The Yellow Wallpaper: Crash Course Literature #407

The Yellow Wallpaper: Crash Course Literature #407

Hi, I’m John Green and this is Crash Course Literature. So for the last few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about Dystopias, imaginary societies gone wrong. Like George Orwell’s “1984” is a world of war, surveillance, and mind control. “The Handmaid’s Tale” portrays a toxic landscape in which healthy women are forced to produce offspring for the ruling class. “Candide” showed us the best of all possible worlds, which was terrible. And “Parable of the Sower” takes place in an alternate universe where a sloganeering, strongman president presides over a country, experiencing intense social disorder thanks to climate change. Fortunately none of that stuff has happened, yet, But today we’re gonna talk about our final dystopia of the series, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman And it’s about a dystopia that already happened. First published in 1892 in the New England magazine, this story is less of a “what-if” dystopia then a “this is happening to me” call to action. So at first glance the life that Gilman describes in this story might not seem that bad, a young woman is married to a doctor and spends all of her time in a country mansion, and I mean all of her time. But make no mistake about it. The social order in this story is in some ways as oppressive as the others that we’ve examined. Gilman’s narrator is imprisoned within her marriage and her social order and also her house. And she eventually goes insane trying to preserve her perspective. Today I want to talk about Gilman who was a feminist, humanist, sociologist, novelist, poet, and essayist. I also want to talk about perspectives on mental health, and how they’ve changed between Gilman’s era and ours, and of course I’m gonna talk about yellow wallpaper. Soon enough you’re gonna see it everywhere. (Intro music plays) (music fades) So Charlotte Perkins Gilman had a fascinating life. She was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1860 and she lived with her mother and brother, after her father abandoned the family, and although she moved from school to school her childhood was really intellectually rich, largely because of her three brilliant and famous aunts: Isabella Beecher Hooker, suffragist and abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, best-selling author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Katharine Beecher, education reformer and advocate for Native American rights. With some financial help from her Ne’er-do-well father, Charlotte enrolled in design school. Later she supported herself by illustrating advertising cards and tutoring so, you know, she did know something about wallpaper patterns. In 1884 she married Charles Walter Stetson and gave birth to a daughter, Katherine, and in the years after her daughter’s birth Charlotte experienced a series of what were called at the time “Nervous-Disorders”. In 1887 she visited a specialist who encouraged her to try a “rest cure”, and this involved living as domestic a life as far as possible having But two hours intellectual life a day, and never touching pen, brush, or pencil again. After three months of this so-called treatment she quote “came so near to the borderline of utter mental ruin, that I could see over.” Gilman wanted to warn others of the dangers of this rest cure and her story she explains was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked. We’ll get to that working bit in a second, but back to her life. So in 1888, Charlotte left her husband and took Katherine with her to Pasadena, California. Her professional life flourished. She organized social reform movements. She represented California at the suffrage convention in Washington DC. She became a lecturer and edited a series of magazines. She also wrote essays, poems, a novella, and by far her most famous story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Much of her work focused on women’s unequal status in marriage and their need for financial independence. And she achieved financial independence and also an equal marriage in her second marriage. Eventually she was diagnosed with breast cancer and as she had lived on her own terms, she also died on her own terms. She was an advocate of euthanasia, and she chose chloroform over cancer, committing suicide in 1935. I wanted to focus a little on Gilman’s life story to emphasize that this was a person who experienced severe, disabling mental illness and whose treatment ended up making it much worse and yet who still went on to live a long, fulfilling, and productive life. I think it’s really helpful to read “The Yellow Wallpaper” with that background. As for the story itself, well, Let’s go to the thought-bubble. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the first-person narrative of a 19th century woman suffering from a mental breakdown after giving birth. In a secret diary this narrator describes her setting ,”a colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity– But that would be asking too much of fate!” This narrator is confined to a room with barred windows. It’s possible that she’s in an asylum, But the physical setting is less important than another landscape, the shifting consciousness of her mind. The narrator knows that she perceives reality differently from her husband, who is also her doctor. At first She chalks this up to the expected difficulties of male-female relations. “John,” she writes, “laughs at me of course, But one expects that in marriage.” This expectation of marriage is of course troubling in its own right, But there’s an even darker side to their dynamic, John has almost complete control over his wife’s body. The narrator’s descriptions may be at times Unreliable, but there are a few things we do know: she recently had a baby, She recognizes that she is sick, John belittles her saying that she suffers from a temporary nervous depression, a slight hysterical tendency. Meanwhile he prescribes her a scheduled prescription for each hour in the day of phosphates or Phosphites, the narrator doesn’t know which, and a regime of tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise. Also, John forbids his wife from writing, Working, or socializing and it quickly becomes clear that these so-called cures are Exacerbating the narrator’s condition as she is left with very little to do except stare at the yellow wallpaper. Thanks thought-bubble. So today We would probably say that the narrator is experiencing postpartum depression and/or postpartum psychosis. These are conditions that can result from a drop in hormones like estrogen and progesterone and are intensified by the two central experiences of new parenthood, sleep deprivation and anxiety. Postpartum psychosis can include the depressive symptoms of postpartum depression along with confusion, disorientation, Hallucinations, and paranoia. Today these conditions would be treated with medication and therapy and other medical interventions, But whatever treatment John gives his wife in “The Yellow Wallpaper” Definitely does not work. If Gilman’s story were an argument this line from it would be its thesis, “John is a physician, Perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.” Admittedly the 19th century wasn’t a golden age for psychiatry, But even so, John is exceptionally bad at treating mental illness. At the start of the story Gilman’s narrator craves more society and Stimulus. She writes that she must say what I feel and think in some way. Forbidden from communicating with a living soul she secretly Confesses her thoughts to dead paper in a journal and in her writing She projects her mental disintegration onto the patterns that she sees on the walls. “I never saw worse paper in my life,” She writes, explaining that it contains “one of those sprawling Flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.” Still she finds this pattern compelling: “it is dull enough to confuse the eye and following, Pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study… And when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance They suddenly commit suicide —
plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of Contradictions.” Of course this also describes the narrator’s interior landscape But it also describes the story, right? Like initially her narrative seems dull. I mean plot summary woman stares at wall. But then it becomes confusing the wallpaper seems to be moving We aren’t sure where this narrator is or if we can trust her and then something becomes Pronounced enough to provoke our further study. Are these romantic descriptions of a house, a delicious garden, Or it’s tattered decor? Are they intimate descriptions of a failing marriage, the desire for connection, or are they veiled Suicidal musings, or maybe they’re attempts to find a meaning in an extremely limited Experience, like Offred opening her hand in the sunlight in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I’ve always been fascinated by how the narrator tries to understand her situation in terms of principles of design, Like after she studies one breath or strip of wallpaper she concludes that its pattern is “not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or Anything else that I ever heard of.” I think anybody who’s experienced mental illness can relate to that. For her each of these breaths Exists as an isolated column of fatuity, in other words It’s meaningless. A pattern only emerges when she considers the strips next to one another Dim shapes appear to resemble a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. The wallpaper also Changes as the light changes. At night the woman in the wallpapers captivity behind bars becomes as plain as can be, So of course does the narrator’s own captivity. And also wait hold on full disclosure I’m about to go full Freudian which I know is like a Frustration and annoyance to many of you who are not like hardcore lit crit people But just walk with me on this one. So the paper has this Peculiar odor that creeps all over the house and is stronger after a week of fog and rain. Her husband might explain it as a combination of glue and mold intensified by humidity But smells travel through the olfactory bulb closely connected to the regions of the brain that handle memory and emotion. That’s why smells always remind us of moments from our past. And it seems to me the narrator’s fixation on this smell could be what Freud called the return of the repressed, or unconscious material rising to the surface. And maybe that’s part of why the narrator becomes determined that nobody discovered the wallpapers meaning except herself, although She had initially craved conversation, She decides that it does not do to trust people too much, especially with her most frightening thoughts. I mean after all having previously trusted people with her frightening thoughts has landed her in this situation Where she has to stare at yellow wallpaper all day. And then eventually the narrator begins to suspect that many women are trapped inside this paper: “I think there are great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.” The Narrator longs to free this woman or women. On her last day in the house She locks her door, throws the key into the garden, and tethers herself to the bed which she also bites. She rips at the wallpaper and thinks that it would be an admirable exercise to throw herself out the window. Then she wedges her shoulder into a smudge that runs along the lower part of the wall and walks hunched over along the periphery of the room, a kind of Reenactment of the woman stuck behind the wallpaper. John enters the room at last and then faints at the sight of his wife, yet She continues her laps crawling over the body of the man who had oppressed her. “I’ve got out at last,” she announces, “in spite of you and Jane?” Getting out at last involves rejecting societal norms and defying John and breaking free of Jane, a character not mentioned until this point who may be herself? But then comes this question mark which complicates everything and makes it ambiguous. Charlotte Perkins Gilman Transformed her experience of enduring this rest cure into a story that invites us to reconsider gender dynamics And the treatment of mental health disorders. At the time of its publication the story may have inspired concrete change too. In an article published in 1913 Gilman claims that her story quote “has to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate — So terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered. But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that my own doctor had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.” stories affect the world in mysterious ways and if “The Yellow Wallpaper” Helped end the practice of separating the sick from the world then I am grateful. But I think the story has served another far more personal function. It has given form and expression to many people’s Experiences with mental illness including, I have to say, mine. It’s a story that explores the ways that physiological brain disorders can be hurt or Helped by treatments and by the way the social order imagines and talks about mental illness. And although we no longer Embrace rest cures we still have a long way to go when it comes to talking about mental illness without the stigmatization that can worsen Suffering. But then also mental illness and the way it’s discussed isn’t the only Yellow Wallpaper Out there. I wonder What is the wallpaper That constrains you and who else do you feel might be imprisoned by its pattern? How might you escape, how might you tell your story to Influence others? Those questions haunted me when I first read Gilman’s story in high school And they shaped a lot of the ways that I think about writing today. More than 20 years later I’m still asking them. Thanks for watching I’ll see you next time. Crash Course is filmed here in the Chad and Stacey Emigholz studio in Indianapolis and it’s made possible by your support at Patreon. Patreon is a voluntary subscription service where you can support Crash Course directly through a monthly donation To help us keep it free for everyone forever. We make Crash Course with Adobe Creative Cloud. You can get a free trial at a link in the description. Thanks to everyone who supports us on Patreon and to all of you for watching and as we say in my hometown don’t Forget to be awesome.

100 thoughts on “The Yellow Wallpaper: Crash Course Literature #407

  1. I think it's interesting you didn't mention Jenny at all. She also lives in the house and spends time with the narrator, but because she's John's sister, she wholeheartedly believes the narrator is sick. I'm thinking she's a metaphor for those who don't realize they're oppressed and still agree with the oppressors. When you're trying to get better or get reform, it isn't always the oppressors that cause the most damage, it's the people who're like you and still don't fight back.

  2. The Rest Cure fills me with a burning hatred of the patriarchy that only all out rebellion can quench.

  3. The edition that my class read says "in spite of you and Jane!". There's no question mark. Is there something wrong with my book or did some editions omit the question mark to avoid confusion?

  4. where was this video when I was struggling with The Yellow Wallpaper during AS level last year?? 😪

  5. The end of this video really moved me john, thank you for being so open with how this story impacted you.

  6. Was "Paper Towns" inspired by the Yellow Wallpaper? I remember that book most for it's large, empty rooms, abandoned places, "towns" that don't actually exist, and a girl who feels isolated from the rest of her peers, despite being very popular, sociable, and academically successful—-to the point where she feels like she can't express herself freely and feels like she doesn't "exist" as a person. "A paper town for a paper girl"

  7. I’m doing my A level exams next year and would love if you could do either the tempest, duchess of malfi or grapes of wrath as I absolutely love you literature videos there so helpful !!☺️

  8. My yellow wallpaper is more along the lines of the mental health angle then the gender angle. My sister and I both have mental disabilities, and we have both noticed an unfortunate lack of accommodations for ambitious disabled people. I'm not as severe as her, but because of how high functioning I am I have had counselors try to encourage me to go without accomodations on major tests (I'm not that high functioning) and my sister had to fight to get accommodations for her AP classes. It's not as bad as it was in my grandparent's generation but I feel like the fact that people don't know what to do about mentally disabled people who excel is a wall.

  9. 2:08 idk why I’m so excited but my family is related to Harriet Beecher Stowe so that means that I may be related to this author and I’m just really excited

  10. This sounds amazing. The line about seeing over was devastating to me. I have been to that precipice and I know exactly how she felt but I have never heard it so well described.

  11. As a literature professor myself, I love your videos! You strike a great balance between explaining the text, its background, and also its appeal!

  12. Now think about how many mentally ill people are in solitary confinement in prisons across the country right at this moment. We haven't stopped treating people like this at all. Most people in prison have some kind of untreated trauma (even if they are not formally diagnosed with anything), and prison just makes it worse. Prison can make even sane people insane.

  13. We're reading this for my Abnormal Psychology class for a paper and this was really useful. We're supposed to "diagnose" the main character and also discuss cultural norms and their effect on mental illness, so this confirmed my thoughts previous to watching this. Thanks John!

  14. 1:45 Charlotte Perkins Gilman is wrong. There is such a thing as a female brain. It is the brain that has been growing and marinating in female hormones. Such a brain is quite different than a male brain.

  15. My dad told me a summary of this story when I was six and I think it horrified me more than anything else I've even been told.

  16. We read this in class a few weeks ago and never even talked about it . . . my teacher's nice but the classwork could be structured better.

  17. I read this in undergrad, shortly after suffering from postpartum depression for 2 years. Reading The Yellow Wallpaper was so raw and real for me. Charlotte really speaks to those feelings and others in my class completely missed the mental aspect of the story she tells. Its one of the best short stories I've ever read.

  18. Not only was this one of my favorite crash courses due to your team's excellent writing and your passion and presetation style, the comment thread here is facinating and brought me to tears a few times. The yellow wallpaper is one of my favorite books but also it scared me so much when I read it in highschool I had to hide it between other books because somehow just looking at it gave me the heebie jeebies. We read the yellow wallpaper and the bell jar the same semester and I remember really feeling like I was wrangling with my own mental illness at the time. Thank you so much for sharing.

  19. The discussion John makes on the social climate surrounding women at the time is very important. Women were not able to control themselves fiscally, politically, or domestically. They were made subordinate in every way, which is very important to the relationship between John and the woman. John (the husband, not Green) is a classic example of a husband who writes off his wife's mental health or asserts his role as the "controller" in the marriage. The added note that we can't rely on her narrative is very important. Throughout the short story her views change, her perception changes, and her mental state is very much so in decline. We don't know what of her story is true for the characters from what is fiction. It is important to keep that in mind throughout the entire narrative, to continually question what is happening…

  20. I agree with most everything you are saying about this book, but it’s definitely not a dystopia. As it is only revolving around one person’s experience, and not society’s as a whole. Otherwise everything that you said about the way her condition grew Because if less interaction was right

  21. Why was she not aloud to draw or read? She ended up doing this to. Did this affect the outcome? If she wanted to tell that marriage status should be equal then why did she make her character not believe that? Why did she have to instead go insane to get free of her husband?

  22. I wrote an essay comparing Bertha from Jane Eyre and the woman in the Yellow Wallpaper (the whole "Madwoman in the Attic" theme) and it is by far my favorite essay I've written in college; love these two stories and how they connect.

  23. Am I the only one who was reminded of Bertha (from Jane Eyre) while reading this story? She was locked up in the attic all day, having literally nothing to do, so this might just as well be the cause of her getting as mad as she is at the end.

  24. While this is an interesting video, and I love Crash Course, a lot of the 'facts' about the story are actually interpretive.

  25. It is hard to understand a story when I read it but rather understand it when others explain it. Thanks a lot 👍👍🤝🤝

  26. Mmkay, I don't see at all how this woman's psychosis should be a literary model for those of us with mental illnesses. Its far too vague and leaves far too much to metaphor. And seriously why do people love the ending? Did she kill him? Did something else kill him? It matters very much to this perceived notion of this supposed deep understanding of mental illness because one option is, woman stares at wallpaper and goes crazy and kills her husband, which doesn't seem at all like an empathetic view of mental illness. If anything it seems par for the course for this era of fiction in the early 20th century. The other option, that something else killed him makes no sense at all with the prior narrative so which is it?

  27. One thing that the ending reminded me of when I read it was the way that animals in a zoo pace and fixate when they are understimulated

  28. I just finished reading the yellow wallpaper and Immediately turned on this video to try to contextualize/ make sense of what I just read. And only after the intro did I realize that the walls of the room in my uni are a weird pale yellow

  29. Gender norms… Gender roles… I'm talking about that and drawing as well… I participate in groups…

  30. John, a personal thank you to this insightful video that you published. it has been helpful towards writing my english thesis.

  31. Is there a movie, I read the book and want to see how this would look visually. Also, before knowing anything, I though it was a book recapping some of Virginia Wolfe.

    THAT WEIR (the dude who invented rest therapy) ALSO "TREATED" MARY SHELLY
    and ya wonder why the book Frankenstein has so much torture in it

  33. I first encountered this story on an old radio drama featuring Agnes Moorehead. It was part of a series called Suspense, and it treated it pretty much like a horror story.

  34. I feel as though my wallpaper is black as ink, the pattern being that of splattered paint of bright, nauseating colors in different shapes and sizes yet when looked at as one piece seems to take the forms of my young step sister, my mother, and my step father creeping behind it and trying to reach out for me and make my life sorrowful and miserable.

  35. I always assumed that the pervasive smell was directly associated with her illness. Green Victorian wallpaper infamously contained arsenic, and in moist climates could kill people who slept in the room it was in. I assumed that the smell, which was attributed to moisture and mold, may have been a toxic mold of some kind, triggering hallucinations and exacerbating her (already fragile) condition.

  36. Thank you for doing this video! I only came across the story a few months ago and immediately realized it is based on postpartum psychosis – it is pretty realistic!!!

  37. I was wondering, does character’s husband have a Munchausen syndrome by proxy?
    It felt like his wife being locked up and “treated” was beneficial for him.

  38. I read this story when I was in my sophomore year of high school and never was able to finish it sadly. Looking back on it now, about 4 years later while pursuing a doctorate degree in psychology, I find it unfortunate that I had such a terrible experience with this novel. While I was reading it, I was in the basement of my home with my back to the majority of the room. At the time, I was reading about the 'creeping woman' behind the wallpaper and that woman became real in my mind. I experienced my first panic attack that night, which lasted over an hour of terrifying paralysis as I feared that this creeping woman was behind me, ready to strike at any moment. Because of this, I was unable to continue reading to the end of the novel and actually had to sit out of class discussions because of further panic attacks. Even today, 4 years later, while watching this video, I felt the same panic creep up inside myself and am reminded of that horror that now permanently coats this story in my mind.
    It is a shame that I cannot enjoy this because I think I would really love how Charlotte Perkins Gilman comments on the truly poor treatment of mental illnesses at the time because that is a discussion that I am very passionate about, as I too suffer from not only panic and other anxiety disorders, but also clinical depression and a rare neurological disorder, all of which are greatly stigmatized and misunderstood.

  39. The Yellow Wallpaper is how male Drs have used women's illness as yet another arena in which to boss around women and tell them what to do. The focus was always on following the Drs orders whether or not they did you any good

  40. My favorite part of his critique is when he analyzes how she sees the wallpaper in isolated strips, with no meaning conveyed, and its only when she sees them in the context of the whole, that the woman's captivity emerges as a narration in the wallpaper.

  41. Im glad that this changed how doctors treated post natal depression – my grandma was prescribed a part time job and it saved her and her marriage – which my existence is grateful for. I owe so much to my grandma and she taught me ways to deal with my own depression and mental illness

  42. Jane is mentioned many times throughout the story, she is the family’s servant. She updates John on the narrators condition when he is away, and handles things around the house so that the narrator can truly commit to resting.

  43. Although it is not very clear, the narrator does have suicidal thoughts at the end. She does think of jumping out of the window and says that it would be an "admirable exercise", but the bars were too strong for her to do that. It was pretty obvious that she hated the wallpaper which was owing to the fact that the patterns on the paper portrayed the distress, anguish and pain in her life; which makes it obvious she was tired of her monotonous and tedious life. She also exclaims that she has fastened herself to the rope which could mean that she has hung herself. Her creeping after death indicates paranormal activity. She also mentions that she would rather creep inside for inside everything is yellow instead of green. This brings us to believe that the wallpaper, though she hated it, had become her obsession. Afterwards, her husband, John calls her out and asks her to open the door and she tells him to do so himself for she couldn't do it. This also points out the fact that she hanged herself. When John finally enters the room, he does converse with the dead Jane before actually realizing that she is dead until she says that she has gotten out in spite of him and Jane. This means Jane, the insane narrator who has turned so because of being imprisoned both, mentally and physically inside the room with the yellow wallpaper. He realizes she is dead and faints at the sight. The psyche Jane, hence frees herself and unlike a cliché ending we expected,(that the spirit would finally get out of the room and wander around freely) she continues to stay inside the room and haunt it. Hence she says that she had to creep over John every time.

  44. Jane is Johns sister who takes care of the house and baby. They mention her in the beginning a little. Jane and John also have conversations about the progress of the narrator's condition

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