as feeling a "lack of strength" (Colm, 3) and as becoming "dreadfully fretful and querulous" (Jeannette and Morris, 25). In addition, she writes, "I cry at nothing and cry most of the time" (Jeannette and Morris, 23).

However, as the term postpartum depression was not in the vocabulary of this time period, John, Jane's husband and doctor, has diagnosed Jane as suffering from "temporary nervous depression [with] a slight hysterical tendency" (30).(Colm) It may be more accurate to view the symptoms she develops later in the story—visual hallucinations, delusions, paranoia—as stemming from a psychotic condition that, prior to the birth of her son, was subdued or in control. The birth of her son precipitated a confrontation with John and became a catalyst of her psychosis.

Jane's child may be considered a catalyst because, although he is not named for us by the narrator, he will be the recipient of his father's last name. Walsh points out "the stress laid in the clinic on the father as word and figure, so that what is finally important might be called the perception of paternity or the relation to paternity" (78). When applied to a reading of "The Yellow Wallpaper," this translates into the following: The birth event is one of the times, perhaps the first, that Jane actually confronts her relation to the father of her son, John.

In relation to the above, until the very last few lines of the story, Jane herself, is unnamed.(Hume, 477) This absence correlates with the void she has in the place at which a non-psychotic person would have a relation to the Husband/Father. Furthermore, even though her name eventually is revealed, it is, in essence, a no name: Jane, as in Jane Doe, as in anonymous, without a history or connections of any sort.

Aside from Jane's anonymity, there are other indications that Jane does not fit into the wife/mother relationship. From the opening lines, Gilman makes it clear that the world of the story is feminist. For example, Jane describes the house that she and John rent as an "ancestral hall" and a "hereditary estate" (Bates), phrases that recall the male dominance of Western society. Also, the story's representative male, John, is described in the story as "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" (Bates, 53).

John represents law and order and reality. As Jane's physician-husband, he is identified as ruler or Jane in all domains, personal, professional, and social. Unfortunately for Jane, the methods by which John attempts to cure his wife are extremely rational and as structured as he is. A devout "empiricist" (Shumaker 591), he orders for Jane "a schedule prescription for each hour in the day" (Gilbert and Gubar) and bids her over and over again to maintain "proper self control" (Gilman) and "to use [her] will and good sense" (Hume, 478) to suffocate any imaginative or disruptive tendencies. The power of John's medical diagnosis, as Treichler points out, goes far beyond the limits of loving advice, however, as Jane's mental illness gets worse. John does more than merely diagnose the medical problem from which Jane suffers; rather, he "speaks to define woman's condition" (Treichler, 65).

Although this explanation of Jane holds some worth, it fails to take into concern the many instances in which Jane shows a strong fighting spirit against John's condescending medical advice. While King and Morris recognize Jane's behavior as showing...

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King, Jeannette and Pam Morris. "On Not Reading Between the Lines: Models of Reading in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper. '" Studies in Short Fiction 26.1 (Winter 1989): 23–32.
Walsh, Michael. "Reading the Real in the Seminar on the Psychoses." Criticism & Lacon. Eds. Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990. 64–73.
Dock, Julie Bates. ‘But No One Expects That ' Charlotte Perkins Oilman 's "The Yellow Wallpaper ' and the Shifting Light of Scholarship." PLMA 111.1 (Jan 1996): 52–65.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale UP. 2000.
Treichler, Paula A. "Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper. '" Tulsa Studies in Women 's Literature 3. 1–2 (Spring-Fall 1984):61–77.
Johnson, Greg. "Gilman 's Gothic Allegory: Range and Redemption in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper. '" Studies in Short Fiction 26.4 (Fall 1989): 521–30.
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