The Yellow Wallpaper and A Head Full of Ghosts

“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), Charlotte Perkins Gilman via Wikipedia

In the opening pages of A Head Full of Ghosts, author Paul Tremblay invokes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a 19th-Century short story that grapples with the complicated themes of feminism, mental health and healthcare, and (possibly) evil spirits. The short story comes as the journal of a woman confined to a single yellow-wallpapered room and“treated” via rest cure for hysteria. However, due to the lack of stimulation required by the so-called cure (a solution prescribed especially to women for an obscenely gendered “disease”), the woman fixates on the yellow wallpaper, going as far as seeing several women trapped within it and eventually believing herself to number among them.

Interpretations of the short story differ greatly. Gilman talked about the semi-autobiographical elements of her story–namely, her own personal experience as a patient. Gilman was diagnosed with hysteria–a nervous disorder originally thought to stem from problems with the uterus–and was placed under the care of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. Mitchell would become the champion of the rest cure, which he hoped would cure this almost uniquely feminine issue with isolation, lack of activity, and lack of mental stimulation. Sounds like a dubious at best cure for mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder, right? Gilman thought as much, as she crafted this story to fight against the dismissive (and severely ineffective treatment) she was forced to endure.

Feminist critics have decided to shift their critical gaze away from the explicit topic of mental health and instead talk about how the story exemplifies the patriarchal dominance of  society, especially within the medical field. They note the extreme gendering of the events of the story, namely focusing on how the male-prescribed rest cure sought to “cure” the uniquely feminine condition of the protagonist with a level of stimulation and activity more suited to the supposedly simpler female mind. They then view the protagonist’s eventual insanity as a kind of victory over male dominance.

Others can choose to take the tale more literally as a ghost or horror story. Gilman writes with enough ambiguity to allow the chilling events of the story to be ascribed to ghosts or even possessive spirits. The room the protagonist is confined to is supposedly a former nursery, but there are numerous details about it that could indicate otherwise (bars on the windows, rings on the walls, nailed-down bed, and the eponymous yellow wallpaper). Additionally, the protagonist describes the room in oddly violent terms, and even indicates she feels something off about the house when she first moves there for the summer. And then there’s the ending, of course, which at best could point to ghost-induced insanity and at worst a case of genuine possession.

On that note, it seems best to turn back to Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. Given all this information, the epigraph, and the numerous references made so far (mainly in reference to the “confessional room”), I thought that Gilman’s short story at least deserved some kind of mention. The story’s themes certainly seem to inform Tremblay’s story up to this point (and I suspect will rear their heads again in the coming chapters too). We see the issue of mental health arise with poor Marjorie, who complains to Merry that her condition has been mishandled by parents, psychiatrist, and priests–everyone. Additionally, we see the feminist perspective with Karen Brissette/Merry’s analysis of the family’s TV series. And finally, we see an ambiguity  similar to that which Gilman created, raising doubts as to whether Marjorie suffers from schizophrenia or something much more sinister.