In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a timid housewife is prescribed a rest cure by her physician husband, involving her sequestering herself away from the rest of the world, diving into inaction. As this occurs, and she keeps herself in the bedroom of her summer vacation home, she begins to hallucinate as a result of both the abuses her husband perpetrates against her and the crippling inactivity to which she has been prescribed. Her increasing desire for freedom, as well as distrust and disappointment with her uncaring, unfeeling husband, leads her into complete madness. The protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” experiences both tremendous psychotic episodes and incredible feministic tendencies and desires; This theme of insanity and isolation based on gender is also echoed in the 1968 Roman Polanski horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, demonstrating that the film took many cues and tropes of the ‘frail woman being controlled by her husband’ story Gilman’s tale innovated.
The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” having experienced the loss of a child, suffering through postpartum depression, was appointed to a rest cure by her doctor husband, something that isolated her from any other sort of stimulation from friends to artistic expression. Gilman, in writing this story, intended it as a treatise against faulty 19th century medicine, showing that women did not need rest cures in order to cure hysteria; the hysteria was often caused by the same type of remedy. This kind of thinking, based on the critical nature of the work, was primarily due to a patriarchal notion of women’s frailty; the men had to take dramatic steps, due to their assumed higher intelligence, to help them deal with their weaker natures. The men in the lives of both Gilman’s narrator and Rosemary do this, continually leveraging their forcefulness and power into making their wives think that they are going insane. The primary antagonist of the main character in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the husband himself, John. He is a doctor, and a 19th century one at that – at the time, mental illness was not very well known of or talked about, and therefore many of the remedies that were prescribed to those suffering from these maladies were anything but helpful. Despite the protagonist’s protests as to the effectiveness of (or desire for) the resting cure, John persists, stating that he knows what is best for her. “Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear, and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time” (Gilman 381).
This is echoed in Rosemary’s Baby, as Mia Farrow’s character, a frail young woman who follows along with her ambitious husband’s pleas to move into an old New York City apartment building. As the film progresses, their pushy neighbors start to feed her things, and take an inappropriate amount of attention in her health, particularly as she gets pregnant in the middle of the film. Throughout the film, she is gaslighted and made to feel as though she is insane, while she starts to suspect them of being witches. This is inspired from Gilman’s portrayal of a young, naive woman being tortured slowly through measures that are meant to help her deal with issues revolving around childbirth. With Gilman, it is the rest cure; with Rosemary, she is weakened and tortured through the altered food the Castevets continually feed her. This malice through kindness is uniquely targeted at women in these stories, the Polanski film using shades of Gilman’s paranoia and gaslighting techniques in the events of Rosemary’s Baby. Polanski evidently wished to capture the helplessness and paranoia that Gilman’s narrator felt, while modernizing it and setting it in contemporary New York City. Changing the setting from an empty townhouse to the busy Big Apple makes Rosemary’s isolation even more telling of her predicament, as she feels lost in a crowd rather than trapped in a cage. In the end, what Gilman’s narrator hallucinates about and what ends up plaguing her most is the violation of her own rights and privileges as a person and woman. John is domineering and unkind, believing erroneously that he knows exactly what is wrong with her and how to fix it. “John is a physician and PERHAPS.that is one reason I do not get well faster” (Gilman 380). Her subordinate status as the woman in the marriage forces her to follow her husband’s lead, especially when he has such a prestigious education and standing in life at the time as a doctor. Things like the rest cure were meant to also demoralize her and make her more docile – her condition merely made it easier to be manipulated. This flies in the face of many feminist ideals, and the story often provides feminism as a solution to the problems the protagonist is experiencing. Meanwhile, liberated Rosemary is intimidated both by her husband’s desires to control her and the elderly neighbors’ prying and constant intrusion in her life.
Perhaps the most disturbing moment Gilman’s narrator is when she finally succumbs to her madness, falling victim to the patriarchal and homeopathic solution that her husband laid out for her. She writes, “I’ve got out at lastin spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman 390). At this point, she fully believes she is the woman in the wallpaper who has freed herself from her own insecurities and manages to survive. However, she can never then regain that humanity, as the experience has left her feeling higher than consciousness; she has gone off the deep end, and does not have the appropriate skills or support system (being an isolated woman in the 19th century) to thrive, much less survive. Rosemary’s support system is also ripped from her, as her husband falls in with the Castavets, and she starts to care less and less about her own life – becoming disturbed and fearing she is delusional. This advances the themes of a woman lost, taking from the Gilman short story the idea of a woman being driven insane by being ripped from her agency and changing it to include concepts of Satanism and the fear of modernity. Rosemary is frightened of living in New York, and its overt friendliness pushes her away, keeping her mostly isolated, like Gilman’s narrator, in her apartment.
An unsatisfying, patriarchal marriage, combined with misplaced ideas of what constituted medicine in the 19th century, makes the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” descend into madness and hysteria. Roman Polanski, as a writer and director, was seemingly inspired by Gilman’s sense of paranoia, and the slow but sure administration of terrible medicine to achieve the ends of those who inflict it upon her. Instead of dealing with a woman’s loss of sanity after losing a child, Polanski uses the same themes of isolation to deal with the anxiety a woman may feel regarding the life growing inside her. Granted, the purpose bears more legitimate fruit in Rosemary’s Baby – the tenants of the house are witches, and are attempting to get her to birth the spawn of Satan, while the husband of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is merely confused about how to fix the narrator. However, the selfish use and torture of frail women, leading to their potential insanity, are intertextual cues that are borrowed from the previous work.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” in Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, ed. Robert DiYanni. McGraw-Hill, 2006. ISBN# 9780073124452.
Polanski, Roman (dir). Rosemary’s Baby. Perf. Mia Farrow. Paramount Pictures, 1968. Film.