AP Literature and Composition,Period 2
September 24, 2004
Although most people will find The Yellow Wallpaper as simply an
account of a woman that sunk into deep depression, it is possible to
extricate dual interpretations from this story. There is one meaning that
is describing that the author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman can be related to
the female in the story; this is achieved by comparing the author’s life
and her character’s life piece by piece. One might find that The Yellow
Wallpaper is very similar to events that actually took place in the
author’s life. On the other hand, the more popular theory of the two
states that many individuals examine this story from a feminist point of
view. By this, I mean, they read and translate this story with a critical
perspective, a view that generalizes men as chauvinistic and domineering.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the
daughter of Frederick Beecher Perkins, a librarian and writer, and Mary
(Westcott) Perkins. Among her father’s forebears was the novelist Harriet
Beecher Stowe, his aunt. Perkins abandoned his wife after their infant died
in 1866 – Mary Perkins lived with her children on the brink of poverty and
was often forced to move from relative to relative or to other temporary
lodgings. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an avid reader and largely self-
educated. She studied two years at Rhode Island School of Design (1878-80)
and then earned her living designing greetings cards. In 1884 she married
Charles Walter Stetson, an aspiring artist. After the birth of their
daughter Katharine, she was beset by depression, and began treatment with
Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell in 1886. His recommendations, ‘live as domestic a
life as possible’ and ‘never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you
live’ Gilman later satirized this in her autobiography, and used the
discussions in her most renowned short story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, which
first appeared in New England
Magazine (1892). The narrator is a young mother suffering from a temporary
nervous depression. John, her husband, is a physician, who doesn’t believe
in supernatural things. He has ordered her to ‘rest’ in the bedroom of
their rented house. (Knight 1)
Many critics mention that the author’s life has always been a
troubled one; she had troubled and loveless relationships with her mother,
father and her daughter. These relationships are central to the life of
Charlotte Gilman yet only peripherally relate to the incident in her life
that sparked one of the greatest pieces of feminist literature ever
written. (Gilbert 2) This desolateness felt by Gilman was only one of the
factors of her inspiration to writing The Yellow Wallpaper. There are a
few that believe that Charlotte’s dubious relationships can be seen when
she caught Jennie reading her paper, her sister acts angry, as if she had
been caught stealing, this could insinuate a lack of mistrust in the
author’s own family. It can also be noted that Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who
suggested the idea of rest treatment, incited some critics to say “The real
purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of
the error of his ways.” (Dock, 89) This doctor is also mentioned in the
story; his character is John’s brother.

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Extrapolating on the fact that Charlotte Gilman already had many
early influences from high-standing women who fought for women suffrage and
political equality, we can assume that The Yellow Wallpaper is feminist
text. Her great-aunt was Harriet Beecher Stowe, the novelist who wrote
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she may have had an influence over
Charlotte. It is a feminist text, it tells of a story about a woman’s
struggles against male-centric thinking and societal ‘norms’. The text may
be ambiguous to the reader who is
unfamiliar with Gilman’s politics and personal biography, yet, it impresses
any reader who is able to analyze how futile the treatment of the main
character was, and understand the deeper meaning behind the story. It
illustrates how established protocols of behavior could have devastating
effects on the women of Gilman’s time, regardless of the intentions of the
purveyor. By late 20th century standards, the behavior of John, the
husband, seems eerily inappropriate and restrictive, but was considered
quite normal in the 19th century. (Lauter vol. II)
This text is sprinkled with metaphors, some obvious, more are
complex, they are numerous throughout the story, “So I take phosphates or
phosphites-whichever it is…” Bill Ames noted this as showing that women
were overlooked in education. “Moreover, she demonstrates a normalcy of
women that are non-technical-they should not have to worry about
phosphates, which are in the scientific realm assigned to men.” (Ames 1)
This is an interesting point, in which we can tell that the author is quite
subtle in expressing her attitudes about society. Gilman goes out of her
way to describe the garden of the house as ‘delicious’, this, perhaps, is
an allusion to a women’s place in the kitchen. (Thomas 1) It is the
wallpaper though, that is the focal-point of the entire story, and in it
holds copious amounts of metaphors for the oppression of women. The author
is very subtle in giving the clues about the wallpaper; she uses a slow and
steady pace to release tidbits of metaphor that eventually may or may not
clue the reader into thinking that the wallpaper is in fact a symbol of
male authority.

There is the paper’s stench, which subtly pervades the whole house,
this perhaps to give a sense of pervasive and inescapable injustice, much
like the accepted social rules at the time which governed Gilman’s world.

The paper’s pattern, which slowly develops from bulbous eyes to a woman
shaking bars. It contains many vague images, but acts as a paranoid
collection of domination. Gilman gives the reader a feeling that the
wallpaper is ever-present and lurking, like some say the subtle rejections
she faced as a female writer. The paper stains people and things; this
could possibly mean the everlasting habit of society to pass its sense of
protocol from person to person, father to son. A constantly changing light
on the wallpaper show many different mutating forms-symbols of the many
ways male chauvinism has spread throughout the society. Each one can be
read as a different facet of a male-centric society and its effect on
women. (Ames 1) The bulbous eyes and strangled heads may symbolize other
women’s careers that have been choked, in that case the authors tearing
down of the wallpaper and creeping over her husband symbolizes her triumph.

The images are so numerous that it is not possible to know precisely what
Gilman meant for each one-perhaps she was unsure herself-but a reader can
personalize them all and gain a sense of them from the context Gilman
places around the text.

Society itself is described through the wallpaper, this, perhaps is
the most significant detail to be examined. The paper’s pattern seems to
change with different lighting; particular traits can be seen under certain
conditions and change over time. This can be directly related to how
society assigns roles for both sexes. Note that as the light,
referring to the time period, changes, so does the patterns that can be
seen on the wall, meaning the protocols in society assigned to men and
women changes.

The metaphors, images and basic plot of this story leave the reader
with a female who realized society’s role placed upon her, and then
determinedly broke out in triumph over an oppressive pair of male
characters. It exposes ugly and unnoticed social conventions that are
second-nature to its male characters. The story promotes Gilman’s agenda
for change, and it illustrates a woman’s struggle to find equal opportunity
in society. Although this may seem a powerful enough interpretation of
this story, there are two sides to every story. As I have explained
earlier, this story may just have been a straightforward and simple
recounting of the severe effects of depression on the psychological and
physical levels. Either way, this text provides inspiration to readers at
many levels.

Knight, Denise. “About Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” The Charlotte Perkins
Society. September 26, 2004
Gilbert, Kelly. “An Autobiography of Emotions.” American Literature
Research and Analysis Web Site. Ed. Dr. Jim Wohlport. September 26,
Lauter, Paul, General Editor. The Heath Anthology of American Literature,
vol. II, 2nd edition New York: Heath, 1994
Ames, William. “On Feminism and “The Yellow Wallpaper”.” Modern Language
Association. September 28, 2004
Thomas, Deborah. “The Changing Role of Womanhood: From True Woman to New
Woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” American
Literature Research and Analysis Web Site. Ed. Dr. Jim Wohlport.

September 28, 2004