In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator is married to a physician who subjects her to a period of rest and taking in air as treatment for her recent outbreak of “temporary nervous depression with a slight hysterical tendency.” Isolated in a top room with dated wallpaper of perplexing patterns, the woman descends into madness, becoming obsessed with the wallpaper, seeing the pattern move by the efforts of women trapped behind it, and finally being possessed by one of the wall women after hysterically tearing off portions of the paper.
Psychosis is defined as “a mental disorder characterized by symptoms, such as delusions or hallucinations, that indicate an impaired contact with reality.” A Canadian clinic and mental health advocacy group, Early Psychosis Intervention, conducted a study regarding the causes of psychosis, ultimately discovering that such severe mental illness is caused by a combination of genetic vulnerability and environmental factors, though stressing the role of genetic predisposition.
In the story, the narrator is portrayed as a healthy, vibrant young woman until the stressors of patriarchy and domestic life cause her to suffer from anxiety and depression. More or less a typical case of ineffective stress confrontation, the inadequate psychiatric understanding at the time called for a rest cure. As part of this, the patient is isolated from her newborn baby, her family members, and often from her husband so as not to excite her too much in her fragile state. Being ostracized from society at large, her child, her work, and her writing (which her husband strictly forbade) would logically augment behaviors associated with major depressive disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, both neuroses which can be developed at any point in life by environmental factors or by heredity, from which the protagonist seems to be suffering. However, neither of these disorders are diagnosed by audio or visual hallucinations, which the character displays near the end of the work.
The fact that “The Yellow Wallpaper” does not indicate any sort of manifestation of a psychosis, such as paranoid schizophrenia or bipolar affective disorder, prior to the narrator’s temporary depression precludes the possibility of a psychotic illness, whose symptoms tend to appear much earlier than middle age. A break with reality does not just spontaneously happen, even if there are intense stressors like insomnia, stress, isolation, feminine oppression, and repression of anger. Though perhaps in part due to an insufficient understanding of mental illness in the age in which the story was written, the narrator’s disorder does not align with reality in its cause nor its symptoms.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) http://allpsych.com/disorders/dsm.html
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” American Gothic Tales. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates.