Make your own free website on Tripod.com

The Yellow Wallpaper

 

Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935)

First Published 1892

Locale Northeastern Atlantic Coast

Time of Plot A summer during the 1890’s

Type of Plot Psychological realism

Principal characters:

JANE, the narrator

JOHN, her husband, a physician

JENNIE, John’s sister and Jane’s nurse

The Story

The story unfolds slowly over many weeks, beginning with the arrival of the narrator (whose name, Jane, is not revealed until the end of the story) at an estate in the country. Jane has gone into a gradual decline, losing interest in her family and her surroundings, since the birth of her baby. Her husband, John, and her brother believe that a long rest is what she needs to feel more like herself. Because both men are respected physicians, Jane believes that they know what is best for her and tries to put on a good face, despite her increasing suspicions that her rest cure may do her more harm than good.

At first, the colonial estate where she is the only guest appears harmless and quaint, with large gardens and spacious rooms. Jane later reveals that her windows have bars and her bed is bolted to the floor. The only people whom she sees are her husband, who comes from the city to check on her, and her nurse, John’s sister, Jennie. Jane never has contact with her recently delivered child nor with friends. Her summer home takes on a more sinister tone as her mental condition deteriorates, with the very wallpaper in her room coming to grotesque life.

Jane’s husband blames her thinking for all of her problems and forbids her to do anything that will employ her mind productively. Jane rebels at first and keeps a secret journal, but as she weakens, even that endeavor becomes too tiring. She withdraws into her thoughts, which form the running interior monologue of her mental collapse. Apparently accepting the separation from her infant, Jane slowly loses control of her imagination and her motivation to seek human contact. After she collapses and is forced to keep to her room, she becomes fascinated with the patterns on the yellow wallpaper, seeing in the paper’s swirls faces and patterns that first amuse and then terrify her.

From her barred window, Jane begins seeing women creeping about the gardens on their hands and knees. Soon she discovers that another woman is trapped behind the wallpaper in her room, something that only she can see. At night, this woman pushes and struggles behind the paper in an effort to escape, rattling and ripping it as she fights to get free.

Jane says that the woman creeps along the walls, and she tries to help free her by gradually peeling back her wallpaper prison. Jane begins to notice signs of deterioration in her room: smears on the wall and bite marks on the bedstead. Gradually she no longer wants to leave her room; when John comes to take her home, she refuses to go and locks herself in with the creeping woman who is now free in the room.

Jane’s husband and sister-in-law gain entry and find only Jane creeping around and around the room, surrounded by shreds of wallpaper. The story concludes as she creeps over the form of her husband, who has fainted from the shock of seeing her in her madness.

Themes and Meanings

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is partly autobiographical. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote it after she fled from her husband with her infant daughter to California. More important than the story’s similarities to Gilman’s own experience is the larger issue of a woman’s right to be creative and autonomous. The story can be seen as advocating a woman’s right to act and speak for herself; the alternative clearly leads to madness, as it does for Jane.

At the time of the story, most people believed that women were delicate and prone to madness if overstressed. A common treatment for their presumed mental illnesses combined isolation, rest, and inactivity—the very things that cause Jane’s breakdown. From her own account, readers know that Jane enjoys writing and reading, yet John considers these to be dangerous activities to be avoided at all costs. At that time, it was common to remove a depressed woman from all sources of stress or sensory stimulation; women such as Jane were separated from their children, kept in bed, hand-fed, bathed, and massaged. It is precisely this type of treatment that drives Jane to begin hallucinating. The silent madness into which Jane withdraws is not only her reaction to the cure that men prescribe for her, but her only available form of rebellion against these tyrannies.

As Jane becomes more distanced from the world and from any source of sensory stimulation, she begins to hallucinate. Her visions of the creeping women and the woman enshrouded behind her bedroom’s wallpaper symbolize her own binding and oppression. It is the rest treatment prescribed by physicians such as her husband and brother that metaphorically cause the women whom Jane sees to creep like infants rather than walk as independent adults. Jane’s rest cure becomes her own wallpaper prison, one that simultaneously drives her insane and pushes her to assert her own rebellious selfhood. By freeing the woman from behind the wallpaper, Jane succeeds in freeing herself. Sadly, however, her mental state has deteriorated so badly that she has become truly insane and will remain utterly dependent on her husband.

At the story’s conclusion, the narrator locks herself in her room and ties a rope around her waist so that she cannot be removed. Jane, the woman from behind the yellow wallpaper, creeps about the edges of her prison, a room that she will now use as a fortress. It is significant that Jane waits to reveal her name to readers until after her husband faints in horror at seeing her reduced to a crawling madwoman.

Style and Technique

The most prominent technical and stylistic feature of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is Gilman’s combining of the first-person narrator and present-tense narration. By allowing readers to see only what Jane sees as she sees it, Gilman duplicates as closely as possible the feelings of entrapment, isolation, and unreality that Jane experiences. Jane’s decline into true madness is so gradual and her narrative voice seems so level-headed, even when she describes events that one knows are impossible—such as the creeping women in the garden or the woman struggling to free herself from behind her room’s wallpaper—that one might misread this tale as a ghost story rather than as an account of Jane’s mental deterioration. By making the descriptions of the women, the room, and the malevolent shapes and faces in the wallpaper so immediate and realistic, Gilman tricks the reader into seeing Jane as simultaneously mad and in the grips of some haunting supernatural specters. This ambiguity increases the shock that readers experience when they realize that Jane has been talking in metaphors throughout her narrative, that she has been recounting her own sense of intellectual and emotional oppression, rather than seeing actual women crawling about on the ground in the gardens or moving behind her room’s wallpaper.

Some readers may be content to let their interpretation of "The Yellow Wallpaper" rest with the supernatural; if left here, however, readers will miss the more important point of Gilman’s tale. Gilman forces readers to reconsider Jane’s entire narrative by means of the story’s conclusion, when Jane finally speaks her own name for the first time as she creeps over her husband’s inert body. Little of the story will then make sense unless reexamined. Gilman plants numerous clues throughout the story that express Jane’s interior struggle to be herself and to reclaim her independence: her need to be creative by keeping a journal, or the existence of the woman for whom Jane demolishes the yellow wallpaper to effect her escape. Similarly, the information that Jane offhandedly supplies readers in the story’s early stages—such as descriptions of the bars on her window, the bite marks on the bed that is bolted to the floor, and her increasing lassitude—now can be reinterpreted as describing the true nature of where Jane has been staying: at an asylum. On second reading, "The Yellow Wallpaper" becomes the story of a woman who, while she may have been depressed, was not insane when she began her cure.

Melissa E. Barth

Author Biography

Yellow Wallpaper, The (Women’s Literature)

 

bombbanner.gif (13661 bytes)

The Yellow Wallpaper

 

Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935)

First Published 1892

Locale New England

Time of Plot The late nineteenth century

Type of Plot Social criticism

Type of Work Novella

Principal characters:

THE NARRATOR, an imaginative, creative woman apparently suffering from postpartum depression

JOHN, the narrator’s husband, a physician

JENNIE, John’s sister, who serves as housekeeper

WEIR MITCHELL, the real-life doctor who popularized the "rest cure" prescribed to the narrator (and the author as well)

Form and Content

The structure of The Yellow Wallpaper creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy. The story is written in a journal-style, first-person narrative which includes nine short entries, each entry indicated by a small space between it and the last. The journal entries span three months during which John attempts to cure his wife’s "nervous condition" through the rest cure of Weir Mitchell, which assumes that intellectual stimulation damages a woman physically and psychologically. In the beginning of the story, the narrator appears sane and believable, but as the story continues, the reader realizes that she is unreliable because she withholds and confuses information. By the end, the structure—short paragraphs, fragmented and disjointed thought patterns— reflects the narrator’s mental disorder. Through the revelations contained in the journal, the reader is allowed an intimate view of the narrator’s gradual mental breakdown.

The journal begins when John and the narrator move into a temporary home John has procured to provide the narrator the break from routine that he believes necessary for her rest and recovery. She, on the other hand, doubts the necessity of such a move and wonders if the mysterious house is haunted. John reveals his superior attitude toward his wife by laughing at her "fancies," a response which the narrator finds quite natural because, as she explains, one must expect such treatment in marriage. She even suggests that his indifference to her opinions on the house and her illness keeps her from getting well faster. Her suggestion turns out to be a fateful prediction.

Against her wishes, John decides that he and his wife will sleep in the attic room of the house, which at one point may have been a nursery. Actually, the room seems to be more of a prison than a place for children to play. The windows have bars on them, and the bed is nailed to the floor. There is even a gate at the top of the stairs. Even more disturbing to the narrator, however, is the yellow wallpaper, peeling or pulled off the walls in strips. In the beginning, the paper’s pattern jolts and annoys the narrator’s sensibilities, but later her attitude has a bizarre change.

The narrator’s morbid fascination with the yellow wallpaper is the first clue of her degenerating sanity. She begins to attribute lifelike characteristics to the paper, saying that it knows how it affects her and that its eyes stare at her. She even begins to believe that the paper has two levels, a front pattern and a shadowy figure trapped behind its bars. The narrator betrays the progression of her illness when she begins to believe that the figure behind the wallpaper is a woman, trapped like herself.

The woman behind the wallpaper becomes an obsession. The narrator begins to crawl, like the woman behind the paper, around the edge of the room, making a groove or "smooch" on the wall. The narrator begins to catch glimpses of the woman out the windows, creeping around the garden on her hands and knees. She also starts peeling off the wallpaper in an effort to completely free the woman (or women, as she soon believes) trapped in that second layer. John and his sister, Jennie, begin to suspect that something is terribly wrong, and yet they are pleased with her apparent progress. She appears more normal to them at times because she is saving her energy for nighttime, when the woman behind the paper is most active. Her apparent normality is merely a fašade.

The story’s climactic scene occurs as their stay in the rented house is coming to a close. On their last night, John is once again in town attending to a patient, and the narrator asks Jennie not to disturb her. Left alone, the narrator locks herself in the nursery to allow uninterrupted time for peeling wallpaper and thus freeing the shadowy woman. As the narrator works, she identifies more closely and intensely with the trapped woman until, ultimately, she loses her sense of individual identity and merges with the woman behind the wallpaper. John breaks down the door to find his wife crawling amid the torn paper, proclaiming that she is free at last, and no one can put her back behind the wallpaper. John faints, and his wife continues her creeping over his fallen body.

Analysis

Charlotte Perkins Gilman used her personal bout with postpartum depression to create a powerful fictional narrative which has broad implications for women. When the narrator recognizes that there is more than one trapped, creeping woman, Gilman indicates that the meaning of her story extends beyond an isolated, individual situation. Gilman’s main purpose in writing The Yellow Wallpaper is to condemn not only a specific medical treatment but also the misogynistic principles and resulting sexual politics that make such a treatment possible.

The unequal relationship between the narrator and John is a microcosm of the larger gender inequity in society. Gilman makes it clear that much of John’s condescending and paternal behavior toward his wife has little to do with her illness. He dismisses her well-thought-out opinions and her "flights of fancy" with equal disdain, while he belittles her creative impulses. He speaks of her as he would a child, calling her his "little girl" and saying of her, "Bless her little heart." He overrides her judgments on the best course of treatment for herself as he would on any issue, making her live in a house she does not like, in a room she detests, and in an isolated environment which makes her unhappy and lonely. John’s solicitous "care" shows that he believes the prevailing scientific theories which claim that women’s innate inferiority leaves them, childlike, in a state of infantile dependence.

Gilman makes John the window through which readers can view the negative images of women in her society. In Gilman’s lifetime, women’s right to become full citizens and to vote became one of the primary issues debated in the home, the media, and the political arena. As women’s reform movements gained the strength that would eventually win the vote in 1920, the backlash became more vicious and dangerous. Noted psychologists detailed theories that "proved" women’s developmental immaturity, low cognitive skills, and emotional instability. Physicians, who actually had little knowledge of the inner workings of the female body, presented complex theories arguing that the womb created hysteria and madness, that it was the source of women’s inferiority. Ministers urged women to fulfill their duty to God and their husbands with equal submission and piety. In indicting John’s patronizing treatment of his wife, Gilman indicts the system as a whole, in which many women were trapped behind damaging social definitions of the female.

One can see the negative effects of John’s (and society’s) treatment of the narrator in her response to the rest cure. At first, she tries to fight against the growing lethargy that controls her. She even challenges John’s treatment of her. Yet, while one part of her may believe John wrong, another part that has internalized the negative definitions of womanhood believes that since he is the man, the doctor, and therefore the authority, then he may be right. Because they hold unequal power positions in the relationship and in society, she lacks the courage and self-esteem to assert her will over his even though she knows that his "treatment" is harming her. Deprived of any meaningful activity, purpose, and self-definition, the narrator’s mind becomes confused and, predictably, childlike in its fascination with the shadows in the wallpaper.

In the end, the narrator triumphs over John—she literally crawls over him—but escapes from him only into madness. As a leading feminist lecturer and writer, Gilman found other options than madness to end her confinement in traditional definitions of womanhood. Eventually, Gilman divorced her husband, who married her best friend, and her husband and her best friend reared her child. The public, friends, and family so sharply censured Gilman for her actions that she knew many women would stay in unhealthy situations rather than risk such condemnation. By having the story end with the narrator’s descent into insanity, Gilman laments the reality that few viable options exist for creative, intellectual women to escape the damaging social definitions of womanhood represented by John. In her horrifying depiction of a housewife gone mad, Gilman attempts to warn her readership that denying women full humanity is dangerous to women, family, and society as a whole.

Context

The publication of The Yellow Wallpaper had both immediate and long-term effects on women’s issues. Gilman writes in her essay "Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper" that the story was meant to save women from further suffering under the rest cure, and that her plan was successful. She says that after her former physician, Weir Mitchell, read a copy of the story that she had sent to him, he altered his treatment of women with nervous disorders. Therefore, the novella served an immediate purpose in the real, everyday lives of late nineteenth and early twentieth century women.

Originally viewed as a gothic horror story in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, The Yellow Wallpaper also helped to establish Gilman as an important woman writer in this genre. While few other critics gave it much attention, William Dean Howells praised the novella for its ability to "freeze the blood" and included it in his 1920 collection of The Great Modern American Stories. The novella became well known among such later horror writers as H. P. Lovecraft, who included it in Supernatural Horror in Literature (1945).

It was not until the 1970’s and the advent of feminist scholarship, however, that critics began to explore the social, political, and cultural implications of The Yellow Wallpaper. Since then, feminist scholars have identified the novella as an indictment of a social structure which deters women’s intellectual, psychological, and creative growth in an effort to keep women childlike and submissive. The work is now often included in American literature anthologies and feminist resources as a fine early example of fiction that criticizes social restrictions placed on women.

Feminist scholars have also found that the destructive impact of social definitions of womanhood on women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries illustrated in this novella appear in other women’s fiction of the time. For example, the central protagonist of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) faces similar damaging social definitions of womanhood and, not finding a place for herself among them, commits suicide (not madness, but a similar escape). In another example, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman writes of a woman, "Old Woman Magoun," who allows her beloved granddaughter to die rather than be traded in a card deal; she then goes mad. Gilman was not alone in showing how misogynistic attitudes destroy women.

Sources for Further Study

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. One of the premier critical works on nineteenth century women writers. Includes a discussion of The Yellow Wallpaper linking the pattern in the wallpaper to patriarchal text patterns that women writers had to escape.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper." Forerunner 4 (1913): 271. A one-page article in which Gilman explains that her main reason for writing The Yellow Wallpaper was to save other women from fates similar to her own under the rest cure.

Golden, Catherine. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on "The Yellow Wallpaper." New York: Feminist Press, 1992. This indispensable compilation includes the text of The Yellow Wallpaper with the original illustrations, useful biographical and background information, well-selected critical essays, and a solid introduction.

Kolodny, Annette. "A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts." New Literary History 11, no. 3 (1980): 451-467. In this article, Kolodny argues that Gilman’s contemporaries did not understand the implications of The Yellow Wallpaper because they did not have the context to understand her point.

Meyering, Sheryl L., ed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989. An important collection of critical essays on Gilman and her works, including one by Linda Wagner-Martin focusing on The Yellow Wallpaper.

Amy E. Hudock

Author Biography

Yellow Wallpaper, The (Short Story)

bombbanner.gif (13661 bytes)