An Essay on The Yellow Wallpaper
There is a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman called “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It is a fascinating story written as though it were journal entries. The woman who has written these entries is falling deeper into a type of madness that she cannot seem to escape. The narrator has been mostly confined to a bedroom upstairs that she does not want to be in and she has nothing to do but think and stare at the bedroom walls. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a perfect depiction of nineteenth century attitudes towards women and their mental health.
These journal entries were written to show the slow, desperate need to escape her surroundings. The woman who is never named, starts as a woman who has nervous tendencies. She has just had a baby and her husband decides that they should take a holiday to let her rest. They go to a cheap, rundown colonial mansion that has beautiful gardens, broken greenhouses, and a questionable past regarding legal issues with heirs. The narrator wonders if the house might be haunted and she feels “that there is something queer about it.”
She loves the house and there are plenty of rooms that she could enjoy, but her husband insists that they make their room upstairs. It is a large room that consists of almost the entire upper floor. It has plenty of windows to get sunshine and air, but the windows are barred and this makes her think it might have been a nursery. The floors are scratched, the plaster is falling, and the bed she describes “looks as if it had been through the wars.” None of this bothers her though. What she notices right away is the wallpaper. It is torn off and patched in places and she considers it “horrid paper.” This wallpaper what she considers a “sprawling flamboyant pattern” and it is “committing every artistic sin.” The color is “repellent” or a dirty yellow. She later believes the wallpaper has a smell as well. She says that it stays with her even when she leaves the room. She describes it as “it is not bad – at first, and very gentle, but quite the subtlest, most enduring odor I have ever met.”
Throughout the story, the narrator becomes more and more obsessed with this wallpaper. At first, she wants to leave the room. She cannot stand or trust this wallpaper that seems to move with its patterns. She even believes it becomes alive and she uses descriptions like “the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down” and “up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere.” She tries not to think about it, but she has very little to do in the house. She even says, “This paper looks at me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!” The longer she is confined to the room, the more obsessed she becomes. She sees the patterns move and soon she believes there is a woman behind the wallpaper. “It is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern.” She sees the woman shaking and pulling at the wallpaper and the narrator believes she is trying to escape. She only sees the woman at night when the moon is shining on the paper, so she reasons the woman must escape during the day time. She even convinces herself she has seen the woman outside of the house. The narrator realizes she does not blame the woman for leaving the paper and “creeping” about. She relates to this woman who wants to escape her prison behind the wallpaper. She wants to escape her own.
Toward the end of the story, the narrator does not want to leave the room. She fears the end of their holiday because she will have to leave the wallpaper and the woman. Realizing there is little time before they leave this home, she starts making excuses to stay in the room. She decides to help free the woman who is trapped behind the wallpaper. On the final day of their holiday, she locks her door and throws the key out onto the front path. She does not want to be kept from what she is going to do. She rips the wallpaper down as far as she can reach all around the room. When her husband finds the key and enters the room he is shocked. He asks her what she is doing and she replies, “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane. And I pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” The story ends with her husband fainting and she just creeps over him.
This woman and her wallpaper are such interesting characters to be written. Something so ordinary becomes so alive and menacing. It seems that the point of the story was to show how a woman’s health was handled back in the nineteenth century. This woman was put on a “rest cure” that seems to have made her worse, not better. Throughout the story, the narrator wants to socialize and work, but her feelings are disregarded completely. There is an urgency to her journal entries because she is hiding the very fact that she is writing them. Her husband and his sister have taken over the house and none of the decisions are allowed to come from her. Many have considered this an early work of feminist literature. It shows how women were disregarded even in something as important as their own mental health. The husband has complete control over her even though she believes he is kind and caring. This is exactly what the feminism movement was about.
Although the short story is focused on this woman and the wallpaper, there are other characters that are important in this story. There is her husband, the husband’s sister, a nursery maid, and the mysterious Jane. There are cousins and other family, but these are barely mentioned and do not affect the short story.
John, the husband, is a physician who is practical, careful, loving, and controlling. The narrator describes him as having “no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen.” While he wants her to get better, he never actually listens to what she has to say on the matter. John does not believe her stories of the wallpaper and encourages her to ignore her feelings of “fancy.” He is the one who has put her in this position where she feels totally trapped and losing control. She has no control because he has given her none. It may not be his fault that she is having a breakdown, but his disregard for her opinions on the matter prove that he thinks she is silly and that there is nothing really wrong with her. His need to confine and control her is what ultimately lead her over the edge.
Jennie, the husband’s sister, is barely mentioned, but is very important in this woman’s story. Jennie takes over the chores that the narrator probably would have done if she was well or allowed. “Although she does not play an active role in the narrative, she is a constant reminder of the narrator’s inability to assume her proper role as John’s wife and housekeeper” (Wayne). Jennie also makes the narrator feel even more imprisoned because she is afraid to even let Jennie see her writing. She almost seems terrified of Jennie towards the end of the story. This might be from a fear of being caught writing, or it might be paranoia caused by her illness.
Mary is mentioned rarely as well, but she, like Jennie, represents something in the narrator’s life that is lacking. The narrator has just had a baby, but the only time she really mentions the baby in her journal is to say she is glad her room is not still a nursery or the baby might have stayed there. Mary has taken on her role, because the narrator cannot seem to be a proper mother due to her illness.
Lastly, there is Jane. Jane is only mentioned one time at the very end of the story. The narrator says, “I’ve got out at last in spite of you and Jane.” This creepy sentence is a great ending to the story, but the question is, “Who is Jane?” Some think that it might have been a misprint or maybe a nickname for Jennie. This might be the case, but that seems a bit far fetched since the author wrote about her short story later and never mentioned the error. Most people believe that Jane was the name of the narrator. This would make the most sense because at the end of the story, the woman believes she is indeed the woman from behind that wallpaper. She would consider the narrator as someone else. “If this ‘Jane’ is, in fact, the narrator, then Gilman suggests that the narrator’s liberation from sanity and the bars of the wallpaper also means an ‘escape’ from her own sense of self” (Wayne).
The author of this short story, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, later wrote an article entitled “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” She explained what her inspiration for the story was. Charlotte herself suffered from a mental illness and she wrote the story seemingly from her own experience of how her illness was treated. She went to a doctor who told her there was nothing wrong with her. She needed to “live as domestic a life as far as possible, to have but two hours’ intellectual life a day, and never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again” as long as she lived. She explained that she tried this for a few months and gave up. She got some advice from a friend and decided to do what she thought best instead of listening to the doctor. She “went to work again – work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite – ultimately recovering some measure of power.” The best part of this story is she later heard the doctor who told her to “rest” had changed his method of treating mental illness such as hers. Charlotte said of her story, “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” while a bit disturbing, is such a great example of early empowering literature. This story is one that, as Charlotte said herself, could save someone who might be feeling as she did. Charlotte Perkins Gilman did not want women to think they needed to be controlled and hidden when there might be a problem. There is power in knowing what a person is up against and fighting back instead of stopping and letting it overcome.