Women's Correctional Facility: Analysis of "The Yellow Wallpaper"
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator becomes obsessed with the strange, headache-inducing wallpaper covering her bedroom in her summer home. The hallucinatory pattern slowly takes on the shape of a woman behind bars. This image represents not only the narrator's struggle, but the plight of every woman at that time in history. In 1892, when the story was written, women could not vote, own property, retains wages they may have earned, and in some cases they were even prevented from seeing their own children on the rare chance that they were able to obtain a divorce.
In this largely autobiographical tale, Gilman writes of the narrator's downward journey from a "temporary nervous disorder" to utter insanity ("Wallpaper" 61). She (the narrator) tells us that she and her husband are staying in a country estate for the summer (Gilman "Wallpaper" 60). She later reveals that her "slight hysterical tendency" is the reason for this vacation home (Gilman "Wallpaper" 61, 62). The house and grounds are large providing a perfect backdrop for the narrator's prescription of rest and relaxation and lots of air (Gilman "Wallpaper" 62). At her husband's behest, they occupy the nursery on the top floor for it's "a big, airy room" with "air and sunshine galore" (Gilman "Wallpaper" 62). However, the wallpaper is hideous, "one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin" (Gilman "Wallpaper" 62). Even the color of the wallpaper is horrendous: "a smouldering unclean yellow" (Gilman "Wallpaper" 62). The previous occupants detested it as well, for it is torn away in great pieces around the head of the bed and in spots near the baseboards (Gilman "Wallpaper" 62).
As time goes on, the narrator begins to see shapes forming within the dizzying pattern of the wallpaper, first a pair of "bulbous eyes," then a "strange, provoking, formless sort of figure" (Gilman "Wallpaper" 64, 65). The narrator admits that she thinks often on the wallpaper and the undulating shapes beneath it. She lies in bed and follows the pattern around with her eyes (Gilman "Wallpaper" 65). She gets up in the middle of the night to try to touch it in the moonlight (Gilman "Wallpaper" 67). She thinks on it constantly, trying to figure out the riddle behind, trying to make contact with whatever lives inside of it.
Later on in the story, moonlight enhances the wallpaper, and the image is even clearer;
it's a woman behind bars (Gilman "Wallpaper" 68)! The imagery couldn't be any more obvious. The woman knows she's behind bars, and she shakes them; she "shakes them hard" (Gilman "Wallpaper" 70). She's trying to escape, to get out, to "climb through [the wallpaper]" (Gilman "Wallpaper" 71). As the figure within the yellow wallpaper becomes clearer, it isn't just a woman the narrator sees, but "a woman stooping down and creeping about" (Gilman "Wallpaper" 67). This description is particularly noteworthy because of what the language implies; a woman stooped, bent or hunched over indicates someone of older age, the crone archetype, withered, deformed, and gnarled with age. The narrator might then be envisioning her own doom, seeing what she is to become, mentally if not physically, if left to waste away not only in her madness, but also her stifling marriage.
Perhaps it isn't age that forces the woman in the wallpaper to bend over, but the strain of the way she's being forced to live, forced to conform to a patriarchal society's standards of what's right and good and proper. Only behind the pattern of the wallpaper can the woman show how the stress affects her, for in real life, a woman's posture was dictated by the unforgiving confines of a corset. The narrator herself is suffering from a similar force her marriage to a fearfully practical and patronizing man who doesn't even believe she's truly sick (Gilman "Wallpaper" 61). She is, in fact, caught in the Catch 22 of no one, not her brother (who happens to be a physician) nor even her own husband (who is her personal physician), taking her illness seriously, yet they insist on her taking "phosphates...and tonicx...and air" (Gilman "Wallpaper" 61). Her husband, in turns, laughs at her then says she must "take care of [herself] for his sake" and if she "doesn't pick up faster he shall send [her] to Weir Mitchell in the fall" (Gilman "Wallpaper" 66, 65).
Unfortunately, this pattern of contradictions is not an unusual one for women at the time. Women were told they mustn't overexcite themselves, physically or mentally; their frail bodies and weak constitutions and small brains couldn't handle the stimulation. Yet they were expected to bear and raise children, run the household, manage domestic affairs, cook, clean, sew, knit, embroider, wait on their husbands, entertain guests and family all with little to no formal education. Gilman gives evidence of this living contradiction in the very beginning of her story:
John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage" ("Wallpaper" 60). John does a lot of laughing in this story. He laughs at the narrator in regards to her original revulsion at the wallpaper (Gilman "Wallpaper" 63). He laughs at her when she insists she's not getting well at all (Gilman "Wallpaper" 68). He laughs and laughs, and in the same breath tells his wife that they came to the estate for the summer "solely on [her] account" (Gilman "Wallpaper" 62). As her physician, he tells her she is "absolutely forbidden to work'" until she's well, which means she is unable to do any of the domestic "chores" listed above, and she is made to feel like a terrible burden because of it (Gilman "Wallpaper" 63).
The constant inconsistency with these "lessons" about women and their "place" in the home during the nineteenth century is enough to drive anyone crazy, without the benefit of hideous yellow wallpaper. Gilman herself said that the story "was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy" ("Why" 9). She, too, suffered from depression and was prescribed the controversial "rest cure." A month later, the "noted specialist" who attended her case sent her home with the following medical advice: "live as domestic a life as possible, have but two hours' intellectual life a day, and never...touch [a] pen, brush, or pencil again" (Gilman "Why" 3). She followed his advice for a number of months, and consequently came close to "utter mental ruin" (Gilman "Why" 4). Then she did what many women reading "The Yellow Wallpaper" wish the narrator had done; she threw the doctor's "advice to the winds," left her husband, "and went to work again" (Gilman "Why" 5). She wrote this story and even sent a copy of it to her former doctor. Years later she found out that "the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia [after] reading The Yellow Wallpaper" (Gilman "Why" 8). Now only if her first husband could have changed his ways as well.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "The Yellow Wallpaper." Writing about Literature: A Portable Guide. Ed. Janet E. Gardner. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004. 60-74.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper." The Forerunner Oct. 1913