What is madness? And what is the state we define as sanity? Mental illness is characterized by disturbances in a person’s thoughts, emotions, or behavior. However there is no universally accepted definition. In general, the definition of mental illness depends on a society’s norms, or rules of behavior. According to Encarta Online Encyclopedia, Behaviors that violate these norms are considered signs of deviance or, in some cases, of mental illness.
Therefore sanity and insanity are better understood as a construction of the society we live in. Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper portrays a woman’s struggle against society’s expectations, and her journey into madness as a means to break free from those conventions that oppressed her. The Yellow Wallpaper portrays the growing madness of a nineteen-century woman who is being treated for post-partum depression. John, her physician and husband prescribes her a rest cure, which is the norm treatment of the time.
The narrator, who remains unnamed, is driven mad by the treatment itself, which consisted of enforced isolation and deprivation of her work. “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 condition –a slight hysterical tendency–what is one to do? ” (1,2) It is interesting to note that John does not believe that she is “really” sick, meaning that there is nothing physically wrong with her.
On the other hand, John does acknowledge her sickness; he uses it as a means of empowerment to increase his control over her. The development of the narrator’s writing is closely linked with her insanity. She is writing the story, secretly, since both her husband and his sister disapprove it. She is a writer, that is her work, and forbid her to work is a part of her treatment. Her writing is the only place where she can express herself. “I don’t know why I should write this. I don’t want to. I don’t feel able. And I know John would think it absurd. But I must say what
I feel and think in some way-it is such a relief! But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief. ” (Gilman 11,12) The narrator clearly understands the cause of her illness, and that is the constant struggle against her husbands’ and her own culture and for even such simple things as doing work, writing, and ultimately expressing herself. The narrator is well aware of society’s expectations for her as a mother and wife. The description of John’s sister presents a contrast with the narrator: “She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession.
I verily believe she thinks it is writing which made me sick! ” Gilman 9). After her baby is born, the narrator is no longer allowed to continue writing, which could be interpreted as a confrontation with society’s expectations for her pursuing the so-called “proper, womanly” duties. The conflict arises when she finds herself trapped in those expectations. She is pressured into seeking a way out, or as she better describes it while staring at her bedroom’s wallpaper “I determined for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of conclusion” (Gilman 10).
Deprived from self-expression, the narrator initiates a process or self-recognition and acknowledgement of her conflict through the examination of her bedroom’s yellow wallpaper. Her changing attitude towards the wallpaper reflects her changing attitude towards her situation and herself. At the beginning she is only aware of the influence the paper has on her: “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had” (Gilman 7). John knows perfectly well that he is in control.
As she continues to examine the wallpaper, she is able to distinguish two different patterns: “I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern” (Gilman 16). For the first time, she is able to see herself as an independent person, not as her husband’s possession or object of gratification of her culture. Later, feelings of frustration and anger emerge as a result of the discrepancies between her desires and her obligations: “I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure” (Gilman 9).
The narrator proceeds to acknowledge her entrapment: “the faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out” (Gilman 14). The climax comes when the narrator visualizes the figure as a woman who finally rebels: “The front pattern does move –and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it” (Gilman 20). At this point she is fully aware of the effect, “pattern” is having on the woman, and on herself. The trapped woman is being strangled because of her “defiance”; she is being trapped and strangled by society’s conventions for work, words, roles and behavior.
It is only after this process of self-recognition and acknowledgement that the narrator will be able to take a step forward towards her liberation. The narrator achieves her liberation as she merges with the woman in the wallpaper. By the end of the story, the narrator can no longer differentiate herself from the woman in the wallpaper, reality from imagination. She finally confronts her husband: “I’ve got out at last, said I, In spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled out off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back” (Gilman 26). The name Jane appears for the first time at this point.
It can be interpreted that Jane is the narrator, who ultimately realizes that she was not only struggling against a male-dominated society, but also against herself. She ends in open rebellion, symbolized by her creeping; “Now why should the man have fainted? But he did, so I had to creep over him every time! ” (Gilman 26). The narrator is finally free; she experiences the liberation in the only way left to her, madness. Is it a liberating madness? It may be argued that insanity cannot be considered as triumph. After all, Jane will probably end up confined in a mental institution, and her suffering will only increase.
Yet, liberation is achieved. Even after losing her reason, her work, her life, the narrator attains a sense of satisfaction. She is no longer oppressed by the society, since she has placed herself outside of it. Society may characterize Jane’s thoughts, believes, and behavior as disturbing; but it can no longer impose its expectations on her. It can finally be appreciated that madness has allowed our narrator to break free from the oppressing conventions of her culture. Works Cited Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. New York: The Feminist Press, 1973. Print