“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a short story by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine. It was initially treated as a Gothic horror story, however, today we understand it as an early feminist work.
The story takes place in the late 1800’s, is set on an isolated country estate where the narrator and her husband, John, a physician, are living for the summer. The narrator has recently given birth and has come down with a “nervous condition” for which she has been prescribed bed rest. This rest does not simply mean taking it easy but involves the near total elimination of all stimuli, including interacting with people, reading, writing, and even seeing her own child. Writing secretly, the narrator tells the story of her confinement in an upper room of the house – a room that was once a nursery and therefore had barred windows. The room has tattered yellow wallpaper with an intricate pattern the narrator finds irritating. When her creativity and writing are curbed by John, the narrator takes it upon herself to make sense of the wallpaper.
It could be argued that the wallpaper represents the structure of family, medicine and tradition in which the narrator finds herself trapped. The wallpaper is domestic and humble and Gilman skilfully uses this nightmarish, hideous paper as a symbol of the domestic life that traps so many women.
Though many details are changed, the story is semi – autobiographical, drawing on Gilman’s own health crisis and particularly her fraught relationship with Dr Silas Weir Mitchell – who carved a reputation for treating nervous exhaustion. In Gilman’s own words, he drove her to “mental agony” before she rejected the treatment and began once again to write. The story highlights the plight of many women during the 19th century. All women were seen by physicians as susceptible to ill health and mental breakdown by reason of their biological weakness and reproductive cycles. Those who were creative and ambitious were deemed more at risk.
In the story John, the narrators husband represents the society in the mid and late 19th century which was dominated by men; rather it is man-made world. John is rational, strict, factual and scientific. The narrator appears to represent all women at that time who were considered inferior to and suppressed by men. “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in a marriage.” (Gilman, 647)
In the following quotation John talks to his wife as he would speak to an infant who is not able to decide for oneself and therefore needs someone who does it. “Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain.” (Gilman, 649) He treats her like a child and not like a self – determined adult. The narrator lives in a nursery and although she knows what she needs she is under John’s control. She yearns for mental work; her desire to write rises.
As time passes, the narrator becomes more and more paranoid and increasingly fascinated by the pattern of the yellow wallpaper. She considers what it looks like. She comes to believe that there is a woman trapped behind the pattern – a woman who wants to escape. She observes this woman first as a crouching shadow, then as a woman who shakes the pattern, trying to get through, and then as many women, creeping about behind the pattern. She begins to hallucinate frequently, noticing that the woman sometimes gets out from the wallpaper and creeps around outside. The narrator feels much better and more energetic as she becomes more interested in the woman behind the wallpaper.
At the end of the story the narrator takes the opportunity of her husband’s absence to lock the door and tear away the wallpaper, the women now creeping outside in the garden. “I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?” she asks. John, upon opening the door, collapses as the narrator declares:
“I’ve got out at last.... and you can’t put me back. Now why should
that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by
the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”
Many feminist critics focus on the degree of triumph at the end of the story. Although some claim the narrator slipped into insanity, others see the ending as a woman’s assertion of agency in a marriage in which she felt trapped. The Yellow Wallpaper may be a work of fiction that is over a century old, but it is as relevant – and as real today as ever before.
“The Yellow Wallpaper was not intended to drive people
Crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy and
It worked.” (Gilman)
The Yellow Wallpaper, reviewed by Cheryl Gault