sThe Yellow Wallpaper- A Descriptive Descent Into Madness in the Nineteenth Century
Women in literature have often been portrayed as submissive to men. Literature of the nineteenth century often characterized women as oppressed by society, as well as by the male influences in their lives (Dock 52). Charlotte Perkins Gilmans short story The Yellow Wallpaper presents a descriptive journalistic/clinical account of a womans gradual descent into madness at the hands of her domineering husband (Bak 39).
Gilman once wrote, Womens subordination will only end when women lead the struggle for their own autonomy, thereby freeing man as well as themselves, because man suffers from the distortions that come from dominance, just as women are scarred by the subjugation imposed upon them (qdt. in Gardarowski 2). The Yellow Wallpaper brilliantly illustrates this philosophy. The narrators declining mental health is reflected through the characteristics of the house she is trapped in and her husband, while trying to protect her, is actually destroying her.
The narrator of the story goes with her doctor/husband to stay in a colonial mansion for the summer. The house is supposed to be a place where she can recover from severe postpartum depression. She loves her baby, but because of her depression she is not able to take care of him. It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear boy! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous (Gilman, The Yellow 107).
From the outset, the reader is given a sense of the domineering tendencies from the narrators husband, John (Dock 61). The narrator tells the reader: John is a physician, and perhaps (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster (Gilman, The Yellow 105). It is painfully obvious that she feels trapped and unable to express her fears to her husband:
You see, he does not believe I am sick. And what can one do?
If a physician of high standing and ones own husband assure
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? (105)
Her husband is not the only male figure who dominates and oppresses her. Her brother, also a doctor, says the same thing about her illness (105).
Since the story is written in diary format, the reader feels especially close to the narrator (Dock 53). Gilman uses her dramatic pictorial to connect the reader to the narrators innermost thoughts. The dominance of the narrators husband, and her reaction to it, is reflected throughout the story. The narrator is continually submissive, bowing to her husbands wishes, even though she is unhappy and depressed.
Her husband has adopted the idea that she must have complete rest if she is to recover. This is a direct parallel to Gilmans life. Charlotte Gilman was prescribed this exact therapy by a neurologist named S. Weir Mitchell. By Gilman mentioning Mitchell by name in her short story, she is showing her disgust in his malpractice (Gilman, Why I Wrote 1). She was instructed to live a domestic life, told to only engage in intellectual activities two hours a day, and never to touch a pen, brush, or pencil again as long as she lived (1). In the story, the narrators husband, John, does not want her to work. So I . . . am absolutely forbidden to work until I am well again (Gilman, The Yellow 105).
Then narrator of the story knows that writing and socializing would help her recover faster. But because she allows the male figures in her life to dominate and control her treatment, she does not:
I sometimes fancy that in my condition, if I had less opposition and
more society and stimulus but John says the very worst thing I can
do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me
It is also a direct allusion to Gilmans personal experience that the narrator is experiencing severe postpartum depression. Gilman suffered from the same malady after the birth of her own daughter (Pringle 132).
The symbolism utilized by Gilman is somewhat askew from the conventional. A house usually symbolizes security. In the story the opposite is true. The protagonist, whose name we never truly learn, feels trapped by the walls of the house; just as she is trapped by her mental illness (Gilman, Why I Wrote 1). The windows of her room, which normally would symbolize a sense of freedom, are barred, holding her in (Bak 40).
It is interesting that the room the husband chooses for the narrator, the room she hates, is a nursery (Coffey). The narrator describes the nursery as being atrocious (Gilman, The Yellow 106). The narrators response to the room is a further example of her submissive behavior:
I dont like our room a bit. I wanted one downstairs that opened onto
the piazza and had roses all over the window, and such pretty old
fashioned chintz hangings! But John would not hear of it. (106)
It is clear that the narrators husband loves her very much. He is tender with her and speaks to her in a loving, sometimes child-like manner. However, he obviously does not want anyone knowing the extent of his wifes mental illness, referring to it as a temporary nervous depression a slight hysterical tendency (105). This is also a reflection of the way women and mental illnesses were perceived in the nineteenth century (Kasmer 7). Women were supposed to let the men take care of them, and mental illness was often swept under the carpet. The husband, John, did not want the stigma of mental illness tied to his family (Coffey). He says that no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me (Gilman, The Yellow 110). In reading the story, the readers must remind themselves that society today treats mental illness differently and that the story was written from a nineteenth century perspective.
The narrator continues to repress her own needs and allow her husband to dominate. Seeing the wallpaper in the bedroom, she writes: I never saw a worse paper in my life one of those sprawling, flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin (106). It is also interesting to note that the bed in the room is a great immovable bed which is nailed down (109). This quite possibly is a metaphoric reference to her husbands attitude about her illness.
As the narrator looks out a window, she can see a garden. She describes flowers, paths, and arbors. All that she sees outside is beautiful. Just as Gilman uses the room as a metaphor for her mental illness, she uses the beautiful garden as a metaphor for the mental health the woman craves.
The more time the narrator spends in the room, the more obsessed with the wallpaper she becomes. In her mind, the wallpaper becomes more than just wallpaper. It takes on human characteristics. This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had (107)!
When the story begins, the narrator refers to the house as haunted. This theme is again brought to the forefront when she begins to describe the wallpaper. There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down (107). Gilmans sensory descriptions are intense and detailed. They make the reader a part of the story, increase suspense, and help the readers perception of the particular kind of insanity that afflicts the narrator (Cunningham par. 1). The story not only provides detailed visual images, but vivid olfactory descriptions as well. Such descriptions are:
But there is something else about the paper- the smell! I noticed
it the moment we came into the room, . . . It gets into my hair. . . .
most enduring odor I ever met. . . . The only thing I can think of
that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell. (qdt. in
The combination of Gilmans words, and the short choppy sentence structure, combine to allow the reader to grasp the depths of the narrators insanity.
In addition to the sense of smell, the reader is also captured by the sense of touch. The narrator tells us: The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, Just as if she wanted to get out. I got up softly and went to feel and see if the paper did move and when I came back John was awake (Gilman 110). She further tells us: The front pattern does move and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! (113). It is through these compelling descriptions, utilizing the readers senses, that Gilman is pulling the reader into the narrators world . . . these descriptions nearly perfectly encapsulate what we might all imagine it is like to be insane (Cunningham par. 5). It is as if the haunting images of the wallpaper mirror the haunting feelings inside the narrators mind.
The heroine, unable to openly express her feelings to anyone, begins to see herself through the wallpaper. She imagines a woman trapped behind the wallpaper, just as she is trapped in the room and in her mind (Coffey). The wallpaper, and the barrier it poses to the woman behind it, as imagined by the narrator, mirror the narrators own thoughts about being confined in a room with barred windows. At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern, I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be (Gilman, The Yellow 111). The heroine is also behind bars. I am getting angry . . . but the bars are too strong . . . (115).
The behavior of the woman behind the wallpaper mirrors the narrators behavior. By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour (111). The narrator is also subdued in the daytime. I dont sleep much at night, for it is so interesting to watch developments; but I sleep a good deal during the daytime (112).
Another parallel between the actions of the narrator and the woman behind the wallpaper is reflected when the narrator looks out the window and sees her in that long shaded lane, creeping up and down.. . . creeping around the garden.. . . I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides . . . . I dont blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight (113)! The narrator is expressing her own humiliation in having to sneak around. I always lock the door when I creep by daylight. I cant do it at night, for I know John would suspect something at once (113). Similarly, while her husband is away, the narrator sometimes will walk a little in the garden or down the lovely lane, sit on the porch under the roses, . . . (109).
As the narrator realizes the meaning of the wallpaper, her life begins to change. Life is much more exciting now than it used to be. You see, I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch. I really do eat better, and am more quiet than I was (112). It is apparent that she is still feeling imprisoned by her husband. I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard (115)! However, she has decided to rebel and break free. Ive got out at last, said I, in spite of you and Jane. And Ive pulled off most of the paper so you cant put me back (115)!
Because the story is somewhat autobiographical, Gilman is able to vividly portray a womans descent into madness. She wrote the story to effect change in the treatment of depressive women (Gilman, Why I wrote 2). She once stated It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people for being driven crazy (2). The story brilliantly depicts a woman in the nineteenth century whose opinions and feelings have never been acknowledged or recognized as valid in the real world her voice. The narrator of the story realizes that the woman in the wallpaper is herself, and she is finally able to break free. Perhaps it can all be summed up in this exchange: John is so pleased to see me improve! He laughed a little the other day, and said I seemed to be flourishing in spite of my wallpaper. I turned it off with a laugh. I had not intention of telling him it was because of the wallpaper . . . (Gilman, The Yellow 112).
Bak, John S. Escaping the Jaundiced Eye: Foucauldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins
Gilmans The Yellow Wallpaper. Studies in Short Fiction 31. 1 (Winter 1994):
Coffey, Sandra. Class Lecture. English 102. Vincennes University: Fort Benning, GA.
Cunningham, Iain and Holmes, Douglass. “Sensory Descriptions in The Yellow
Wallpaper.” (1977): 6 pars. 23 Aug. 2000.
Dock, Julie Bates. But One Expects That: Charlotte Perkins Gilmans The Yellow
Wallpaper and the Shifting Light of Scholarship. Publications of the Modern
Language Association of America 111. 1 (Jan. 1996): 52-65.
Gadarowski, Brenda A. The Yellow Wallpaper: How We Perceive the Husband. 2 pp.
23 Aug. 2000. *http://webster.commnet.edu/HP/pages/ connect/brenda.htm*
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. Literature and the Writing Process.
Eds. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X. Day, and Robert Funk. 4th ed. Upper Saddle
River: Prentice Hall, 1996. 105-115.
—-. Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper. The Forerunner (Oct. 1913): 2 pp. 19 Aug.
Kasmer, Lisa. Charlotte Perkins Gilmans The Yellow Wallpaper: A Symptomatic
Reading. Literature and Psychology 36. 3 (1990): 1-15.