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 succeeds largely because of its potent symbolism. Let’s take a look at some of the key symbols in the tale.
First, however, let’s briefly summarise the plot of the story: 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. His proposed (well, enforced) treatment is to lock his wife away from everyone except him, and to withhold everything from her that might excite her.
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 outlines to us how she sometimes sits for hours in her room, tracing the patterns in the yellow wallpaper on the walls of her room.
She then tells us she thinks she can see a woman ‘stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern.’ She becomes obsessed with the wallpaper as her mental state deteriorates, before eventually locking herself within the room and crawling around on the floor.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ begins with the idea that we are about to read a haunted house story, a Gothic tale, a piece of horror. Such stories were a staple of late nineteenth-century magazines and enjoyed huge popularity.
And 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, so we are deliberately placed on this track, but it will turn out to be the wrong track.
But as we read on, we realise that the ‘haunting’ is not supernatural but psychological: the narrator of Gilman’s story contains her own demons within her mind, and her husband’s ‘treatment’ actually accentuates and intensifies these.
‘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, because he forbids her to write because he thinks it will overexcite her. The whole story thus has the air of a secret text, with the narrator confiding in us – indeed, the reader is her only confidant.
But it also has the effect of shifting the narrative tense: from the usual past tense to the more unusual present tense. This has benefits in that it creates the sense of a continuous narrative, and events unfolding as we read them.
The narrator’s husband, John, is a doctor, but he is a world away from the ‘mad doctor’ trope found in Gothic texts, especially those influenced by Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
John’s greatest flaw is not his inherent evil but his dogged devotion to the prevailing scientific opinion of the day. His danger to his wife is not in being some eccentric or power-hungry outlier, but in holding too fast to the medical orthodoxy of the time. He believes that incarcerating his wife alone away from her family – even her own children – will make her better.
Gilman uses suggestive symbolism to dramatise the complex relationship between husband and wife in the story. Take that final dramatic scene where John is about to break down the door to his wife’s chamber with an axe. So far, so ‘mad axeman found in countless horror stories and fairy tales’, with shades of Bluebeard, that wife-killer from European folk history.
But this narrative is complicated by the fact that John has come to save his wife from herself, while she – having locked herself away in the room in order to protect her husband and family from the strange women she believes are behind the yellow wallpaper in the room – believes she is protecting him.
Of course, her madness has been made worse by John’s treatment of her in the first place, but he believes he is acting in her own interests. The symbolism of the axe here, and the husband being prepared to break down the door to his wife’s bedroom, is layered and complex.
It is significant that the room in which the narrator is incarcerated is the old nursery in the large house. The narrator tells us that there are bars on the windows to protect little children from hurting themselves, although ‘bars’ here also symbolise the narrator’s de facto imprisonment in the room.
The fact that the room was once a nursery and then, the narrator deduces, a ‘gymnasium’ is loaded with significance. The room thus symbolises the narrator’s own childlike state as she is treated like a naughty child by her husband and locked away in her room. The reference to a gymnasium is ironic, since a gymnasium is a room for exercise, but the room actually worsens the narrator’s health.
The Yellow Wallpaper.
The most powerful symbol in the story is the yellow wallpaper itself. But it is also, perhaps, the most ambiguous symbol in the story, because it can invite at least two very different interpretations.
The first interpretation views the yellow wallpaper as an outward and visible symbol of the narrator’s own internal state of mind. Her disordered mental state leads her to see all manner of figures in the paper’s patterns. Human beings have evolved to look for patterns as a survival mechanism, but here the narrator’s pattern-hunting is her undoing.
At one point, she mentions a ‘particularly irritating’ pattern which ‘you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then’. This closely ties the paper’s patterns with the narrator’s shifting moods and highlights the subjective nature of what she sees (or thinks she sees) in the wallpaper.
However, given the kinds of shapes the narrator describes seeing in the wallpaper, a second interpretation is possible. This one is more firmly focused on the story’s feminist message, and sees the shapes in the wallpaper as symbols of female oppression at the time the story was written. For example, the narrator describes detecting a figure ‘like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern.’
Indeed, the word ‘creeping’ (and its accompanying adjective, ‘creepy’, which seems doubly apt here) recurs numerous times throughout this short story. It implies that the narrator sees a version of herself – and all oppressed women – within the wallpaper, having to tread carefully around others, unable to be fully themselves. The verb ‘stooping’ also suggests bearing the weight of some kind of burden.