Depression in The
by Mekayla Trout
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is traditionally considered a feminist text, with scholars reading feminism in the way the narrator rips down the wallpaper that is symbolic of the heavy expectations on nineteenth century women. However, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s work also explores the experience of a mother suffering from what we now call postpartum depression; it reminds us that mental illness has always been a legitimate problem and it makes the story relatable even today. Gilman’s narrator experiences the pariah-hood that mothers experienced before the discovery of postpartum depression, and still often experience today.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” shows that mental illness is not a new phenomenon even though it was not a legitimate diagnosis or distinguished from insanity in the nineteenth century. Since “postpartum depression” was not in the vocabulary of nineteenth century physicians, women who struggled with emotional disorders were often prescribed the “rest cure.” The rest cure was a psychologically manipulative treatment developed by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell and calculated to make the patient completely dependent on her nurses and physicians. Mitchell’s goal was to cure “neurasthenia,” a blanket term to encompass any psychological illness, through bedrest, isolation, and mass consumption of fatty proteins. The treatment proved extremely ineffective, and more damaging than helpful as shown in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
As of 2016, the causes of postpartum depression are still under investigation, but among the speculated causes are both biological and environmental factors. Many of the environmental triggers for postpartum depression appear in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” However, almost all of these triggers are introduced after the start of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Therefore, we can assume that the narrator’s tendency towards postpartum depression is mainly biological and is only deepened towards madness as the environmental factors are introduced.
A poor marital relationship and low social support can trigger or worsen postpartum depression. Her relationship with her husband is most obvious of the environmental triggers in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The narrator wants to view her husband John as a loving man just doing his best to help her get well, but John’s dialogue makes him come across as condescending. Her relationship with John was probably normative at the time the story was written. Their respective roles prove to be emotionally damaging for both of them.
He constantly invalidates the narrator’s feelings. “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage... He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures. John is a physician, and perhaps… perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster. You see he does not believe I am sick!”. John laughing at his wife seems innocent enough; but juxtaposed with the fact that he does not believe her, his attitude is imposing and belittling.
The narrator is unable to reach out for social support because her husband and brother have both socially invalidated her to everyone. “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?”. Even if the narrator was allowed to speak with anyone outside of Jennie and John, no one would believe anything she says because John has made diagnosis known, thus invalidating her experiences.
John is also very controlling and manipulative to the narrator. “There comes John, and I must put this away, - he hates to have me write a word”. The narrator has to essentially be on guard for John’s approach because he won’t let her do something as small as writing. He forces her into bed rest, and when the narrator expresses a desire for something different he manipulates her into feeling guilty saying, “I beg of you, for my sake and for our child's sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! … Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?”. She even says that John frightens her, and he threatens to send her to an even harsher physician.
In the twenty-first century, psychologists have discovered that exercise and socialization releases endorphins and helps ease depressive episodes. The narrator even conveys that she feels “if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus” she would feel better, but John tells her that it is “the very worst thing I can do.” John also cuts her off from the closest relatives, “I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. But he said I wasn't able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there.”
A relationship at this level of toxicity easily triggers depression and in the case of the narrator, postpartum depression. The difference between standard depression and postpartum depression is that postpartum depression occurs within six weeks after giving birth and can last longer, becoming classified as postpartum psychosis. Though the age of the narrator’s child is not specified, the audience can infer that he is still an infant from the fact that he requires a nurse and the narrator refers to him as a baby. However, the baby is never seen in the text as a character; he is only mentioned in passing. This almost certainly fuels the narrator’s feelings of inadequacy.
The narrator says “It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous.” These feelings of inadequacy when it comes to parenting are a common symptom of postpartum depression that comes from the inability to properly bond with the baby.
The narrator eventually struggles with suicidal thoughts, contemplating if she should jump out the window, though she eventually discards the idea because the barred windows are too strong. The rest cure was supposed to help its patients gain weight, the narrator tells her husband, “I don't weigh a bit more, nor as much; and my appetite may be better in the evening when you are here, but it is worse in the morning when you are away!” She also cannot sleep at night. Insomnia, poor appetite, and suicidal thoughts are all among the symptoms of postpartum depression. The insomnia alone could cause the hallucinations the narrator sees at the end of the story. Hallucinations are also typical of postpartum psychosis, a more intense and longer lasting form of postpartum depression.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is still an extremely resonant story. While it is about a mother falling victim to the sexist and harmful treatment of mothers suffering from postpartum depression in an age where mental illness was illegitimate, it is also a commentary on the context of mental illness, particularly in women. And though there was no way for Gilman to have known, her story about the treatment of postpartum depression victims still rings eerily true. Some women like Andrea Yates are confined, locked away and isolated for the rest of her life for killing her five children, and we have to wonder if better treatment or even taking her symptoms seriously might have helped.
The medical field has come a long way in understanding postpartum depression and other mental illnesses, but mental illness has a context and like other medical issues, studies that focus on woman are fewer and farther between. This story is both a reminder of how far we have come and how far we have to go.
Mekayla Trout is a student at MTSU who loves to read and is majoring in English. She plans to pursue an MA in Children's Literature and eventually would like to be a published author.