Captivity and release take on many different forms for many different people, depending on their particular situation and context. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator has been suffering from what her husband (who happens to be a physician) considers to be hysteria. Rather than treating what might be physiological depression with counseling or medication, as might happen in modern times, he treats it with confinement. While this might seem cruel, this was not uncommon. Indeed, confined rest was one of the less eccentric treatments applied to hysteria in women in the 1800’s (Pinals, p. 428). Locked in her bedroom, the narrator begins to crawl around the outer edge of her chamber, wearing a groove (she calls it a “smooch”) against the wall. She thinks that she sees a woman walking around behind the pattern in the wallpaper, and so she starts peeling the wallpaper off the wall to let this woman out. During this project, though, she begins to confuse herself with the woman behind the pattern. Eventually, her husband comes in the room and is horrified to find his wife crawling around, the bed gouged up with bite marks, looking as though she has not groomed herself for months (which she has not). His wife declares, “’I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back.’”(Gilman). In a way, she has escaped; in several other ways, though, she has not. Her imprisonment is far more profound, and more deep, than either one of them could have imagined.
On a literal level, the narrator has gotten out of her prison. Her husband opens the door and even faints dead away, so that if she wants to, she can crawl right out of the room and out of the house. Her husband, as did many doctors in the nineteenth century, thought that enforced confinement would help women “snap out of it” when it came to hysteria. They thought that women who encountered hysteria simply had too much stimulation and needed mental rest (Pinals, p. 427). When he comes to open the door, though, he finds that his wife’s mental condition has degenerated much further, to the point that he finds a raving lunatic crawling around the floor.
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On more important levels, though, the narrator is still confined – now in the bonds of insanity. She believes that she has spent time trapped behind the wallpaper, because she has confused herself with the imaginary person she thought she saw back there. Now that the wallpaper is down, of course, she thinks that she has jumped out from behind the pattern. The awful truth, of course, is that she has a new cage: that of her mind.
Another way in which the narrator still has not escaped has to do with her status as a woman in the nineteenth century. In those days, male doctors would often ignore many of the symptoms that their female patients reported, believing that the one-size-fits-all diagnosis of “hysteria” would fit just about any complaint that did not manifest with visible symptoms (Pinals, p. 427). As a result, the diagnoses that these doctors would provide often had nothing to do with the conditions involved, and they came nowhere near treating the problems at hand. No matter what the narrator does, she cannot escape her status as a woman, married to a male doctor who will not listen to her. In the nineteenth century, such women had little recourse against their male doctors, which meant that for too many women suffering from genuine emotional and mental disorders, there was truly no way out.
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