The book, The Yellow Wallpaper was written by Charlotte Perkins Stetson as a story loosely based on her marriage with first husband, Charles Walter Stetson..
A Harvard study about Perkins Stetson illustrates how this marriage was almost against her better judgment.
The study said Stetson, “immediately began suffering terrible bouts of depression. Her famous short story, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), a fictionalized account of a woman’s descent into madness, was based on her own experience of a deteriorating marriage and her resulting mental breakdown. Her solutions—divorcing Stetson and sending their daughter to live with him and his second wife—drew widespread public attention and criticism.”
Shortly after having her first child, Stetson had postpartum depression. The American Psychologist Association says this type of depression is very common in new mothers.
The Yellow Wallpaper is about a married couple who buys a large historical estate over the summer. The book begins with Jane describing the new estate and explaining the problematic red flags in her marriage.
Her husband, John, is an established doctor who Jane writes is skeptical of mental health, or faith.
This leaves Jane feeling invalidated.
“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency- what is one to do?” Stetson writes.
Unable to speak about her illness or emotions Jane becomes angry with her husband but cannot understand why she would be angry with a man who takes care of her. This is what I would consider Stockholm Syndrome because she is sympathizing with a man who is essentially keeping her captive, and is avoiding treating her illness.
Jane is ordered to avoid even thinking about her depression. She is hidden away in the nursery for three months. She is not allowed to work or interact with other people except her sister-in-law.
Mary, his sister, takes care of Jane’s child because Jane is too nervous. Mary is set on being a housekeeper and nothing more. She has accepted the popular norms at the time that tells women they are destined for only housework.
Mary believes writing is what actually made Jane sick because, clearly, only a sick woman would take a man’s career.
Jane’s husband and his sister are watch Jane closely, so when she is alone she’s quick to hide her journal.
With nothing to stimulate her mind, Jane focuses on the intricate details of the house. She constantly tells her husband the house is frightening to her. It seems as though she is living in her own personal hell.
She describes the room often in the books, each time the description gets worse. There were bars on the windows, the wallpaper had been pulled off. It was a gymnasium.
Of all things about the room she resented, or better, obsessed over; the wallpaper.
“One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin,” she wrote. “It is full enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide — plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.”
At this point in the book you can infer that Jane’s depression is subconsciously using the house as a means to avoid her biggest issue: her husband. With only pain pills and phosphates Jane is having to cope with her postpartum depression quietly alone three miles from civilization.
Because her husband is away often on what he calls serious cases, he isn’t bothered by her having to deal with Jane’s depression. He doesn’t see a reason for her to be suffering.
After expressing her grievances about the wallpaper John is as reluctant to believe her about this as well. Though it’s a small thing, the house reflects her actual concerns for her health.
Jane, analyzing the wallpaper, made John believe she should not have any contact with her family. So she became irate, glaring at the “eyes” in the wallpaper with vengeance.
Without the company of loved ones she begins to like the wallpaper, but the infatuation is short lived. Throughout the book Jane spirals close to insanity, fixating on the patterns of the wallpaper.
Later she fears her husband’s watchful glance, but begins searching for the woman hiding quietly behind the wallpaper.
“As soon as it was midnight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up I ran to help her,” she wrote.
Without sleep for several days Jane believes her hallucination is trying to be free from the wall. John comes back to the estate to take her back to their home but Jane is no longer there.
She slouched in a crevasse in the wall and claimed to be the woman hiding behind the wall, and no one could put her back.
Jane, like Perkins Stetson, were refused the adequate care they asked simply because they were women in a time where women were viewed children.
What the author said to me was her sense of urgency. A plea for people to see the realities of neglecting a person with mental illness and the problems involved in isolating them as if they are diseased.
The Yellow Wallpaper itself is a metaphor for the ways women are taught to believe their mental illness is anything but, so we are told it must be family life, our careers, or a simple design.
Women then are not taken seriously, and they still are not so much.
Time Magazine wrote despite the wide known belief women and men equally share mental disorders, intact women suffer far more.
“We don’t yet know why women suffer a from mental illness disproportionately. Maybe we’d see a little more urgency if it were men who were principally affected,” the magazine wrote. “Or perhaps the lack of attention reflects the relatively lowly importance of mental health: after all, physical illnesses that are predominantly seen in women, such as breast cancer, have become major public health issues in recent years.”
What was more certain was women in society are faced with expectations to look perfect, they are expected to juggle multiple roles and are more often sexual abused or face trauma as children than of their male counterparts.
The APA says women are, in fact, more likely to be diagnosed with mental disorders, but are women being treated more efficiently than when the Yellow Wallpaper was written?
The World Health Organization said because of stigmas both genders have difficulty finding unbiased treatment.
“In most centres, these patients are not recognized and therefore not treated,” the study said. “Communication between health workers and women patients is extremely authoritarian in many countries, making a woman’s disclosure of psychological and emotional distress difficult, and often stigmatized.”
When women dare to disclose their problems, many health workers tend to have gender biases which lead them to either over-treat or under-treat women the organization wrote.
As a feminist, Perkins Stetson was viewed as someone who was before her time, but it could be argued her message is a timeless universal one.