Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, The Yellow Wallpaper, shows through wonderful use of unreliable narration, the stigma surrounding mental illness, and the infantilization of women’s health.
Before delving into the intersection of women’s mental illness, we should first acknowledge the unreliability in our narrator. Her husband, John, treats our narrator as someone emotionally unstable and constantly in need of assistance. John calls her feeling unwell “nervousness” and treats her ideas and suggestions as “hysterical” and delusional. John goes as far as to refer to his wife as a child as we see in the quote , “What is it, little girl?” So how do we know that we can trust our narrator? We don’t. It is up to the readers to decide what they do and do not want to trust. We have to use context clues to know what we should believe and even then we only know a single “truth”, which is the narrator’s.
The story spirals further and further down our narrators delusions and we find ourselves not knowing quite exactly what is going on. We first begin with a small family that has moved in to an old house for a few months. Right from the get go we are made aware of the opinions on the narrator’s mental health, “he does not believe I am sick!” John is patronizing towards his wife. The narrator even suggests “…perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.” There is a shift in the narrators views on her own health throughout the story. She begins with a certain doubt in her husbands treatment, “better in body,” but not in soul, however as the story progresses there is more emphasis placed on how much the husband loves the narrator. Here is where the narrator’s mental stability begin to deteriorate and we see her obsession with the yellow wallpaper increase.
The narrator begins to see, through deep analysis, that the patterns in the wallpaper move as time passes. She discovers a second “sub pattern” that incarcerates a women that she also finds in the wallpaper. The narrator is careful to avoid talking or even acknowledging the wallpaper around John and his sister, Julie, but even then, despite her efforts, they are still wary of her, Julie “report[s]” her findings to John. Eventually, the last night of her time there, the narrator becomes engulfed with the need to do something about that wallpaper, and she tears it off the wall along with the women in the wall “I pulled and she shook, she shook and I pulled.” The narrator was attempting to free the woman in the wall. The following day the narrator locks herself in the room and is determined to catch the woman from the wall. This is opposite to what she was doing the night before, her husband eventually walks in and the narrator says, “I’ve got out at last […] in spite of you and Jane.” Who is Jane? I believe that Jane is the narrator herself, the woman in the wallpaper was the narrator all along, she was attempting to free herself from all the constrictions that her husband placed on her, these were the patterns that kept the woman trapped in the wall. This can be interpreted as a metaphor for how often women’s health is ignored because of the generalized belief that women are sensitive and therefore more prone to lie about when they feel ill, this belief is wrong however, studies show that if anything women are more prone to the opposite.
It is important that we believe women when they say they are ill, especially because mental illnesses are not as easily detectable as physical ones.