Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • 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