Postpartum Depression And Gilman Yellow Wallpaper Research Paper


Long before the term postpartum depression became part of the vernacular, Charlotte Perkins Gilman deftly and sensitively describes the complex condition in her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The story describes the prevailing attitudes towards women and their narrowly defined roles in society. White, upper middle class women like the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” could not easily express discontent with their position as wife and mother. The narrator’s husband—a physician—believes there is “nothing the matter” with his wife except “temporary nervous depression” and “a slight hysterical tendency,” (Gilman 648). Noting her brother is also a physician, the narrator exclaims, “But what is one to do,” when one is just a woman, and therefore a subordinate whose total financial and social dependency on their male counterparts precludes their self-determination (Gilman 649). To address her “hysteria,” the narrator’s husband and brother confine her to a pleasant enough country home, but restrict her actions to one room in the house—notably and symbolically, a nursery with the titular yellow wallpaper. Prevented from exercising, let alone socializing, the narrator falls ever deeper into her despair and depression. The story highlights the problems with a paternalistic medical system and a patriarchal social system. More than a hundred years after its publication, “The Yellow Wallpaper” continues to resonate for its general implications for feminism and social justice, and also for its specific applications to psychology and treatments for mental illness. Postpartum depression represents a convergence of psychological and sociological issues; it is as related to individual level variables as it is to the overarching social norms that create identity conflicts, anxiety, and mood disorders in some individuals. According to Beck, about 13 percent of new mothers experience postpartum depression: hardly an insignificant number (282). In fact, the increased awareness about postpartum depression has spilled over into the medical and psychiatric communities in search of more effective, evidence-based solutions. One study actually uses “The Yellow Wallpaper” to bolster a lecture on postpartum depression given to medical school students (Tucker, Crow, Cuccio, et al., 247). Assessing the methods used by physicians in Gilman’s day to those...


Psychologists also present several different theoretical orientations that can be used to frame postpartum depression, including the medical model, feminist theory, attachment theory, interpersonal theory, and self-labeling theory (Beck 282). The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” can also be analyzed in light of these various theories. Feminist theory highlights the means by which the men in the narrator’s life effectively punish and imprison her for not expressing the emotions deemed suitable for a new mother. She is forbidden to “work,” but the “rest treatment” prescribed to women like the narrator accomplishes an overarching goal: to suppress the individuation and self-empowerment of women through their writing and political activism (Treichler 61). Self-labeling theory and the medical model converge in Gilman’s short story, in the way the narrator self-identifies as being “sick,” while also acknowledging that she needs stimulation, excitement, and the therapeutic act of writing more than she needs the artifice of rest (Gilman 648). Interpersonal theory shows how the narrator’s identity is constructed through social interactions. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator expresses conflicting feelings about her husband: she admits he is “careful and loving,” and might actually mean well in his treatment of her but he is also patently neglectful, disrespectful, and patronizing in ways that would have been normative for men in the nineteenth century (Gilman 648). For example, the husband is out for long hours treating other patients out of town, and he never listens to what his wife has to say, refusing to even open his heart to the possibility of empathy and understanding.
To prescribe social withdrawal rather than connectivity with other women seems counterintuitive, and yet that is precisely what the husband and brother team of physicians do in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Current treatment practices are totally divergent from those used in the late nineteenth century, a time when “hysteria” and “depression” were considered “women’s diseases,” and…

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