An Animal of the Highest Order: The Healing Challenge within The Yellow Wallpaper


by Barbara Hort, PhD.

Grace Carter in The Yellow Wallpaper. Photo credit Owen Carey.
Grace Carter in The Yellow Wallpaper. Photo credit Owen Carey.

How do we find our way when we have lost it?  More importantly, how do we find the way we have lost, when we’ve never known it to begin with?  And finally, how do we find our way when there are powerful forces — society, family, habit, and love — that draw us away from the path we are destined to walk?

In 1890, Charlotte Perkins Gilman attempted to answer these questions in her deft little tale, The Yellow Wallpaper.  The story looks supernatural to many of its readers, as Sue Mach’s play looks supernatural to many of its viewers.  But in fact, both the book and the play are eerily resonant with the very real experiences of we who have attempted to find our lost ways in life.  

Of course, few of us are born with a clear vision of our destined path.  But some of us encounter a daunting number of obstacles and obfuscations between ourselves and the path we want to walk.  Perkins, for example, was born a woman in the late 19th century, a time when her artistic nature and mystical gifts were in stark opposition to the docile life of constraint that she was expected to live.  

Gilman’s fierce psyche responded to the repressive dictates of her marriage and her culture by sending her into a severe depression, much as a caged wild animal is inclined to curl up despondently in the corner of its pen.  The “rest cure” prescribed by Dr. Weir Mitchell, which corresponded to the autocratic medical approach of that era (an approach that still prevails in much of physical and psychological medicine), only exacerbated Gilman’s misery.  Her penned animal began to circle its cage and tear out its fur.  

In a person with less intellectual and creative energy, this repression may have led to a complete shutdown of life force — the state that psychologists call “catatonia” — or even to literal death.  But Charlotte Gilmore was “an animal of the highest order”…with the emphasis on animal.  When Gilmore’s mind was immobilized by the “cure” of Dr. Weir Mitchell and her collusive husband, her animal instincts erupted to effect her rescue.  How did this happen?

"I am an animal of the highest order."
“I am an animal of the highest order.” Grace Carter, photo credit Owen Carey

In the human psyche, there is an elegant dance between the primal, life-giving forces that the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the archetypes, and the containing structure that he called the ego.  You might think of archetypes as the rainbow of energies that are our innate birthright — the full spectrum of our human instincts, refined to a nearly infinite number of hues and intensities.  These archetypal energies blaze through us, much as electricity blazes through the wires that carry it.  And those wires represent what Jung called the ego.  

Now, you can imagine that if the wires of ego are too thick and resistant, containing too many blocks and dampers, the archetypal energy can’t stream through them and no light will shine.  But if the archetypal electricity is too powerful for the thin wires of a weak ego, the circuits will short out, the wires will incinerate, and again, no light will shine.

We can imagine that Dr. Weir Mitchell had developed his “rest cure” after he treated some people whose archetypal electricity was enormous, but whose ego wires were minimal…or incinerated.  He prescribed a container of treatment that was rather like a large dampening rod, grounding all the electricity that was flying around in a person’s psyche like a lightning storm, and subduing it until some ego wiring (that is, habits, thoughts, behaviors, and structure) could be re-established.

But for a woman like Charlotte Gilmore, someone whose wiring was probably quite sufficient, but whose light was simply shining too brightly by the standards that were dictated for women in her time, Dr. Weir Mitchell’s “cure” was a devastating torment.  Deprived of every means for creative expression, the archetypal energies of Gillmore’s psyche began to seethe and amplify.  In the exquisite manner of any artistic soul that seeks to survive, Gillmore’s psyche began to deploy the tools of association (“It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw—not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.”), synesthesia (“that yellow smell!”), dissociation and projection (hunting, finding, and dancing with her “other, separate self”), and regression (becoming “an animal of the highest order!”) in order to avoid her demise.

Grace Carter. Photo Credit Owen Carey
Grace Carter. Photo Credit Owen Carey

In some people, this explosion of creative energy might result in a “short circuit” of the ego wiring.  In other words, deprived of the practical skills and structure that an ego affords us, the person would be unable to function in the world.  But apparently, Charlotte Gilmore’s circuits were not so easily blown.  Her short story and subsequent life are proof of the strength in her ego’s wiring.  Clearly, her ego structure was resilient enough to withstand the power of the creative eruption that her archetypal energies precipitated when they were heavily repressed by the “rest cure” of Dr. Weir Mitchell.

What is the tale that each of us touches in ourselves when we read the book or see the play of The Yellow Wallpaper?  What do we learn about our own search for our individual path — lost, found, or hitherto unknown?  The answers to this question are, of course, as numerous as the readers and viewers of the tale.  

Some of us realize that we have been living for months, even years, in a locked room with bars on the windows, a bed nailed to the floor, and disturbing yellow wallpaper on every vertical surface.  We are the ones whose lives have been heavily shaped (that is, pressed, and repressed, and even depressed) by expectations, obligations, and accommodations.  We have ego wires of such a heavy gage that it would take a bolt of archetypal lightning, in order to pass through them and light up our lives.  We are not necessarily miserable; we might even have accommodated enough to be able, like Jenny, to discuss patterns in the china with our insufferable mothers.  But we usually have a dependency upon someone or something in our lives — whatever holds the key to a larger world, a world where there are irreverent word games, audacious ideas, and forbidden sweets.  

Others of us realize that we are awash in the world of hidden truths, hedonist urges, revolutionary notions, and outrageous acts. We are at sea in the storm of our archetypal energies, unable to anchor ourselves or find safe harbor.  Or, to return to the electrical metaphor, we are constantly ignited by ideas and impulses that break the bounds of our known world.  We may have found a way to function in the ground-bound world of ego, despite our incandescent version of existence.  But it is more likely that we are constantly scorching ourselves and others every time our archetypal energies arc out of our control, and our wires cannot contain the power of their combustion.

Chris Harder and Grace Carter in The Yellow Wallpaper. Photo credit Owen Carey.
Chris Harder and Grace Carter in The Yellow Wallpaper. Photo credit Owen Carey.

Whatever we discover about ourselves in Gilman’s story, we are subsequently challenged to find in our own lives the elements that will provide the balance that we need.  

For some of us — those who are lightning rods of archetypal energy — the challenge may be to find the structure of diet, exercise, and regularity that Dr. Weir Mitchell was trying to provide for his patients (although he prescribed it to an excessive degree in Gillmore’s case).  Weir Mitchell’s error of excess notwithstanding, animals of all orders and any number of feet will always benefit from good food, appropriate exercise, and a moderately predictable life.  

For others of us, those who have become ego’s prisoners of expectation and obligation (and this is most of well-behaved Western society), the challenge will be to employ the tools of creativity — association, dissociation, projection, synesthesia, and even regression — that can awaken the archetypal animal within.  Our inner animal can enable us to tear down the yellow wallpaper, and like Charlotte, we can get out at last, to a place where we cannot be put back in!

May you receive the gift that is offered by Gilman and Mach, and may you find the elements of balance that will allow your animal of high order to play safely and joyfully through a rich and meaningful life.

Don’t Stop Here

More To Explore

CoHo Blog: The Way You Made Me

An Interview with the Creative Team Coming up next at CoHo is The Way You Made Me, a one-woman show by local Portland Playwright, Lindsay

CoHo Residency: (un)tangled

Our final featured resident is Claire Rigsby, a performance artist who specializes in devised theatre and solo work. Claire is a performer, mover, maker, and

Subscribe to the Newsletter

For all the latest news
from CoHo Productions


Thank You

The Form submitted Successfully