The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
One of the things that can seem odd about The Yellow Wall-Paper to a modern reader is that hardly any mention is made of the narrator’s baby . We are so conditioned nowadays to expect the possibility of Post Partum Depression or Psychosis developing in a new mother that this omission can seem quite baffling. Where, for example, is the narrator’s guilt at the fact that she is not caring for her baby properly? This surprising aspect of the story is occasionally explained away by the entirely false assumption that Post Partum Depression was unrecognised as a condition by nineteenth century physicians. In fact, the treatment of ‘puerperal insanity’, as it was then termed, was a major medical industry of the period, and Gilman’s decision to distance her character’s descent into madness from her recent experience of childbirth is a conscious choice designed to deepen the social and political themes of her story. She wished to avoid female ‘nervous disorders’ being seen as a simple matter of cause and effect (which is inevitably the case with Post Partum Depression), desiring them to be recognised instead as part of a much more widespread psychological malaise among the women of her time, which she felt resulted from their social conditioning and subjugation to men. Weir Mitchell, ironically enough, was at the forefront of publicising the very same widespread malaise among the female sex, going so far as to state: ‘The man who does not know sick women does not know women.’ His view on the matter, however, was not that these women were suffering under an oppressive male hegemony, but that they were, in fact, too exhausted by their bodies’ reproductive duties to be able to undertake the stresses and strains of a stereotypically ‘male’ lifestyle. Gilman’s rejoinder was that only by ‘congenial work, with excitement and change’ ( The Yellow Wall-Paper , line 27) could women escape the misery of the social constraints of a male-dominated world and thereby overcome the psychological disorders from which so many contemporary women appeared to suffer. This was her real beef with Dr Weir Mitchell. Why else make her narrator’s doctor the same person as her husband ? Seen from this perspective, The Yellow Wall-Paper is a classic example of someone trying to ‘shake the bars from behind.’ The unavoidable implication of the story is not that some women suffer psychological illness after childbirth, but that nineteenth century patriarchy was, much more generally, driving women mad .