The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Summary & Analysis

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, written in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, adopts the form of a diary and follows the experiences of an unnamed female narrator. The story sheds light on her treatment at the hands of her physician husband, John, and her sister-in-law, Jennie. The protagonist is sent to a remote country house under the guise of undergoing a rest cure for her supposed mental illness. Throughout the narrative, the protagonist's gradual descent into madness becomes apparent as she secretly documents her experiences and observations.

Plot Summary: The Yellow Wallpaper

The story unfolds as the narrator, along with her doctor husband John, arrives at a large country house. John aims to cure the protagonist's alleged mental illness by isolating her from everyone, even her family. He enforces strict rules, including forbidding her from writing, as he believes it might exacerbate her condition. Nonetheless, she secretly records her experiences in the form of a diary, concealing her writing materials whenever John or Jennie is present.

John further imposes his treatment by relieving the protagonist of her maternal duties, entrusting her baby's care to Jennie. Jennie also takes charge of all household chores and cooking. The narrator's isolation and lack of mental stimulation worsen her condition rather than improve it, as she is unable to express herself or cry in front of others without fear of further medical interventions.

As the days pass, the narrator's fixation on the yellow wallpaper in her room grows. She observes a woman lurking behind the pattern and develops a fascination with it. As her mental state deteriorates, she becomes increasingly paranoid, believing that John and Jennie are attempting to decipher the wallpaper's pattern. She becomes determined to solve the mystery before them.

As her obsession intensifies, the protagonist starts to fear her husband, whom she perceives as malevolent. She becomes convinced that the wallpaper's pattern hides a secret, and she believes she can see the woman trapped behind it moving the front pattern at night. Her hallucinations escalate, and she begins to see multiple creeping women, all originating from behind the yellow wallpaper, roaming the grounds of the house.

The narrator, convinced that the wallpaper is affecting John and Jennie as well, decides to peel it off the walls, much to Jennie's dismay. John plans for them to leave the house, and he moves the narrator's belongings out of the room. When John is away, the protagonist locks herself inside the now empty room. She discards the key outside the window to prevent anyone from entering.

Convinced that she is one of the creeping women, the protagonist believes they are all trapped behind the wallpaper. When John returns and seeks entry to the room, she informs him that the key is by the front door mat. He enters the room and is shocked to see his wife creeping around, prompting him to faint.

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ vividly portrays the protagonist's descent into madness, presenting a powerful commentary on the oppressive nature of patriarchal attitudes towards women's mental health in the late 19th century.

Critical Analysis of The Yellow Wallpaper

'The Yellow Wallpaper' may appear to commence as a conventional haunted house story, hinting at Gothic horror elements with an unoccupied mansion believed to be haunted. However, as the story progresses, it diverges from traditional horror and delves into the unsettling territory of psychological horror. The haunting in the tale is not external but internal, rooted in the protagonist's troubled mind and the oppressive treatment she endures at the hands of her husband and sister-in-law.

While the story contains Gothic tropes, it uses them to convey a deeper and more disconcerting message. The husband's attempt to cure his wife's supposed mental illness by isolating her and restricting her activities leads to the deterioration of her mental state. The restrictive environment, combined with the prohibition on writing and emotional expression, exacerbates her condition, pushing her to madness characterized by hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia. Thus, the true horrors are the psychological distress and emotional abuse inflicted upon the narrator.

Despite resembling a Gothic tale, 'The Yellow Wallpaper' subverts the genre's conventions. The story concludes with the husband breaking down the door with an axe, but he does so out of genuine concern for his wife rather than to harm her. The protagonist has imprisoned herself within the confines of her delusions, unable to distinguish reality from her hallucinations, making the tale a haunting exploration of mental disintegration and societal control.

One distinctive feature of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' is its structure and style, which imitates a diary. The present-tense narration immerses readers in the events as they unfold, fostering a sense of complicity and caution in passing judgments. The narrative's first-person perspective allows us to perceive events solely through the protagonist's eyes and words, highlighting the subjective nature of her experiences.

This diary-like structure invites readers to scrutinize the narrator's account closely. Gilman adeptly portrays the unreliable nature of the narrator's perceptions, especially when she considers herself less impressionable than a baby, unaware of the significant impact the wallpaper and her confinement have on her mental health. The story thus serves as a cautionary tale about society's inadequate understanding and treatment of women's mental health issues during the 19th century.

In essence, 'The Yellow Wallpaper' is a thought-provoking commentary on the oppressive patriarchal attitudes that prevailed during that era. By allowing the protagonist to speak for herself, the story becomes a powerful feminist text that critiques the mistreatment of women by well-meaning but misguided male authority figures. The tale challenges established societal norms and practices, urging readers to reevaluate the treatment of women's mental and emotional well-being.

Symbolism in "The Yellow Wallpaper"

"The Yellow Wallpaper," an 1892 short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is a powerful exploration of mental illness and the cruel treatments administered in its name. The story's effectiveness is greatly enhanced by its potent use of symbolism, which allows for deeper insights into the narrator's deteriorating mental state and the oppressive societal norms of the time. Let's delve into some of the key symbols present in the tale.

The Mansion

The story opens with the suggestion that we are about to embark on a typical haunted house narrative—a Gothic tale filled with horror. The mansion, where the narrator and her husband John stay, has an air of mystery, supposedly unoccupied and cheaply available due to its haunting. However, as the story unfolds, we realize that the haunting is not of supernatural origin but rather a manifestation of the narrator's psychological turmoil. The mansion becomes a metaphor for the mind, with the real ghosts and demons residing within.

The Diary

"The Yellow Wallpaper" adopts the structure and style of a diary, adding a layer of intimacy to the narration. The narrator confides in us, her readers, sharing her experiences secretly, as she is forbidden by her husband to write due to the belief that it may overexcite her. The present-tense diary format enhances the immediacy of events, allowing us to witness the unfolding of the narrator's thoughts and emotions as she grapples with her mental illness and confinement.

The Husband

John, the narrator's husband and a doctor, represents the prevailing scientific orthodoxy of the time. Rather than fitting the trope of a mad scientist, he is portrayed as adhering rigidly to established medical beliefs. His actions are driven by his misguided conviction that isolating his wife from the world will cure her. John's character embodies the oppressive and patriarchal attitudes that marginalize women's voices and suppress their autonomy.

The climactic scene where John attempts to break down the door with an axe carries multiple layers of symbolism. On one hand, it alludes to the common Gothic trope of a madman with an axe, suggesting potential violence. On the other hand, John's intentions are motivated by concern for his wife's well-being, yet his attempts to save her further exacerbate her mental state. This complex interplay underscores the destructive consequences of well-intentioned yet misguided actions.

The Nursery

The room where the narrator is confined was once a nursery, adorned with bars on the windows to protect children. This setting symbolizes the narrator's regressed state, as she is treated like a child and denied agency. The reference to the room being a gymnasium highlights the irony of the situation—far from promoting exercise and growth, the room only worsens the narrator's mental health, further restricting her freedom.

The Yellow Wallpaper

Arguably the most potent symbol in the story, the yellow wallpaper holds multiple interpretations. Initially, it reflects the narrator's deteriorating mental state, with its patterns mirroring her own shifting moods. She becomes obsessed with the wallpaper and begins seeing a woman creeping behind it, mirroring her sense of confinement and entrapment within her own mind.

A second interpretation is deeply rooted in feminist critique. The shapes and patterns in the wallpaper are perceived as symbols of female oppression during the time the story was written. The recurring use of the word 'creeping' implies women's subjugation and their need to navigate society cautiously, unable to be their authentic selves. The verb 'stooping' further signifies the burden women carried under patriarchal norms.

In conclusion, the symbolism employed in "The Yellow Wallpaper" enriches the narrative and elevates it beyond a typical haunted house story. It masterfully explores the devastating consequences of societal constraints on women's mental health and serves as a potent critique of the oppressive treatment of women during the late 19th century.

Themes in "The Yellow Wallpaper"

"The Yellow Wallpaper," an 1892 short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, delves into several profound themes that shed light on the complexities of mental illness, gender roles, and marriage during the late nineteenth century in the United States. Let's explore some of the key themes that enrich the narrative and provoke thought-provoking discussions.

Mental Illness

At the heart of Gilman's story lies the theme of mental illness, embodied in the narrator's deteriorating psychological state. Presented in the form of a diary, the unfiltered access to the narrator's thoughts and moods exposes the discomforting aspects of her experience. The story serves as a critique of the prevailing medical practices of the time, which often prescribed rest and withdrawal from society as a treatment for women suffering from depression or "hysteria."

The narrator's husband, John, a qualified doctor and a man of authority, believes he knows what is best for his wife, but his well-intentioned approach proves misguided. The story indirectly critiques the real-life neurologist Weir Mitchell, who viewed depression in women as a disorder of their nerves and recommended prolonged rest and intellectual suppression. The narrator's descent into madness can be seen as both tragic and liberating, as she reclaims control over her surroundings in the face of oppressive gender norms and medical practices.

Women in Society

"The Yellow Wallpaper" offers a poignant exploration of the societal constraints and dependencies faced by women in the late nineteenth century. Women were often financially and socially dependent on men, and John's strict control over his wife's behavior reflects this patriarchal dynamic. The narrator's postpartum depression adds another layer of complexity, as she fulfills her societal duty as a wife and mother but finds herself trapped in a state of despair.

Throughout the story, the narrator's self-perception is heavily influenced by the men in her life, including her husband and brother. Her forbidden desire to write and express herself symbolizes the oppression faced by women who were denied opportunities for self-expression and intellectual stimulation. Despite being forbidden to write, the narrator defiantly continues to maintain her journal, exemplifying a quiet act of rebellion against societal norms.

Marriage

The theme of marriage is central to "The Yellow Wallpaper," as the story revolves around the relationship between the narrator and her husband, John. Their marriage becomes a microcosm of the larger societal dynamics between men and women during that era. John's treatment of his wife reveals a paternalistic view, often infantilizing her by referring to her as a "little girl."

John's belief in his authority over his wife's actions and decisions highlights the unequal power dynamics within the marriage. His well-meaning but misguided actions contribute to the deterioration of the narrator's mental state, reflecting the damaging consequences of traditional gender roles and lack of autonomy for women.

In conclusion, "The Yellow Wallpaper" weaves together these powerful themes to create a compelling critique of the prevailing social and medical norms of the late nineteenth century. It serves as a reminder of the importance of recognizing and challenging oppressive gender dynamics and advocating for mental health treatments that prioritize genuine understanding and support for those suffering from mental illness.

Key Quotes from "The Yellow Wallpaper"

‘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 quote captures the central dilemma of the story. The narrator, being a woman in a male-dominated society and the wife of a respected doctor, faces the challenge of trusting her husband's judgment even when she disagrees with his treatment plan for her mental illness.

‘The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.’

Describing the yellow wallpaper, this quote reflects the narrator's mixed feelings about it. The use of vivid and negative adjectives conveys her fascination and repulsion toward the wallpaper, which later becomes an obsession and a symbol of her deteriorating mental state.

‘There comes John, and I must put this away, – he hates to have me write a word.’

This quote illustrates the oppressive control exerted by the narrator's husband over her activities, including her writing. The act of writing becomes an act of defiance against her husband's restrictive treatment, but it also raises questions about the impact of this self-expression on her mental well-being.

‘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!’

Here, the narrator's delusional observations of a woman creeping behind the wallpaper reveal her descending into madness. The creeping figure symbolizes her own sense of entrapment and suppressed identity in a male-dominated society.

‘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.’

This quote emphasizes the symbolic significance of the yellow wallpaper. The color yellow represents sickness, decay, and the narrator's deteriorating mental state. Her fixation on the wallpaper further illustrates her growing obsession and detachment from reality.

‘It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight.’

In her delirium, the narrator believes that the woman behind the wallpaper emerges during the day and creeps around. This quote also highlights the societal expectations placed on women to behave in a certain manner, symbolized by the "creeping" behavior, further reinforcing the theme of gender oppression.

‘It does not do to trust people too much.’

As the narrator reflects on her diary, this quote reveals her growing paranoia and the sense of betrayal she experiences. It also serves as a warning against unquestioning trust, considering the lack of agency and control she faces in her marriage and society.

In conclusion, "The Yellow Wallpaper" skillfully employs these key quotes to explore the complexities of mental illness, gender roles, and the consequences of oppressive societal norms. The use of the first-person narrative and the haunting imagery of the yellow wallpaper create a compelling portrayal of the narrator's descent into madness and her struggle for autonomy and self-expression.

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