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Toxic Mold and The Yellow Wallpaper

Posted Jan 31 2013 1:09pm
Kristen wrote the following paper in November of 2012 for her college English class. It looks at the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" and considers the possibility that toxic mold lurks behind the walls.

                                                  The Deathly, Decaying Depiction

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” committed suicide at the age of seventy-five. She claimed that because she was already destined to die from her inoperable breast cancer, she had the right to do it peacefully rather than painfully. Gilman was a woman who was particularly connected with the dark parts of life, including her obsession with experimental chloroform. The style of her stories is a reflection of that. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a story in which there is darkness and actual toxicity. The way she describes the yellow wallpaper and the main character’s symptoms in the story are eerily similar to an exposure to toxic black mold. Based on specific research and the diction, imagery, tone, dialogue, characterization, and point of view of the story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not only a description of a woman dealing with post-partum depression, but also an apt depiction of a toxic exposure in a mold-infested house.

Gilman was a unique and peculiar woman. Her many experiences with death shaped who she was as a writer and philosopher. Her beliefs in the afterlife were non-existent and her views on death were almost nonchalant. As Denise D. Knight wrote in “The Dying of Charlotte Perkins Gilman,” Gilman “viewed death—her own and others’—with a considerable amount of detachment.” Gilman had her first run-in with death when she was five years old. Her younger sister died at nine months of age. Gilman’s other encounters with death happened between the ages of thirteen and twenty-six. These deaths included her grandmother and great-grandmother, her childhood friend, Mary Diman; her student, Isabel Jackson; Sidney Putnam; Conway Brown; and, her sister-in-law, Julia Perkins. Each death was accompanied in her journal with remarks of sadness for the relatives of the deceased rather than the actual victim. Not only was Charlotte detached from human deaths, she would also experiment with killing her cats. She killed three cats, two in 1883, and one in 1925. She used the same method of killing her cats as she used on herself.

Gilman was a troubled and depressed person. When she was six-and-a-half-months pregnant with her first husband’s child, she wrote in her diary, “Walter… cannot see how irrevocably bound I am, for life, for life. No unless he die and the baby die… there is no way out” (Diaries 332 as cited in The Dying of Charlotte Perkins Gilman). Her daughter, Katherine Beecher Stetson, did live, as did Gilman’s depression. Her suicidal tendencies tell a great deal about who she was as a person. Although she felt that death was inevitable and not to be mourned, it also seems that there was a deep sadness that was simply hidden. “Despite her ideological view of death, the loss of so many acquaintances in the prime of their youth, coupled with her own dark thoughts of suicide, must have been enormously unsettling” (The Dying of Charlotte Perkins Gilman).

“It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote in her essay “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman wrote this story because she had her own experience with depression, the issue with which the narrator struggles. After Gilman became engaged to her first husband, Walter Stetson, her depression increased. She had deep anxieties about being married to Stetson and the perceived confinement that would entail. Within a year of being married, Gilman gave birth to her daughter and experienced a severe case of post-partum depression. By their fourth anniversary, Gilman and Stetson were separated. She sent her daughter to live with Stetson and his new wife. The events in her life coincide with the darkness and depression that she wrote about in “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

The diction Gilman uses in her story is distinctly related to toxic mold exposure. In the beginning of the story, the main character states in her journal, “there is something strange about the house-I can feel it” (Gilman 315). Later, as the story and the narrator’s insanity build, the words used become potent descriptions of mold. For example, the narrator declares that the wallpaper “dwells in my mind so!” (Gilman 320), suggesting the mold is infecting her brain, making her fixate on any subject that relates to the wallpaper. As the wallpaper begins to occupy the narrator’s mind more and more, she begins to see a “woman” behind the wallpaper. If one examines the possibilities of what this woman could be, one might come to the conclusion that it is some delusion caused by the mold in the wall. Since the main objective of the speaker wants to achieve is to free the woman from behind the wallpaper, the woman could represent a delusional lure designed to make her peel the wallpaper off in order to expose the mold. In another entry, the wallpaper is described as “hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing” (Gilman 323). This is a perfect example of Gilman’s expansive and descriptive diction. She writes, “I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs” (Gilman 325). The words hovering, skulking, hiding, and lying in wait convey a sense of gloom. Her writing also has a sense of heaviness, much like mold.

The imagery in Gilman’s short story is a prominent literary element. It makes the reader react strongly. All of the descriptions of the yellow wallpaper are ominous and intense. “It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others” (Gilman 316). Adjectives like lurid and sickly make it nearly impossible for the reader to tear their eyes away from the story. In another entry in which the narrator is becoming more and more consumed with the wallpaper she writes, “There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down” (Gilman 318). This sentence makes the reader feel uncomfortable and yet fascinated with the central character and her mental illness that seems to be caused by the wallpaper.

The tone is very much like mold; it is hidden yet heavy. Also similar to mold, the tone grows with the story and could be defined as disturbing. There is a mental dissonance throughout the entire story. In a literary breakdown done by Novel Summaries Analysis, it is written that at the beginning of the story, the narrator “…writes with humility, stating that while she does not agree with her treatment, her husband probably knows better than she what is good for her” (Novel Summaries Analysis). The narrator’s tone grows darker as she lives longer in the mold-infested room. She admits to more conflicts within herself and against her family. Her obsessions and her insanity grow deeper and more fervent with every journal entry. By the end, her statements are disjointed and complaining. Unfortunately, she submits to the darkness, or mold, in the room and herself.

Dialogue is seldom used in this story due to the diary-type writing, but when it is used, its effect on the reader is remarkable. There is very little conversation throughout the story and every exchange involves the main character and her husband, John. The narrator’s conversations with John are often normal, but the commentary in her journaling makes their reactions seem abnormal and dejected. Every dialogue suggests a disconnect between the two of them; John does not understand his wife’s illness or her need to get out of the sickening house. One conversation they have is a perfect example of the misunderstanding between the spouses in the context of a toxic exposure. “’I don’t weigh a bit more, nor as much; and my appetite may be better in the evening when you are here but it is worse in the morning when you are away!’ ‘Bless her little heart!’ said he with a big hug, ‘she shall be as sick as she pleases!’ (Gilman 323). John’s belief that his wife’s illness is in her head and perfectly curable makes their marriage dysfunctional. His constant phrases about her “fantasies” and disapproval of her illness make his wife feel small and despondent. Gradually, the speaker begins to rebel against her husband’s “rest cure” and in the final scene she creeps over him and says, “I’ve got out at last in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman 330). Each conversation has a purpose and is not wasted.

The author’s use of characterization reveals a great deal about the speaker’s issues. The narrator is the most prominent, but both John and Jennie are strong characters that are not easily forgotten. How can one forget the demeaning and dismissive nature of John, or Jennie’s blinded air? The characterization also shows different reactions to the moldy wallpaper. All three of the occupants of the house have symptoms of mold exposure. Each of them has some sort of fascination with it. The narrator obviously has the most severe reaction but even Jennie and John feel the need to pay attention to it. The narrator even states in her journal that she feels sure “John and Jennie are secretly affected by it” (Gilman 328). The fact that the word affected is used and not intrigued or, perhaps, attracted, suggests that the wallpaper has something physically wrong with it. It affects, not interests people. In one of her journal entries, the main character confesses she has grown afraid of John because, “He seems very queer sometimes” (Gilman 324). This is a sign that John is changing with the rest of the household. He grows more aggressive and spends more time out of the house, on “serious cases” (Gilman 320). Both John and Jennie are caught studying the wallpaper and, when the narrator finds Jennie studying the wallpaper, she gets angry, almost protective of her wallpaper. Jennie is startled and explains that “the paper stained everything it touched, that she had found yellow smooches on all my clothes and John’s, and she wished we would be more careful!” (Gilman 324-5). This strange fixation on the area of the yellow wallpaper that is infected is an experience most people would intuitively have if they found mold and didn’t know it.

    "The Yellow Wallpaper” is written like a journal through the point of view of the main character, whose name is never revealed to the reader; although there have been critics who have argued that her name is Jane, as stated in the last paragraph. Having the story told from the point of view of the narrator provides a striking read to the audience. If this story were told in the third person, one would not understand the turmoil and mental misery the protagonist is facing. When read like a journal, the audience feels like they are apart of the story, experiencing the same feelings as the main character. This makes the story unnerving but also eye opening to the horrible experience a depressed or insane person faces. “By the end, the structure — short paragraphs, fragmented and disjointed thought patterns — reflects the narrator’s mental disorder” (The Yellow Wallpaper).
             
In “The Surprising Truth about Mold” written by Barbara Loecher she writes, “…all molds can potentially cause rashes, headaches, dizziness, nausea, allergic reactions, and asthma attacks.” In Edward Shanessa’s article, it is said that residence “in damp housing was […] linked with reported problems with physical energy, sleep, and social isolation” (Dampness and Mold). Several of these symptoms are demonstrated in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” For example, the speaker is constantly talking about her fatigue, lack of appetite, and dizziness. In almost every entry there is some mention of her “laziness.” Once, when she is describing the wallpaper she says one area goes “round and round and round—it makes me dizzy!” (Gilman 326). The storyteller also describes the wallpaper as reminding her of fungus several times: “The outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus” (323), “There are always new shoots of fungus” (325), and “waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision!” (329). In the story the speaker states that there is a distinct smell that follows her in her hair and clothes, even when she is outside. She tells the reader that the smell is particularly strong on damp or wet days. Both of these conjectures correlate with Loecher’s article about mold; the article states that if one notices a musty smell, one has mold. It says mold will hitchhike “into your home in dust and dirt on your clothes and shoes, on air currents and in water that enters through cracks in walls and foundations” (The Surprising Truth). All of these ideas help to formulate the cause of the narrator’s discorded experiences, as does this excerpt from Dr. Joseph Mercola’s article
Mycotoxins are chemical toxins present within or on the surface of the mold spore, which you then unwittingly inhale, ingest, or touch. These mold toxins are extremely potent and often affect nearly every organ system in your body. Some effects resemble radiation sickness. Some are neurotoxic and produce central nervous system effects, including cognitive and behavioral changes, ataxia and convulsions. Approximately 70 percent of the people with confirmed exposure to toxigenic molds exhibit significant neurotoxicity” (The Common Toxin).

Many of the symptoms described by Mercola are exhibited in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The main character has severe mental disabilities that become clear as the story progresses. In fact, even John has behavioral changes as well. The narrator confesses to noticing a change in John’s demeanor. Another quote from Dr. Mercola on the subject of the mold/brain connection is eye opening.

“Fungal toxins can affect your brain, and if so, alter your emotional state. Neurological symptoms are commonly seen with mold toxicity. This phenomenon, combined with the fact that mold exposure is often associated with psychologically traumatic environmental disasters such as hurricanes and floods, makes for a complex clinical picture that can superficially appear to the uneducated clinician as depression, anxiety, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Therefore, it's not uncommon for people suffering from chronic mold-related health problems to be prescribed antidepressant drugs, as if to say the problem is all "in their heads" and lacks any physiological cause. If your psychological symptoms are caused by fungal or chemical exposure, an antidepressant will DO NOTHING to neutralize the toxins causing your psychological symptoms, much less your physical symptoms” (Forget Antibiotics).

In other words, many do not understand the connection between a mold exposure and brain injuries. It is an idea that is often unheeded and the more the knowledge that mold is deadly is treated so negatively, the more there will be cases like the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” that will not be helped. There are some, like Dr. Mercola, who are strong believers in the deadly consequences of mold and they continue to help others realize the complications of mold and the steps of the healing process.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” did more than just tell a story of a woman suffering from depression and her struggle with her husband and his authority over her life; it unintentionally gave a perfect example of the effects of a mold exposure on a family. It is unclear whether Gilman was aware of the content when she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but considering her connection with death and darkness, it is not surprising that she would compose a story in which the main character is suffering from an exposure to toxic mold, a dangerous part of nature. In the story, all of the elements, diction, imagery, tone, dialogue, characterization, and point of view, work together to form a powerful illustration of a deadly mold exposure whose effect on each of the characters is strong. Aside from the aspect of a mold exposure in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” this story is simply a striking piece that sticks with the reader long after the final word and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s talent for writing is clear.
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