Charlotte Perkins Gilman had no way of knowing that a story she wrote in 1892 would one day be regarded as a classic in feminist literature. The gothic tale of “The Yellow Wallpaper” has become just that, although it took nearly a century to find a truly understanding audience. Early readers were appreciative of the sheer horror of the tale, and, indeed, it still stands as a wonderful example of the genre. But it was not until the rediscovery of the story in the early 1970’s that “The Yellow Wallpaper” was recognized as an early feminist indictment of Victorian patriarchy. This story contains many typical gothic trappings, but beneath the conventional façade lies a tale of repression and freedom told in intricate symbolism as seen through the eyes of a mad narrator.
It is difficult to discuss the meaning in this story without first examining the author’s own personal experience. “The Yellow Wallpaper” gives an account of a woman driven to madness as a result of the Victorian “rest-cure,” a once frequently prescribed period of inactivity thought to cure hysteria and nervous conditions in women. As Gary Scharnhorst points out, this treatment originated with Dr. Weir Mitchell, who personally prescribed this “cure” to Gilman herself. She was in fact driven to near madness and later claimed to have written “The Yellow Wallpaper” to protest this treatment of women like herself, and specifically to address Dr. Weir Mitchell with a “propaganda piece.” A copy of the story was actually sent to Mitchell, and although he never replied to Gilman personally, he is said to have confessed to a friend that he had changed his treatment of hysterics after reading the story (15-19).
Although the autobiographical aspects of “The Yellow Wallpaper” are compelling, it is the symbolism and the underlying feminist connotations that lead best to discussion. First is John, the narrator’s husband. He could be viewed as the patriarchy itself, as Beverly Hume says, with his dismissal of all but the tangible and his constant condescension to his wife, but some critics have viewed this character as near-caricature (478). Many of the passages concerning the husband can be interpreted as containing sarcasm, a great many contain irony, and several border on parody (Johnson 528). It is true that the husband’s language is exaggerated at times, but dismissing the husband’s character as caricature seems extreme. He is instead the natural complement to the narrator’s madness and uncontrolled fancy: the character of John is control and “sanity” as defined by Victorian culture and is therefore the narrator’s opposite. Greg Johnson notes that John exhibits a near-obsession with “reason,” even as his wife grows mad. He is the narrator’s necessary counterpart, without whose stifling influence her eventual freedom would not be gained. And he is also transformed at the end of the tale—in a reversal of traditional gothic roles—because it is he, not a female, who faints when confronted with madness (529).
Central to the story is the wallpaper itself. It is within the wallpaper that the narrator finds her hidden self and her eventual damnation/freedom. Her obsession with the paper begins subtly and then consumes both the narrator and the story. Once settled in the long-empty “ancestral estate,” a typical gothic setting, the narrator is dismayed to learn that her husband has chosen the top-floor nursery room for her. The room is papered in horrible yellow wallpaper, the design of which “commit[s] every artistic sin”(426). The design begins to fascinate the narrator and she begins to see more than just the outer design. At first she sees “bulbous eyes” and “absurd unblinking eyes . . . everywhere”(427), phrases suggestive to John Bak of a panopticon, an “alternative” prison developed by Jeremy Bentham in the nineteenth century to replace the dank English prison of the time (39). Further, according to Bak, this new prison, as described by Michael Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1975), involved observance of prisoners at all times (40). This all-seeing prison symbolism is echoed according to Bak in the narrator’s observation of “gates that lock” and the constant surveillance of John and the housekeeper, Jennie (42). Bak goes on to suggest that the nursery room, with its barred windows and rings in the wall, was designed for the restraint of mental patients, but other critics assert that these were in fact common safety precautions used in Victorian nurseries and that such interpretations are extreme.
The wallpaper gradually consumes the narrator’s being, offering up more complex images as time passes. She first notices a different colored sub-pattern of a figure beneath the “front design.” This figure is eventually seen as a woman who “creeps” and shakes the outer pattern, now seen to the narrator as bars. Gary Scharnhorst says that this woman-figure becomes essentially the narrator’s “doppelganger,” or double, trapped behind the bars of her role in the patriarchy (17). As the story progresses, the narrator identifies more and more with the figure in the wallpaper, until (in one of the most controversial statements in the entire text) she refers to herself in the third person. In this statement the narrator says, “‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane’”(436); this statement allows for many different interpretations—some of which change the entire nature of the story, or at least the very ending. Probably the most common interpretation of this line assumes Jane to be the previously unmentioned name of the narrator. This seems by far the simplest and most reasonable explanation, but this brief statement has produced some wild theories ranging in scope from a misprint of the name “Jennie” or “Julia” to a deliberate connection to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Owens 76-77). There are indeed parallels between the madwoman in Jane Eyre and the madness exhibited by the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but it seems unlikely that the more unusual theories would bear up under close scrutiny. With that in mind, we will assume for convenience sake that the name Jane does in fact refer to the narrator herself.
Another feature of the prison/nursery in which the narrator observes her wallpaper is the heavy bedstead, which is nailed to the floor. The interpretations of this feature are variations on a theme, ranging from an image of the narrator’s “static sexuality” (Scharnhorst 19) to “a sexual crucifixion” (Johnson 526). These statements ring true regarding Victorian sexuality; it was as immobile as the unmoving bedstead. A Victorian wife belonged to her husband and her body was his to do with whatever he pleased. Victorian women were counseled that conjugal relations were a woman’s duty simply to be borne until a sufficient number of children arrived and it was no longer necessary. In this context, the image of the nailed-down bed becomes perhaps the most understandable symbol in the entire story.
What of the narrator herself and her madness? An interesting way to view her actions is, in the words of Greg Johnson, as “an expression of long-suppressed rage”(522). Johnson goes on to suggest that the narrator’s madness may in fact be temporary, as the author’s own breakdown was in real life. The narrator is presented as an artist (at least in a small way) and a writer and it is through her writing, Johnson says, that her suppressed rage becomes apparent (522). There is further justification in believing her madness to be temporary. After the narrator becomes free/becomes the creeping woman in the paper, she says, “I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!”(436). Since the narrator had seen the pattern as bars with the creeping figure behind them, perhaps this statement may allude to an eventual return to a societal norm of behavior—Jane, the narrator, may get back behind the bars of Victorian womanhood, but “that is hard!”
There is also the interesting connection between the mad narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the character of Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Almost all writings on the story have a alluded to this connection; some discuss it at length. Perhaps the comparison is inevitable, as Bertha Mason is probably the most well-known example of a gothic madwoman. When viewed as a polarized or split identity, the link between Jane Eyre/Bertha Mason and Narrator Jane/Wallpaper figure is quite clear. The first in both pairs is the conventional self, the “rational self,” and the second is “the raging and uncontrolled madwoman” (Owens 77). Greg Johnson says it is the anger, the boiling rage, of these alter egos that results in eventual triumph over their patriarchal influences (522). By reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” in this light, we can view the story as an interaction between the protagonist and her “shadow self” (King and Morris 29). There is another similarity between Bertha Mason and the narrator of our tale: they both “creep,” or crawl about on all fours. This may be an identification with animal behavior or a way to explain that both characters have lost touch with civilization or the patriarchy. However, as king and Morris add, it may simply be an expression of the narrator’s “self-suppression,” a suppression carried to the point of regression: the narrator ends the story sleeping most of the day and creeping around a nursery room like an infant (30).
Bronte’s madwoman may be more animal than infant, but the opposite is more likely true of our narrator. The question of the narrator’s fate still remains. Is she truly an unreliable narrator, sinking steadily into irretrievable madness? Or is she exhibiting the only sane response to an insane world order? Does she find doom in her madness? Or triumph and freedom at last? The story cannot be viewed in purely supernatural terms, with a real phantom behind the wallpaper; thus the narrator’s madness is undeniable. However, as both Johnson and King and Morris point out, it is this response which grants her freedom in the end. It is her rebellion which is her redemption, and even if her conventional self is completely obliterated, her “survival” is assured by the survival of her writing, her text (527;30-31). As we read the story, the narrator “reads” the wallpaper, and she sees in it her own “suppressed self” (King and Morris 32). So when the narrator destroys the paper and pulls it down in the end, it might be symbolic of the destruction of her other self.
In fact, it is significant that the entire story revolves around wallpaper, which would be considered by many to be merely feminine frivolity. Greg Johnson recounts a story in “Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in 'The Yellow Wallpaper'” about Emily Dickinson’s mother. In the story, the pregnant woman had requested that the wallpaper be changed in her room. When denied the change by her husband, the woman secretly arranged the re-papering herself, her “only recorded act of wifely defiance”(521). The Victorian wife had so little control over her own life that it was through these “frivolities” such as clothing and even wallpaper that these women exercised their autonomy. It seems significant, therefore, that the narrator’s madness is expressed through the chiefly feminine symbol of wallpaper.
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” though a wonderful and frightening gothic tale, will probably continue to be thought of in feminist terms—and probably rightly so. Modern women, by reading such texts, can gain a new perspective on our present situation. We can also learn to avoid past pitfalls. By reading of and understanding the madness in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” we can perhaps prevent such psychic horrors in the future.
Bak, John S. “Escaping the Jaundiced Eye: Foucaldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’”
Studies in Short Fiction 31.1 (1994): 39-45.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “ The Yellow Wallpaper.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. X. J.
Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 6th ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. 424-36.
Hume, Beverly A. “Gilman’s Interminable Grotesque’: The Narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Studies in Short Fiction
Johnson, Greg. “Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Studies in Short Fiction 26.4
King, Jeannette and Pam Morris. “On Not Reading between the Lines: Models of Reading in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’”
Studies in Short Fiction 26.1 (1989): 23-32.
Owens, E. Suzanne. “The Ghostly Double behind the Wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’”
Haunting the House of Fiction. Ed. Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991