Jane’s Decent into Madness has a Name: John
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Stetson describes the cruel treatment of a Victorian woman being treated by her husband for her “nervous disorder” after having a child. The treatment is called the “rest cure” and was often prescribed for women. The woman is named Jane, although you do not find that out until the end of the story. In the story she is prescribed this cure by her physician husband. Her husband John takes her to a remote country house and leaves her alone with no outside contact for long periods of time as part of her treatment. John’s treatment of his wife makes her lonely, childlike and eventually drives her mad.
In the first few lines of the story it becomes clear that Jane has very little control over her life. Jane believes her husband knows better than she does how to care for her not only because she is a woman, but because he is a doctor. “John is a physician, and perhaps — (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind —) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster. You see he does not believe I am sick!” (131). Because her husband is a respected physician Jane believes that he must know better than she does how to treat her nervousness even though she thinks the rest cure may do her more harm than good.
The narrator describes the complete submission Jane gives to his male authority. “Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?” (131). Jane feels helpless to express her feelings and her desires to her husband. She follows him with a childlike obedience, even though she obviously disagrees with him about her care. The other man she disagrees with is her brother who is also a doctor so not only does she have to fight her husband she has to fight her brother as well and it is obviously too overwhelming for poor Jane. Jane calls them both a “physician of high standing” (131). That is simply too much authority for Jane to even attempt overcome. John chooses the room Jane will live in even though she wanted to be on the first floor. The room John chooses for her was previously a nursery of some kind with yellow wallpaper.
The wallpaper has stripes and a pattern that looks like a prison. Jane is restricted like a child from intellectual activities. At first Jane rebels by keeping a secret diary. She is forced to hide her diary saying “he hates to have me write a word” (133). When John destroys the diary her mind begins to deteriorate more quickly. Jane is incredibly lonely saying it is “so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship” (135). John lectures in other cities and Jane is left alone for days at a time. When John does come home she attempts to speak to him about her situation. John is patronizing and dismisses her concerns. Jane believes that her husband cares for her because “He is very careful and loving, and hardly let me stir without special direction” (132). Jane feels like he is showing her love but really he is just controlling her every move, like a child or a prisoner. John expects her to trust him that her condition is improving even if she did not see it saying “Really, dear, you are better!” (140). John is so self-absorbed and arrogant he does not even realize that his own wife’s condition is critical. Because Jane is left alone so long alone she creates her own world behind the wallpaper. In this world women are imprisoned behind the bars of the wallpaper struggling to get out. At night Jane notices “The faint figure behind seem to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out” (139). It is clear that Jane is slowly losing her mind because of her husband’s “rest cure” treatment. Jane begins to destroy the wallpaper in an attempt to free the women. Jane is one of the women seeking to be liberated, but her female subservience to her husband John and his male-dominated world stop her every attempt.
Mary and the baby do not even live in the same house with Jane and her husband. It is clear that Jane has postpartum depression. Of course it is only clear because we have the benefit of hindsight and 21st century medicine. “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”(134). If Jane had her baby to take care of she may have been able to keep her mind because somebody was dependent on her.
Jane tries one last time to make John listen to reason by telling him that she “was not gaining here, and that I wished he would take me away” (139). John instantly dismisses her feelings by telling her that he is “a doctor, dear, and I know” (139). At this point Jane has very little fight left and she gives in to him. “And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head” (138). John is treating his wife as if she was an imbecile. When he is home he is patronizing and constantly dismisses her concern for her own care and well-being. He expects her to blindly trust him. John knows exactly what to do for her because she is a simple child and he is, after all a man, therefore in charge. John is so selfish, arrogant and self-absorbed he does not even understand that he is the one driving his wife into madness.
Jennie is John’s sister and she manages the household. “Of course I didn’t do a thing. Jennie sees to everything now” (136). Jennie has taken over the role meant for Jane. She keeps the house running smoothly and she unquestioningly carries out all of John’s orders. Even though she can clearly see that Jane is not doing well she continues to follow John’s orders blindly until it is too late for poor Jane and she is too far into her descent into madness.
Jane has been without human contact and intellectual stimulation for too long. She can control something, a world inside the yellow wallpaper. “I lie here on this great immovable bed — it is nailed down, I believe — and follow that pattern about by the hour” (137). The yellow wallpaper pattern resembles bars in a jail and Jane feels she is being held prisoner by them. Jane puts all of her fear and anger into the yellow wallpaper and comes out feeling helpless and lonely. In the yellow wallpaper world women are held captive and they wait and wait to be freed. Jane certainly knows how they feel, because she too has been imprisoned by her own husband.
Jane is being a martyr for her child now understanding her death must be close. She would rather die herself than to harm her child. “There’s one comfort, the baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy this nursery with the horrid wallpaper. If we had not used it, that blessed child would have! What a fortunate escape!” (138). She loves her child enough to realize that she has gone mad and cannot care for the child herself.
By the end of the story Jane sees women creeping around the gardens, along the walls of the bedroom and behind the wallpaper struggling to get out. Jane even begins to see the creeping women during the day “out of every one of my windows!” (143). Jane begins to believe the only way she will regain her own freedom is to free the woman behind the wallpaper. Jane eventually no longer wants to leave the room and locks herself in with the creeping woman, who is of course Jane herself. Jane has finally freed herself by tearing down most of the yellow wallpaper that has imprisoned her for months. Her husband John breaks down the door with an ax and once in the room he realizes too late that he should have listened to his wife about her condition deteriorating. John faints dead away on the floor and his wife creeps over him out of the hallway finally free asking “now why should that man have fainted?” (147). As if she never even knew him.
Straub, Peter. American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulp. New York: Library of America, 2009. Print.