Yellow wallpaper notes
The Yellow Wallpaper is a semi-autobiographical short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in which she describes the treatment of women during a rest cure prescribed for nervous disorders by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, who was a famous physician. The story describes the submissive, childlike obedience of women to male authority figures that was considered typical at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The unnamed protagonist of the story is helpless to express her own needs. She is taken by her husband, John, to a country house so that she can recuperate from a nervous condition. The reader is immediately aware of the condescending attitude of the physician husband toward his wife. She is relegated against her will to a third floor room of the house, a room that the owners previously used as a nursery. Symbolically, the room with the yellow wallpaper serves as a prison where the wife is restricted, like a child, from the intellectual activities of reading and writing. At first, the narrator rebels against the constraints by keeping a secret diary. When John discovers her disobedience, she is chastised and her diary is cruelly destroyed.
Social interactions are also held to a minimum. The husband lectures in other cities, so the narrator is often left without emotional support for days at a time. When John is at home, his conversations are patronizing, and he dismisses her concerns about her condition. Clearly, her role is to comfort him and trust blindly that her own condition is improving. John’s self-absorption does not permit him to see that his wife's condition is deteriorating.
Jennie (John's sister), who manages the household, is another example of the restricted role of women. She busies herself with decorating and supervising the kitchen. She unquestioningly carries out John’s orders to monitor the narrator's activities, even when her own contacts with the woman make it clear that what the doctor orders is not what the patient needs. She nevertheless obeys blindly until it is too late to reverse the effects of the narrator's descent into madness.
The powerful pattern in the yellow wallpaper resembles bars that confine the protagonist in her world of loneliness, helplessness, and infantilism. Deprived of intellectual stimulation, the narrator's imagination conjures up a world behind the paper where captive women wait helplessly to be freed. Ironically, she is one of the women seeking to be liberated. Destroying the paper seems to be the only way she can destroy the hold of stifling mores that demand female subservience to men and free women from male dominance.
Published in 1892, Gilman’s story is generally interpreted as a study of the protagonist’s descent into psychosis and as a condemnation of the “rest cure,” a treatment for nervous disorders that originated with Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. Gilman’s personal experience with Dr. Mitchell and his rest cure supports this interpretation of the story, as does the narrative’s content; Jane, Gilman’s protagonist, steadily deteriorates during a rest cure and fears being treated by a physician named Dr. Weir. The story is also interpreted as condemning the submissive role women were expected to play in marriage, not an uncommon literary theme at the turn of the century.
Another influence is evident in the story, however—the popularity of Gothic literature in the 1800s. Gothic elements are introduced immediately in Jane’s description of the setting—the “ancestral halls” of a “hereditary estate.” The secluded old mansion, set among shadowy, walled gardens, is reminiscent of the settings of many gothic tales. The shattered greenhouses, lying in disrepair, and the abandoned gardeners’ cottages suggest ruin and decay, familiar motifs in gothic literature. In her first journal entry, Jane notes that there is something “queer” about the mansion’s being uninhabited for so long and rented to her husband so inexpensively. The mansion reminds her of a haunted house; she sees “ghostliness” in it. Jane insists “there is something strange about the house—I can feel it.”
Other conventions of Gothic literature are found in the story, as well. A troubled heroine trapped in a strange setting tells her own story as it develops. Her domineering husband imprisons her, consigns her to a room with barred windows, and abandons her for long periods of time; a housekeeper watches her intently and reports her behavior to him. Her husband professes love and concern for her, but he denies her perception of reality and systematically imposes his will in ways that harm her. No longer trusting her husband or the housekeeper, she struggles to save herself. In the context of Jane and John’s nineteenth-century society, the scenario seems more tragic than sinister, but it’s consistent nonetheless with the plot of many Gothic stories and novels.
Considering what’s not in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it’s doubtful that Gilman set out to write a Gothic tale. Jane doesn’t explore dark, secret passages by the flickering light of a candle held in a trembling hand. She isn’t seized with terror and compelled to run from the mansion into a violent storm. Gilman instead creates a complex protagonist, with the story’s Gothic elements illustrating Gilman's artistry as a writer. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not a political tract, nor is it an essay on women and marriage; it is a short story, a sophisticated piece of fiction that leaves readers wondering.
Has the old mansion stood empty for many years because of legal entanglements, or is there another reason no one chooses to live there? Who previously occupied Jane’s bedroom? Was it a nursery, playroom, gym, and boys’ school, as she conjectures in an attempt to explain its unusual features, or were there other reasons to bar the windows, bolt the bed to the floor, and install “rings and things” in the walls? Are the rings perhaps the kind to which chains could have been affixed? Was it children who gnawed repeatedly on the bedstead? One wonders when reading Jane’s account of biting off a piece of it. Is the estate a former asylum, or is it the home of someone else who once was driven mad in the bedroom? Whatever the room used to be, the reader knows one thing for sure: Jane is not the first person to tear the yellow paper from the walls. The story is filled with specific details about the bedroom, but they create ambiguity rather than clarity.
Reading Jane’s journal leaves the reader with a final question. Is she an unreliable narrator recording her own descent into insanity at the hands of a domineering husband, or is she a reliable narrator overwhelmed by supernatural forces and ultimately possessed by a demon? The answer, however, is unimportant. Jane is destroyed either way, and whatever it is that extinguishes her spirit and steals her life is truly evil.
The story unfolds slowly over many weeks, beginning with the arrival of the narrator (whose name, Jane, is not revealed until the end of the story) at an estate in the country. Jane has gone into a gradual decline, losing interest in her family and her surroundings, since the birth of her baby. Her husband, John, and her brother believe that a long rest is what she needs to feel more like herself. Because both men are respected physicians, Jane believes that they know what is best for her and tries to put on a good face, despite her increasing suspicions that her rest cure may do her more harm than good.
At first, the colonial estate where she is the only guest appears harmless and quaint, with large gardens and spacious rooms. Jane later reveals that her windows have bars and her bed is bolted to the floor. The only people whom she sees are her husband, who comes from the city to check on her, and her nurse, John’s sister, Jennie. Jane never has contact with her recently delivered child nor with friends. Her summer home takes on a more sinister tone as her mental condition deteriorates, with the very wallpaper in her room coming to grotesque life.
Jane’s husband blames her thinking for all of her problems and forbids her to do anything that will employ her mind productively. Jane rebels at first and keeps a secret journal, but as she weakens, even that endeavor becomes too tiring. She withdraws into her thoughts, which form the running interior monologue of her mental collapse. Apparently accepting the separation from her infant, Jane slowly loses control of her imagination and her motivation to seek human contact. After she collapses and is forced to keep to her room, she becomes fascinated with the patterns on the yellow wallpaper, seeing in the paper’s swirls faces and patterns that first amuse and then terrify her.
From her barred window, Jane begins seeing women creeping about the gardens on their hands and knees. Soon she discovers that another woman is trapped behind the wallpaper in her room, something that only she can see. At night, this woman pushes and struggles behind the paper in an effort to escape, rattling and ripping it as she fights to get free.
Jane says that the woman creeps along the walls, and she tries to help free her by gradually peeling back her wallpaper prison. Jane begins to notice signs of deterioration in her room: smears on the wall and bite marks on the bedstead. Gradually she no longer wants to leave her room; when John comes to take her home, she refuses to go and locks herself in with the creeping woman who is now free in the room.
Jane’s husband and sister-in-law gain entry and find only Jane creeping around and around the room, surrounded by shreds of wallpaper. The story concludes as she creeps over the form of her husband, who has fainted from the shock of seeing her in her madness.