The Yellow Wallpaper

Charlotte Perkins Gillman

Perkins Gilman’s short story has become one of the classics of feminist fiction, written by a woman who is herself a feminist icon. When it was written, in 1890, women were expected to fulfil the roles of homemakers and mothers. Not only was mental health not well understood at the time, but there was a lack of interest in women’s health in particular. The medical profession relied on largely male assumptions. Since those assumptions viewed childbirth as a joyous time and saw the mother’s role as a nurturing one, postpartum depression was in particular little understood. The Yellow Wallpaper is autobiographically based, written after Perkins Gilman’s own experience of postpartum depression, and these concerns inform the story throughout.

The World of the Rational Man

It is revealing that the narrator’s husband, John, is also a doctor and a rationalist. He is introduced early as a physician and a man who is ‘practical’, dismissing ‘faith’, ‘superstition’ and anything which cannot be ‘put down in figures’ with scorn. Through the details in the narrative, Perkins Gilman establishes an authoritarian man, one of high standing in his profession and society. It is a society where such figures are inevitably men, who are often in accord with each other. Notably, the narrator’s brother ‘is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.’ The reader recognises John’s rational approach to his wife’s illness – because it does not fit with physical symptoms, he dismisses it as a ‘temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency.’ The word ‘hysterical’ is derived from the Greek and Latin words for the womb and shows that originally, hysteria was seen as a solely female condition, something women were naturally subject to. As the narrator says, her husband ‘knows there is no reason to suffer’. As far as he and his male colleagues are concerned, she is suffering from a purely female condition which might be alleviated but is not subject to scientific medicine. John at several points appeals to his superior knowledge, asking his wife to ‘trust me as a physician’ and reminding her that ‘I am a doctor, dear, and I know’.

That parenthetical ‘dear’ is very telling, matching the authoritarian tone with a patronising quality. While he might take her ‘in his arms’ and give his wife a ‘big hug’, such patronising language recurs, as he calls her at various points ‘a blessed little goose’ and a ‘little girl’, demeaning her humanity and maturity. Without apparent irony, the narrator acknowledges her husband’s care, saying that ‘He is so wise… he loves me so’, but readers are likely to feel that the manifestation of his wisdom and love are claustrophobic. John’s control of his wife’s life is absolute – not only does he ensure that she has a ‘schedule prescription for each hour’, including ‘cod-liver oil and lots of tonics and things’, he controls her actions, ‘hardly’ letting her ‘stir without special direction.’ He also insists on ‘making’ her ‘lie down for an hour after each meal’, where the imperative is clear.

Central to this is the narrator’s writing – the story is after all her written narrative. The implication is that her writing is not serious and that it is merely an expression of her dangerous ‘fancies’. She notes that she is ‘absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again,’ where the inverted commas around ‘work’ indicate her husband’s dismissive view. As she says, ‘he hates to have me write a word.’ As well as dismissing the importance of the writing, this forbidding of it can also be seen as a restriction of his wife’s self-expression, a way of silencing her voice. Men have authoritarian control of the world and also suppress women’s expression.

The Muted Feminine Voice

It is possible to read the narrative’s gradual decline in coherence, therefore, as a product of that suppression. That is reinforced by a few points in the earlier part where the narrator’s tone is sensible and rational. She argues, for example, that ‘congenial work… would do me good’, but John will hear none of it. She is also seen to bridle against his restrictions, arguing ‘I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus’ she might be better, but John does not even let her finish her sentence, another example of suppressing her expression and views. She attempts to approach him with calm reason: ‘I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him’, and on another occasion ‘I thought it was a good time to talk’. On neither occasion does John listen. ‘John would not hear of it’ and he dismisses her ideas, thoughts and objections throughout. Very revealingly, at an early point John ‘laughs’ at his wife’s ideas, but she adds ‘one expects that in a marriage.’ Since rational thought and expression has no outlet, it is not surprising that irrational expression takes over.

Declining Coherence

It is clear then, why Perkins Gilman has chosen a first person narrator for the story, to allow the muted voice to be heard. The structure is slightly stilted from the outset, with short paragraphs, many of which are no more than a single sentence. Such a structure implies a hesitancy, an uncertainty in the voice, but there is appreciation of the ‘secure ancestral halls’ of the ‘colonial mansion’ in which they are living for the summer, a ‘most beautiful place’ with ‘a delicious garden’. However, the lines about the narrator’s illness and John’s restrictions disturb the idyll, and the nursery which they take for their bedroom, with its ‘barred’ windows, ‘rings and things in the walls’ and ‘nailed down’ bed make it sound more like a prison or torture chamber.

The Woman and the Wallpaper

In developing the symbolism of the room, the wallpaper takes the central role, giving the story its title. At first it is treated with some shocked amusement as its design is ‘committing every artistic sin.’ The adjectives used to describe it, though, assume a greater significance – it is ‘repellent, almost revolting’, ‘smouldering’ and ‘unclean’. The description used for following the lines of the pattern is even more disturbing, as ‘they suddenly commit suicide’. The reader recognises that the descriptions of the paper are revealing not only of its patterns, but of the narrator’s own psychological state. This is reinforced when she describes the pattern as it ‘lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes’ which ‘stare at you upside-down.’ It soon transpires that not only does the paper look as if t is looking at the narrator, but under her examination, she begins to see things in it, such as the ‘strange, provoking formless sort of figure’.

The woman who eventually emerges from the wallpaper, in the eyes of the narrator, becomes emblematic of the narrator herself – ‘a woman stooping down and creeping about’ – a visual depiction of suppression and subservience. When the figure seems ‘to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out’, the metaphor becomes even clearer, representing an overlooked, trapped woman seeking freedom from restraints. By night, the pattern ‘becomes bars’, like a prison. When the narrator recognises that at times ‘there are a great many women behind’ the pattern, Perkins Gilman suggests that the wallpaper is not just a representation of the narrator’s situation, but that it is universal, representing the social state of all women. Escape is difficult, as the pattern ‘strangles’ the women who try to escape and ‘turns them upside down’. However, at last the narrator sees the potential of freedom as she sees the woman outside, ‘on the long road under the trees, creeping along’.

The Narrator’s Mental State

While developing the metaphor of the woman in the pattern, Perkins Gilman indicates the declining mental state of the narrator not just by the content of the narrative, but by the style. The jumpy short paragraphs increase in pace, with very few more than a sentence and several of those sentences are very short. Longer ones are often broken up by dashes and the frequent use of exclamation marks gives the narrative an extra, insistent urgency. The narrator refers frequently to deceit, to keeping secrets – ‘it does not do to trust people too much.’ And eventually, the distinction between the woman in the wallpaper and the narrator is blurred, as she admits that she herself ‘creep[s] by daylight’. In the shocking climax it is both the narrator and the wallpaper woman together who remove the paper – ‘I pulled and she shook’.

The final horrific moments, as the narrator creeps right over the prostrate body of her fainted husband, confirm the identification of the two women, as the narrator calls out ‘I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’ This last section also allows the reader to reconsider earlier aspects of the story. The narrator bites the bed, shortly after she had observed that it ‘is fairly gnawed’. She notes that her shoulder ‘just fits in that long smooch around the wall’, a mark which she had apparently only noticed three pages earlier. At the beginning of the story the narrator notes that the wallpaper ‘is stripped off… in great patches all around the head of my bed, almost as far as I can reach’. It becomes apparent that the time scale of the narrative is not as ordered as it seems and that the narrator herself has been responsible for the ripped paper, the gnawed bed, the mark on the paper ‘as if it had been rubbed over and over’ as she has circumnavigated the room obsessively like a caged animal. Perhaps she is even responsible for the fact that ‘the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there’.

It is a story of oppression leading to violent psychosis, a warning shout for the freedom of women, and has been interpreted in interesting ways, as you can see here.

Narrative methods to consider:
  • First person narration
  • Structure
  • Metaphor/symbolism
  • Surprise ending