The Place of Women in Society and Mental Health

Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper in the 1880s. Her experiences inspired the classic short story through postpartum depression with her first child in 1884. Although the short story is poetic, the narrator’s experiences are typical for a woman in the 19th century, especially regarding their roles in society, health, and identity. Historical studies have revealed that women were both economically and socially disempowered, making them disproportionately dependent on men (Hazel and Kleyman 282). The dependence can cause adverse consequences like mental health illnesses, as shown in The Yellow Wallpaper. 

The narrator is dependent on her husband, hindering her from working and subjecting her to unhealthy boredom. She has recently given birth to their first child, and they have moved into a summer country estate, where she had been forbidden to work (Gilman and St. Jean 648). She presents herself as having no job or any significant activity in her daily life. Her husband is a doctor, illustrated as loving and a provider for his family. As such, the narrator is dependent on her husband for provision. While the dependence may seem like a good thing or an act of care and love from her husband, it deteriorates her health. A study found that proneness to boredom leads to both mental and physical illnesses (Biolcati et al. 320). The impact is revealed as the narrator describes her typical day on the third page, claiming that she is suffering from nervousness and depression (Gilman and St. Jean 649). Had she had been independent and working to provide for her needs, she could have avoided the boredom and resulting health issues.

Besides, the dependence makes her non-autonomous. She does not have the freedom to decide on her own or contribute to decisions concerning her wellness. At first, she believes that she is sick, and her husband does not give her adequate physicians attention. She is forbidden to work by her husband John and take a prescription that she does not like. However, she seems deprived of her autonomy as she asks, “But what is one to do?” (Gilman and St. Jean 648). Besides, her husband does not let her decide when to move from the summer home or repair the wall (Gilman and St. Jean 654). Depriving someone their freedom to make choices is a bias and discrimination, which adversely impacts health. According to Hazel and Kleyman, lack of decision-making power (autonomy) is among the social factors that increase the risk for contracting mental health illnesses and sexually transmitted diseases (283). From that approach, the narrator lacks autonomy, which is arguably among the reasons for her deteriorating mental health.

The narrators’ dependence on her husband makes his authority questionable, making their marriage toxic. She is expected to the subordinate in the marriage, taking strict domestic roles. She reveals spending most of her time at home, watching outside from the window, because her husband does not want her to go anywhere. She even envies the imaginary woman creeping outside in daylight, indicating that she is not happy with the strict grounding rules (Gilman and St. Jean 652). Besides, her husband belittles her, especially on matters regarding her health. She reports on the first page that the husband laughs at her and proceeds to blame him as one reason [she] does not get well faster (Gilman and St. Jean 647). Arguably, her deteriorating mental health arises from the narrator’s husband’s negligence regarding how she feels. Such a situation, also called lovesick, has been associated with health issues such as depression for married couples (Kiecolt-Glaser, and Wilson 424). The negligence can be traced back to his unquestionable authority, in which the narrator has to humble herself and follow her husband’s directions since she is dependent on him.

The overall result of the narrator’s dependence on her husband is deteriorating mental health. First, she cannot seek further medical care even upon feeling that he has failed as a physician to assess her condition. She is aware that her husband has failed “a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband,” but she does not have an alternative as she asks, “what is one to do?” (Gilman and St. Jean 647). Secondly, despite the marriage turning out to be toxic, she ensures the situation. Her husband changes character as she notes the dislike in the husband’s eyes (Gilman and St. Jean 655). Thirdly, although the narrator feels that the room with the yellow wallpaper is not good for her and needs to visit her cousins, she is rejected by the husband. At that point in the story, her mental health deteriorates even further, and she begins seeing patterns on the yellow paper and a woman on it – severe psychosis. Her mental health deteriorates due to a lack of free will on her desires and health condition.

In conclusion, as depicted in The Yellow Wallpaper, women’s overdependence on men is a risk to mental health illness. The narrator becomes susceptible to mental health illness due to boredom as she does not work, depending on her husband for provision. It makes her non-autonomous, depriving her authority in decision-making. She gives her husband an unquestionable authority, which escalates toxicity in her marriage. The overall consequence of dependence is deteriorating mental health.


Works Cited

Biolcati, Roberta et al. “Proneness To Boredom And Risk Behaviors During Adolescents’ Free Time”. Psychological Reports, vol 121, no. 2, 2017, pp. 303-323. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/0033294117724447. Accessed 10 Mar 2021.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, and Shawn St. Jean. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” By Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ohio University Press, 2006.

Hazel, Kelly L., and Kerry S. Kleyman. “Gender And Sex Inequalities: Implications And Resistance”. Journal Of Prevention & Intervention In The Community, vol 48, no. 4, 2019, pp. 281-292. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/10852352.2019.1627079. Accessed 10 Mar 2021.

Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K., and Stephanie J. Wilson. “Lovesick: How Couples’ Relationships Influence Health”. Annual Review Of Clinical Psychology, vol 13, no. 1, 2017, pp. 421-443. Annual Reviews, doi:10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032816-045111. Accessed 10 Mar 2021.