Modern Hysteria in the Late-Nineteenth Century:
Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” as Allegory
by Robert Russell
The nineteenth century saw the emergence of rapid technological advancement in America. The California Gold Rush inspired a widespread mentality for a new generation of Americans–one of promise, opportunity, and success which helped pave the way for unprecedented innovation and gave rise to a new understanding of wealth. By the second half of the century, the steam-powered engine, transcontinental railroad, and manufacturing facilities which employed machines instead of people, were no longer figments of fiction. With scientific works such as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), Marx’s The Capital (1867), and later Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), it became clear to many that a burgeoning modernity lay just beyond the horizon, one which simultaneously thrilled and frightened. As philosopher Marshall Berman writes in the introduction to his 1982 book All That is Solid Melts into Air, “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world–and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are” (Berman 15). The imminent industrialization and technological advancement which marked the onslaught of modernity both attracted and repelled people of all classes, races, and creeds across late-nineteenth century America, promising for some a new age of incredible opportunity, but for others one of great despair. It was in the midst of this paradoxically fearful and exciting, tumultuous turning point in American history that writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote her famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Gilman’s story, first published in 1892, depicts a recent mother’s descent into madness fueled by postpartum depression and psychosis. The narrator, through diary entries, describes her experiences starting with her move into the “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house” (Gilman 121) where she is secluded to the attic and forbidden any mental or physical exercise. It is here that her devolution into insanity begins–as the story unfolds, the narrator grows more and more distressed, begins to hallucinate, and by the end of the story has completely surrendered to her mental illness. The narrator’s description of her turbulent experiences produces an anxiety that many scholars attribute to societal perspectives of femininity and a commentary on both the institutions of marriage as well as medicine wherein masculine authority invokes patriarchal systems of oppression. However, the anxiety invoked by the narrator’s diary entries also reflects the nineteenth century anxiety of burgeoning modernization and the dangerous ramifications its onslaught entailed. In the repetition of specific words and phrases, images, and the movements that mark the narrator’s devolution into madness, manifests the nineteenth century “modern hysteria” surrounding an imminent modernization.
Repetition is a common rhetorical device in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” From the onset of the story, the repeated word “perhaps” and the phrases “And what can one do?” “what is one to do?” “But what is one to do?” (Gilman 1) capture in the narrator’s voice a lack of agency and influence, which reflect, too, such senses in the reader who acts only an observer; the reader can only watch as the narrator falls deeper and deeper into madness. Such a sense of impotence, in both narrator and reader, echoes a similarity in the Americans facing imminent modernization, in turn fomenting a certain “modern hysteria.” The fact that the narrator is a woman complicates such a “modern hysteria” because the nineteenth century terminology used to describe mechanical dynamics was often also used to describe the hysterical madwoman. Scholar Minsoo Kang describes the terminological conflation in his essay “The Question of the Woman-Machine: Gender, Thermodynamics, and Hysteria in the Nineteenth Century”:
“As a neo-mechanistic physiology arose at a time when the medical discourse was describing male and female bodies in distinct terms, it was inevitable that two different and clearly gendered body-machines would be conceived. And the central feature of the woman-machine that distinguished it from the man-machine was its reproductive system that made it both weaker and more dangerous” (Kang 30).
The narrator suffering from a “slight hysterical tendency” (Gilman 1) is the ideal locus from which arises the “modern hysteria” surrounding nineteenth century technological advancement because of the inherent propensity for the “woman-machine” to malfunction. Kang writes, “Due to its delicate and feeble bio-mechanical makeup, the woman-machine is also in constant danger of breaking down, falling apart, and becoming deranged…the dangers the woman-machine is both subject to and poses are articulated in the second half of the nineteenth century through the language of the revived discourse of hysteria” (Kang 31). Applying Kang’s assertions that the “woman-machine” is at risk of “breaking down” to Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it becomes readily apparent that from the onset of the story the narrator is at risk of devolving into madness, a risk which is emphasized by the repetition of certain phrases.
The narrator’s repetition of “perhaps” and “what is one to do?” begin to take on another meaning under the application of Kang’s woman-machine metaphor, one which uniquely reflects the nineteenth century anxiety surrounding technological modernization. The repetition of phrases does not simply introduce the risk of the woman-machine narrator “breaking down, falling apart, and becoming deranged” but actually confirms the danger of such a risk already having taken place. The narrator, from the onset of the story, has already surpassed the threshold into derangement despite the attempt to convince the reader that she is fine and just like “mere ordinary people” (Gilman 1). The notion that the narrator is deranged from the beginning of the story emphatically invokes the anxieties over the late-nineteenth century modernization in that the narrator appears unaware of her own derangement. Therefore, there is also a lack of recognition reflected in the reader as well; the reader is led to believe that the narrator is more or less sane at the beginning of the story, and that it is only as the story progresses that her descent into madness becomes salient. Such an absence of awareness reflects the anxiety of the nineteenth century especially in those who were unaware of or unable to foresee oncoming modern advancements. As Minsoo Kang writes, “The idea of a crazed and monstrous machine that has slipped out of rational control was one that could be drawn from numerous literary, philosophical, and artistic works from nineteenth-century culture that was struggling with great anxieties over the rapid advancement of industrialization” (Kang 32-33). Because modern perceptions of the hysteria conflated with the fear of burgeoning technology, the narrator embodying the madwoman who is susceptible to “slip out of rational control,” her repeated words and phrases suggest that she has already slipped out of control. The narrator is like a broken-down machine, saying words and phrases repeatedly, an image which both signifies her devolution into insanity and invokes the widespread nineteenth century anxiety of modernization.
The narrator’s repeated phrases turn into repeated images as the she falls further and further into madness. Amid the asylum-like descriptions of the attic to which she is confined, what used to be a “nursery first and then playground and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls” (Gilman 3), the narrator frequently describes the patterns in the yellow wallpaper. In fact, the word “pattern” is used twenty-five times throughout the story, sparsely at first but growing in frequency as the story unfolds. Its first use in the line “One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin” (Gilman 3) details the narrator’s disdain for the “horrid paper.” However, as the narrator begins to grow accustomed to the wallpaper, she starts to see something in the pattern, in particular the shape of a woman. She writes, “I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind–that dim sub-pattern–but now I am quite sure it is a woman” (Gilman 10). A common analysis is that the woman in the wallpaper both reflects and represents the narrator entrapped in her marriage as well as the stifling conditions of her medical treatment. However, if the narrator, being the hysterical woman-machine confined to the attic, begins to see another woman in the wallpaper, by such a reflective representation, it follows that the woman in the wallpaper is also a woman-machine, but one which is invisible, lurking quietly in plain sight. The notion introduces an allegory to the story which emphasizes the widespread fear that modernization emerges invisibly in plain sight.
However, the repeated glimpses of the woman in the wallpaper and the repeated motions she portrays, invokes another aspect of the burgeoning modernization of the late-nineteenth century, one which relates to the repeated motions of the working class. The narrator describes how the pattern of the wallpaper suppresses the woman inside: “And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern–it strangles so” (Gilman 12). The pattern echoes the conditions which force the working-class into an unwavering routine, the conditions which “nobody” can escape. In order to survive, one must work and subject themselves into a pattern of repeated work cycles lest they surrender their pay and in turn their livelihood. About the wallpaper, scholar Michelle Massé, in her essay “Thing That Go Bump in the Night: Husbands, Horrors, and Repetition,” writes:
“Much of the local repetition, which is sensory and related to the wallpaper, also works as an oblique commentary–a corrective to the stimulation refused the narrator, and a concretization of the intangible forces that repress her. The paper itself occasions olfactory, visual, tactile, and kinetic repetition that is a grotesque exaggeration of and rebellion against the monotonous schedule of her days” (Massé 33).
Extending “the intangible forces that repress her” to the working-class at large, the wallpaper comes to represent the systemic forces which imprison the proletariat into “the monotonous schedule” that defines the majority of their lives. Such an allegory invokes Marx’s idea of alienation which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “the condition of workers in a capitalist economy, resulting from the lack of identity with the products of their labor and a sense of being controlled or exploited” (OED). According to Marx’s ideas, the unwavering routine and monotony imposed upon a worker by a capitalist system of economy works to estrange the worker from their work as well as their identity and agency. About Marx, Berman writes, “His youthful essay on ‘Estranged Labor’ (or ‘Alienated Labor’), written in 1844, proclaims, as the truly human alternative to estranged labor, work that will enable the individual to ‘freely develop his physical and spiritual [or mental] energies’ (Berman 97). Under the allegorical extension to the working class, Massé’s assertion that the repetition of the woman in the wallpaper is a “rebellion against the monotonous schedule of her days” invokes a protestation against the capitalistic system which strives to estrange workers from their labor, in turn inspiring an attempt to recover their “mental energies.” The allegory is emphasized in that the narrator only perceives the woman in the wallpaper at night rather than during the day; she writes, “As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her” (Gilman 13). That the woman in the wallpaper only moves at night alludes to an agency which is stifled during the day, much like that of the working-class whose sense of agency is also stifled during the day due to work, their only reprieve from the monotony of routine existing outside of work which for most is during the nighttime.
Moreover, at the end of the story, the repetition of the images of the woman in the wallpaper has become a repetition of motion. In the climactic conclusion of the story, the narrator’s husband John bursts into the nursery where the narrator, ultimately overtaken by her madness, presents a frightening scene, and he falls unconscious. As she writes, “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!” (Gilman 15). That the narrator is moving around the perimeter of the room, “creeping” slowly and robotically, affirms her departure from reality. As Massé details in her essay, “The circularity of the protagonist’s movement and voice records the loss of all connection with the outer world and, in this case, a dreadfully ironic miming of what that world wanted” (Massé 704). The end of the story finds the narrator exemplifying the malfunctioning woman-machine, her movements and appearance thus reflecting the “anxiety over modern machinery and the industrial transformation of human society [which] is often conflated with the fear of female sexuality, resulting in the description of dangerous technology in feminine terms and dangerous women in mechanical terms, and both depicted as mysterious and irrational” (Kang 35). Kang’s claim of “mechanical terms” is substituted by the narrator’s mechanistic movements, the circularity of her “creeping” motions. The narrator’s machine-like split from reality is also reaffirmed by her stripping off the wallpaper. She writes, “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 pull me back!” (Gilman 15). The narrator strips away the wallpaper in an attempt to free the woman inside. Because the wallpaper confines the woman inside like the systemic conditions of capitalism that confine the working class in a pattern of routine and monotony, her attempt to free the woman acts as an allegorical protest against the indomitable forces which modernization threatens only to worsen by means of capitalistic enforcement or the displacement of labor by means of mechanical production.
But such a protest against the indomitable forces of modernization, even an allegorical one, is not something new. In the early nineteenth century, English textile workers, led by a weaver named Ned Ludd and subsequently known as the Luddites, rebelled against the widespread factory implementation of machines as a means of manufacturing. Spanning the course of five years, hundreds of angry workers broke into factories, destroyed machines–in particular the stocking frame–and even set fire to a few buildings. In the end, many of the rebels were arrested and few were even executed for their crimes (Conniff). As with the Luddites, an anxiety born of both the unknown and the potential societal effects imposed by modernization began to seize the American working class in the late-nineteenth century. Machines, technology, and science threatened to uproot the lives they knew and the knowledge they held, thus rendering them incapacitated in the wake of a changing time. As Minsoo Kang writes in Visions of the Industrial Age, “The pace and pervasiveness of change produced anxiety [that] provoked a widespread feeling that things have gone beyond the control and understanding of human beings, that the progress of modernity itself had taken on a life of its own” (Kang 13). Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” both reflects and inspires the same anxieties which permeated late-nineteenth century American society. Not only does the use of repetition in phrases, imagery, and motion enkindle this widespread “modern hysteria” but the narrator herself fuels the fear of modernization. By the end of the story, it is the narrator who has come to embody the “modernity itself [that has] taken on a life of its own.” The narrator’s descent into madness is made all the more horrific by the implications that arise from the story’s allegorical interpretation of modernization–implications defined by the uncertain nature of new technology and augmented by the potential detrimental effects of capitalism. The terrifying implications which Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” invoked in the late nineteenth century still echo into the present era, especially as a new age of modernity has already begun.
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––––––. "The Question of the Woman-Machine: Gender, Thermodynamics, and Hysteria in the Nineteenth Century." Substance 47.3 (2018): pp. 27-43.
Massé, Michelle A. “Thing That Go Bump in the Night: Husbands, Horrors, and Repetition” In the Name of Love: Women, Masochism, and the Gothic, Cornell University Press, 1992, pp. 29-39.