My blogging friend and talented author, Liz Gauffreau, recommended this book to me as an excellent depiction of a slow descent into madness. It is a short read, but very worthwhile.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman and first published in the New England Magazine in January 1892.
Narrated in the first person through a series of journal entries, The Yellow Wallpaper is the story of a young middleclass woman’s gradual descend into psychosis.
The story opens with the narrator, who remains unnamed, describing her move into a rented country estate for the summer. Her husband, John, who is a physician of high standing has prescribed this move so that she can have complete rest and overcome her post-natal depression. Her husband’s controlling nature quickly becomes apparent as she is not allowed to choose their room but is subjected to John’s choice of a disused nursery on the top floor. He imposed his decision despite her telling him that she does not like the wallpaper in the room, a strange and damaged paper of various shades of yellow. The nursery is described in terms applicable to a prison and has bars over the windows and a large bed that is manacled to the wall.
His treatment further entails taking her baby away from her and confining her to the nursery. He tells her not to read, write or do any other form of ‘work’ and only to rest so that she can become well again.
During her countless hours in the nursery, the narrator becomes more and more obsessed with the yellow wallpaper, imagining she can see things in its pattern. Gradually she sees a woman, just like herself, trapped behind the first layer of wallpaper.
Origin of The Yellow Wallpaper
The Yellow Wallpaper is considered to be an important early work of American feminist literature for its illustrations of the attitudes of men towards the mental and physical health of women during the 19th century.
Gilman was writing about her own horrible experience in this short story. Five years prior to penning this story, she experienced chronic post-natal depression following the birth of her daughter. She was sent away for treatment to Dr. Silas Weir, America’s leading expert on women’s mental health at the time. His ‘rest’ cure involved strict bed rest with no reading, writing, or painting. He was of the school of thought that if women could be forced to be happy with their lot in life and stop hankering after things like education, the vote, and work, their discontent and mental ailments would be cured.
Gilman wrote later that her treatment was like a prison sentence and she ‘came perilously close to losing [her] mind.’
Themes of The Yellow Wallpaper
The themes of The Yellow Wallpaper are set out below with a quote to demonstrate their application in the story.
Women’s role in marriage
“There comes John’s sister. Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing. She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!”
Identity and self-expression
“I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.
I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.”
The Rest Cure
“So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas.”
Symbolism of The Yellow Wallpaper
The narrator is disgusted and fascinated by the yellow wallpaper and these feelings grow over the course of the story.
The yellow wallpaper becomes her primary object of analysis and stimulation as all other stimulus is forbidden to her by John. The pattern eventually takes on the appearance of bars and the narrator imagines that she sees a woman trapped behind them.
The narrator’s deteriorating mental condition in relation to the yellow wallpaper is demonstrated by the following three quotes which are in order of appearance in the story:
Quote 1: “It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.”
Quote 2: “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had! There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside-down.”
Quote 3: “There are things in that paper which nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder—I begin to think—I wish John would take me away from here!”
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