The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman, was written in 1892 and travels inside the mind of a person suffering from mental illness. At only 6,000 words, it is a short read, but it left me with a lot to think about and real feelings of sympathy for the main character, Jane, and her husband, John. It tells a story of how mental illness affects not only the sufferers, but their loved ones, and the effect it can have on everyday life.
A first-person POV works for The Yellow Wallpaper because it gives us a view of mental illness from inside the sufferer’s mind. In Jane’s world, she sees herself as normal and doesn’t understand why she has to stay in a room alone without anything to occupy her or ‘excite’ her too much. She has no choice but to trust the advice of her husband, John, who is a qualified physician and believe that he knows the best way for her to get better.
I had to read this book again because at first, it came across as a story of abuse: Jane is being held in the room for no good reason other than for John to assert dominance and power. In her mind, at least a little, this is probably how she sees it too. But reading (or listening to) it again, I was able to better understand her illness and why she is not kept in that room as an act of abuse, but because it is seen as being the best treatment for her at that time and the best way for John to avoid bringing embarrassment on their family because of her illness.
This could have a part to play in why John promises that they will go to visit their family when she is better. Deep down, he may believe that she will never be well again and uses the promise of an outing to pacify her.
Overall, a first-person POV works for this book because we see life through Jane’s eyes. We get an understanding of what it means to suffer mental illness and how it can feel to be treated differently. Despite the people around her having her best intentions at heart, she is weak and incapable of anything that might allow her to live a normal life. She is trapped not only inside the room with the yellow wallpaper, but inside herself and her own mind, and it is important for the reader to recognise that.
The story would also work told from the POV of her husband, John. We would see the decline of Jane through his eyes and get a better idea of how it impacts him and the day-to-day running of the house. During the time that the book is set, running a house was seen as a woman’s work. It would be interesting to get his view on having to undertake this responsibility for himself–even with the housemaids to help him–as well as manage his own job as a physician.
His emotional state may also come into play. Being a physician who doesn’t want to believe that Jane is suffering from anything more than weakness, he may find it harder and harder to cope with Jane’s behaviour. Despite the calm and collected appearance he may present to her when trying to offer support and treatment, we may also see a side of him that grows increasingly frustrated and struggles to cope with her mental decline.
There is also outward appearances to consider, particularly when it comes to hiding Jane from the rest of the family. In the book, he avoids taking her out for family visits, only allowing family to visit her at home, and it would be interesting to see his reasoning for this, as well as to ensure Jane’s recovery. Is he embarrassed? Does he want to avoid judgement from people or fear they may blame him for not taking care of her? Is he too busy with the extra responsibilities which would usually lie with his wife?
He may also feel guilty when Jane doesn’t appear to be recovering, despite all he has tried. He may blame himself for Jane’s illness and believe that there might have been something he could have done to stop it from happening.
Told from a different POV, we would get a view of mental illness from the outsider’s perspective and the strain that it places on loved ones.
I liked this book told from Jane’s POV because it not only makes it clear to the reader that she is suffering from a disordered mind, it also shows her own perception of herself as being completely normal, if a little tired and under the weather. This is an accurate reflection of most people who suffer from mental illness even today. I felt sorry for her lack of interaction with the outside world and by the end, it was like reading the story of someone who lives in a glass bubble of their own mind. The story from John’s POV would be interesting to read not so much as a replacement but as a sequel to “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It could follow the same timeline but instead follow John’s thoughts and feelings and how he struggles to manage Jane’s illness on a daily basis.
Image via Wikipedia.