In The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author, speaking in the first person, describes the rapid descent of a woman into madness. The woman is brought to a mansion in the countryside to rest, and to not rest is never an option. Whenever she attempts to do something stimulating, her efforts are rejected by her husband and later by her husband’s sister, both of whom seem to have her best interests at heart, even if they are unwittingly driving her crazy. As I read this story, I not only felt pity for the woman, but anger at her husband for his refusal to take her opinions seriously. He disregards her feelings not only because he is a physician, but perhaps more importantly, because she is a woman in a male-centric culture.
When they first move into the summer mansion home, the woman feels a sense of foreboding about the place. She refers to it as a “haunted house” and wonders why it would be rented so cheaply. In this way I am given a visual image of a typical “haunted house”, old, somewhat unkempt, and projecting fear and hostility.
She follows this observation by noting how her husband dismisses her feelings, saying “And what can one do?” which gives me a sense of the woman’s powerlessness over the circumstances of her own life. She then adds that her husband is a doctor, which makes him very grounded and not given to flights of fancy. She also speculates that her husband’s expertise in medicine may be the reason that she’s not getting well. Her brother is a physician as well, so of course, he sides with his physician brother-in-law, rather than his own flesh and blood, because she is only, after all, a woman. How could she understand what’s happening to her own body? So they load her down with tonics and medicines, and they dictate what’s best for her.
We’ve all had those experiences where we tell the doctor what’s wrong with us, but because he’s the doctor, he has to come up with a diagnosis on his own, and God Forbid that the patient should be right, because if patients knew what was wrong with them without having to see a trained physician, then what would we need doctors for? The next obvious step would be for people to go from diagnosing themselves to treating themselves with roots and bark, just like the Indians did. So, the doctor dismisses what we insist we know about our own bodies and develops his own scenario for our wellness, that may or may not have any basis in reality, and then he relentlessly pursues this scenario, regardless of whether the patient is showing signs of actual recovery or not.
The author uses sarcasm wonderfully, making the woman out to be trusting and innocent, blaming herself for what you and I would consider to be natural reactions to her situation. One night, after telling her husband that she felt there was something strange about the house (here again she tries to communicate her feelings about the environment in which he has placed her), he tells her that she must be feeling a draft, and closes a window, as if this will settle the matter. I begin to feel how trapped she is in the protective custody of those who care for her, who smother her with good intentions.
In The Yellow Wallpaper, the woman spends much of her time in a large, ugly former nursery “at the top of the house”. The windows are all barred “for little children” she speculates, but I am left to wonder if the barred windows were not the main attraction for the overprotective husband who, the woman says, “hardly lets me stir without special direction.” The room gives me the impression of an open dormitory of an asylum, and perhaps that was the point. I know that once I see bars on the windows, the thought that immediately comes to my mind is: escape.
The key feature of the room is the horribly ugly yellow wallpaper, stripped off in some places, colored by sunlight in others. The paper has a strange, quirky pattern to it that I struggled to imagine (perhaps it is intended to be beyond imagination), and it produces a cacophony of reactions in the woman, who alternately describes it as “dull” yet “pronounced” and able to “provoke study” while maintaining “lame uncertain curves”. The color earns the adjectives repellent, almost revolting, strangely faded, dull yet lurid orange and sickly sulphur. I can feel her horror at spending time in such a room.
Two weeks later, as the narrative informs us, the woman still does not consider her case to be serious, yet she is unable to care for her own child (“It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby.”). The woman’s husband is still dismissive of her apprehensions about the wallpaper, so much so that she is nervous just being around him. At this point I can feel the tension between husband and wife begin to rise, and a wall of separation starts to build between them as she removes herself from his care. She has determined to start keeping her own counsel, as sharing with him only makes her appear to be more unwell, and accomplishes nothing. As a result she is more and more alone in the house, just her and that garish wallpaper.
She often tells us of the truly beautiful places around the house that she can see through the bars of her windows, creating a marked contrast to the assault upon her senses that surrounds her bed. In the meantime, her misguided husband is doing his level best to remove all stimuli from his wife, compelling her to invent her own. This in turn, causes him to become alarmed and to keep her more “rested” which drives her farther from that which is real.
Soon the woman is personifying the wallpaper, and it feels as if a dangerous bridge has been crossed. She says “This paper looks at me as if it knew [author’s italics] what a vicious influence it had!” In the next sentence she begins to imagine a neck and eyes staring from the paper, and soon after admits that even as a child she has been able to project emotion onto inanimate objects such as walls and furniture. I think we all share that ability with her, be it as innocent as childhood identification with a plush toy or as complex as the guilt one feels when replacing an older item in the home, or perhaps when trading in a car. In the woman’s case, however, the situation progresses to a menacing level, where the wallpaper seems to intentionally threaten her, and soon she begins to see an entity of some kind behind the main pattern. Uh-oh. Not a good sign.
She is left alone in that room for hours at a time with nothing to stimulate her senses but the creations of her own imagination, which soon take over the sensual void in her life. It is almost to be expected that this situation will lead to delusions and perhaps madness. One can begin to feel her sliding away into insanity, breaking with reality, and there’s nothing to do but wait for the storm that is coming.
The woman’s sister-in-law arrives to remove her last connections with daily life, as every household chore is now done for her. She literally has nothing in her life to occupy her mind, except her mind itself. At this point, the woman begins to feel sympathy for the wallpaper, perhaps a Stockholm syndrome of sorts. She sits on her bed, which has been thoughtfully nailed to the floor (nailed to the floor!) and traces the patterns in the wallpaper with her eyes. She admits “It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight.” This, I think, is another allusion to the wallpaper, as she constantly refers to patterns and designs in the paper that are everything but straight. Now her mind is becoming everything but straight.
The woman admits to being able to see things in the wallpaper that no one else can, such as the figures behind the main pattern, which at this point is “like a woman stooping down and creeping about”. She also continues to be unable to speak to her doctor husband about what’s going on in her head, “because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.” The irony of that statement made me grimace. He insists that she is getting better, no matter what she feels. He refuses to let her even consider that she’s losing her grip on reality. After all, he is the doctor. How embarrassing it would be if his diagnosis and treatment were incorrect.
Quickly her interpretation of the wallpaper’s pattern become symbolic of her own situation; the outside pattern being seen as bars with a woman trapped behind “as plain as can be”. She admits that her fixation with the pattern occupies her for hours, and that she no longer feels safe around her husband, or his sister. She imagines that they too are looking at the paper, and she begins to feel very possessive about knowledge of the pattern.
Life for the woman becomes more exciting, even mentally frenetic as the story nears its conclusion, as her mind is alive with stimuli, all of its own creation. Also, other senses are coming into play, as the woman begins to smell the paper everywhere, and her clothes are often stained with yellow gained from contact. Her obsession with this invented world of the wallpaper is both frightening and mesmerizing.
As her grip on reality begins to crumble, the woman sees the female figure in the wallpaper shaking the bars trying to break free (in another metaphor for her own situation), and then she begins to see the figure in dark spots around the house, always creeping. To make the connection even more literal, the woman mentions that she herself creeps in her room when no one is around (“I always lock the door when I creep by daylight.”).
The woman begins destroying the paper, piece by piece, and is so fixated on it that she vows that “no person touches this paper but Me- not alive!” Her behavior becomes manic as she rushes to destroy the paper before her stay in the summer home comes to an end, eventually locking herself in the room and throwing the key out of the window. At this point I knew that something really interesting was about to happen, and I was struggling to slow down my reading so that I could revel in it when it came.
Finally, her husband is able to enter the room, only to find her “creeping” near the baseboard along a notch that has been grooved into the wall by her shoulder, and she completes her break with reality by announcing that she has escaped from the wallpaper and can’t be put back. Her doctor husband faints and the woman creeps on along the walls.
I really enjoyed this story. Because it was written as a first person narrative, it was sort of like finding someone’s journal hidden in the wall of an old house. Also, it’s wonderful to be allowed into the chaotic mind of the mentally ill, just to see what the view is like from in there.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Literature and Society: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction. Eds. Pamela J. Annas and Robert C. Rosen. 4th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2006. 307.