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‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A study of depression during confinement

Alison Hall reviews Charlotte Perkin Gilman's captivating short story, drawing parallels between its central character and her own experiences.

TW: discussion of mental illness, suicide

“It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.”

As the sun beats down on the outside world, millions of us are confined to the great indoors. We are in the midst of a pandemic and to go outside is to risk lives. Many of us have a mountain of vac work slowly gathering dust which we daren’t even think about as we wait for another email from the university about new arrangements for Trinity term, or whatever will be left of it. The ennui starts to set in as we’re bombarded with new phrases becoming standard – “social distancing”, “self isolation”, “flattening the curve”. Spending our days indoors with little to no face-to-face contact with others is, however, a sure-fire way to exacerbate symptoms of mental illness. Many of us have found ourselves slowly losing our grip on reality, fuelled by both the seemingly apocalyptic news coverage of the crisis and the measures which have been put in place by the government and which make the coronavirus outbreak feel just like a bad dream.

“I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus – but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman gave birth to her daughter Katharine in 1885, and detailed her experience of what we now know to be postpartum depression in a number of her works, most notably the novella The Yellow Wallpaper. In so few pages, Gilman captures in harrowing detail the impact of the “rest cure” on the anonymous narrator’s psyche as she is made to stay in a single room, with a bed bolted to the floor and fixates on the sickly yellow, bizarrely patterned wallpaper, the only object of interest. This obsession with the wallpaper – brought about by her solitary confinement – and the female figure she believes is trapped within it, is what triggers the narrator’s descent into madness.

“Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able – to dress and entertain, and order things.”

I hit rock bottom just over a year ago – my depression had become so bad that I’d spend most of the day sleeping, and would go for prolonged periods of time without eating actual meals, washing, or cleaning my room, much to the irritation of my scout. I would deal with this by cutting myself off from my friends – which, naturally, only made me feel worse. I did, and found that my experiences were anything but unique, that isolating oneself is hardly an unusual coping mechanism. I thought that a year on from hitting this low point, I’d be able to look back on it and be proud of how far I’d come, but now I feel like I’m back to square one. The only difference is that this time, I have no choice but to stay at home, or else I risk getting ill or transmitting the disease to those who are more vulnerable than me. Lockdown is not a misogynistic “cure” for the “hysteria” that women in the 19th century (such as Gilman herself) were supposedly afflicted by – COVID-19 is real, and deadly, and it is more important than ever that we make sacrifices to reduce pressure on the NHS and potentially save lives – so this is a sacrifice we absolutely must make.

“I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me. But I find I get pretty tired when I try.”

I’m sure we’ve all been periodically reminded that Shakespeare supposedly wrote King Lear while in quarantine, and that while the UK is on lockdown each of us simply must get to work on our own magnum opus. By contrast, as part of her “rest cure” treatment, Gilman was told to “never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live’. In her case, these limits on her creative expression only caused her condition to deteriorate. However, as I see more calls for coronavirus-inspired short stories, scripts and poetry, I find myself frustrated by the pressure on creatives to respond to the crisis by being productive. It seems rather tone-deaf to expect people to react to this pandemic by generating art rather than simply expressing fear, worry or grief as any human being would. In many cases, depression and productivity don’t exactly go hand in hand – so as a mentally ill writer, this is hardly the ideal situation in which I could write the next great British novel about my experiences of social distancing. 

“I cry at nothing, and I cry most of the time.”

I know I’m incredibly lucky that my family and I are not at an especially high risk of becoming seriously ill, and I’m sure that for many, being unable to see their friends or stuck in a creative rut is the least of their problems. However, we are too quick to overlook the impact of lockdown on mental health – since our vac has begun, a 19-year-old took her own life as she was “unable to cope with her world closing in”. In spite of all this, it is more important than ever to hold out hope – to remember that although we don’t know how long things will take to return to normal, this period of fear and uncertainty will pass. Now is the time to make sure to reach out to one another. So many of us are suffering in silence, missing our friends, family and partners more than ever as we have no idea when we’ll see each other again. Having taken part in countless Zoom or Houseparty calls and Netflix parties over the last few days, I feel reassured by the idea that friendships and relationships may come out of the lockdown period stronger than before.

“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”

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