January 8, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"
"There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stopping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don't like it a bit. I wonder-I begin to think-I wish John would take me away from here!" (Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper")
So much for the infamous rest cure treatment. As Gilman later noted in "Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wall-paper'?" (Norton Anthology), the very same treatment pushed her "so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I(she) could see over." While Gilman managed to escape mostly unscathed from the terrible ordeal, her protagonist in "The Yellow Wallpaper" did not, and was swept down the furious raging tide of insanity at the end of the story. The idea that a curable case of post-partum depression could actually escalate to complete and utter psychosis merely by the mental confinement of the mind itself is an exceedingly frightening idea.
As it could be clearly seen, insanity played a significant role throughout the course of the story. And yet it seemed to me that this was no ordinary patient from the asylum with drool coming out of their mouths nor those who mutter to themselves in gibberish all day long in the dark. Something else was present in the narrator here, something far more sinister that ultimately lead to her not being the average insane character that one would expect. I felt that as obviously insane the narrator was at the end of the story, she still managed to sound perfectly sane and rational. She ponders upon the possibility of jumping out the window, then reasons that the bars were too strong and would prevent her from falling. Then she convinces herself that with the well-fastened rope, she could not be gotten out onto the road. While this may not seem like logical reasoning, at least she was carrying out the act of reasoning to begin with, an action which is usually lost within those of the insane and mentally ill. This reminded me of Stephen King's novel "Misery", where the female protagonist, a nurse named Annie Wilkes, was also insane and emotionally deranged. What is common in both pieces of work is that both writers did not mention at any point that their characters were insane. Instead, they managed to convey the idea through the characters' actions, and in some occasions they even sound perfectly normal and reasonable. The insane, ironically enough, actually appeared to be sane for brief moments of time. The narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" made guesses about the "mystery" behind the wallpaper and tried to fathom the complex pattern of it; the nurse Annie Wilkes in "Misery" reasoned that she must detain, torture, and force Paul Sheldon the writer in order to have him write another novel just for her. As it could be seen, the actions of both characters are unreasonable and, from the eyes of others, bizarre and irrational, whereas both King and Gilman made their characters to believe that what they were doing was logical and right. I think this is precisely one of the reasons as to why the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is so realistic and grotesque at the same time. Yes, readers can infer that she is most certainly being forced to insanity at the end of the story, but her uncanny reasoning and moments of logic adds to the eerie quality of her character as a whole. In my opinion, merely an insane character thrown into a story would be no good; on the other hand, an insane character who believes and acts that he or she is sane would surely cause a great deal of sparks even in the most modest of plots.