Postpartum Psychosis in the Yellow Wallpaper
Post-Partum Psychosis and “The Yellow Wallpaper” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, tells the story of a woman’s descent into madness as a result of postpartum psychosis. Postpartum psychosis is a condition that affects between one and two of every thousand live births. The condition of postpartum psychosis usually begins within two weeks of giving birth and sometimes within a matter of days. (“Depression”, 2009)
Symptoms of postpartum psychosis are “delusions or strange beliefs, hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there), feeling very irritated, decreased need or inability to sleep, paranoia, rapid mood swings and difficulty communicating at times”. (“Postpartum Psychosis”, 2009) The introduction to “The Yellow Wallpaper” tells of Charlotte Gilman suffering from postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter. Gilman was treated by the famed physician Silas Weir Mitchell.
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While depression was not a recognized illness during the early 1800s, the treatment for what was referred to as nervousness or mental illness was called the “rest cure”. (Oppenheim, 1991) The rest cure typically involved the patient living away from society. The treatment usually lasted over the course of many weeks or months. The cure often involved isolation from friends and family and enforced bed rest. Patients were sometimes prohibited from talking, reading, writing and even sewing.
After seeking help for her personal bouts of depression, Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a work of fiction that mirrored her own life in many ways. Another view that plays out in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is how the narrator feels trapped by society and her husband’s patriarchal views. While Gilman uses her work “The Yellow Wallpaper” to express her frustration with the treatment she received for depression, she takes the position of the narrator further into psychosis than she herself went.
At the beginning of the story, the narrator tells of living in a home in the country that her husband has rented for period of three months. The narrator describes the home as somewhere that she and her husband, John, would not normally be able to afford to live. She feels upon initial reaction, that the house may be haunted, to which John laughs at her. The true nature of the home is unknown, but the narrator is lead to believe that it is in disrepair because it was repossessed by the bank from a family that could not meet its financial obligation.
John, the narrator’s husband, is a “physician of high standing”. (Gilman) Interestingly enough he is the one that has told people repeatedly that the narrator is suffering nothing more than “a slight hysterical tendency”. (Gilman) John’s treatment plan for his wife is to sequester her away in the country from friends and family to receive as much rest and relaxation as possible. This treatment plan that he has outlined for her is the same as that of Gilman’s Dr. Weir’s treatment plan of the time. Like Gilman, the narrator is a writer.
The narrator states how she has to write in secret because her husband and sister in law would not approve. They have caught her writing in the past and have repeatedly told her that she just needs to focus her energy on rest and sleep in order to get better; she does not agree. She states time and time again that she does not agree with their methods of treatment but feels that she has no choice but to follow their bidding. This is reinforced by her husband who she feels is being indulgent of her illness and by the presence of her sister in law Jenny whom is taking care of her.
Observations the narrator makes of the home are of the beautiful gardens and rooms in the bottom of the house. She would like to live in one of the rooms of the home that has windows that are lined by roses. Unfortunately, her husband tells her that they will be staying the upper room of the house. He feels that he will not be able to watch after her properly if they are in separate rooms. It is odd that he states he will not be able to properly keep an eye on her as the narrator refers to the fact that John is constantly gone from the home taking care of his duties as a physician.
This is not the last time that John’s views will be commented upon with some distain by the narrator. While the narrator recognizes the great care with which her husband is treating her she seems to constantly feel that she is being ungrateful. She calls herself out in her journal for being a “comparative burden” (Gilman) The room in which the narrator resides has a sturdy bed that is nailed to the floor. The narrator notes that there are bars on the windows and rings hooked into the wall. She wrongly assumes that this room was used as a nursery or gymnasium by the previous owners.
As the reader, we are able to instill our own thoughts that this room was in fact built to house someone with a mental disorder. This begs the question of what the house really is, to contain such a room away from decent society. From the beginning of their tenure in the summer home, the narrator’s fixation on the wallpaper in her quarters is ever present. She states that it is the worst paper she had ever seen. It is dull with a vague pattern that follows no rules of how it is laid out. The color is “almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight’” (Gilman)
The fixation and constant monitoring of the wallpaper falls under some of the symptoms that are present in postpartum psychosis. It is interesting to note at this point in “The Yellow Wallpaper” that the narrator makes mention of her infant son that is under the care of a nanny or wet nurse. She states that she is grateful he is under the care of “Mary” because he makes her nervous. She also notes that if the infant were under her care he would be residing in the room she calls a nursery, the room with the horrid wallpaper.
The narrator spends inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out the meaning behind the pattern on the paper. In the beginning of their stay she tries to make sure to get away from the room because of how she feels while there. The narrator makes mention that she has asked John to change the paper in the room. He states that he feels that she is much improved with her condition and “doesn’t care to renovate the house” (Gilman) during the short duration of their stay. The narrator has thoughts different from her husbands as to how she feels her treatment should be undertaken.
She wants to be out in the sunshine and live in the pretty rooms below but is relegated to the ugly room upstairs. Writing is a task that makes her feel better; there is a distinct lack of personal interaction between the narrator and others in society and she feels that the only thing she has to talk to is her journal. Her writing is frowned upon as a distraction from her journey to wellness. References Depression During and After Pregnancy. U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Retrieved from http://www. womenshealth. ov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/depression-pregnancy. cfm#f Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. (1892) The Yellow Wallpaper. New England Magazine J. Oppenheim, ‘Shattered Nerves’: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) Retrieved from http://www. sciencemuseum. org. uk/broughttolife/techniques/restcure. aspx Postpartum Psychiatric Disorders (2012). Massachusetts General Hospital. Retrieved from http://www. womensmentalhealth. org/specialty-clinics/postpartum-psychiatric-disorders/