By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is an 1892 short story by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A powerful study of mental illness and the inhuman treatments administered in its name, the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed woman who is incarcerated in the nursery room of a large house she and her husband have rented.
Her husband believes that locking her away will give her the rest she needs, but it ends up worsening her mental state, until she locks herself inside the nursery in which she is being kept.
Told in the form of a diary the woman is secretly keeping, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ succeeds in part because of this first-person narrative voice. Let’s take a look at some of the most important and illustrative quotations from Gilman’s story.
‘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?’
This quotation from early in Gilman’s story establish the crux of the story in one sentence. The narrator’s husband is not only a man – at a time when men had a good deal of control over their wives, including (in many cases) their money and property – but is also a qualified doctor. In other words, she has to trust that he knows best, even if she suspects that his proposed treatment is not going to do her good.
It is easy to view the story as a one-sided feminist account of the powerlessness of women in a male-dominated world, but ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is more nuanced than this assessment implies. Although we can see that her incarceration (for that is what it amounts to) in the nursery at the top of the house is not helping her condition, would a mentally unstable patient or a sane, qualified doctor be the best person to decide what is ‘best’ for the patient?
Of course, in this case, the narrator does know best, but as well as being a work of feminist literature, Gilman’s story is also at bottom a tragedy about the ways in which well-intentioned people – such as doctors who want to help their wives – can sometimes get it terribly wrong.
‘The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.’
Gilman’s story contains some very revealing descriptions of the titular yellow wallpaper. The narrator is simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by it (see below for her attempts to describe its peculiar odour).
This description comes early on in the story, not long after the narrator has been placed inside the nursery at the top of the house she is renting with her husband. At this point, her account of the wallpaper’s appearance is fairly objective and straightforwardly descriptive: although words like ‘repellent’ and ‘revolting’ clearly indicate a particular response to the paper, they are not a million miles away from the kind of observation an ‘omniscient’ and detached third-person narrator might make in a work of realist fiction.
However, this objectivity will be abandoned in later diary entries, as the quotations below make clear.
‘There comes John, and I must put this away, – he hates to have me write a word.’
The narrative style of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is as intrinsic to the story’s ‘message’ as the ‘plot’ or action itself. Having the woman narrate her own story and her own observations about the room in which she is (effectively) imprisoned, in order to ‘cure’ her, allows us an unfiltered insight into her own mental state.
The quotation mentioned above is also a key one in the story because it directly invites us to consider whether the woman’s diary-keeping is doing her good. She descends further into madness as the story progresses, but that descent isn’t necessarily hastened by her writing: indeed, it might even help her to retain some fragments of sanity amidst her illness.
On the other hand, perhaps writing her diary allows her imagination free rein and it does actually worsen her state, since it allows her even more time with her own thoughts. Rather than writing about things she remembers outside the room, she finds herself obsessively writing about the nursery and its wallpaper.
‘And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder – I begin to think – I wish John would take me away from here!’
The verb ‘creeping’ comes at us again and again in this short story. It suggests surreptitious movement – echoing the narrator’s own clandestine writing of her secret diary – but it also creates an unsettling tone.
It is another reminder of the narrator’s unsettled and disordered mind, suggesting as it does something out of sight but sensed on the fringes of consciousness – a movement that we are aware of without being able to see it.
‘It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.’
The narrator becomes obsessed with not only the moving shapes she thinks she can see in the wallpaper, and its foul smell, but also its yellowness – a colour which here symbolises sickliness, unwholesomeness, and perhaps even putrid decay. The narrator ends up abandoning her attempt to describe the strange smell of the paper, simply labelling it a ‘yellow smell’.
‘It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight.’
This late entry to her diary reveals to us that the narrator has descended completely into madness. She believes the woman behind the wallpaper comes out from behind it during the day and creeps around. But the narrator’s remark that ‘most women do not creep by daylight’ is interesting because it reveals something about her attitudes to her own sex.
In other words, since we know the creeping woman is nothing more than a figment of her disordered mind, and that it is probably on some level a reflection of herself, is it really true that ‘most women’ do not creep during daylight? Or are they not forced by society to act cautiously and even quietly so they do not attract too much attention, or lest their husbands think they need locking up?
‘It does not do to trust people too much.’
Written about the diary she is keeping, these words are – as with so much of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – multi-layered. On the one hand, they reveal her neuroticism and paranoia, but on the other, she is justified in being wary, since her husband has forbidden her to keep the diary and is closely monitoring her behaviour.