The Yellow Paper is a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and published in 1892. The text is written in the first person, and it reports the inexorable plunging of the narrator into dissociation and madness. The Yellow Paper lends itself to several interpretations, and it reflects the cultural and social milieu at the turn of the twentieth century. This paper analyzes the characters of the narrator and her husband, trying to frame them within the broader context of the coeval society, with the patriarchal hierarchy questioned by the rise of feminism. The traditional role of the obedient wife, mother, and homemaker did no longer match with the modern aspirations to self-realization. The concept of madness, hence, assumes a larger meaning, representing a social and cultural struggle.
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The story develops in a summer estate, where the narrator and her husband, John, are spending their vacation. The woman suffers from nervous postpartum depression, and it happens that John is also her physician. He prescribes complete rest and refraining from any activity. John’s sister, Jennie, takes care of the house, and the protagonist is eventually forced to a life of confinement in the estate’s nursery. The narrator, however, feels that she would benefit from fresh air, as well as from physical and mental exercise. After a week, she manages to keep a secret diary, and her notes accompany the reader along the path of her madness as she develops an obsession for the yellow paper and spends more and more time looking at the flamboyant patterns on it.
As weeks go by, the narrator plunges deeper into her obsession while a sub-patterns emerges from the wallpaper revealing a woman trapped behind: “by daylight she is subdued, quiet” (Perkins Gilman 6) but she struggles to come out from the wall at night. The protagonist feels that she has to free the woman, and even identifies with her while becoming dissociated from reality. The night before the departure, she tries to destroy the yellow wallpaper, biting, tearing, and scratching it in a desperate attempt to save the woman inside it. When the day after John manages to enter the locked room and understands that his wife has gone insane, he faints.
Though the short story has a scary Gothic side, it should be read as a social feminist stance against the American patriarchal society during the second half of the nineteenth century. The protagonist is trapped between the call for modernity advocated by the rise of feminism and a male-ruled social structure, where women had to adhere to a set ideal of femininity (Amro 1). The protagonist is an active and young woman forced into inactivity and segregated in a claustrophobic context. She is inevitably bound to wither, cornered by the annoying doing good of the husband and the constant reminder, provided by Jennie, of how a woman should behave.
John, in turn, represents the male part of society, and carries all the typical prejudgments of his time: women should devote their lives to domestic mansions, take care of the house and raise the children. John is a physician, and his paternalistic condescension toward his wife is a harsh criticism of the coeval scientific mainstream, which considered women as naturally inclined to suffer from nervous breakdowns (Amro 1). Moreover, his attentions make his wife feeling guilty: “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction. I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day[…] I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more” (Perkins Gilman 2). From this perspective, madness becomes an escape from the daily conflict between the attempt of adhering to a set role and the desire for self-development, self-realization, and self-determination. It is the latest way of rebellion against a society where women no longer fit.
Published at the end of the nineteenth century, the Yellow Paper is a short story that revolves around a young woman suffering from nervous depression. The condition, however, grows an obsession with the wallpaper of the bedroom where she is regaining her strength. She becomes convinced that a woman is trapped behind the paper, and, eventually, she tries to destroy the paper in an attempt to rescue her. Despite the Gothic atmosphere, the Yellow Paper aims at highlighting the social unease of women, struggling to emancipate from the set role of mother and housewife. In some desperate case, madness is the only escape route.
Amro, Hiba. “A Breakdown or a Breakthrough?: “Madness” in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Doris Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen,” and Khairiya Saqqaf’s “In a Contemporary House”” International Journal of Language and Literature, vol.6, no 2, 2018, pp. 146-156. Web.
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Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. The Yellow Wallpaper. 1892. Web.