Miss Woodhouse's Musings

…about life, the universe, and everything. Don't panic!

The Anti-Garden Path To Insanity

on 29 April 2010

I’m posting to prove to you, my dear readers, that there is a reason I’ve not been posting more often- I’ve been writing papers like this. Thank you for being so faithful to check in with me! Over the summer I hope to be a little more faithful with my posting.

This paper is based on about the only enjoyable story I read in my American literature class this session. The story is narrated by a woman who is suffering from a slight nervous breakdown, and her doctor/husband takes her and their son to a new house for the summer. Unfortunately, he chooses to put them in a room with hideous, mottled, fading, peeling yellow wallpaper. This wallpaper eventually drives her to insanity; she first imagines that there’s a woman trapped behind the design of the paper, and in the end she thinks that she is that woman attempting to escape.

There’s another angle to the story, this connection with nature that she has in the beginning slowly fades as the story progresses. It is this perspective that I look at in this paper. So, here goes:

In Charlotte Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman explores the inner workings of a woman’s mind. This is not a story of an ordinary, happy, carefree woman though. Instead, this woman is struggling with her grip on her family, health, and even her sanity. Through her decline and eventual mental breakdown, the only change in her life is in the amount of contact her husband, John, allows her to have with nature and the outside world. Thus, “The Yellow Wallpaper” exemplifies the idea that disconnection with nature facilitates a decline into insanity.

From the very beginning of the story, the woman admits to having had health issues recently. So far she, under her physician husband’s direction, has coped very well with her infirmity due to certain measures which included “air, and exercise.” Her only complaint with this method of treatment is that she wishes for a little more excitement, but overall she is content with her life and her stabilizing health. As she describes the summer home they have rented for the summer, she goes into raptures about the state of the grounds.

The most beautiful place!…It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people. There is a delicious garden! I never saw such a garden—long and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them.

The garden is the real focal point of the house for her. She is not fond of the building itself, nor of the room that John assigns to them for next three months of living. Again, her dissatisfaction only comes out of her love for, and need to connect with, nature. The room she wanted opened out on to the rose garden, but the room John chose is on the top floor—as far from the garden as is possible.

With the room and the hideous yellow wallpaper providing an effective barrier between the woman and the garden, she finds herself growing weaker and increasingly unable to leave her room. Despite her physical weakness and the ugliness of the paper in her room, the woman still does her best to connect with the natural setting that she cherishes so much. She writes about the views from the windows:

Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deep-shaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees. Out of another I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf belonging to the estate. There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house.

Here the reader gleans the first inkling that the woman is not going to be mentally stable for much longer. As she glances out the window to the lane, she admits to the fact that her vivid imagination is beginning to take over reality, and she fancies that she sees people walking about.

As the summer wears on, she tries to keep her tenuous grip on her connection with nature. Even into July, she is able to get out from under the spell of the mysterious and all-consuming yellow wallpaper and make it into the garden. She writes that “I walk a little in the garden or down that lovely lane, sit on the porch under the roses, and lie down up here a good deal.” At the same time, her focus turns inward to the room and the wallpaper. By the middle of July she is spending hours gazing at the wallpaper, and ignoring her direct examination of nature. In fact, the only mention of natural elements comes from their attempts to make contact with her. She talks about that moonlight, and how “the moon shines in all night when there is a moon.” Even though she is not consciously attempting to connect with nature, it does its best to reach out to her.

These attempts at connection fail. The woman finds herself fixating on an unpleasant odor permeating the house, and she blames it on the natural elements she appreciated just weeks before. Too, she projects her paranoid tendencies on the natural setting; when she does look out the window at the natural settings, she sees the result of her dark fantasies:

I see her in that long shaded lane, creeping up and down. I see her in those dark grape arbors, creeping all around the garden. I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines.

Nature, in the woman’s mind, has turned from being an escape and a respite to being just another arena for her imagination to dominate. Nature is tainted by her dark fancies, and by all apparent signs her madness is, at this point, complete.

As a final interaction with nature and a last example of how far her mental breakdown has gone, the woman uses a plantain leaf to hide the key that locks her husband out of the house. The transformation from health to insanity is complete in her life, and her use of nature proves this. Where at the beginning of the story nature provides an escape and a link to sanity, here at the end of the story nature has become a tool to aid and abet her madness.

While it is impossible to tell if the outcome would have changed had the woman been able to maintain a healthy connection with nature, during her lucid times she seems to think that nature would help her in her illness. She seems to know instinctively that a room opening up onto the gardens would be better for her than the horrid room at the top of the house. Although she tries her best to make the most out of a horrible room and living situation, her best efforts fail. In the end, she becomes as warped as the wallpaper in the room, the antithesis of the lovely, unblemished, holistic beauty that she could once admire in nature. As distortion sets into her brain, one of her last acts of madness is to turn nature to suit her own insane purposes. Her disconnection with nature is complete, as is her lapse into insanity.

Photo of Crepe Myrtles, taken at the Botanical Gardens last summer.

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2 responses to “The Anti-Garden Path To Insanity

  1. BloreMoonse says:

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Cheers
    Christian

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