The Downward Spiral into Insanity
Only recently have doctors been able to even begin to comprehend the effects mental illness have on people’s ability to understand, rationalize, and react to the world around them. As late as fifty years ago most mental patients were not being treated effectively, often times simply being put into confinement. Often, the treatments mental patients sought would only serve to exacerbate their conditions. The author of The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, had a nervous breakdown early on in her life, and through this experience she realized first-hand that the medical practices of her time regarding the mentally ill were severely lacking. Gilman set out to write a partly-fictional, partly-autobiographical story about her thoughts on the then-current medical practices on the mentally ill and to attempt to relate her experiences through this story. In the story, an unnamed narrator and her husband move into a large summer home in order for the narrator to recuperate from an unnamed mental affliction (possibly depression) and because their home is in need of fixing. As the story progresses, the narrator, who is keeping a journal and whose perspective the story is told by via journal entries, becomes obsessed with the ugly, yellow wallpaper that makes up her room’s décor.
... understand and value Oroonoko s story. The narrator s main role in the story of Oroonoko s life is ... that for much of the action of the story the narrator is not present. She is usually somewhere ... and her ability to tell Oroonoko s story. The narrator proves herself to be a reliable source ... and foremost meant to be reliable. The narrator starts her story by proclaiming "I was myself an eyewitness ...
Her obsession worsens each day and eventually she begins to see the figure of a woman in the wallpaper that creeps around her home during the day. She becomes fascinated by this creeping figure and her already fragile mind is worn away by her obsession with the wallpaper, the woman in the wallpaper, and above all her confinement to the room wherein these things lie. The author makes use of the narrator’s writings and point-of-view to set the tone through which we are able to map her descent into insanity and gives a chilling, realistic view of how fragile a person’s mind is as well as to show how unsuitable certain treatments of her time were in helping people recover from their mental afflictions.
The narrator throughout the story is unnamed but through her journal entries we are given a clear, intimate insight into the workings of her mind. Her condition is briefly touched upon but never given a specific name. Her husband, a physician, believes her to simply be in need of rest and as such forbids her to do anything that could “worsen” her already fragile mental health. She does not resist these instructions because: “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?” The woman keeps journal entries to pass her time while in “confinement”, breaking one of the rules her husband gave her in the process, and through these entries the reader is given a clear view into her mental state at the point in time she is writing them. The tonal shifts in-between these entries are subtle but effectively employed so the reader can almost see how deep the narrator’s illness runs. The more the woman examines the wallpaper in her room, the more her imagination runs wild upon it. “…I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.” The woman’s condition continues to deepen and while the written entries read rationally – this is a key point – it isn’t until one gives them a deeper reading that the truth of the woman’s mental stability is put to light.
... attempts to represent the depth of mental illness through the wallpaper. For example, the woman in the story comes to the conclusion ... socially acceptable at the time this story was written. However, that fact alone makes "The Yellow Wallpaper" such a significant piece ... of expressing these views to the public. At the time "The Yellow Wallpaper" was written, the attitude in colonial America towards ...
For example: “I lie here on this great immovable bed–it is nailed down, I believe–and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we’ll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.” At first glance, the writer is simply stating her interest in the atrocious design of the wallpaper, but upon re-reading the first hints of obsession become clear. Yet, these hints of illness go deeper still in the form of subtle, almost meaningless trivia the narrator chooses to write about.
While the subtle hints of how bad the narrator’s mental health becomes as time goes on are inherent in the narrator’s thoughts, the hardest evidence comes not from the narrator’s words but the actions she describes happening around her. As when she notices Jennie looking at the paper: “She didn’t know I was in the room, and when I asked her in a quiet, a very quiet voice, with the most restrained manner possible, what she was doing with the paper–she turned around as if she had been caught stealing, and looked quite angry– asked me why I should frighten her so!” While the action of this may seem innocent to the narrator, the scene unfolds to the reader in an almost creepy manner when reflected upon how such an exchange would go about. As the woman sinks deeper into insanity, she begins to feel “better” and even happier than before, but her actions become queerer as time goes on: “I’m feeling ever so much better! I don’t sleep much at night, for it is so interesting to watch developments…” Her paranoia begins to get the better of her during this time and her behavior does not go unnoticed by her husband and Jennie, as shown: “There are only two more days to get this paper off, and I believe John is beginning to notice. I don’t like the look in his eyes. And I heard him ask Jennie a lot of professional questions about me.” Her obsession with the paper and her insanity are what drive her to paranoia. The yellow wallpaper, with its inexplicable pattern and ugly color, becomes the focal point to the narrator’s problems. Her state of mind becomes as tangled and unreasonable as the wallpaper itself. The shifts in the narrator’s tone of writing are subtle but the air of these entries becomes more crazed as time goes on. The narrator becomes clearly paranoid and in the end, she succumbs to her illness – falling deep into insanity.
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The Yellow Wallpaper is a realistic take on a woman’s descent into insanity as a result of her confinement and the poor understanding of her needs. The woman is confined to her room with her only escape being her writing but which she cannot even do unless in secret. The story is able to capture how ‘rest’ is not always the answer to a mental patient’s troubles. Indeed, the lack of anything to do is what drove the narrator to her obsession with the wallpaper. The Yellow Wallpaper was written to “help save people from insanity” and while it does accomplish this, perhaps, it also gives a chilling view into how the minds of the insane work.