In the not so recent past, if a woman was acting in a way that her husband or society didn’t approve of, she could be diagnosed with an illness. Hysteria, possibly, or a case of nerves. That’s what happens to the unnamed woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. After the birth of her child, her husband diagnoses her with nervous depression and slight hysteria and takes her out to a house in the country and confines there. She’s not to work, or write, or have any sort of social visits. She’s to sleep as much as possible and rest.
She stays in a room that was once a nursery, which has an ugly and torn yellow wallpaper. She can abide everything else in the room, everything else in the house, even, but not that wallpaper. The patterns in it disturb her. Over the course of her three-month stay at the house, she becomes convinced that there’s a woman trapped behind the wallpaper. She begins to hallucinate that the woman creeps out during the day, and she sees her from the window. She decides that she must free the woman entirely and starts to strip off the wallpaper. Meanwhile, she becomes paranoid and thinks that her husband and sister-in-law would stop her from freeing the woman, and she gets nervous whenever either of them spend too long looking at the wallpaper. Driven insane by her intended cure, she locks herself in the room and is soon convinced that she, too, is trapped inside the yellow wallpaper.
You read “The Yellow Wallpaper” and think, “Wow, things were so crazy just a hundred years ago.” The story was written in 1892. I’m glad I’m not a woman in that world.
But while life may be better in many ways for women now, that husband’s attitude is still around and it’s not rare. In 1892, women who had, you know, emotions, were told that they were hysterical or had nervous depression. Now if a woman is angry or depressed or seems to act at all unreasonably, we’re still told that we’re crazy. How many times have you heard a man talk about his crazy ex-girlfriend? Are there really that many crazy women in the world? How many of those crazy ex-girlfriends were just displaying emotions other than constant happiness and agreeability? And if they can’t call us crazy, then of course we must be on our periods. God forbid we just get annoyed at something or cry. It’s our damn uteruses making us unreasonable.
In the case of the woman in the story, it seems that she’s locked up simply because she has an active imagination. She does something more than mindlessly take care of her husband and child, so surely she must be mentally ill. Is that something you have trouble believing could have happened, or could still happen? “The Yellow Wallpaper” is disturbing not just because of the time it portrays, but because it still rings so true.