On Tuesday, we proffered a brief summary of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; now, it’s time for the analysis. You can read Gilman’s story here before proceeding to our commentary/analysis below.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ begins by dangling the idea that what we are about to read is a haunted house story, a Gothic tale, a piece of horror. Why else, wonders the story’s female narrator, would the house be available so cheaply unless it was haunted? And why had it remained unoccupied for so long? This is how many haunted house tales begin. And this will turn out to be true, in many ways – the story is often included in anthologies of horror fiction, and there is a ‘haunting’ of a kind going on in the story – but as ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ develops we realise we’re reading something far more unsettling than a run-of-the-mill haunted house story, because the real ghosts and demons are either inside the narrator’s troubled mind or else her own husband and her sister-in-law.
Of course, these two things are linked. Because one of the ‘morals’ of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – if ‘moral’ is not too strong a word to use of such a story – is that the husband’s treatment of his wife’s mental illness only succeeds in making her worse, rather than better, until her condition reaches the point where she is completely mad, suffering from hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia. So ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a haunted house story … but the only ghosts are inside the narrator’s head. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a Gothic horror story – it ends with the husband taking an axe to the bedroom door where his cowering wife is imprisoned … but the twist is that she has imprisoned herself in her deluded belief that she is protecting her husband from the ‘creeping women’ from behind the wallpaper, and he is prepared to beat down the door with an axe out of genuine concern for his sick wife, rather than to butcher her, Bluebeard or Jack Torrance style.
As we mentioned in Tuesday’s summary, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has the structure and style of a diary. This is in keeping with what the female narrator tells us: that she can only write down her experiences when her husband John is not around. But it also has the effect of shifting the narrative tense: from the usual past tense to the more unusual present tense. Only one year separates ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ from George Egerton’s first volume of short stories, which made similarly pioneering use of present-tense narration in order to depict female consciousness. Ruth Robbins has made the argument that the past tense (or ‘perfect tense’) is unsuited to some modes of fiction because it offers the ‘perspective that leads to judgment’: because events have already occurred, we feel in a position to judge the characters involved. Present-tense narration deters us from doing this so readily, for two reasons. First, we are thrown in amongst the events, experiencing them as they happen almost, so we feel complicit in them. Second, because things are still unfolding seemingly before our very eyes, we feel that to attempt to pass judgment on what’s happening would be too rash and premature: we don’t know for sure how things are going to play out yet. Given that Gilman is writing about a mentally unstable woman being mistreated by her male husband (and therefore, given his profession, by the medical world too), her decision to plunge us headlong into the events of the story encourage us to listen to what the narrator is telling us before we attempt to pronounce on what’s going on. The fact that ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is narrated in the first person, from the woman’s own perspective and in her own voice, is also a factor: the only access we have to her treatment (or mistreatment) and to her husband’s behaviour and personality is through her: what she tells us and how she tells it to us.
But there is another narrative advantage to this present-tense diary structure: we as readers are forced to appraise everything we are told by the narrator, and scrutinise it carefully, deciding whether we are being told the whole story or whether the narrator, in her nervous and unstable state, may not be seeing things as they really are. A good example of this is when, having told us at length how she follows the patterns on the yellow wallpaper on the walls of her room, sometimes for hours on end, the narrator then tells us she is glad her baby doesn’t have to live in the same room, because someone as ‘impressionable’ as her child wouldn’t do well in such a room. The dramatic irony which the narrator cannot see but which we, tragically, can, is that she is every bit as impressionable as a small child, and the yellow wallpaper – and, more broadly, her effective incarceration – is clearly having a deleterious effect on her mental health. (The story isn’t perfect: Gilman telegraphs the irony a little too strongly when, in the next breath, she has her narrator tell us, with misplaced confidence, ‘I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see.’)
In the last analysis, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is so unsettling because it plays with established Gothic horror conventions and then subverts them in order to expose the misguided medical practices used in an attempt to ‘treat’ or ‘cure’ women who are suffering from mental or nervous disorders. It has become a popular feminist text about the male mistreatment of women partly because the ‘villain’, the narrator’s husband John, is acting out of a genuine (if hubristic) belief that he knows what’s best for her. The whole field of nineteenth-century patriarchal society and the way it treats women thus comes under scrutiny, in a story that is all the more powerful for refusing to preach, even while it lets one such mistreated woman speak for herself.