Short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” provides insight into psychology and mental health care


Andrea Huete, Copy Editor

One SDSU professor assigned four students taking his Introduction to Literature course to read “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The psychological horror short story follows the journey of a young woman suffering through “temporary nervous depression” after delivering her child.

Justin Blessinger, a professor of English and director of the AdapT Lab for Accessibility through Tech at Dakota State University selected the story because he loves how the narrator is eventually discovered to be unreliable. 

“[It] causes the reader to try to reconsider the entire story,” Blessinger said.

Readers experience the events of the short through journal entries written by the young woman. As the story evolves, the woman’s hysterical breakdowns do too.

Over time, the young woman and her husband, who is also her doctor, move into a new house. The husband imprisons her in the home due to her condition and supposed hallucinations.

The room she is held in is described to have a patterned yellow wallpaper, barred windows, metal rings in the walls, floors that have been gouged and a bed bolted to the floor.

The story challenges us to think about how we are driven to discover meaning in the chaos around us.

“It’s why our species has survived,” Blessinger said. “We notice patterns, and assign meaning to those patterns. That’s language itself, but it’s also faith and art and truth.”

In the text, readers see how the main character receives medical treatment and how it backfires. Her husband belittles her, prescribes her medication and limits her actions. She can’t write, work or socialize with others. These actions cause her mind to wander as she stares at the yellow wallpaper which surrounds her in the room her husband is holding her captive in.

“The main character is trapped in a room and she’s convinced that the wallpaper contains a message,” Blessinger said. 

She tries to read and interpret the wallpaper throughout her days. Her interpretations consume her time, and she eventually sees a woman hiding behind the pattern and wants to free her.

Blessinger adds that the story invites us to consider the origin of the science of psychology and the primitive, often sexist, methods that were employed as the science developed.

“Each reader decides where the narrator becomes no longer trustworthy,” Blessinger said, “Some decide that the physician in the story is not​ the main character’s husband, because it is common for patients in asylums or in captivity generally to form imagined bonds with their captors, a condition commonly called Stockholm Syndrome.”

Dayeon Lee, a junior nursing student, said that she is glad to have experience in mental health care at a human service center. It was certainly a different experience to other clinical experiences she has had.

There were some protocols in terms of what patients can have access to and what they can’t. 

“I was taught that I can’t leave patients inside of their room alone by themselves because they might cause harm to themselves or commit suicide,” Lee said.

To me, the main character shows signs of schizophrenia, as she is portrayed to be delusional and slightly disoriented.

Lee mentions that schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder that affects thinking, language, emotions, social behavior and ability to accurately perceive reality.

“Symptoms may vary in types, but auditory hallucination is most common. It is unknown why schizophrenia occurs, but there is a strong genetic link,” Lee said. “One of the things that was interesting to me was that, contrary to popular belief, schizophrenia patients are often not violent.”

At the end of the text, the main character finally loses her mind, as she locks herself in the room, unwilling to come out. She seemed to be possessed, as she mentions that the woman in the wall can’t be trapped anymore. She peels off the wallpaper and when her husband manages to get inside he is shocked. 

At the scene, she drops dead once her husband enters. 

As a reader, I believe the wallpaper symbolizes her skin. Her actions were most likely due to her wanting to escape the situation.

“Literature is important because art is important, for all the same reasons in that it allows us to perceive beauty others may never see and to communicate truths that others have only felt but never noticed,” Blessinger said.

In the end, I wonder what other symbols readers can find and interpret within the text.