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a short story by charlotte perkins gilman about a woman who goes insane staring at wallpaper. well, there's a bit more to it than that. it's really sort of a critique of psychiatric practices at the time (late 1800s). the protagonist is undergoing "treatment" for some sort of "melancholia," which largely consists of doing away with anything creative or intellectual and going back to being a dutiful wife.

instead of getting better, the woman ends up hallucinating wildly and believing her husband, sister-in-law, and even the wallpaper in her room are all out to get her. she becomes terrified of being "trapped" in the wallpaper, which seems sort of an allegory for being trapped by society in a stereotypically feminine role. women weren't supposed to think, and inevitably if they felt even the teensiest bit of emotional imbalance it was automatically blamed on mind-stimulating activity-- rather than on their frustration with their less-than-stellar ranking in the world.

gilman wrote this story because she went through a similar experience; in 1887, suffering from neurasthenia, she was told to "live as domestic a life as far as possible," to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again as long as i lived." for three months she gave it a go, "and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over." when she decided to ignore the doctor's advice, she bounced back like a badass yo-yo.

i am an ostrich.

the yellow wallpaper is meant as a warning based on personal experience. "It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy," she explained in a 1913 issue of The Forerunner.

this is one of the creepiest things i've ever read, and i highly recommend it. the subsequent film is also excellent and captures the mood quite well; i've never been so freaked out by the sight of a woman crawling on the ground.
An Essay on The Yellow Wallpaper

During the middle to late 1800s, an industrial wave swept through the country sending men out into the world to work in factories and offices. Although lower class females joined their men in work, middle to upper class females sometimes became prisoners of their homes. Not only did society expect the women to be the caretakers of the home, society also expected them to do it with pleasant smiles on their faces. The stifled ambitions and imaginations of these women often caused mental problems based on unfulfilled needs and the guilt of wanting something more. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Charlotte Perkins Gilman depicts a woman driven to madness by the pervading attitude of society represented by her husband and the yellow wallpaper in her room.

The main character is unnamed for the duration of the short story. The reader can only identify her through her husband’s name. Her namelessness accentuates her subservient position and submissive nature. It also creates the possibility of her as a representation of every woman, especially since society dictates that women first take their fathers’ then their husbands’ surnames. This woman defines herself through her writing, which is also her work. She is a creative and artistic person. This puts her in direct contrast with her husband, John. "John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures." John is a physician. Where his wife is an artist, he is a man of science. His inability to relate to his wife and his general disregard for her thoughts will adversely affect her recovery.

The main character, at the beginning, has a "temporary nervous depression." She has just recently had a child and is very possibly experiencing post-partem depression. Although she feels unwell, her husband and brother, also a doctor, deny her illness. "If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?" By communicating all that information to the woman’s friends and family, John has begun to isolate his wife. In contradiction to their denial of illness, they treat her as if she is sick. John prescribes a rest cure, but the woman does not have faith in her husband’s advice. "Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change would do me good." However, no one considers her ideas because they think she is flighty but also because she is female.

In addition to creating a rift between his wife and possible sympathizers, John isolates his wife in a rented estate three miles from a village. "It is quite alone, standing well back from the road…" He controls her environment, diet, and medication. He forbids her from working, and John’s sister comes to take care of the housework and baby. She is no comrade for the main character. Jennie, John’s sister, is an extension of John and society’s view of propriety. "She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession." The narrator is truly alone, both in physical location and in empathy.

John also forbids his wife from her writing, but she disobeys him in this one thing. Writing is her only outlet, and it is the only aspect of her life that remains hers. "And I know John would think it absurd. But I must say what I feel and think in some way – it is such a relief!" Although she obeys her husband outwardly in everything else, she is able to express heretical thoughts through her writing. "John is a physician, and perhaps – (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind.) – perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster." Even though she has an outlet, she must hide her writing from her husband and sister-in-law. This furtive behavior tires her. "I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal – having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition." Because they make it so difficult for her, she is slowly losing her ease of expression. John seems to care about his wife through his efforts to care for her, but he is more interested in changing his wife to think and behave more as he does. He believes that her imagination and creativity are childish traits. "He says no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me." Again, John speaks in contradiction. He has all the control, yet tries to convince her that it is completely in her hands. John does not allow her to distrust him, so she turns that distrust inward. He says to her, "…but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know." John creates in his wife a feeling of self-effacement. He also belittles her by using such endearments as "little girl" and "silly little goose."

In her solitude, the main character focuses on her immediate surroundings. There is little else for her to do. She is confined to a room which previous owners had used as a nursery, playroom, and gymnasium. The room is airy, yet the bars on the windows further emphasize her mental and emotional imprisonment. The main feature of her bedroom is the yellow wallpaper, which slowly infests the woman’s thoughts.

The yellow paper surrounds her, and she initially finds it quite horrible. "The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in other. … I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long." It stifles her, as does her husband and the pervading society. It is just as inescapable. John ignores her discomfort with the wallpaper and chalks it up as one of her fancies. As her isolation continues, the yellow wallpaper becomes her primary focus. From her perspective, the paper is constantly changing. Although it still disgusts her, she finds it riveting. "The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing. You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well under way in following it, it turns a back-somersault and there you are." The paper is everywhere in that room. The smell travels all around the house. "I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs." The yellow dye stains everything. All these aspects of the yellow paper have permeated the mind of the main character. Like society’s mainstream view, the paper has made it indelible mark. After following the paper’s various patterns and inconsistencies in a variety of lighting, she believes that there is a moving woman underneath the paper. It is the narrator herself, caught under the stifling opinions of society.

As soon as the main character decides to tear the paper off the wall, she begins to distrust her husband. "He asked me all sorts of questions too, and pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn’t see through him." She wants the woman under the paper for herself. She wants to be under her own control. After the paper is torn off the wall, she and the woman behind the paper become one. She creeps around the room, but as her own person. "‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘ in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back.’" It is not a clean victory. Society’s viewpoints had already insidiously corrupted her mind. Therefore, renouncing those mainstream mores came at the expense of her sanity.

Just as the yellow paper smothers the woman, John smothers his wife. This account shows how society’s ways can make it easy to crush a human spirit. Gilman, herself, regained her sanity through a steady form of work and by renouncing her ties to the doctor. Not only did she deliberately disobey the doctor’s advice, but she also divorced her husband. By breaking the tie to those whom had her trapped, Gilman pulls off society’s stronghold as her character pulled the paper from the wall. Gilman had not only warned other women of her time period, but she has left evidence of how society can put a fortress against people and force them, literally, out of their minds.

Charlotte Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper portrays a woman dealing not only with her mental instability, but with her domineering husband and her role as a woman in the late 1800's. It is likely that at the start of the story the woman is merely depressed and anxious, wanting to do something more with her life than be a wife and mother; the mere act of her writing would lead the reader to believe so. It is her inability to communicate this need to John, his constant reminders to her of her 'illness', and her treatment while in the summer house that lead to her eventual breakdown.

The room that John chooses for his wife is symbolic and telling of attitudes of men toward women of the period. Although his wife would rather have a room downstairs looking out onto the piazza, with roses festooned about the window, he assigns her the nursery. This room is reminiscent of a mental ward, taking up nearly an entire floor of the house, with bars on the windows and heavy immovable furniture.

The room is also appointed with wallpaper that intrudes on the serenity of Gilman's main character. Her obsession with the wallpaper could be interpreted as her obsession with personal freedom. Unlike Edna Pontillier in Chopin's The Awakening this woman does not have the luxury of autonomy. Edna could do as she pleased while her husband kept a safe distance away. John's intrusion into his wife's life is complete. He chooses her room, her diet and medication, he separates her from her home, family and child. He exercises the kind of control that most husbands of the period could over their wives. So then, this woman's preoccupation with her freedom, as it is being slowly eroded, manifests itself in her obsession with the wallpaper of her prison-like room.

When she first sees the wallpaper it is merely annoying, but as it is studied it gains new depth. It grows to be fascinating and nonsensical, she begins to decern a pattern and see heads strangled within the complex tendrils of its design. Finally, she sees a figure trapped behind the paper, as trapped as she is in this room and in her marriage.

The wallpaper then symbolizes the confining nature of her life, and those who try to keep her there. Because she is powerless to make any changes in her own life, she begins to identify with the woman trapped behind the wallpaper, and tries to help this woman gain her freedom. At some point during this struggle she loses herself to her fantasy, and announces to the reader that she is the woman who was trapped.

The story obviously tells of a woman driven to insanity by societal expectations and constraints, but a far more interesting interpretation comes about when viewing her acts of madness as a struggle to free herself of these bonds. Writing her journal without regard to her husband's wishes is an act of rebellion, as is ripping the paper from the wall. As she flouts her husband's authority to greater and greater degrees, she is portrayed as being less and less connected to reality.

In the final scene, she is creeping over the floor, along the strip of wall where she removed the paper, "freeing" herself. In order to complete her journey, she crawls over her fainted husband. Showing the reader that she is victorious in her desire for independence, in her desire to be free.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," is a disturbing expose of the harmful effects of the 'rest cures' prescribed for women suffering from 'hysteria-' a euphemism for any female ailment not understood by the male establishment of doctors. Gilman herself was the victim of such a treatment, which recommended that she "Live as domestic a life as possible," and to restrict herself to "but two hours' intellectual life a day… never [ touching] pen, brush or pencil as long as [she lived.]" In short, to voluntarily immerse herself in a stifling social role that institutionalizes the oppression of women. Luckily, Gilman rebelled against the treatment before she suffered mental breakdown- unlike the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper," who grows progressively less sane as she realizes how trapped she is. Gilman uses the "repellent, almost revolting" wallpaper in the narrator's cell-like room to symbolize her gradually increasing awareness of the forces that keep her in a subservient role. The narrator's changing perception of her environment, especially her hallucinatory visions of a "sub-pattern" in the wallpaper, provide a window into her unconscious mind and reveal the magnitude of women's subjugated state.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator's surroundings symbolize the societal forces that emphasize a 'Cult of Domesticity' and confine women in the home. The narrator, suffering from "hysteria," is kept in the "nursery" on the top floor of a large colonial mansion, "forbidden" to engage in any stimulating activity. Despite the narrator's insistence that the room is "comfortable," it more closely resembles a cell in a sanitarium than a nursery, with "rings and things on the walls… [a] heavy bedstead… barred windows… [a] gate at the head of the stairs… [and] the floor… scratched and gouged and splintered." This prison represents the oppression of women in society, fashioned both by the outside forces of the male establishment and by womankind's own blind acceptance of their fate. The wallpaper, so abhorrent to the narrator, becomes a way for her to express her repressed hatred of confinement. Throughout the story, she attempts to cover up her anger, especially at her husband, John, the very physician who has recommended this treatment. Although she admits, "I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes," she quickly writes, "I think it is due to this nervous condition." By personifying both the medical establishment and the institution of marriage in the subtly antagonistic character of John, Gilman expresses her disapproval of both. John ignores all of his wife's pleas for activity, and condescendingly treats her like a foolish little girl. "John laughs at me, of course," writes the narrator, "but one expects that in a marriage." Her acceptance of such treatment is an example of the self-denying submission that many women voluntarily practice.

The evolution of the wallpaper and its sub-pattern as the narrator becomes more aware of her imprisonment-and more insane-give the story a psychological aspect. Since the narrator is unwilling, and perhaps incapable, of consciously acknowledging her captivity, her hallucinations bring her sub-conscious to manifest itself in her reality. The narrator first sees "a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about" within the wallpaper's convolutions. "It is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern," she writes, "I don't like it a bit. I wonder- I begin to think- I wish John would take me away from here!" The imagined woman, like the narrator, is trapped- a similarity she seems about to grasp but which she rejects as her conscious mind regains control.

Just as the sub-pattern reveals her subconscious, the cycle of day and night symbolizes the conflict between her conscious and subconscious. It is during the night that the figure manifests itself most strongly, creeping around the room. "On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind," the narrator writes. During the daytime, when reality is most firmly in control, the pattern still grates. At night, however, things become more clear- "At night, in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, [the pattern] becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be. …By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still." Oddly enough, the narrator's condition begins to improve- and she says that it is "because of the wallpaper." She certainly seems invigorated by the intellectual stimulation the wallpaper brings her, but she is obviously much less sane. "I don't sleep much at night," she writes, "for it is so interesting to watch developments [in the wallpaper]; but I sleep a good deal in the daytime." Her unconscious is gaining more and more influence and control over her, manifesting itself more strongly in reality, in the form of a peculiar smell. "[The smell] used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house-to reach the smell." Like her acceptance of the wallpaper, her acceptance of the smell reveals that a tenuous connection with reality has become the norm for her.

The sub-pattern continues to become more animated, with the woman in it "trying to climb through." The woman's struggle can be interpreted both as a symbol of women's battle to escape from the gilded cages they have been confined to, and as an attempt by this woman to enter the psychological fortress that the narrator has constructed for herself. "I think that woman gets out in the daytime!" exclaims the narrator- apparently her conscious defenses of denial have failed. Now, she seems openly disgusted with John, writing, "He asked me all sorts of questions, ...and pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn't see through him!" Now she attempts to free the woman at night, tearing the wallpaper from the walls. Her actions seem to symbolize the forseen birth of a more active feminist movement that openly attempts to destroy the societal forces that have oppressed women.

Finally, the narrator becomes the trapped woman in the sub-pattern, believing that she has escaped from the wallpaper. She creeps about the perimeter of the room with her shoulder rubbing a "long smooch" into the remaining wallpaper. John comes to the door, which the narrator has locked, finally opening it. Ironically, he faints when he sees her insane behavior, despite beliefs that man is the stronger sex. The narrator cries, "I've got 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." Jane, who has not been introduced in the story, could be the narrator herself, in which case her escape is from both John-the male-dominated societal structure, and herself-the voluntarily submissive woman. Now she "creeps over [John] every time" she makes her way around the room, moving over him in domination. The narrator's removal from reality, in which women are oppressed, seems to be a victory over herself and a symbol of the maturation of the feminist movement into a powerful and self-aware force. This is a bittersweet triumph, however, since she has fallen into insanity. By using psychological symbols that give insight into the narrator's unconscious, Gilman has accentuated the damage that oppression does to women, and made change seem much more essential.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a brilliant 1892 story that presents the first-person chronicle of a woman in a stifling marriage driven mad by spirit-crushing, enforced boredom and her horrified obsession with the floridly ugly wallpaper in the bedroom of the country manor her husband has rented for the summer. The story works as both a feminist critique of the societal suppression of women in the 19th century and as a gothic horror tale; one could read it even as a type of haunted house story (and viewed as all three, it is an excellent piece to compare and contrast with Henry James’ 1898 novel The Turn of the Screw.)

While there’s a great deal in this tale to examine, one of the aspects of the story that struck me was Gilman’s symbolic use of paper.

On the one hand, there’s the paper that the narrator writes upon: “this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind”. The paper in her notebook might be dead, but her thoughts are alive, and her physician husband frowns upon her writing those thoughts down as a violation of the strict rest she is supposed to endure as part of the “cure” for the nervous depression he has diagnosed her with. She must hide her writing from her husband and his sister Jane, whom he has enlisted to keep house.

Why does she see the notebook paper she writes upon as “dead”? Because it’s whitely blank. It’s completely passive, lacks any innate imaginative qualities and bends completely to the will of whomever seeks to use it … just like the perfect Victorian housewife. The narrator’s intellect and imagination are seen as defects in her world, and initially she tries to use her writing as a way of getting those aspects of herself out of her system. But she realizes that if she purges those parts of herself, she will be just as dead as the paper she writes upon.

Conversely, she sees the hideous wallpaper that surrounds her in her room as not just a stylized representation of flora but an actual living creature. She first tries to make sense of its weird, conflicting, confounding patterns – much as she’s trying to make sense of the complex, illogical rules and double-standards of the patriarchal world she’s trapped in. Then she starts to see malign eyes moving inside the pattern. As her madness progresses, she starts to see the image of a lurking woman trapped inside the pattern, and the narrator becomes obsessed with getting her out.

At the climax of the story, the narrator has become convinced that she herself was the woman trapped inside the wallpaper all along and she glories in having freed herself as she crawls on her hands and knees around the perimeter of the room, an insane orbit that some other woman travelled before her, leaving a streak for her to follow: “But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way.”

Gilman’s careful, layered use of the two kinds of paper as symbol and metaphor is truly impressive and masterful.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is one of the most analyzed short works of the weird. When I put out a collection of early pulp ghost and atmospheric horror stories, I included this tale. 

Historically, women were treated much differently than men when it came to mental health. Women could get confined to a psychiatric hospital for years under things like "overly emotional" or "hysteria". The latter was apparently caused by a dysfunction of the uterus.

If one looks at a timeline of word usage, words based on "hyster" peaked around the 1900's, so this story fit in well with the thinking of the psychoanalytic community. John, a doctor, feels his wife is suffering from hysteria and needs to be kept under a strict lack of stimulus. Because she is kept sedated mentally, her brain begins to fill in the missing pieces of living. She begins to enjoy looking and tracing the wallpaper with her eyes, and it becomes her favorite "because of the wallpaper".

Eventually the dark feelings she holds inside begin to manifest themselves. "There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me". Things begin to creep out and become clearer. My take on this is that she has another personality but it wasn't well documented at the time. In the end the alternate personality overpowers and becomes the poor victim.

Iron Noder 2017

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