Name, Identity and Self in Charlotte Perkins Gilmans The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents in the short story The Yellow Wallpaper a narrator of dubious identity. If a reader infers that the reference at the end of the story to Jane is indeed self-reflexive, a dichotomy between the Jane of which she speaks and the character who creeps about the room becomes apparent. This division within the single heroine can be best understood when viewed as such: within this nameless speaker are in fact two women, and as the actions of one recede the other becomes dominant. Indeed, the reader sees two separate identities, or selves, within the narrators captive body: the proper-Jane persona, the suitably-named, dutiful and lucid wife of Dr. John; and the nameless, savage and hysterical woman, a reflection of whom the raconteur sees lurking behind the wallpapers exterior pattern. As proper-Janes affectations dissipate, those of her unsociable doppelganger fluidly fill in the gaps in the speakers psyche.
The protagonist in The Yellow Wallpaper provides the reader with very few concrete details of her person. She is a woman: mother, daughter, sister, cousin, sister-in-law and physicians wife. She is an ordinary person. She isif one were to attempt a succinct monikerMrs. John. Yet, this Mrs. Johnthis mother, this wife, this Janegradually discards the traits which adorn a decorous woman of society.
The primal, villainous character Mrs. John becomes at the end of the story embodies everything that is not acceptable in Victorian society. She neglects her child, abandons her household duties , becomes increasingly paranoid and believes that she knows her medical condition better than her doctors. In addition to her near-maniacal obsession with the yellow wallpaper, the speaker begins staying awake all night and sleeping through the day. She at times creeps about during the daytime, an action she admits is hardly commonplace. The narrator also adopts a cynical and distrustful stance regarding John and her sister-in-law Jennie (It does not do to trust people too much ), an attitude that certainly does not befit a nave and delicate gentlewoman of the time. The trademark of a gentlewoman, her good nameupon which relies her reputationis the first casualty of the speakers progression into her second self.
Due to the customs of the narrators 19th century patriarchal society, her surname (which, of course, was her fathers) was taken from her at marriage. Yet, although Mrs. Johns last name is important to her proper-Jane persona, she had no agency in its replacement with that of her husbands. So while this partial loss of legal identity may be a factor in the speakers transition of self, it is not an injury exclusive to this storys heroine. However, throughout the context of the story, the reader sees John further attempt to steal from the narrator her given name as well. In endowing her with the pet names darling, little girl and blessed little goose, he succeeds in perpetuating the separation of his wifes sense of self from her name and its corresponding identity. Indeed, humans, pets and even inanimate objects (e.g. cars, boats and estates) are given proper names. To relinquish from the protagonist her name is to effect a form of debasement, and to place her beneath even a favorite dog. It follows that this defilement may be a cause in the narrators creeping about, an act that is not only animalistic, but which places her physical self as low as her emotional self has been ordered.
In addition, John even goes so far as to address the speaker in the third person (Bless her little heart! said he with a big hug, she shall be as sick as she pleases! ), effectively creating a split between his frail and proper wife, and the woman to whom he is speaking. This is a step the narrator later takes herself, saying, Ive got out at lastin spite of you and Jane.
Once her names are stripped from her, the protagonist is left with no concise description of her personal identity. She attempts to give a name to her developing condition, her emerging self, and is halted mid-sentence by John. I beg of you, for my sake and for our childs sake, as well as your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! he cries in protest. His reaction is not unfitting to a society wherein the insane are vilified and locked away from the general population in overcrowded institutions. Thus Mrs. John is condemned to a societal form of anonymity; she has lost her former title and the person she is becoming is so aberrant to her class that it simply cannot be given a name.
The central characters propensity for creeping around in the daylight is symptomatic of her crisis of identity, and not merely due to the acts visceral and base aspects. The furtiveness suggested by the creeping echoes the mysterious quality of anonymity, and the fact that the action is committed in full view of the sun reflects the narrators unchanging physical form. Explicitly, the contradiction between attempting to be secretive in broad daylight parallels that of becoming a different person within the same skin. The literal truth is undeniable in both cases: despite the surreptitiousness of the Mrs. Johns creeping, she is still visible; and despite her mental and emotional changes, the character is still Mrs. John. Yet, the contrary is also validated within the textthe heroine locks the door so as not to be seen as she creeps , just as the reader is certain that the proper-Jane persona has been usurped by this nameless and hysterical spirit.
The character herself indicates the completion of the transformation at the conclusion of The Yellow Wallpaper. I wonder if they all came out of the wallpaper as I did? she muses. I suppose Ill have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard! she continues. It is apparent to the reader that these reflections signify a total transference of consciousness: Mrs. John has never been farther from her proper-Jane persona than she is as she creeps about the bedroom, celebrating her liberation from the wallpaper pattern.
Thus, the unnamed woman in The Yellow Wallpaper meets the challenge of her anonymity: she progresses from a society woman without proper identity to an inverted version of a Victorian lady, one so egregious as not to be acknowledged by appellation. Through the loss of her name, the dismissal of her former affectations and the emergence of her uncultured (yet not inhuman) alter ego, Mrs. John becomes the unnamed victim of the nameless consequences of an unidentified disorder.