Historical Context in The Yellow Wallpaper
Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written in 1890, at the beginning of the Progressive era in the United States. The Progressive era was a time of widespread social activism and artistic creation intended to promote critical thought about social, economic, and political issues. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s works were no exception; they aimed specifically to increase conversation and awareness surrounding mental illness and women’s rights, which were still seen as taboo topics. Although categorized as a gothic short story, Gilman’s use of stream-of-consciousness narration is ahead of its time, anticipating the style of authors like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. As one of her most innovative, politically-engaged, and forward-thinking works, “The Yellow Wallpaper” remains a chilling feminist classic to this day.
Historical Context Examples in The Yellow Wallpaper:
Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell was a real physician who originated the idea of the “rest cure” in the late 1800s, which he prescribed mostly for women--including Gilman herself--who suffered from “nervous disorders.” The rest cure involved a forced period of bed rest, isolation, total dependence on the part of the patient, and often forbid reading and writing.
Notice how Gilman begins to personify the wallpaper through her use of a saying drawn from the King James Bible: “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).
Gilman draws on motifs from Gothic literature, a popular genre in the 1800s, in her description of the “strange,” isolated, haunted-seeming mansion, with its ruined greenhouses, abandoned servants’ cottages, extensive gardens, and mysterious past. Gothic tales often revolved around a troubled heroine narrating her own story while imprisoned in just such a setting.
Romanesque art flourished from approximately 1000 AD to the middle of the 13th Century, when Gothic art became prominent. Romanesque art is characterized by the use of primary colors, flourishes, natural imagery, and architectural patterns. Since religious and Biblical iconography were common is Romanesque art, the description of a "debased" Romanesque suggests an unholy pattern, something that isn't sanctified or harmonious.
While Gilman's narrator has been diagnosed with hysteria, more likely she was suffering from postpartum depression and resultant psychosis. In the late 19th and early 20th Century doctors didn't recognize this illness and didn't take a woman's mental health very seriously, which resulted in many cases of misdiagnosis.
Hysteria was once a very common medical diagnosis ascribed to women who displayed certain unruly habits and behaviors or seemed to be suffering from a nervous condition. Hysteria was thought by the ancient Greeks to be caused by a "wandering womb" and was in the 19th and 20th Centuries treated with "massages," many of which were performed with vibrators.
At the time of this story's writing, women in the narrator's condition were prescribed a "rest cure," which consisted largely of lying in bed and not moving or doing anything. Gilman was very vocal about having written this story to prove the rest cure wrong. It was specifically aimed at Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a major proponent of the rest cure.