By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, an 1892 short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 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, since he has forbidden her to write until she is well again, believing it will overexcite her.
Through a series of short instalments, we learn more about the narrator’s situation, and her treatment at the hands of her doctor husband and her sister-in-law. You can read ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ here before moving on to our summary and analysis below.
To summarise the story, then: the narrator and her husband John, a doctor, have come to stay at a large country house. As the story develops, we realise that the woman’s husband has brought her to the house in order to try to cure her of her mental illness (he has told her that repairs are being carried out on their home, which is why they have had to relocate to a mansion).
His solution, or treatment, is effectively to lock her away from everyone – including her own family, except for him – and to forbid her anything that might excite her, such as writing. (She writes her account of what happens to her, and the effect it has on her, in secret, hiding her pen and paper when her husband or his sister come into the room.)
John’s suggested treatment for his wife also extends to relieving her of maternal duties: their baby is taken out of her hands and looked after by John’s sister, Jennie. Jennie also does all of the cooking and housework.
It becomes clear, as the story develops, that depriving the female narrator of anything to occupy her mind is making her mental illness worse, not better.
The narrator confides that she cannot even cry in her husband’s company, or when anyone else is present, because that will be interpreted as a sign that her condition is worsening – and her husband has promised (threatened?) to send her to another doctor, Weir Mitchell, if her condition doesn’t show signs of improving. And according to a female friend who has been treated by him, Weir Mitchell is like her husband and brother ‘only more so’ (i.e. stricter).
The narrator then outlines in detail how she sometimes sits for hours on end in her room, tracing the patterns in the yellow wallpaper. She then tells us she thinks she can see a woman ‘stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern.’ At this point, she changes her mind, and goes from being fond of the pattern in the yellow wallpaper to wishing she could go away from the place.
She tells John that she isn’t getting any better in this house and that she would like to leave, but he tells her she is looking healthier and that they cannot return home for another three weeks, until their lease is up and the ‘repairs’ at home have been completed.
Despondent, the narrator tells us how she is becoming more obsessed by the yellow wallpaper, especially at night when she is unable to sleep and so lies awake watching the pattern in the wallpaper, which she says resembles a fungus.
She starts to fear her husband. She becomes paranoid that her husband and sister-in-law, Jennie, are trying to decipher the pattern in the yellow wallpaper, and she becomes determined to beat them to it. (Jennie was actually checking the wallpaper because the thought it was staining their clothes; this is the reason she gives to the narrator when asked about it, anyway. However, the more likely reason is that she and John have noticed the narrator’s obsession with looking at the wallpaper, and are becoming concerned.)
Next, the narrator tells us she has noticed the strange smell of the wallpaper, and tells us she seriously considered burning down the house to try to solve the mystery of what she smell was. She concludes that it is simply ‘a yellow smell!’ We now realise that the narrator is losing her mind rather badly.
She becomes convinced that the ‘woman behind’ the yellow wallpaper is shaking it, thus moving the front pattern of the paper. She says she has seen this woman creeping about the grounds of the house during the day; she returns to behind the wallpaper at night.
The narrator then tells us that she believes John and Jennie have become ‘affected’ by the wallpaper – that they are losing their minds from being exposed to it.
So the narrator begins stripping the yellow wallpaper from the walls, much to the consternation of Jennie. John has all of his wife’s things moved out of the room, ready for them to leave the house. While John is out, the narrator locks herself inside the now bare room and throws the key out the window, so she cannot be disturbed.
She has become convinced that there are many creeping women roaming the grounds of the house, all of them originating from behind the yellow wallpaper, and that she is one of them. The story ends with her husband banging on the door to be let in, fetching the key when she tells him it’s down by the front door mat, and bursting into the room – whereupon he faints, at the sight of his wife creeping around the room.
That concludes our attempt to summarise the ‘plot’ of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.
‘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’ borrows familiar tropes from 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, by the end of the story, 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 at the beginning of this analysis, ‘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.
The literary critic 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 encourages 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.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.