Like Kate Chopin's 'The Story of an Hour,' Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper' is a mainstay of feminist literary study. First published in 1892, the story takes the form of secret journal entries written by a woman who is supposed to be recovering from what her husband, a physician, calls a nervous condition.
This haunting psychological horror story chronicles the narrator's descent into madness, or perhaps into the paranormal. Or perhaps, depending on your interpretation, into freedom. The result is a story as chilling as anything by Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King.
Better Health Through Infantilization
The protagonist's husband, John, does not take her illness seriously. Nor does he take her seriously. He prescribes, among other things, a "rest cure," in which she is confined to their summer home, mostly to her bedroom.
The woman is discouraged from doing anything intellectual even though she believes some "excitement and change" would do her good. She must write in secret. And she is allowed very little company-certainly not from the "stimulating" people she most wishes to see.
In short, John treats her like a child, calling her diminutive names like "blessed little goose" and "little girl." He makes all decisions for her and isolates her from the things she cares about.
His actions are couched in concern for her, a position that she initially seems to believe herself. "He is very careful and loving," she writes in her journal, "and hardly lets me stir without special direction." Her words also sound as if she is merely parroting what she's been told, and "hardly lets me stir" seems to harbor a veiled complaint.
Even her bedroom is not the one she wanted; instead, it's a room that appears to have once been a nursery, thus emphasizing her return to infancy. Its "windows are barred for little children," showing again that she is being treated as a child, and also that she is like a prisoner.
Fact Versus Fancy
John dismisses anything that hints of emotion or irrationality-what he calls "fancy." For instance, when the narrator says that the wallpaper in her bedroom disturbs her, he informs her that she is letting the wallpaper "get the better of her" and thus refuses to remove it.
John doesn't simply dismiss things he finds fanciful; he also uses the charge of "fancy" to dismiss anything he doesn't like. In other words, if he doesn't want to accept something, he declares that it is irrational.
When the narrator tries to have a "reasonable talk" with him about her situation, she is so distraught that she is reduced to tears. But instead of interpreting her tears as evidence of her suffering, he takes them as evidence that she is irrational and can't be trusted to make decisions for herself.
He speaks to her as if she is a whimsical child, imagining her own illness. "Bless her little heart!" he says. "She shall be as sick as she pleases!" He does not want to acknowledge that her problems are real and so he silences her.
The only way the narrator could appear rational to John would be to become satisfied with her situation; therefore, there is no way for her to express concerns or ask for changes.
In her journal, the narrator writes:
"John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him."
John can't imagine anything outside his own judgment. So when he determines that the narrator's life is satisfactory, he imagines that the fault lies with her perception of her life. It never occurs to him that her situation might really need improvement.
The nursery walls are covered in putrid yellow wallpaper with a confused, eerie pattern. The narrator is horrified by it.
She studies the incomprehensible pattern in the wallpaper, determined to make sense of it. But rather than making sense of it, she begins to discern a second pattern-that of a woman creeping furtively around behind the first pattern, which acts a prison for her.
The first pattern of the wallpaper can be seen as the societal expectations that hold women like the narrator captive. The narrator's recovery will be measured by how cheerfully she resumes her domestic duties as wife and mother, and her desire to do anything else-like write-is seen to interfere with that recovery.
Though the narrator studies and studies the pattern in the wallpaper, it never makes any sense to her. Similarly, no matter how hard she tries to recover, the terms of her recovery-embracing her domestic role-never make any sense to her, either.
The creeping woman can represent both victimizations by the societal norms and resistance to them.
This creeping woman also gives a clue about why the first pattern is so troubling and ugly. It seems to be peppered with distorted heads with bulging eyes-the heads of other creeping women who were strangled by the pattern when they tried to escape it. That is, women who couldn't survive when they tried to resist cultural norms. Gilman writes that "nobody could climb through that pattern-it strangles so."
Becoming a "Creeping Woman"
Eventually, the narrator becomes a "creeping woman." The first indication is when she says, rather startlingly, "I always lock the door when I creep by daylight." Later, the narrator and the creeping woman work together to pull off the wallpaper.
The narrator writes, "There are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast." So the narrator is one of many.
That her shoulder "just fits" into the groove on the wall is sometimes interpreted to mean that she has been the one ripping the paper and creeping around the room all along. But it could also be interpreted as an assertion that her situation is no different from that of many other women. In this interpretation, "The Yellow Wallpaper" becomes not just a story about one woman's madness, but a maddening system.
At one point, the narrator observes the creeping women from her window and asks, "I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?"
Her coming out of the wallpaper-her freedom-coincides with a descent into mad behavior, ripping off the paper, locking herself in her room, even biting the immovable bed. That is, her freedom comes when she finally reveals her beliefs and behavior to those around her and stops hiding.
The final scene, in which John faints, and the narrator continues to creep around the room, stepping over him every time, is disturbing but also triumphant. Now John is the one who is weak and sickly, and the narrator is the one who finally gets to determine the rules of her own existence. She is finally convinced that he only "pretended to be loving and kind." After being consistently infantilized by his prescriptions and comments, she turns the tables on him by addressing him condescendingly, if only in her mind, as "young man."
John refused to remove the wallpaper, and in the end, the narrator used it as her escape.