Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an important work in the canon of American feminist literature which centres on women’s physical and mental health. Key issues concerning the identity and life of a woman occupy the plot of the story which delineates domestic orientation and patriarchal oppression. Perkins was very conversant about the entire debate on the Suffragette movement and her political stance do reflect in her works. This story is a semi-autobiographical account as the author herself left her child to pursue travelling and writing when she couldn’t cope with her post-partum depression. The narrator, like the author, too seeks an escape from her nervous breakdown which the patriarchal world she resides in opts to reject and pass on as fancy.
Gilman was a 19th-century feminist author who published her world-renowned short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1892 in The New England Magazine.
The Yellow Wallpaper | Summary
The narrator and her husband John occupy an ancestral house for the summer which is quite a rare catch for ordinary people like them. She feels strange about the house which commands her attention as it is available at a cheap rate with no previous inhabitants for quite a long time. However, John dispels such suggestions. The narrator is sick but her physician husband doesn’t believe her which prolongs her sickness. She works out her own way to deal with it. She infers that lack of congeniality is the root cause of her mental disturbance. The narrative further exhibits the house in great detail comprising its setting as apart from the other houses while reminding the narrator of English places. Her nervous condition renders her a high degree of receptivity towards her surroundings which leads her to believe the house to be strange and unnatural.
John as a partner is very caring towards her medication and his aim to restore his wife’s health is the sole reason for their arrival at the house. She resides in the nursery at the top of the house in order to have an access to fresh air all the time. The wallpaper has undecipherable patterns on a “repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow.” The narrator, breaking the flow, reveals about documenting her experience in a diary which her husband dislikes and she drops it for the moment.
Further, after her two-week stay, she grows distasteful toward the nursery and ponders over her husband’s unawareness of her suffering. As a doctor, he looks for a justifiable cause for a condition to persist in a human but the absence of any in his wife’s depressing state ironically satisfies him. The narrator is constantly tired and she is grateful for her help Mary to look after her baby in her time of distress. She is missing out on all wifely and motherly duties that fuel her nervousness.
As she shares about her breakdown and mysterious wallpaper, John hesitates to renovate the house for just a three-month rental which is a sound judgement but his refusal to shift his wife to any other room downstairs is ambiguous. He convinces her about the airy texture of the room is beneficial for her health and the narrator soon begins to like the nursery and the “horrid paper.” The windows allow her fancy to manifest itself and she begins hallucinating people to be walking in the paths and arbours visible from her window, to which John cautions.
The narrator’s keen eyes notice the wallpaper forming an image with facial attributes such as eyes and nose. Since her childhood, the narrator believes in the powerful expression of inanimate objects like doors, chairs and blank walls. The entire room requires repairs which doesn’t bother the narrator as much as the wallpaper. Meanwhile, John’s sister Jennie marks her entry as a perfect housemaker who also despises the narrator’s engagement with writing.
The Fourth of July holiday calls for some company for the narrator who feels it to be an exhausting affair, after their visit. Though she doesn’t perform any task, she experiences tiredness. She cries when she’s alone. The narrator even confesses her fondness for the room because of the wallpaper, contrasting her early opinion. A detailed description of the wallpaper follows. Day by day she feels anxious and has an inability to think straight. The wallpaper begins to define a clear figure as time passes and the narrator wishes to escape the room. John couldn’t comprehend her situation and tried to stick to his opinion which opposes his wife’s. The narrator makes an observation about the paper pertaining to its colour-changing properties as any light approaches it. She even tends to conclude John and Jennie’s awareness of the supernatural attraction of the paper when she catches them staring at the wall on multiple occasions. There is a peculiar odour the paper emits which now encapsulates the entire house. Earlier the same escapes from the narrator’s senses but now it presents itself profoundly.
The narrator also reveals that she sees the woman from the paper creeping out into the streets visible from her window during the broad daylight. On the last day of her stay, the narrator decides to pull the paper as soon as she notices the woman shaking it. She rips off the paper and the room is bare again. On the last night, she locks herself in the room and begins to tear off the remaining paper in order to free the woman she believes to be trapped in the paper but her nervous breakdown influences her to believe herself to be the woman in the paper who is now free and the creeping sight of his wife sends down chills over John’s body and he faints. The story culminates with the narrator crawling over her husband’s body as a symbolic triumph.
The Yellow Wallpaper | Analysis
Gilman’s short story is a narrative narrated in the first person where the woman adopts a reflective and commenting tone throughout. Her implicit sarcastic remark on her husband- “If a physician of high standing and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?” reflects on the passive receptivity women like her are expected to portray in society. Such a patronizing attitude of men towards their women points toward the Victorian gender roles characterizing the 19th century. The commonality of a nervous breakdown in the era raises questions about the absence of a medically fit language and the cause for such a condition. They are just dismissed as hysteria without any further enquiry. This lack of language and hence representation forces the narrator to pen down her own experiences which provide “great relief to…[her] mind.” In this way, the story incorporates elements of Meta narrative as well.
The narrator’s conclusion of a woman trapped in the wallpaper connotes an act of writing herself on both- the diary and the wallpaper. Since reading and writing were gendered practices during her time, Gilman allows her woman protagonist to read the wallpaper in its patterns and write herself all over it. But her observations escape the rational mind of her husband which also mirrors in the end as he collapses at the sight of his wife crawling on the floor. It becomes a symbolic expression of the narrator (a woman) rising over her husband (a man) in order to move ahead in life.
Insanity becomes a medium of protest against the social dictates that refuse women to acknowledge post-partum depression. The battle with one’s own mind becomes the foundation of anxiety and hysteria women like the narrator experience. They do not require medication. Instead, an engagement in activities that excite them would do wonders. But for that, they need to step out of the physical as well as the social confinement. The woman in the wallpaper represents the locked life of the narrator herself. The sudden confinement of women after delivering a child is the primary cause of their breakdown rather than any messing up of their hormones. Since women were considered irrational, any kind of mental sickness was dismissed and rejected.
Throughout the story, the narrator is infantilized in her marriage as Psychiatrists were usually men, so their understanding of women’s bodies came from a patriarchal setup. Thus, a woman could either succumb to the norm or enter the design of lunacy and pass to the other side of the line. Gilman’s woman narrator opts for the latter and achieves her freedom in her madness.
The Yellow Wallpaper | Characters
The Narrator – She is a woman who is suffering from a nervous breakdown post the birth of her son and as per her husband’s advice, lives in an airy room at the top of a rental colonial mansion consisting of a mysterious wallpaper. She is always tired and could not exercise restraint on her emotions. Her seclusion leads her to spend hours staring at the paper which attracts her towards itself. She decodes a pattern despite the lack of structure and towards the end establishes the presence of a woman trapped in the paper who she decides to free by tearing it apart. However, as the story ends, her fancy amalgamates her identity with the imagined one as she considers herself to be the woman trapped in the wallpaper who is now free when she crawls over her unconscious husband.
John – He is the narrator’s husband who is a physician and a practical man refusing to believe in superstitions. As a caring partner, he fulfils all his duties toward his wife and wishes her health to restore well in time. However, his inability to view his wife’s sickness beyond the lens of rationality renders his character a patronizing and condescending texture. His collapse towards the end of the story is an outcome of his extreme thrust on logic and reasoning that paves way for his inability to comprehend his wife’s creeping motion in the room.
Jennie – She is John’s sister who is responsible to manage the house until the narrator recovers.
Mary – She is the domestic help that looks after the narrator’s baby boy.
The Yellow Wallpaper | Themes
Madness – 19th century was the era when Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre entered the literary market and chose to expose the discourse on women and madness. Gilman similarly attempted to carry forward that discussion in her story where her protagonist’s mental breakdown is just deemed as hysteria and not viewed with an emotional or social depth. Hysteria suited the patriarchal discourse and thus physicians which were mostly men at that time dispelled all other possibilities. Thus, women like the narrator, adopted writing to express themselves in order to rebel. John disapproved of her documentation but the narrator secretly continued writing about her experiences as the only gateway to her struggling mind. The irrational chaotic energy she experiences manifests in the pattern of the paper as an outlet for her troubled mind. Though her nervous depression had its moments, evident in her confession “I cry at nothing and cry most of the time,” it cannot be purely attributed to irrationality. The absence of language to explain the condition such women experienced coupled with the lack of female medical practitioners should be considered an important factor that requires immediate attention.
Marriage and Gender – The narrator and her husband John seemed to be a loving couple who cared and wished the best for each other. While the latter took pains to rent a secluded house in order to let his wife have ample rest, the former felt a lack of gratitude for his actions as she knew deep inside her sickness to be an outcome of a cause which was incomprehensible to her husband. John had a paternalistic approach toward his wife and always treated her like a child who needed to be taught and instructed. There was no equality in their relationship when it came to power dynamics. Even at the occupational level, John was occupied in his medical cases outside the house in the town whereas the narrator was mostly confined to the four walls of the nursery.
The confinement compelled the narrator to read the wallpaper in a feminist outlook as she concluded a woman to be trapped in it. Reading and writing were both viewed as patriarchal activities which can be observed in John’s disapproval of his wife’s writing ventures. Also, interestingly, the influence of nature on the narrator could be interpreted in gendered terms as both the entities protect, provide and procreate. Since her husband did not pay enough attention to the right causes of her condition, she had to work her way out and resort to imagination and nature for solace.
The Yellow Wallpaper | Literary Devices
PERSONIFICATION – “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!”
“I remember what a kindly wink the knobs of our big old bureau used to have, and there was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend.”
SIMILE – “The bloated curves… connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase.”
“I have watched her sometimes away off in the open country, creeping as fast as a cloud shadow in a high wind.”
SYMBOLISM – In Western mythology, the moon is a symbol of lunacy and the story’s central theme of madness exhibits itself in the episodes consisting of moonlit nights.