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A Woman Indefinitely Plagued: The Truth Behind The Yellow Wallpaper

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A Woman Indefinitely Plagued: The Truth Behind The Yellow Wallpaper

In The Yellow Wallpaper, a young woman and her husband rent out a country house so the woman can get over her "temporary nervous depression." She ends up staying in a large upstairs room, once used as a "playroom and gymnasium, [...] for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls." A "smoldering unclean yellow" wallpaper, "strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight," lines the walls, and "the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes [that] stare at you upside down." The husband, a doctor, uses S. Weir Michell's "rest cure" to treat her of her sickness, and he directs her to live isolated in this strange room. The nameless woman tells the reader through diary entries that she feels a connection to the yellow wallpaper and fancies that an imprisoned woman shakes the pattern. The narrator's insanity is finally apparent when she writes, "There are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?"

When the story first came out in 1892, the critics saw The Yellow Wallpaper as a description of female insanity instead of a story that reveals society's values. A Boston physician wrote in The Transcript after reading the story that "such a story ought not to be written [. . .] it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it," stating that any woman who would go against the grain of society might as well claim insanity. In the time period in which Gilman lived, "the ideal woman was not only assigned a social role that locked her into her home, but she was also expected to like it, to be cheerful and gay, smiling and good humored." By expressing her need for independence, Gilman set herself apart from society. Through her creation of The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a personal testament of the emotional and psychological anguish of rejection from society as a free-thinking woman in the late nineteenth century.

The life of Gilman revolved around troubled and loveless relationships that sparked the gothic tale of her descent into madness. Relating to Gilman's situation and appreciating The Yellow Wallpaper for how it exemplifies the women's lives of her time proves difficult today. Before the reform of women's rights, society summed the roles of the woman in a simple principle called The Cult of True Womanhood. This ideology implied that the woman should only serve and work for the household and always maintain an outward appearance of virtuousness. The overall goals of womanhood included remaining passive and modest in all situations. During Gilman's lifetime, women's rights activists began to act out against The Cult of Domesticity, but society simply shunned them.

Gilman came from a long list of fighters for women's rights, including her aunt Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Having this strong background affected more than her mindset about women's roles; it also affected her interpersonal relations that she had with her husband and what role she expected to fulfill. From the beginning she struggled with the idea of having to conform to the domestic model for women. Gilman rejected repeated proposals; she stated that "her thoughts, her acts, her whole life would be centered on husband and children. To do the [writing] she needed to do, she must be free." She finally married Charles Walter Stetson at the age of 24. Not even a year later in March 1885, Charlotte gave birth to her first child, "but feelings of 'nervous exhaustion' immediately descended upon her, and she became a 'mental wreck.'" Now known as Postpartum Depression, this was the affliction that fell upon Gilman. Doctors of the time had little knowledge about the female hormonal system, and all nervous disorders were associated with "hysteria," a reference used for women with emotional problems.

Gilman's writing was an effort at expressing the tensions she felt between her work, her husband, and her child. She tried her best at beating the depression she felt but in the end "she collapsed utterly." This final collapse forced her to search out Dr. Michell, the nationally recognized neurologist who specialized in the nervous diseases of women. When Michell initially interviewed Gilman he told her "she was suffering from [...] exhaustion of the nerves" and that the diagnosis required his renowned "rest cure." The treatment involved bed rest and "isolation from family and familiar surroundings." After a month of treatment, Gilman was sent home with the instructions to "live as domestic a life as possible . . . and never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live." For Gilman, this bordered impossible. She states in her diary: "I went home, followed those directions rigidly for a months and came perilously near to losing my mind." Years later in 1890, she wrote Wallpaper in reaction to the horrible "rest cure." In Why I Wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman talks about the treatment and how she had "sent [her story] to the physician who so nearly drove [her] mad" in response to it. Later, Michell had altered his treatment due to The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman says in her article in The Forerunner that "[the story] was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked."

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