In this lesson, we will examine the famous short story The Yellow Wallpaper. We will consider the ways in which Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses the story to communicate about her own difficult experiences post-birth. Additionally, we will discuss her use of fiction as a vehicle to reveal what she felt was the less-than-equal existence of women during the 19th century.
A Woman’s Voice in the 19th Century
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and published in 1892, is both a haunting psychological story and a feminist masterpiece. Gilman, a women’s rights activist, writer, wife and mother, lived during a time when she felt women were kept in a position that prevented them from existing beyond the sphere of their home – effectively hindering any kind of intellectual or creative growth. Marriage, as a result, was a sticky situation. Family life, Gilman felt, could never really satisfy everyone in the family, and things needed to change. Women needed to have the opportunity to work, to grow and to make connections outside of the home.
While Gilman wrote many essays concerning concepts of social reform and progressive change, along with other poems, short stories and even an autobiography, her most famous work has been ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ which was inspired by her own experience.
While in her twenties, Gilman married and one year later, gave birth to a daughter. It was after the birth of her daughter that she suffered from what we know now was probably a severe case of postpartum depression. The suggested cure for this was…well..
.nothing. She was, as prescribed by her doctor, to do absolutely nothing. A ‘rest cure’ as they called it back then was a length of time during which the patient did minimal physical activity and had very limited mental stimulation because, as some doctors believed, the condition was brought on by too much going on in the patient’s mind (or a kind of hysteria or nervousness).
It was a miserable time for Gilman, who was reduced to a mental breakdown.It was only after she stopped listening to the doctor and her husband that she started to improve. Gilman eventually left her husband and began her writing life soon thereafter but contended that the postpartum experience, the traumatic course of action and the lack of insight into her emotional state left scars that she felt for the rest of her life. It was from this emotion that Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: Synopsis
Our story, it is important to remember, is written in the first person in the form of a journal. Our female narrator, who remains nameless in the story, and her husband, John, have come to vacation in a large house for the summer after the birth of their daughter. It seems as though John believes this would be good for our narrator as she has been suffering from hysterical behaviors postpartum, which led to her rest cure treatment until she improves. John feels that the best room for her during this time is an upstairs room believed to be a former nursery – one with bars on the windows, scratches on the floors and busy yellow wallpaper.
Our narrator reveals that she does not agree with John, who also happens to be a doctor. He has told her that she should not write anything (which she loves to do) and that improvement will come by sticking to a strict regimen of doing almost nothing. She disagrees and feels that distraction would be best for her, so she continues to write, hiding her journal. Her entries consist of descriptions of the house, imaginings of things going on nearby, revelations of the narrator’s true feelings for her husband’s ideas (which feel oppressive).
She does come back to descriptions of her room and specifically the wallpaper, more often. She finds it ugly and then a bit scary. She imagines designs in it, tries to figure out its pattern. She believes she sees a small pattern behind a large one – a woman stooping in front of bars. At this point, our narrator is fixated.Our narrator’s descent into madness is clear. Her obsession with the woman in the paper plagues her.
She envisions the woman stooping around during the day (when she is let out) and shaking the bars of her prison at night (when she is locked up). Our narrator spends time trying to peel off all the wallpaper to free the woman. She begins a habit of crawling around the room on all fours.
She is convinced that she herself is a trapped woman who was once in the wallpaper as well.In a scene of total madness with the narrator creeping along the walls of the room, John comes in to check on her. When he sees the extent of the situation, he faints with horror.
But she continues her course, stooping around and around the room, stepping over her husband as she passes.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: Analysis
Before we address any story analysis, it’s important to think about the context of this particular story. First of all, the historical context in which it was written has quite a bit to do with how it exists as a social and political commentary.
In other words, it was written during a time when women did not have the rights and freedoms that they do now. The author wrote this story as a response to her experience in this situation. The story’s a critique of the way things worked among genders and the ways in which the lives of women were controlled and limited.What, then, can we gather about ‘The Yellow Wallpaper?’ Well, it seems to be about a woman who is dealing with some postpartum depression of some sort.
She follows the advice of her husband, which is to rest. They are not in their own surroundings but rather they are in a rented house where the narrator has been given a room with metal bars and yellow wallpaper in which to spend her hours. Remember – there was no TV at the time. She’s not supposed to write (but she does) or have much mental stimulation at all.
The rest is easy to summarize…she goes mad.It’s through the situation itself and the narrator’s own journal that the reader can infer that marriage and domestic life don’t seem so satisfying to her. In fact, she feels as though a chance for individuality would support her growth as a person, but that would not fit in with the expectation that as a woman, she needed to serve the needs of her family only, unlike her husband. Now throw in the image that the narrator continues to see the woman stooping behind the bars in the wallpaper, and then the way the narrator, in her madness, believes that she is like this woman.
And now throw in the fact that there are actual bars on the windows. It’s pretty tough to miss the way the story communicates one of its most prevalent themes – that women are kept in a kind of prison in marriage and in life when forced to live a domestic life without personal growth.The way ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ unfolds, the narrator doing what her husband (and doctor) tell her to do despite her instincts and desires, also underscores the fact that gender oppression was ruling the narrator’s life. This was in her marriage without a doubt, although it has to be recognized that John most likely loved his wife very much and thought he was doing what was best. But, according to history and according to society, men knew better than women, especially when women were hysterical or fragile as was often the characterization.
What her husband and the rest cure suggest to the reader is that women in general were grossly misunderstood by those who were making decisions. As a result, the narrator’s situation suggests that there could never be true happiness for a woman in marriage.Overall, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ should be seen as feminist literature. While it communicates to the reader the lack of opportunity for women outside of the mother and wife role, it also dramatically illustrates what that kind of limitation can do to the mind. Gilman used the short story form and a compelling tale of psychological decline to convey what she felt were the very dire circumstances of women in a male-dominated society.
The story of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is an easy one to remember. The narrator (remember the story is told in first person) is told to rest after the birth of her child and some suspected postpartum depression. The prescription? Doing absolutely nothing in a room with yellow wallpaper. Her mental state deteriorates in this room until she eventually goes mad. It is very important to remember the image of the woman that she sees in the wallpaper because it parallels the narrator’s own life.
Stooping behind bars is a metaphor for the narrator’s existence (and women in general), which is one that is limited by society and dictated by the men around them. And of course the narrator is literally stuck in a room with bars on the windows. This is a room in which, by the end, she is stooping from wall to wall as well.
Major themes addressed in the story? The role of women in society, women and domestic life and even oppression in and out of the home. Ultimately, the messages here include a bit of a warning – madness is a very viable end if one isn’t given the freedom to grow, think and act as an individual. Marriage could never be happy for women in this kind of world.
And also, it is clear that the medical community misunderstood and mistreated women in this case, despite even the narrator’s instincts.An important final point is that this story grew out of the experiences of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She was an activist and writer who felt that her own life needed to change in order to stop her own destruction. She used this piece as a way to communicate what she thought and felt about the world – specifically, the ways in which the gender structure needed to change. Adapted into many film, stage and radio productions, the story is so popular because it’s one-of-a-kind. Fascinating and chilling in its narration along with being historically representative, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ was and is one of the most unique representations of feminist fiction in our country.
After finishing this lesson, you should be ready to:
- Describe how Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s experiences influenced her writing
- Summarize and analyze ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’