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The Yellow Wall-paper - Journey into Madness In her short story "The Yellow Wall-paper", Charlotte Perkins Gilman consistently rejected conventional mental health "cures" that failed to deal with individual, typically female, needs in relation to the need for compassionate and supportive communities which, recognizes poor mental health as fundamentally a social, rather than biological, problem. Such concerns remain as relevant to mental health care issues today as they did in the early twentieth century. However, there is a generally unacknowledged subtext in "The Yellow Wall-Paper" that discussed the way in which "The Yellow Wall-Paper" satirizes John's obtuse and gender-biased medical assumptions, particularly when, in the end, he discovers his wife "creeping, " goes into shock, and collapses before her incredulous query, "Now why should that man have fainted" (Gilman 58)? However, beyond taking this final ironic jab at her annoyingly practical and self-assured physician husband, Gilman's narrator dismisses the idea that she is writing in her journal to "spite" him, drawing the reader's attention, instead, to the "delicious" garden outside her room.
Here, the narrator begins developing her perception regarding the relationship between her madness and nonhuman nature. This narrator, a woman in and out of the wallpaper, has also crept in and out of the domestic sphere, as she reveals when she juxtaposes the beauty of the "delicious" outdoor green garden that leads to "open country" (Gilman 56) with the entrapping, suffocating, "no less than inharmonious" furniture (Gilman 46) in her room and with the yellow wallpaper. The narrator describes the yellow wallpaper, the central symbol of this triumphantly suffocating domesticity, with elaborate and self-conscious artistic precision. For example, after the narrator comments that her husband "hates to have her write a word" (Gilman 44) and has "cautioned" her not to use her "imaginative power of habit of story-making, " she suddenly notices that the wallpaper seems to "look" back at her, as if it "knew what a vicious influence it had" (Gilman 46). She then records a vaguely masculine and phallic pattern that "lolls like a broken neck" and has "two bulbous eyes" that "stare" at her "upside down, " are "absurd, unblinking" -- and follow her everywhere. Finally, from "behind" this "silly and conspicuous front design" (which seems directly linked to her frustration with her husband), she sees "a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about" (Gilman 47) -- a figure who is not yet male or female but who she will eventually identify as a woman and, finally, as herself.
How much this narrator knows, consciously, about how "mad" she is difficult to say, but she knows, as she says, that the idea of a haunted house -- or "ghostliness" -- does not explain the symbolic significance of her relationship to the wallpaper, a relationship central to understanding her madness. In her next entry about the wallpaper, after she sees the "formless sort of figure, " the narrator reflects upon the fact that she is "getting really fond of the room in spite" of the wallpaper -- or "perhaps even because" of it (Gilman 48). In the entry after that, she says she knows that the "interminable grotesques" of the paper -- which look like "wallowing seaweeds in full chase" -- seem to "form around a common centre" (Gilman 49). Finally, looking into this no longer masculine but monstrously "natural" and strangely "feminized, " if not gestating, toadstool garden of "yellow, " she again sees something that looks "like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern, " simultaneously commenting that she has, however, become "too wise" to mention any of her perceptions to her husband (Gilman 50). However, being "wise" or even "too wise, " in the context of this tale, is deadly. Like John who the narrator also calls "wise" (Gilman 50), this "wise" narrator horribly mismanages her madness.
The narrator's desire for "wisdom" about the wallpaper is what seems to draw her toward it -- toward its phallic "broken neck" and "bulbous eyes"; its Median "seaweeds" and its "budding and sprouting" yellow toadstools; its derisive "strangled heads" that have both "bulbous eyes" and "waddling fungus growths" (Gilman 47, 51, 57) -- and away from the real, the green garden, the healthy non-human realm just outside her window. In that realm, she can see a "large and shady garden, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them, "mysterious deep-shaded arbors" and "riotous old fashioned flowers" that lead toward "open country" (Gilman 46). She sees "many" women heading out toward this "open country, " a country which hints at a communal possibility among women -- though this narrator can only imagine them, as she does herself, engaged in "creeping. " The bulk of her narrative, in fact, journeys into another realm -- one symbolized by a non-human wallpaper with which she eventually merges. At the end of this journey, the narrator firmly declares that she does not "want to go outside" and "won't, even if Jennie asks me to. For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow" (Gilman 58).
Why does this narrator choose "yellow" instead of "green"? Although it may be suggested that the narrator's response is the only sane one possible in the domestic and medical nightmare she describes, Gilman may also have wanted to illustrate a final and fatal error made by her "wise" narrator who does, after all, consciously choose the artificial daylight and domestic world of the yellow wallpaper over that of the green garden outside. This yellow world is one in which a "woman" can only become imprisoned, unable to recognize her rage, and unable to move (or even barely creep) beyond her delusions. Transforming into this woman, the narrator becomes as monstrous, frightening, and unpredictable as she imagines the yellow wallpaper to be. Thus, Gilman illustrates here, and in later pieces, that there is a choice involved in health issues, particularly those related to mental health. The narrator, the woman who has gone into the yellow wallpaper (and in and out of imaginary, if not real, green gardens) suggests to the reader that despite her madness, there may be a metaphoric green garden, another regenerative feminine world, a "holland, " somewhere outside the confines of this mad narrator's self-managed "madness" and embrace of a decadent and artificial domesticity.
In "The Yellow Wall-Paper, " Gilman's narrator explores, both consciously and unconsciously, the relationship between her madness and non-human nature. When the narrator personifies and internalizes the non-human realm she imagines in the yellow wallpaper and privileges it over the actual non-human realm of the green garden, she reveals the source of her madness as a failure to understand or live in more viable relation to the non-human natural world. Not only is Gilman's narrator unable to be a "mother, " but she becomes a potentially dangerous one. Throughout her narrative, she remains tragically unable to envision the difference between the nineteenth-century "women" she imagines "creeping" toward freedom in the garden outside her window and "the woman" she becomes, the woman who creeps in a circle toward deeper self-entrapment and domestic decay. In "The Yellow Wall-Paper, " Gilman's narrator attempts and fails at becoming the "wise" manager of her own madness. More, she reveals that her "madness" is paradoxically aligned with the same domestic sphere that oppresses her -- and not with the "delicious" natural world of the garden, which she barely apprehends and which might actually liberate her.
Instead, Gilman's "wise" but "mad" narrator uses tactics that not only reinforce and mirror the gender-biased judgments made by the "wise" patriarchal medical and social institutions of her era, but also cut her off from needed contact with both human and non-human nature. Bibliography: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "The Yellow Wallpaper, " in Bauer, ed. , The Yellow Wallpaper. Boston: Bedford, 1998
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