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The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper

Charlotte Perkins Gilman 1892

Author Biography

Plot Summary

Characters

Themes

Style

Historical Context

Critical Overview

Criticism

Sources

Further Reading

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” first published in 1892 in the New England Magazine, is largely considered Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s best work of short fiction. The story is a first-person account of a young mother’s mental deterioration and is based on Gilman’s own experiences with postpartum depression. Like Gilman, the unnamed protagonist of the story is advised, based on medical theories of the time, to abstain from any and all physical activity and intellectual stimulation. She is not allowed to read, write, or even see her new baby. To carry out this treatments, the woman’s husband takes her to a country house where she is kept in a former nursery decorated with yellow wallpaper.

Gilman initially had difficulties getting “The Yellow Wallpaper” published. Horace Scudder of The Atlantic refused to print it, stating “I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself!” Eventually, “The Yellow Wallpaper” began to win converts, and American writer William Dean Howells included it in his The Great Modern American Stories: An Anthology in 1920. Early reviewers generally classified “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a horror story, with most commenting on Gilman’s use of Gothic conventions. It was not until Elaine R. Hedges’s afterward to a 1973 edition of the story that “The Yellow Wallpaper” began receiving scholarly attention. Most modern commentators now interpret the story as a feminist indictment of society’s subjugation of women and praise its compelling characterization, complex symbolism, and thematic depth.

Author Biography

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, to Frederick Beecher Perkins, a noted librarian and magazine editor, and his wife, Mary Fritch Perkins. Although Gilman’s father frequently left the family for long periods during her childhood and eventually divorced his wife in 1869, he directed Gilman’s early education, emphasizing study in the sciences and history. During his absences, Perkins left his wife and children with his relatives. This brought Gilman into frequent contact with her independent and reform-minded great-aunts: Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Catherine Beecher, the prominent advocate of “domestic feminism”; and Isabella Beecher Hooker, an ardent suffragist. Their influence—and the example of her mother’s own self-reliance—were instrumental in developing Gilman’s feminist convictions and desire to effect social reform. Early in her life, Gilman displayed the independence she later advocated for women: she insisted on remuneration for her household chores, and later she paid her mother room and board while supporting herself as a teacher and as a commercial artist.

At twenty-four, she married Charles Walter Stetson, who was also an artist. Following the birth of their daughter in 1884, Gilman suffered a severe depression. She consulted the noted neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, who prescribed his “rest-cure”: complete bed rest and limited intellectual activity. Gilman credited this experience with driving her “near the borderline of utter mental ruin.” The rest-cure served as the basis for Gilman’s best known work, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” She removed herself from Mitchell’s care, and later, attributing her emotional problems in part to the confines of marriage, left her husband.

After her separation, Gilman moved to California, where she helped edit feminist publications, assisted in the planning of the California Women’s Congresses of 1894 and 1895, and was instrumental in founding the Women’s Peace Party. She spent several years lecturing in the United States and England on women’s rights and on labor reform, and in 1898 she published Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. In 1900, she married George Houghton Gilman, who was supportive of her intense involvement in social reform. From 1909 through 1916 Gilman published a monthly journal, The Forerunner, for which she wrote nearly all of the copy. In 1935, having learned that she was suffering from inoperable cancer, Gilman took her life. She wrote in a final note that “when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.”

Plot Summary

“The Yellow Wallpaper” opens with the musings of an unnamed woman. She, her husband John, their newborn baby, and her sister-in-law have rented a summer house. The narrator is suffering from postpartum depression, and the summer house will function as a place for her to get better. The doctor has prescribed a rest cure of quiet and solitude, with an emphasis on avoiding any form of mental stimulation like reading or writing. The woman notes that the room in which she is staying seems to be geared more for incarceration than rehabilitation. John classifies her merely as “sick,” thereby exhibiting the prevailing attitude of the day, that mental illness in women was not real. Following the doctor’s strict orders, he forbids his wife from doing any type of work and does not allow her to see her baby. The narrator believes that work, excitement, and change would do her good, but her opinion does not matter. She would like to write, which is forbidden, and surreptiously keeping a diary exhausts her, as does trying to oppose her husband. With very little to do, the woman is left to contemplate the ugly yellow wallpaper in the nursery that is coming off the wall in great patches. She begins to trace the pattern of the wallpaper. The woman’s narration abruptly ends because her husband is coming.

The story continues two weeks later when the narrator is able to write again. Even though she feels it might help relieve some of her tension, she generally gives in to her husband’s desire that she not write. She has been feeling terribly depressed, but John says her case is not serious. He does not think her suffering amounts to anything more than “nervousness.” He laughs at her hatred for the wallpaper, and though she wants him to repaper the room, he refuses to give in to her “fancies.” When the narrator claims to have seen people walking on the path by the house, he cautions her that giving in to her imagination will overexcite her. The woman starts to examine the wallpaper, noticing how the patterns form “eyes” that seem to be staring at her. When the sunlight shines in a certain way, she sees a figure skulking behind the pattern of the wallpaper. Again, the narrator must stop writing, for her sister-in-law, Jennie, is coming up the stairs.

Because the narrator does not seem to be getting better and spends a lot of time crying, John threatens to send her to Weir Mitchell, a doctor who believes even more strongly than himself in rest treatments. The narrator has become fond of the room, perhaps because of the wallpaper. She enjoys lying on her bed, following the patterns in the wallpaper and attempting to trace one of the strands to a conclusion. As she spends all her time in the bedroom, the wallpaper continues to captivate the narrator. She realizes that it knows things about her that no one else does. More alarmingly, the figure she sees in the wallpaper has begun to take shape— that of a woman stooping down and creeping behind the pattern.

One night the narrator tells John that she is getting no better and wants to leave the house, but he refuses, insisting the rest cure will work. She then returns to her examination of the wallpaper. Her diligent attention reveals that there is a front pattern and a back pattern and that at night the front pattern forms bars. The woman in the wallpaper is quiet during the day and more active at night, as is the narrator. The narrator has also grown fearful of John and Jennie, for they seem to be studying the wallpaper as if they want to understand its pattern before she does.

During the last week of their stay, the narrator fakes improved health and spirits when her husband is around but has become completely obsessed with the wallpaper. She constantly notices new facets of the wallpaper: the smell of yellow that creeps through the whole house; a streak along the baseboard encircling the room. She discovers that the woman in the wallpaper shakes the bars of the front pattern as she tries, unsuccessfully, to climb through them. Though she has only two days left in the house, she is determined to get the paper off and thus free the woman inside.

When John is away one evening, she locks the door, throws the keys out the window, and begins peeling the wallpaper. Despite her efforts, however, she cannot remove it all. In her desperation, she considers committing suicide but decides that this

would be “improper and might be misconstrued.” She begins circling the room, following the pattern of the wallpaper, in essence becoming the woman inside, trapped in an endless maze. John breaks open the door to see his wife creeping along the wall and faints. The narrator only laughs. His slumped body is blocking her path, and she is forced to creep over him each time she circles the room.

Characters

Jennie

Jennie is the narrator’s sister-in-law. She helps to take care of the narrator and, more importantly, the narrator’s newborn baby. She is described as “a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper.” She represents the nineteenth-century view of the role of women as housekeepers and child rearers.

John

The husband of the unnamed narrator, John is a doctor who believes in the “rest-cure,” a treatment developed by real-life neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, for women suffering from hysteria. Therefore, he prescribes complete bed rest, not allowing his wife

Media Adaptations

  • A short film adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper” was produced in 1977 by Marie Ashton and is available on videotape through Women Make Movies.
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” was adapted as a television film, produced by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) for its series “Masterpiece Theatre” in 1989. It was adapted by Maggie Wadey and directed by John Clive.
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” appeared as an audio, book in 1997. Read by Win Phillips, it was produced by Durkin Hayes.

to do anything. John in many ways treats his wife like a child, calling her his “blessed little goose” and “little girl.” The character displays the nineteenth-century attitude that women were to behave demurely and remain within the domestic sphere, aspiring only to be competent mothers and charming wives.

Unnamed protagonist

The unnamed narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is married to John, a doctor, and has just recently had a baby. She suffers from depression, or “nervous prostration,” and is confined to a room that used to be a nursery, as a “bed-rest” cure, in a country house that she and her husband are renting for a holiday. While John does not allow her to read, write, or engage in any other type of mental stimulation, she does secretly write in a journal. The story itself is a transcription of these journal entries. Bored and restless, the narrator is driven to distraction by the yellow wallpaper that decorates the room, eventually suffering a complete mental breakdown after imagining that she sees in the wallpaper’s pattern women who are trying to escape. Because the narrator is completely dependent on her husband and is allowed no other role than to be a wife and mother, she represents the secondary status of women during the nineteenth century.

Themes

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is the story of a woman who suffers from depression. Advised by her husband to rest, the woman becomes obsessed by the yellow wallpaper that decorates the room in which she has been confined.

Role of Women

“The Yellow Wallpaper” examines the role of women in nineteenth-century American society, including the relationship between husbands and wives, the economic and social dependence of women on men, and the repression of female individuality and sexuality. The Victorian Age had a profound impact on the social values in the United States. Victorian values stressed that women were to behave demurely and remain within the domestic sphere. Suffering from postpartum depression after the birth of her son, the protagonist is advised to get complete bed rest by her husband and brother, despite her suggestions that she would like to write and read. While she does secretly write in a journal, it is made clear that her husband is to be the final decision-maker and that she has no role other than to be a charming wife and a competent mother. In fact, John often treats her like a child, calling her his “little girl” and his “blessed little goose.” When the narrator has a “real earnest reasonable talk” with John during which she asks him if she can visit some relatives, he does not allow her to go.

Mental Illness

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” because of its first-person description of mental illness, is also considered a work of psychological fiction. In the story Gilman addresses such themes as madness, depression, despair, and self-worth by presenting a realistic and shocking account of the stages of mental breakdown. Because the narrator has nothing to do to occupy herself and because she has no say in her treatment, she comes to project all of her pent up feelings onto the yellow wallpaper in her room. She eventually believes that there is a woman trapped in the wallpaper’s pattern. This trapped figure symbolizes the narrator’s emotional and intellectual confinement. Left with no real means of expression or escape, the narrator represses her anger and frustration and succumbs to insanity. Greg Johnson emphasizes this theme in an essay for Studies in Short Fiction in which he notes that the story “traces the narrator’s gradual identification with her own suppressed rage, figured as a woman grasping the bars of her prison and struggling frantically to get free.”

The story also addresses how physicians, specifically world-famous neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, viewed mental illness in female patients at the end of the nineteenth century. Psychologists frequently dismissed serious illnesses like depression as nothing more than hysteria or a “case of the nerves.” Mitchell and his proteges advised their patients get complete bed rest, believing that intellectual activity was detrimental to women’s mental health. In 1935, Gilman explained the importance of this theme in her autobiography: “The real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways. . . . Many years later, I met someone who said he had told them that he had changed his treatment of nervous prostration since reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ If that is a fact, I have not lived in vain.”

Style

“The Yellow Wallpaper” tells the story of a woman’s mental breakdown. Suffering from depression following the birth of her first child, the woman is taken to the country by her physician husband, where she is kept in a room decorated with yellow wallpaper that used to be a nursery. Instructed by her husband not to engage in any intellectual activity and to get total bed rest, the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper until, at the end of the story, she goes insane.

Setting

“The Yellow Wallpaper” takes place in a country house that is located about three miles from the nearest village. Although the house is large and is surrounded by hedges, a garden, and servants’ quarters, the narrator notes that the house and its grounds have fallen into a slight state of disrepair. At the beginning of the story, the narrator is interested in the surrounding scenery as well as the other rooms in the house. As the story progresses, however, she becomes fixated on the nursery and its yellow wallpaper. The setting has the appearance of tranquility but is actually a place of confinement— there are bars on the windows of the nursery, and the bed is secured to the floor. The isolated location of the house, its slight state of disrepair, and the narrator’s further isolation in the fortress-like nursery, all symbolize the narrator’s mental condition.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research literature on hysteria and other “women’s problems” published at the end of the 1800s and relate them to “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
  • What role does John feel a woman should play in society? How might a contemporary feminist view John? What are the attitudes toward acceptable roles for women today?
  • Read Gilman’s autobiography The Living of Charlotte Perkins (1935) and compare her real-life experience with depression to that of the protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Narration

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is an example of a first-person narrative because it is told exclusively from the viewpoint of the unnamed protagonist, and the reader is given access only to her thoughts and emotions. Since the protagonist is suffering a mental breakdown, she is also considered an unreliable narrator because the reader cannot be certain if she is accurately relating the events of the story. This adds emotional impact to the narrative because the reader is given an intimate account of the protagonist’s growing feelings of despair and confusion.

The story itself is, in part, a transcription of a journal which the narrator secretly writes as she lays in bed. The writing style, and the way it changes as the story progresses, gives the reader clues to the protagonist’s deteriorating mental condition. For example, throughout the story the narrator’s sentences become shorter and more curt, with paragraphs consisting of only one or two sentences. This helps convey her distraught mental state and her inability to think clearly. The overall tone of the narrator’s writing also changes. At the beginning of the story, she writes with humility, stating that while she does not agree with her treatment, her husband John probably knows better than she what is good for her. By the end of the narrative, however, a tone of complaint and rebellion has entered the narrator’s account. When she locks the door of the nursery at the end of the story, for example, she declares: “I don‘t want to go out, and I don‘t want to have anybody come in, until John comes. I want to astonish him.”

Symbolism

The most important symbol in the story is the yellow wallpaper. Most critics have concluded that the wallpaper represents the state of mind of the protagonist. In a more general sense, the wallpaper also symbolizes the way women were viewed in nineteenth-century society. It is described as containing “pointless patterns,” “lame uncertain curves,” and “outrageous angles” that “destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.” Despite the narrator’s detailed description of the wallpaper, however, it remains mysterious. Elaine R. Hedges wrote in the afterword to the 1973 edition of the story that “the paper symbolizes [the narrator’s] situation as seen by the men who control her and hence her situation as seen by herself. How can she define herself?”

Other important symbols in “The Yellow Wallpaper” are the nursery, the barred windows, and the nailed-down bed. The nursery is said to represent nineteenth-century society’s tendency to view women as children, while the barred windows symbolize the emotional, social, and intellectual prison in which women of that era were kept. Finally, the bed is said by some critics to represent repressed female sexuality.

Psychological Realism

The story is considered an example of psychological realism because it attempts to accurately portray the mental deterioration of the narrator. It is also considered realistic in that it depicts life the way it was for women during the nineteenth century. Gilman deliberately tried to make the narrator typical of that time period: she is economically dependent on her husband, she is not allowed to make her own decisions, she is discouraged from engaging in intellectual activity, and she is frequently treated like a child. Gilman also did not romanticize the character of John. While she could have depicted him sympathetically, she instead painted him as controlling, inconsiderate, and emotionally inaccessible.

Gothicism

Gilman utilizes numerous conventions of Gothic fiction in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” including horror, dread, dreams, suspense, and the supernatural. For example, the story takes place on an estate, which has fallen into a state of disrepair, three miles from the nearest village. This sense of isolation is frequently used in Gothic stories to create a foreboding tone. The narrator is also struck with the “strangeness” and “ghostliness” of the place. E. Suzanne Owens argues in Haunting the House of Fiction that “to a reader familiar with the Gothic, the events of the story suggest possession as much as they do hallucination.”

Historical Context

“The Yellow Wallpaper” was written and published in 1892. The last three decades of the nineteenth century comprised a period of growth, development, and expansion for the United States. Following the Civil War, which ended in 1865, the United States entered the era of Reconstruction, which lasted until 1877. There were many social and cultural changes during this period. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1892) expounded his theory of evolution, and further incited controversy over women’s roles and issues. His theory of evolution flouted conventional wisdom, contending that women were actually the hardier and more necessary sex, the one able to preserve the species. Because women were mothers, they were vital to survival. Darwin’s theory was used to promote both sides of what came to be known as the “Woman Question.” Some scientists argued that because women were physiologically hardier, they were capable of being both mothers and professionals. Others contended that Darwin’s theory proved that motherhood was necessary to women and that it should retain a supreme priority in a woman’s life.

Throughout much of the 1800s, the common law doctrine of femme convert was prevalent in the United States. Under this law, wives were property of their husbands and had no direct legal control over their earnings, children, or belongings. Some state laws prohibited women from going into business without their husband’s consent, and some dictated that a husband could decide where the family would live. Other state laws dictated that adultery was not considered sufficient grounds for divorce if committed by a man, but it was if committed by the wife. Women also could not vote; they were not allowed to do so until 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted. In 1875, in Minor v. Happensett, the Supreme Court

Compare & Contrast

  • 1892: Women cannot vote for public officials or hold public office. Occupations other than teaching, nursing, low-level factory labor, or domestic service are closed to them, and a college education is rare.
    Today: Women have achieved a great deal toward true equality with men. Virtually all occupations are now open to women. Many issues remain, however, including equal pay.
  • 1890s: A rash of so called “hysteria” cases occur during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Medical professionals define the malady in terms of femininity and female sexuality, claiming that women are prone to hysteria because of their emotionality and delicate constitutions.
    Today: Hysteria has long been considered an invalid diagnosis of mental illness. Post-partum depression is recognized as a common condition and can be treated in a variety of ways, often with medication.
  • 1890s: Along with Gilman, Kate Chopin, Louisa May Alcott, and Sarah Orne Jewett are some of the few women writers who obtain success and popularity by publishing their stories in women’s magazines.
    Today: Many women writers are being rediscovered and reevaluated, such as Gilman, and have been added to the literary cannon.

ruled that states could withhold the right to vote from women as they did from criminals and the mentally insane. The rise of women’s consciousness regarding such oppression was influenced by their participation in the abolitionist movement prior to and during the Civil War. In 1869, the first organizations devoted to women’s rights were founded. By 1890, such organizations claimed a total of 500,000 members. While there were more women than men in high school by 1890, higher education was not an option for most women, and the only professions open to them were nursing and elementary education.

Gilman, as a leading feminist and social activist during the late nineteenth century, argued that women’s secondary status in society, and especially women’s economic dependence on men, was not the result of biological inferiority but rather of culturally enforced behavior. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which was, in part, a reaction to the oppression of women prevalent during this time, Gilman emphasized these beliefs. In 1926, she stated, regarding her work in general, “One girl reads this, and takes fire! Her life is changed. She becomes a power—a mover of others—I write for her.”

Critical Overview

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” which was first published in the New England Magazine in 1892 after being rejected by the editor of The Atlantic, did not receive much serious attention until American writer and critic William Dean Howells published it in his The Great Modern American Stories in 1920. In that volume he wrote: “Now that I have it in my collection, I shiver over it as much as I did when I first read it in manuscript, though I agree with the editor of The Atlantic of the time that it was too terribly good to be printed.” It was not until 1973, when it was republished after being out of print for years, that the first lengthy analysis of the story was written by Elaine R. Hedges. Writing in the afterword to the volume, she stated that “The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a small literary masterpiece” and a work that “does deserve the widest possible audience.”

Since then, “The Yellow Wallpaper” has received widespread critical attention. Contemporary scholars have interpreted the story in numerous ways, with feminist readings being the most common. Reviewers focus on the relationship between the narrator and her husband John, maintaining that John’s treatment of his wife represents the power-lessness and repression of women during the late nineteenth-century. Hedges concluded that the story is “one of the rare pieces of literature we have by a nineteenth-century woman which directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship.”

Critics have also commented on the story’s focus on psychology and its influence as an example of both psychological realism and Gothic fiction. It is often considered one of the most detailed and emotionally charged accounts of depression and despair in short fiction because it is told from the vantage point of the person actually suffering a nervous breakdown. Furthermore, Gilman does not romanticize or downplay the realities of mental suffering. In addition to being discussed as feminist literature and as an example of psychological realism, “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been lauded as a preeminent piece of Gothic fiction because of its incorporation of such Gothic literary elements as horror, suspense, and the supernatural.

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” like Gilman’s other short stories, has been faulted by some critics who claim the story is nothing more than a vehicle through which she explicated her feminist social beliefs. In fact, Gilman once stated that she wrote the story “to preach. If it is literature, that just happened.” However, most critics have acknowledged that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is realistic, accessible, and thought-provoking and have called it Gilman’s best work of fiction.

Criticism

Rena Korb

Rena Korb is a writer and editor. In the following essay, Korb discusses “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a story of female confinement and escape.

In 1913, more than twenty years after the first publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote that she devised the story, “to save people from being driven crazy.” Gilman had suffered a near mental breakdown herself, and had been prescribed a rest treatment very similar to that prescribed to the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” For Gilman, the act of resuming her normal life, which certainly included writing, was what restored her health. Though we don‘t know what became of Gilman’s narrator, we can chronicle Gilman’s own life after her near mental breakdown. If Gilman’s narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” regressed into her insanity, Gilman certainly did not; unlike the narrator she created, she made her voice heard. She pursued her career as a writer and lecturer, and she wrote works of theory and social commentary that brought her international fame. Though she concentrated on feminist issues, her influence reached beyond the woman’s sphere. She has been compared by some critics to the author George Bernard Shaw and the art critic John Ruskin, and the London Chronicle compared her book, Women and Economics, to the writings of John Stuart Mill.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” commands attention not only for the harrowing journey into madness it portrays, but also for its realism. It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that the “The Yellow Wallpaper” is autobiographical. In 1887, Charlotte Perkins Gilman placed herself under the care of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a well-known nerve specialist. She was suffering from depression, “nervous prostration” as diagnosed by the doctor, after the birth of her daughter. At that time, the medical profession had not yet distinguished between diseases of the mind and diseases of the brain; problems that would now be treated by psychiatrists, such as depression, were treated by neurologists such as Mitchell. The symptoms of depression—fatigue, hysteria, crying fits—were thought to stem from the body, and thus were treated through care of the body. Mitchell’s treatment for breakdowns of the nervous system, and the treatment he prescribed for Gilman, included total bed rest and isolating the patient from family and familiar surroundings. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman demonstrates the horror that such a treatment could induce in its subject. When the narrator is threatened by her husband with being sent to Weir Mitchell if she does not get better quickly, she says: “But I don‘t want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!”

Gilman was sent home from Mitchell’s sanitarium after one month, having been pronounced “cured,” with the following instructions: “Live as domestic a life as possible. . . . Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” When Gilman heeded

What Do I Read Next?

  • The short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe is told from the perspective of an insane man who murders an old man and buries the dismembered body beneath the floor boards of the room in which he lives.
  • In her nonfiction work Women and Economics (1898), Gilman argues that men and women are more similar than different and that women should have all of the social and economic freedoms of men, including the right to work.
  • In The Treatment of Certain Forms of Neurasthenia and Hysteria (1887), doctor S. Weir Mitchell explains his treatment of nervous prostration in women. He advocates a “rest-cure,” or complete bed rest, believing that intellectual, literary, and artistic pursuits are destructive to women’s mental health.
  • The short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” (1932) by American writer Conrad Aiken explores the hallucinations of a sensitive youngster named Paul Haslemann.
  • The Madwomen in the Attic (1979) by Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert examines the ways nineteenth-century women writers, including Gilman and Charlotte Bronte, expressed forbidden emotions in their works.
  • The Awakening (1899) is a novel by American writer Kate Chopin. It is the story of a conventional wife and mother who, after engaging in an extramarital affair, commits suicide when she realizes she cannot reconcile her actions with the moral restrictions of society.

this advice she came, in her own words, “perilously close to losing my mind.” Mitchell’s “rest cure” had been used on other literary figures—Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf— and other noted persons—Jane Addams and Winifred Howells, whose father, the editor William Dean Howells, was instrumental in the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Woolf, Addams, and Howells, like Gilman, protested against the treatment (Woolf also attacked it in her novel Mrs. Dalloway). In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman chronicles what happens to a woman forced to succumb to the “rest cure” and thus, to her inflexible position in society as a prisoner of the domestic sphere.

Gilman claimed a purpose for everything she wrote. “The Yellow Wallpaper” pointed out the dangers of the medical treatment imposed by Mitchell and other doctors like him. Years later, Gilman learned that Mitchell had changed his treatment of nervous prostration after reading the story, so she won her victory. Yet, the story is far more than just a crying out for improvement in one facet of a woman’s life; it touches on many issues relevant to women of the nineteenth century, particularly that of the limited roles available to them.

Despite Gilman’s avowal that her story was not literature, it has been appreciated as such since its rediscovery in the 1960s (Gilman’s works had been out of print since the 1930s). And just as “The Yellow Wallpaper” espoused Gilman’s feminist views when she wrote it, critics have analyzed it as a feminist work—or a work that has feminist issues as its main concerns—for the past two decades. As is often the case, the critics disagree. The story has been seen as a realistic tale in its portrayal of the narrator’s descent into madness, as a feminist Gothic tale in its use of abnormal behavior and occurrences, and as one of the earliest modernist texts for its unaware narrator and its intense focus on what she is thinking and feeling. Readers and critics alike have even disagreed over the meaning of the story’s ending. Some critics see the narrator’s defeat: she has retreated into the world of childishness. Others, such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, see in it the narrator’s triumph: by fainting, John shows he is

“The Yellow Wallpaper’ is far more than just a crying out for improvement in one facet of a woman’s life; it touches on many issues relevant to women of the nineteenth century, particularly that of the limited roles available to them.”

defeated, and the narrator has become the woman behind the wallpaper, who can creep down the road, away from the house and her husband’s authority. Even attempts to understand why the story was ignored for so long have led to dissent. Some critics argue that Gilman’s contemporaries could not understand this story of a woman’s mental breakdown because they were accustomed to “traditional” literature. Still others believe that women could accurately read the story, but they chose not to because they were afraid of what they would find.

What then are we to make of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”? Essentially, it is a story of female confinement and escape. Gilman’s narrator is trapped in the home, in her maternal body, and in the text she has created for herself, which is the only escape she can find.

That Gilman’s narrator is physically and spiritually trapped by her husband is apparent from the beginning of the story. Though she “wanted [a room] downstairs that opened on the piazza. . . John would not hear of it.” The narrator strives for some space of her own; the room she would have chosen would not fit two beds and had no other bedroom for John nearby. Instead, John has put his wife on the top floor, away from the rest of the household (their baby, the nurse, and John’s sister) in a room she believes to have been a “nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium.” Though she recognizes her captivity—John “hardly lets me stir without special direction” —she overlooks other more ominous signs of her confinement: the bars at the window, the gate at the top of the stairs, steel rings on the wall, and the nailed-down bedstead.

This habit of the narrator of deliberately misreading her surroundings is apparent throughout the story. For instance, when John refuses to give in to her fancies about changing the wallpaper because, after that “it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on,” is he reminding her of her confinement? Does she recognize this subtle way of controlling her? Rather than confronting such a possibility she instead, outwardly, relies on John’s advice. “I think sometimes if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me,” she muses, which she then follows with a reiteration of what John wants her to think—“But I find I get pretty tired when I try.” Such is her effort to believe in him and thus preserve her sanity (sanity as defined by John), because she knows she has not the will to resist him: “But what is one to do?” she says. In fact, she does something John doesn‘t approve of—she writes in a journal, thereby creating her own text. Unfortunately, because the text is her only place of true self-expression, it becomes as oppressive as the room, as oppressive as her husband.

Gilman’s narrator is so cruelly trapped both by the conventions of nineteenth-century American society, which says that a woman’s function is to bear and raise children, and by her husband’s inflexible belief in this code. John has attempted to take away one of the few things that bring her consistent pleasure, her writing, “He hates to have me write a word,” she says, and notes his determination to correct her “imaginative power and habit of story-making.” Unfortunately, for Gilman’s narrator, these sentiments are shared by others in society. John’s sister, a woman who occupies her proper place in the domestic sphere by being “so good with the baby” and a “perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper,” seems to believe “it is the writing which made [the narrator] sick!”

Because the narrator has no physical or spiritual escape from her husband, she must seek relief elsewhere: in the yellow wallpaper, and thus, in the text she creates as she describes her relationship with the wallpaper. Though at first she says of it, “I never saw a worse paper in my life,” as she loses her slim hold on sanity, she gets “really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper.” Her initial discomfort decreases as she sees mirrored in the wallpaper her own existence. She realizes that the wallpaper has two patterns; the front pattern is made of bars, and in the back pattern is a woman “stooping down and creeping about,” and later shaking the bars. And the woman in the wallpaper continues to reflect the narrator: “she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through the pattern—it strangles so.” By the end of the story, the narrator finds escape when she becomes the wallpaper woman as she “creep[s] smoothly on the floor.” With this final action she escapes those places of her confinement. Her husband, the force that keeps her in the home, has become an inanimate object, one that only gets in the way of her “path by the wall, so that [she] had to creep over him.” She releases herself from her maternal role as she occupies the role of a “madwoman.” And, by refusing to write it anymore, she has freed herself from the text that chronicles her mental breakdown.

Virginia Woolf, in her important essay A Room of One’s Own, says that in order to write a woman must have money and her own private room. Perhaps implicit in Woolf’s words is that women also need to be accepted for what they are: creative, independent, thinking creatures. For Gilman’s narrator, having money, a private room, and the necessary leisure time certainly was not enough to sustain her as a writer and as a person; she was lacking that other essential element: a family who believed in a woman’s right to creativity and self-expression.

Source: Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.

Greg Johnson

Johnson is an American critic, short fiction writer, and novelist. In the following essay, Johnson argues that the narrator’s breakdown in “The Yellow Wallpaper” can be viewed as the result of many years of suppressed rage.

In the autumn of 1830, shortly before Emily Dickinson’s birth, her mother made an unusual request. At a time when her pregnancy—or as it was then called, her “confinement” —might have been expected to absorb her attention, Mrs. Dickinson abruptly demanded new wallpaper for her bedroom. Apparently dismayed by this outburst of feminine whimsy, her stern-tempered husband refused, prompting Mrs. Dickinson to her only recorded act of wifely defiance. Though “the Hon. Edward Dickinson would not allow her to have it done,” a neighbor’s descendant recalled, “she went secretly to the paper hanger and asked him to come and paper her bedroom. This he did, while Emily was being born.”

To place this incident in context, we should be note that Mrs. Dickinson, aged twenty-six, had just moved into her father-in-law’s Amherst mansion and now faced the grim prospect of living with her husband’s unpredictable relatives, along with the even grimmer perils of early nineteenth-century childbirth. Although Mrs. Dickinson was by most accounts a submissive, self-abnegating, rather neurasthenic woman—in short, the nineteenth-century ideal—it is tempting to read the wallpaper incident as a desperate gesture of autonomy and self-assertion. Emily Dickinson’s most recent biographer, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, suggests that “The little explosion of defiance signaled fear and distress, and it was the prelude to unhappy, silent acceptance.”

Though the color of Mrs. Dickinson’s wallpaper went unrecorded, the anecdote forms a striking parallel to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” first published in 1892 but, like Emily Dickinson’s work, under-appreciated until decades after her death. Both the domestic incident and the terrifying short story suggest the familiar Gothic themes of confinement and rebellion, forbidden desire and “irrational” fear. Both include such Gothic staples as the distraught heroine, the forbidding mansion, and the powerfully repressive male antagonist. If we focus on the issue of the Gothic world and its release of imaginative power, however, the stories form a dramatic contrast. A woman of ordinary abilities, the unimaginative Mrs. Dickinson would later represent the nadir of female selfhood to her brilliant, rebellious daughter. “Mother does not care for thought,” the poet remarked dryly in 1862; and by 1870, she could issue this blunt dismissal: “I never had a mother.” But Dickinson surely would have admired the unnamed heroine of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who willingly accepts madness over repression, refusing a life of “unhappy, silent acceptance.” The poet would have especially responded to the woman’s identity as a writer, and to the way in which her story adroitly and at times parodically employs Gothic conventions to present an allegory of literary imagination unbinding the social, domestic, and psychological confinements of a nineteenth-century woman writer.

Rather than simply labeling the narrator a madwoman at the story’s close, we might view her behavior as an expression of long-suppressed rage: a rage which causes a temporary breakdown (like those actually suffered by both Dickinson and Gilman) but which represents a prelude to psychic regeneration and artistic redemption. This reading accounts for two elements of the story usually ignored: its emphasis upon the narrator as a writer, who is keeping a journal and putting forth her own text—“The Yellow Wallpaper”— as an antithetical triumph over the actual wallpaper that had nearly been her undoing; and its brittle, macabre, relentlessly satiric humor that suggests, in the story’s earlier sections, her barely suppressed and steadily mounting anger. As in many of Poe’s tales, this seemingly incongruous humor serves only to accentuate the Gothic terror of the narrator’s situation. . . .

The narrative focus of “The Yellow Wallpaper” moves relentlessly inward, detailing the narrator’s gradual absorption into the Gothic world of psychic chaos and imaginative freedom; but Gilman controls her heroine’s deepening subjectivity through repetition, irony, parodic humor, and allegorical patterns of imagery. The two worlds of the story— the narrator’s husband and sister-in-law’s daylight world of masculine order and domestic routine, and her own subjective sphere of deepening imaginative insight—are kept clearly focused and distinct. Most important, Gilman reminds the reader frequently that her narrator is a habitual writer for whom “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a kind of diary, an accurate record of her turbulent inward journey. Drawing on Gilman’s experience of post-partum depression and breakdown, the story is far more than an indictment of nineteenth-century attitudes toward women and an account of one woman’s incipient psychosis. Gilman made her heroine a writer for purposes of art, not autobiography, and the story as a whole describes a woman attempting to save herself through her own writing, to transform what she calls “dead paper” into a vibrant Gothic world of creative dreamwork and self-revelation.

Two of the story’s major structural devices are its contrasting of the husband’s daylight world and his wife’s nocturnal fantasy, and the religious imagery by which she highlights the liberating and redemptive qualities of her experience. When the story opens, she acknowledges that the idea of their rented summer house as a Gothic setting is laughable, a romantic fancy of the kind her husband wishes to repress. The allegorical opposition is quickly established: her husband (named John, suggesting a male prototype) is a “physician of high standing,” a figure of dominance in every sense— social, domestic, intellectual, physical. He is a thoroughgoing empiricist who “scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.” Throughout the story John, along with his like-named sister and housekeeper Jane, is associated with the rigidly hierarchical and imaginatively sterile daylight world that ridicules Gothic “fancies” and represses in particular the “hysterical tendency” of women. Before the story opens, the narrator had abandoned her own social responsibility of motherhood, and the object of this summer retreat is a “rest cure” (of the kind made popular by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the famous Philadelphia neurologist who treated Gilman during her own depression, and against whom the story enacts a brilliant literary revenge). That her husband exerts his tyrannical control in the guise of protectiveness makes the narrator feel all the more stifled and precludes outright defiance. As she remarks sarcastically in the opening section, “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.”

It is the daylight consciousness of late-Victorian America, of course, which has designed the flamboyantly hideous yellow wallpaper that the narrator initially finds so repulsive. Even John wants to repaper the room, but after his wife complains about the wallpaper, he benevolently changes his mind, since “nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies.” Associating her nervous illness with her “imaginative power and habit of story-making,” he forces his wife into daily confinement by four walls whose paper, described as ‘debased Romanesque’, is an omnipresent figuring of the artistic degeneration and psychic chaos she fears. It is here that John makes a significant error, however, as he underestimates the very imaginative power he is seeking to repress. By placing his distraught wife in a nursery, he is merely following the nineteenth-century equation of non-maternal women—that is, spinsters and “hysterics”—with helpless children. Yet he is unthinkingly allowing her the free play of imagination and abdication of social responsibility also characteristic of children. Thus as the story progresses, the narrator follows both her childlike promptings and her artistic faith in creating a Gothic alternative to the stifling daylight world of her husband and the society at large.

The story’s terrific suspense derives from the narrator’s increasingly uncertain fate and from the considerable obstacles blocking her path from one world to the other, not the least of which is her own self-doubt and debilitating psychic exhaustion. Near the end of the next section, she glimpses a subpattern in the wallpaper, which can be seen only “in certain lights, and not clearly then”; beneath the “silly and conspicuous front design” is a figure she describes as “strange, provoking, formless.” These three adjectives suggest a notably ambivalent attitude toward her own inchoate, slowly emerging selfhood; but significantly, she notes that she is viewing the pattern by sunlight. Near the end of the next section, at sunset, she can “almost fancy” a coherent design in the wallpaper. Yet immediately after using her husband’s forbidden word, she feels an emotional and psychological depletion that is emphasized by a series of brief, depressed paragraphs:

It makes me tired to follow [the pattern]. I will take a nap, I guess. I don‘t know why I should write this. I don‘t want to. I don‘t feel able. And I know John would think it absurd. But I must say what I feel and think in some way—it is such a relief! But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief.

This passage describes the narrator’s spiritual nadir, and may be said to represent her transition from conscious struggle against the daylight world to her immersion in the nocturnal world of the unconscious—or, in other terms, from idle fancy to empowering imagination. The nature of Gilman’s allegory becomes especially clear when, for the first time, the narrator watches the wallpaper by moonlight and reports with childlike glee: “There are things in the paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.” Yet the transition is incomplete and puzzling. While John sleeps, she lies awake “trying to decide whether that front pattern and the back pattern really did move together or separately,” noting that “by daylight” the pattern is a constant irritant to a “normal mind.” Then comes the moment of terrified but thrilling revelation:

By moonlight—the moon shines in all night when there is a moon— I wouldn‘t know it was the same paper. 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. . . .

As we witness the narrator in the final scene, creeping along the floor, we might recall once again that her bedroom is actually a nursery. The fact that she is crawling on all fours—as opposed to lying still and docile under her husband’s “rest cure”— suggests not only temporary derangement but also a frantic, insistent growth into a new stage of being. From the helpless infant, supine on her immovable bed, she has become a crawling, “creeping” child, insistent upon her own needs and explorations. (The parallel with Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, who likewise crawls on all fours and exhibits similar

“That her husband exerts his tyrannical control in the guise of protectiveness makes the narrator feel all the more stifled and precludes outright defiance. As she remarks sarcastically in the opening section, ‘He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction,’”

destructiveness, is surely deliberate.) To the daylight world, of course, this transition is terrifying; poor John, in Gilman’s witty inversion of a conventional heroine’s confrontation with Gothic terror, faints dead away. Seizing rather than surrendering to power, the narrator is thus left alone, the mad heroine of her own appalling text.

Although Gilman’s Gothic allegory so powerfully demonstrates that writing is her only salvation, the poignant facts of her own biography point to her internalization of the restrictions enforced by John in her story and by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell in her life. A compulsive writer who produced scores of volumes and earned a worldwide reputation as an eloquent advocate of women’s rights, Gilman discredited the value of her imaginative writing throughout her career; she wrote to William Dean Howells, who asked to reprint “The Yellow Wallpaper” in a collection of American masterpieces, that the story was “no more ‘literature’ than my other stuff, being definitely written ‘with a purpose’” —that purpose being to demonstrate to Dr. Mitchell the cruelty and inefficacy of the restcure. (She sent him a copy of the story upon publication, but received no response.) Patricia Meyer Spacks, in an incisive discussion of Gilman’s curiously impersonal autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, notes that although Gilman’s breakdown led her to abandon marriage and motherhood, become a professional writer, and devote herself to social causes, this self-determination was limited strictly by her continuing need to be “good” and necessarily precluded the acknowledged use of her own imaginative power.

Thus Gilman’s life story became, as Spacks asserts, “a paradigm of feminine anger,” what Gilman herself called “a lifetime of limitation and wretchedness.” Denied the artistic redemption that Emily Dickinson had achieved by renouncing the world, as well as the conventional satisfactions of nineteenth-century housewifery and motherhood, Gilman uneasily compensated for her denial of creative selfhood with the fulfillment of useful work. Committing suicide not because her inoperable cancer caused her pain but because she felt her “usefulness was over” —the phrase comes from her suicide note, a poignant last text of self-effacement—Gilman stayed true to her own daylight world of feminism, social commitment, and constant hard work. Still under-read, still haunting the margins of the American literary canon, Gilman and the full scope of her achievement await their due recognition. Reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” we can only guess at the furious effort, and the constant bargaining with her own demons, by which that achievement came into being.

Source: Greg Johnson, “Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 521-30.

Linda Wagner-Martin

In the following essay, Wagner-Martin, a noted feminist scholar and frequent essayist on women writers, takes the one-hundredth anniversary of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as an opportunity to comment on the schism in women’s lives caused by their sometimes conflicting roles of being both an individual and a mother.

It seems no accident that important recent novels have been Toni Morrison’s Beloved, about the power of a sacrificed child over her mourning mother’s life, and Marilyn French’s Her Mother’s Daughter, a major fiction about four generations of women, linked together in their martyred and futile lives through the mother-daughter bond. For at least these hundred years, since Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote her controversial and relentlessly accurate “The Yellow Wallpaper,” women writers have confronted the basic conflicts of women’s lives: how to be both a person and a wife and mother; how to live with acceptable passivity in a patriarchal culture while yet being aggressive enough to stay alive; and how to be both “good” and sensual, supportive and necessarily selfish, and, above all, sane.

Of these many conflicts inherent in women’s trying to lead acceptable female lives, perhaps the most troublesome is that of motherhood, its attendant responsibilities, and its almost inevitable loss of self-identity. Women who care for infants are almost literally used up in the process, the twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance subsuming their own mental and physical activities. No other human situation demands the same level of inexorable attention. Yet of the many controversies about women’s roles, that of motherhood—and, as Dorothy Dinnerstein emphasized, the care-giving during childhood as much as the actual birthing—has seldom been discussed. It is almost as if the role of mother is beyond discussion, beyond change: if one is a mother, one accepts its burdens with its joys, and does not in any way try to tailor its numerous givens. . . .

When Gilman wrote the short novella, she— married and a mother—had recently recovered from the trauma of a severe postpartum depression. And she had managed that recovery by defying the advice of one of the most respected of American physicians, S. Weir Mitchell. Mitchell was the physician of Jane Addams, Edith Wharton, and Winifred Howells, among other women who suffered from inexplicable Victorian “female” ailments such as hysteria and neurasthenia. Mitchell’s treatment was a rest cure which depended upon seclusion, massage, electricity, immobility, and overfeeding. Isolated for up to six weeks, some women gained as much as fifty pounds on a milk-based diet. As a parallel to the rest and diet, most patients were forbidden to use their minds in any way. Gilman recalled in her autobiography that, because her “cure” added the almost constant presence of her infant daughter, Katharine, she “made a rag baby, hung it on a doorknob and played with it. I would crawl into remote closets and under beds—to hide from the grinding pressure of that profound distress.“. . .

Gilman’s autobiography makes clear her years of poverty and debt, her loneliness, and her arduous life. No wonder “The Yellow Wallpaper” portrays a spent woman so accurately. But it is not so much the truth of Gilman’s presentation as the immediacy of her theme that attracts today’s readers. “The Yellow Wallpaper” gives us the young married woman as mother.

In the narrative, the protagonist’s baby appears infrequently, but at crucial times; his existence is clearly a key to his mother’s problems. Gilman underscores the identity of the protagonist as wife-mother (a bewildered wife-mother, who sometimes becomes a child) by placing her in a room that was formerly a nursery—a nursery, however, with barred windows so that she cannot escape. The conflation of the roles of child and mother occurs as the narrator keeps her focus entirely on the enclosing walls of the sinister room. An infant would not be able to leave its nursery; neither is the mother (though Gilman makes clear that the protagonist does sometimes leave the house and walks in the garden or sits downstairs). For the purposes of our involvement with this narrative, however, the story’s location is the nursery. And just as an infant would spend hours staring at walls and ceilings, kept in one place at the mercy of whatever authority was responsible for its care, so too does the protagonist. An infant would also have difficulty finding language to express its feelings. With a brilliance rare in nineteenth-century fiction, Gilman gives her suffering protagonist a restricted language that conveys her childlike frustration, even though it is not obviously childlike. For its effect, the protagonist’s language works in tandem with the narrative’s structure. . . .

Gilman’s protagonist may have found a more compatible world in her fantasy, but she still worries about her role as wife and mother. As the narrative ends—with her life as much in her own control as it has ever been—she is worried about wandering in this labyrinth, about physically losing her way. She is never to be the self-reliant, capable helpmeet of John’s dreams.

And that is one of Gilman’s points, that a woman reared to be a child, treated like a child by her husband (and, one supposes, a father) will respond in kind. No woman expects to be literally put to bed, or removed from all responsibility. Gilman’s prose tells of the greatest indignity: the mother of the child becomes the child, the “little girl” of the household (though the mention of the double bed and the husband’s presence at night suggests that a sexual role still dominates the relationship). And what is the role of the young daughter in a patriarchal household? To be Daddy’s favorite. This is the anger that Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy” bares—the rage that, once having been brought up to trust the father figure, in whatever guise it appears, then being abandoned by it, being misled by it, being misused by it is insufferable.

“For at least these hundred years, since Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote her controversial and relentlessly accurate ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ women writers have confronted the basic conflicts of women’s lives: how to be both a person and a wife and mother; how to live with acceptable passivity in a patriarchal culture while yet being aggressive enough to stay alive; and how to be both ‘good’ and sensual, supportive and necessarily selfish, and, above all, sane.”

Gilman’s young unnamed wife thus shares in two kinds of anger: that at having her rightful responsibilities taken from her, and that at being misled and miscounseled by the father figures (husband as well as brother) in her life.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” shows what a frustrated woman does with anger. Repression cannot be healthful, and as the protagonist grows more and more quiet, she is becoming more and more mad. Her world has become the world of seething self-enclosure, sparked only by bright, jolting colors and the miasma of rotting odor. In the 1880s, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg points out, a woman would probably have repressed her anger instead of showing it. If she had showed it, she might have been thought insane and institutionalized, a process which would probably have led only to deeper insanity. The ideal female would become the peaceful “good” girl, who does not cause trouble, does not want attention or help, but is content to wreak havoc in her own way—usually a silent, surreptitious, and vicious way. Gilman’s protagonist does just that. The defiance she comes to feel has finally been shed in favor of outright rebellion, yet what would have been more obvious rebellion (harming the baby or John, running away, destroying things important to the household instead of just the horrible wallpaper) does not occur. Instead, the well-behaved woman protagonist (the “good” girl even in her madness) stays within the room, although she has a house key and could easily leave, joining the imaginary women who creep through the wallpaper. (The whole tribe of rebelling women are moving as if they were infants just learning to crawl.) The pathos of the characteristically docile protagonist finally coming to rage, and action, but venting her anger in such a tentative and hidden way underscores Gilman’s irony. Even coming to anger does not mean change or improvement. It certainly does not mean victory for the protagonist of this novella. Her escape into madness may have won her continuing argument with John, though he will not recognize that it has done that, but it is only a Pyrrhic victory because her present life is valueless to anyone, particularly to herself.

The larger question, once the literary merits of Gilman’s text have been proved, is what significance does this trapped protagonist have for today’s readers? What does it mean to write about a woman caught within these circles of male authority (and cultural reification of that authority), trapped within a sickening room and made, in effect, to lose her mind because of the disgust she feels for not only her culture and the roles it mandates for women, but for herself as a sexual, procreative woman? What is the mode of literature that results from such deep anger, such unrelieved depression, that the text itself is unrelieved, pointed inevitably toward an ending that only repeats—relentlessly—the text’s theme?

In Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” subtext becomes text, repressed discourse becomes visible. Gilman explained that in writing this novella, she had not intended “to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy.” Her didactic purpose, her intentional theme, was in some ways subverted by her own artistry. Unlike many of her shorter stories, “The Yellow Wallpaper” convinces less by its explicit content than by its metaphoric impression. As captured by the confines of the attic room as the protagonist is, the reader plots and charts, reads and worries as the story progresses. It is the Modernists’ ideal of involving the reader to the fullest possible extent. In current narratological terms, according to Fetterley, the movement of the end of the story is precise and highly directional; the reader goes where Gilman takes him or her. “Increasingly, her behavior becomes flamboyant and outrageous. Getting out through the text of the wallpaper, she not surprisingly gets in to the subtext within the text that presents the story of a woman trying to get out.” She wins back her language, and vanquishes her husband—who has neither speech nor action by the end of the story. He lies as if dead in the path of her highly functional movement, and she simply crawls over him. The wallpaper has replaced the writing paper that he would have taken from her, and she has in some ways won back her right to speech and control.

Source: Linda Wagner-Martin, “Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Centenary,” in Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Woman and Her Work, edited by Sheryl L. Meyering, UMI Research Press, 1989, pp. 51-64.

Sources

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship,” in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, 1979, pp. 45-92.

Hedges, Elaine R. An afterword to The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Feminist Press, 1973, pp. 37-63.

Howells, William Dean. “A Reminiscent Introduction,” in The Great Modern American Stories: An Anthology, Boni and Liveright, 1920, pp. vii-xiv.

Owens, E. Suzanne. “The Ghostly Double behind the Wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’,” in Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women, University of Tennessee Press, 1991, pp. 64-79.

Further Reading

Golden, Catherine. “‘Overwriting’ the Rest Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Literary Escape from S. Weir Mitchell’s Fictionalization of Women,” in Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Joanne B. Karpinski, G. K. Hall, 1992, pp. 144-58.

Golden examines the relationships between Mitchell’s rest cure, Gilman’s fiction and nineteenth-century women.

Hedges, Elaine R. “Out at Last?: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ after Two Decades of Feminist Criticism,” in Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Joanne B. Karpinski, G. K. Hall, 1992, pp. 222-33.

Hedges provides an overview of feminist criticism of “The Yellow Wallpaper” since the story’s rediscovery in the 1970s.

Jacobus, Mary. “An Unnecessary Maze of Sign-Readings,” in Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism, Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 229-48.

Jacobus discusses the validity of Freudian and feminist readings of the story.

Karpinski, Joanne B. An introduction to Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Joanne B. Karpinski, G. K. Hall & Co., 1992, pp. 1-16.

Karpinski discusses Gilman’s life and work and provides a brief introduction to the articles included in the volume.

Lane, Ann J. To Herland and Beyond, Penguin, 1991, 413 p.

This biography of Gilman provides detailed information about the author’s life as well as her writings.

Shumaker, Conrad. “Too Terribly Good to Be Printed”: Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in American Literature, Vol. 57, no. 4, 1985, pp. 588-99.

Shumaker presents a reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the context of the treatment of women in the nineteenth century.

Shumaker, Conrad. “Realism, Reform, and the Audience: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Unreadable Wallpaper,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 47, no. 1, spring, 1991, pp. 81- 93.

Discussion of the elements of realism and reform in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

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