The Yellow Wallpaper By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Descent Into Madness
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the story of a woman’s
descent into madness as the result of being isolated as a form of “treatment”
when suffering from post-partum depression. On a larger scale, Gilman is also
telling the story of how women were kept prisoners by the confines of the
society of her time and the penalties these women incurred when they attempted
to break free from these confines.

In the beginning of the story, the narrator, whose name is never divulged,
has been brought to an isolated country estate in order to recuperate from “a
slight hysterical tendency” by her husband, John, who is also a physician.
From the outset it becomes apparent that she is an unreliable narrator due to
her state of mind. The paragraphs of the story are short and choppy,
indicating an inability to concentrate and a mind that is racing from one
thing to another. The narrator talks about her imaginings that the house is
haunted,” . . . There is something strange about the house-I can feel it”; she
also relates how everything she does exhausts her. These symptoms, as well as
the numerous referrals by the narrator to the baby, indicate post-partum
depression. When speaking of the baby the narrator says, for example, “I
cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous.”
In order to treat this “temporary nervous depression,” John isolates her from
society and orders her to do nothing but rest. He even becomes upset when she
wishes to write, causing this story to be “composed” of writings she manages
to do in secret. John places her in the attic of the mansion, like a dirty
secret, in what she believes to be a former nursery. There is, however,
strong evidence that the narrator is not the first mental patient to occupy
the room. There are bars on the windows, gouges in the floor and walls, and
rings fastened to the walls; the bed is bolted down and has been gnawed on,
and the wallpaper has been torn off in patches.

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Confined to this room day after day, the narrator begins to study the
wallpaper: “. . . I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that
pointless pattern to some sort of conclusion.” “That pointless pattern”
refers to the rigid pattern of complete subjugation to men that women of
Gilman’s day were expected to follow. A woman of that era was the “property”
of her father until she married. She then became the chattel of her husband
with no legal rights and no authority to determine what was best for her.

The narrator begins to see things in the pattern of the wallpaper: “There is
a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous
eyes stare at you upside down.” This is indicative of the fate of those
foolhardy women who strayed from the path society had dictated to them. A
woman who attempted to break loose from that pattern was subject to social
ostracism. If not already married, she destroyed any hope she may have had of
marriage, family and living within the norms of society. If already married,
she risked physical punishment, the loss of her family, or was even considered
mad. In either case, it is unlikely she could ever hope to be considered
respectable again.

TEACHER’S NOTE: YOU NEED A TRANSITION HERE On moonlit nights, the narrator
sees bars appear on the wallpaper which are, in actuality, simply shadows from
the bars in the window. She also begins to see the form of a woman behind
those bars. The woman is trying to “escape” by shaking the bars and,
initially, this frightens the narrator. She fears the kind of woman who dare
to attempt escape from the bars of society and the reprecussions that would
follow for that woman. Most of all, she is terrified of the rebellious
thoughts in her own mind that could, if not contained, cause her to become
that woman, inevitably suffering the same dreadful repercussions and
destroying her life.

As time goes on, the narrator’s mind slips deeper into mental illness. She
becomes increasingly paranoid about John and Jennie, the housekeeper. “The
fact is, I am getting a little afraid of John. He seems very queer sometimes
and even Jennie has an inexplicable look.” She also begins to smell the
yellow wallpaper wherever she goes, and soon she believes she actually sees
the woman from the wallpaper creeping in the garden during the day.

The narrator begins to see the woman in the wallpaper more clearly: “And she
is all the time trying to climb through the patter-it strangles so; I think
that is why it has so many heads. They get through and then the pattern
strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!”
This is another symbolic reference to the fate of women fo tried to escape the
path society has prescribed for them.

As the narrator slips even deeper into madness, she becomes determined to
help the woman from the wallpaper escape. She waits until she is alone, then
strips the wallpaper from the wall. In order to reach higher, she attempts to
move the bed; when she is unable to do so, she gnaws the bed.

The narrator locks the doors and throws the key out the window. When John
finally manages to get in the room, he finds his wife, completely mad now,
“creeping” around the edge of the wall. When asked what she is doing, the
narrator replies, “I’ve gout out at last . . . in spite of you and Jane. And
I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” Although Gilman
does not tell us who Jane is, it is plausible that the narrator’s name is Jane
and, in her madness, she believes she has become the woman from the wallpaper
and finally escaped. TEACHER’S NOTE: BRIEFLY FOLLOW UP ON THIS – SHE, AS A
FREE WOMAN, IS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THAN THE SUBSERVIENT, PASSIVE WIFE WHO
BEGAN THIS NARRATIVE
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a fascinating look into the mind of a woman
slipping deeper and deeper into mental illness. It is also, however, clearly
a statement by Gilman of the absurd confines society places on the women of
her time and the extreme consequences that befell the women who attempted to
break free of those confines.


TEACHER’S COMMENTS: THIS IS A WELL-WRITTEN AND STURDILY SUPPORTED
EXPLICATION. GOOD WORK! GRADE: A
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