Philosopher Jacques Lacan describes the mirror stage in psychoanalysis as the moment when someone (usually an infant around six months of age) recognizes themselves in the mirror: "The child, at an age when he is for a time, however short, outdone by the chimpanzee in instrumental intelligence, can nevertheless already recognize as such his own image in a mirror" (Lacan). This is meant to be the moment where we are able to understand our own appearance and transcribe it onto another object. In the case of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," the unnamed narrator of the story begins to see a mirror image of herself in the wallpaper of the home in which she is cooped up (for the sake of an archaic 'rest cure' prescribed by her doctor husband). The fascination that the narrator has with her mirror image (and her inability to truly recognize it as herself) plays along with Lacan's ideas of the mirror stage; in essence, the narrator is reinventing herself, regressing to a childlike stage of psychosis due to her isolation and her sexual repression coming from the antiquated ideas of medicine and female agency present at the time.
According to Lacan, the mirror stage in an infant involves the child discovering an image that matches their movements, something that inexplicably fascinates them. As they continue to explore their environments, they begin to exert control over it - at the very least, being able to identify it as an object: "once the image has been mastered and found empty, immediately rebounds in the case of the child in a series of gestures in which he experiences in play the relation between the movements assumed in the image and the reflected environment, and between this virtual complex and the reality it reduplicates - the child's own body, and the persons and things, around him" (Lacan). This is a vital part of early childhood development, as they determine the nature of reality by obsessing over and figuring out themselves and their own bodies; by identifying themselves in an outside force, children learn an important lesson in the nature of their reality.
In the case of the narrator, she starts to do this very acutely within the confines of her room. Having been locked up in the room of their rented home for the summer, her husband believing that she needs a 'rest cure' (isolating her from other people or any kind of activity), the story more or less follows the restructuring and redefining of herself and her reality to express her neuroses and deal with this restrictive and confining situation. First, she sees the wallpaper, and her own isolation makes her become more and more obsessed with it: "It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper – the smell! The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell" (Gilman). By becoming obsessed with the colors and patterns of the wallpaper, she begins to show almost a renewed interest or discovery of patterns and the like - this is due to her continual confinement starting to drive her mad.
As Lacan would read it, the narrator is revisiting her 'mirror stage' by reverting to an infantlike state, as she herself implies: "I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store" (Gilman). This childlike stage is being rediscovered once more, as Lacan would note that the narrator is exploring the nature of reality - tactile and visual stimulation - as if she were a child again. Her eyes are continually drawn to the wallpaper throughout the story, presumably as she has nothing else to look at - given the intriguing patterns of the wallpaper, she starts to relate herself to those same patterns.
Lacan's understanding of the mirror stage is directly tied to psychoanalysis; according to him, "We have only to understand the mirror stage as an identification," in that people transition in and out of the mirror stage when he "assumes an image" (Lacan). As infants, children start to assume the mirror image as their own during the stage; acting as a symbolic transference of their own ego unburdened by expectations of society and identity - "this form situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction" (Lacan). The narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" uses this opportunity of a rest cure to unburden herself of the societal expectations and controls that patriarchal 19th-century society places upon her; her husband places her in a rest cure in order to confine her and 'cure' her of her postpartum depression, a situation which becomes more and more unbearable for her. As a result, she begins to revert back to that mirror stage, allowing her to shed her current identity (that of an oppressed woman with deep mental issues) and enter a stage of I that permits a freer existence.
This new identity, provided by the wallpaper, is described by Lacan as gestalt, a whole personality developed by various pieces of environment around her: "The fact is that the total form of the body by which the subject anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power is given form only as Gestalt" (Lacan). The room in which the narrator is imprisoned is stark, small and confining; the bright, patterned wallpaper permeates the entirety of the narrator's environment - as a result, she starts to incorporate it into her own world.
The mirror stage is presented to the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by means of the hallucinations that she begins to experience, in which she sees another woman inside the wallpaper, forming from the patterns she explores: "At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be" (Gilman). As Lacan would put it, "the mirror-image would seem to be the threshold of the visible world, if we go by the mirror disposition that the imago of one's own body presents in hallucinations or dreams, whether it concerns its individual features, or even its infirmities, or its object-projections" (Lacan). In this case, then, the woman that the narrator sees in the wallpaper, presumably behind the bars that she also hallucinates the pattern becoming, is a reflection (a 'mirror') of herself. Trapped in the wallpaper just as she is imprisoned in this room, the narrator finds a kinship with this mysterious figure locked in the wallpaper, on the opposite side of reality from her. The narrator, as Lacan notes, is projecting her own features and weaknesses onto the mirror image; namely, her imprisonment. In this way, the narrator is participating in the mirror stage of psychological development that Lacan specifies.
The essence of a mirror image is its corresponding movements with the individual, which is how babies, for instance, discover that what they are seeing in a mirror is them: "the transition within a generation from the solitary to the gregarious form can be obtained by exposing the individual, at a certain stage, to the exclusively visual action of a similar image, provided it is animated by movements of a style sufficiently close to that characteristic of the species." (Lacan). This exploration of the mirror space and our mirror image, is one way in which we discover our own sense of relation to the space around us: "the facts of mimicry are no less instructive when conceived as cases of heteromorphic identification, in as much as they raise the problem of the signification of space for the living organism" (Lacan). Lacan notes this as an integral part of the mirror stage, as it establishes our ability to interact with our surroundings: "I am led, therefore, to regard the function of the mirror-stage as a particular case of the function of the imago, which is to establish a relation between the organism and its reality" (Lacan). In the case of "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator's restructuring of her reality, because of her psychosis, means that she hallucinates this mirror image as part of the nature of her world - she sees herself in the wallpaper, while also referring to something outside herself; she relates to the mirror image, but hardly identifies it as her own image. "It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight" (Gilman).
Lacan's connection of the mirror stage to infancy and early development helps to cement how helpless and unmoored the narrator is within the story as she grows more insane: "In manthis relation to nature is altered by a certain dehiscence at the heart of the organism, a primordial Discord betrayed by the signs of uneasiness and motor uncoordination of the neo-natal months" (Lacan). As the narrator's own unease grows, the hallucinations of the mirror image become more powerful and more desperate: "The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out" (Gilman). Because the sensibilities of the time (and the orders of her distant, controlling husband) do not permit her to object to the rest cure herself, the hallucination is allowed to do this for her; the mirror image is given agency that the woman herself cannot wield. The figure shakes the pattern to demand release, just as the narrator would like to do the same to her prison; she cannot, due to her illness or the societal pressures that force her to go along with her rest cure, and so her mind creates the mirror image within the wallpaper to do what she is unwilling to.
The mirror stage alludes to "a real specific prematurity of birth in man" (Lacan). In essence, the mirror stage occurs because young children do not have fully-formed identities yet, and are still adjusting to their status as a whole being with the ability to interact with the world at large. This uncertainty and immaturity leads the human being's identity within the mirror stage to be fluid and incomplete:
"The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation - and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of fantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopedic - and, lastly, to the assumption of the armor of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental development" (Lacan).
The narrator's established 'alienating identity,' presumably formed during her real mirror stage in life, is disrupted by the events of the short story - beset with mental illness and locked up in an unfamiliar house by an uncaring spouse, the narrator's mental development structure breaks down. The result of this is the re-fragmentation of her body image, moving it back through into the yellow wallpaper itself. The figure that she sees is herself, but she cannot recognize it; at the same time, it is clearly externalizing her desire to leave. "This fragmented bodyusually manifests itself in dreams when the movement of the analysis encounters a certain level of aggressive disintegration in the individual" (Lacan). With Lacan's analysis in mind, it is clear that the narrator's hallucinations constitute these dreams in which the individual herself is disintegrated and split into these dissonant halves.
As the narrator's identity continues to become undone, her grip on reality and the nature of space and identity become even looser: "this form is even tangibly revealed at the organic level, in the lines of "fragilization" that define the anatomy of fantasy, as exhibited in the schizoid and spasmodic symptoms of hysteria" (Lacan). This hysteria is reflected in the narrator's growing madness, in which the visions of the single woman start to become multiple women; her own desires become even more desperate and wildly inconsistent, as her mirror image becomes many images: "Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all overAnd she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern--it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads" (Gilman). This is a reflection of the narrator's own increased desperation to get out; the 'many heads' are in her mind, as her senses of reality and identity become more and more divided.
Lacan already notes that the mirror stage is a platform by which our own psychological issues can form or be expressed: "on the mental plane, we find realized the structures of fortified works, the metaphor of which arises spontaneously, as if issuing from the symptoms themselves, to designate the mechanisms of obsessional neurosis - inversion, isolation, reduplication, cancellation and displacement" (Lacan). The narrator of the story most certainly suffers from this kind of neurosis; isolation, first and foremost, is her primary issue, as she continues to live in her own little world; as a result, she must split herself up into several component parts in order to give herself company, one or more of these parts going into the wallpaper-based hallucinations. This allows her to displace her feelings of insanity, rage and frustration onto the woman in the wallpaper; as that woman screams to be let out, the narrator can (in theory) look on in curiosity, with a detached distance, no longer needing to feel those feelings herself. "I don’t like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?" (Gilman).
However, as Lacan notes, this kind of displacement cannot hold up for very long; given sufficient neuroses the individual becomes caught up in "not only the madness that lies behind the walls of asylums, but also the madness that deafens the world with its sound and fury" (Lacan). He also notes that "the sufferings of neurosis and psychosis are for us a schooling in the passions of the soul, just as the beam of the psychoanalytic scales, when we calculate the tilt of its threat to entire communities, provides us with an indication of the deadening of the passions in society" (Lacan). Essentially, Lacan argues that neurosis and psychosis are some of the truest senses of the remaining passions of a civilized individual; when these are made manifest, particularly during the mirror stage, the person becomes more excited by their surroundings. This is unequivocally true in the narrator; she becomes gradually more frantic and energized at the prospect of escaping from the wallpaper: "'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!'" (Gilman). During this final scene, she feels victorious and frenzied; her revisionist mirror stage has been effectively completed, reframing her reality as one of excitement and escape.
In conclusion, the philosophy of Jacques Lacan (particularly his philosophy of the mirror stage) sheds some light on the neuroses and psychological episodes that are experienced by the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper." Being confined to a small room while gravely mentally ill, with no support from other people, the narrator starts to revert to a strange, psychotic mirror stage where she begins to notice a figure like herself in the yellow wallpaper of her room. As the story progresses, her grip on reality is slowly but surely lost as the patterns and the woman behind them start to split and grow more chaotic. Lacan's notion of the mirror stage as the time when we establish our relationship to each other, to ourselves, and to our environment shows us that the narrator in this story is rediscovering her environment. In essence, she reinvents it to reflect her own anxieties and to provide her with comfort in a kind of spatial oblivion. By the time the story ends, her entire psychological framework is completely undone, and she feels as though she is the one in the wallpaper - this is akin to a child believing that he or she is behind the mirror they can see themselves in.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The yellow wallpaper. 1st ed. New York: Feminist Press, 1973. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience." The Critical Tradition. THIRD Edition. David H. Richter. Bedford St. Martin's, 2007.