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Mitchell, largely through his treatment of Gilman and her later description of this, gained a notorious reputation, and he may well have misdiagnosed her or believed that her intellectual pursuits were too introspective.Yet historical scholarship has also suggested that some well-to-do and educated women might also have helped shape their own diagnoses or used their illness to avoid domestic duties that they found unpleasant or taxing.Though many details are changed, the story is semi-autobiographical, drawing on Gilman’s own health crisis and particularly her fraught relationship with Dr Silas Weir Mitchell – who carved a reputation for treating nervous exhaustion following his experiences as a Civil War doctor – and who was brought in to treat her in 1886.
Behind it, dim shapes get clearer by the day, sometimes of many women, sometimes one, stooping down and creeping about behind the pattern.
At the end of the story the narrator takes the opportunity of her husband’s absence to lock the door and tear away the wallpaper, the women now creeping outside in the garden.
The protagonist of the story might have been suffering from puerperal insanity, a severe form of mental illness labelled in the early 19th century and claimed by doctors to be triggered by the mental and physical strain of giving birth.
The condition captured the interest of both psychiatrists and obstetricians, and its treatment involved quietening the nervous system and restoring the strength of the patient.
The narrator spends much of her days being cared for – and often left alone – in this room, reading, attempting to write (though the subterfuge this involved leaves her weary, she noted) and, increasingly, watching the wallpaper, as it starts to take on a life of its own.
The story highlights the plight of many women during the 19th century.
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There she is to rest, take tonics, air and exercise – and absolutely forbidden to engage in intellectual work until well again. The room her husband selects as their bedroom, though large, airy and bright, is barred at the window and furnished with a bed that is bolted to the floor.
The wallpaper is torn, the floor scratched and gouged.