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“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte P. Gilman

Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” depicts the inner struggle of a woman unbalanced by post-partum depression, a problem for which even today’s doctors have no treatment. Her husband and brother are both doctors who have her best interest at heart but whose recommended rest cure is based on the accepted medical theories of that time. In fact, they aggravate her problem by forbidding her to write.

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Instead of expressing her “imaginative power and habit of story-making” (Gilman 160) through her writing, she finds an outlet for her creative energies in the pattern of the yellow wallpaper in her room. Beverly Hume says that most critics of this story continue to read it “as the dark and complex record of a woman’s (or woman writer’s) oppression, victimization, collapse, and paradoxical ‘emancipation’” whereas she is more interested in the description it contains of the narrator’s descent into madness (1). As will be shown, that madness begins with the narrator’s imaginative projection of her inner struggles onto the wallpaper and ends in her escaping from the world into the delusions she has created out of its pattern.

When the narrator and her husband, John and his sister, Jennie first arrive in the mansion John has rented for three months, she is so depressed that she cannot even be in the same room as her new-born baby. Her first concern is to understand her own condition and for that she has to “put it on paper” somehow. Everything about the house and surrounding countryside might seem ideal but it tells her nothing about herself, and therefore she believes her husband has prescribed the wrong cure for her. “John is a physician,” she says, “and perhaps … that is one reason I do not get well faster” (Gilman 158).

She describes him as a rationalist “who scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt or seen of put down in figures” (Gilman 157), a man too sensible and unimaginative to understand her mental state; yet because he is a doctor she feels obliged to take his advice. Instead of following his advice to sleep and rest, she begins to study the wallpaper whose pattern offends her esthetic sensibility. She describes it as committing “every artistic sin …. and pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study” (Gilman 159), which is exactly how she feels about the workings of her own mind at that stage of her madness.

The first sign that her self-projection is turning malevolent comes when she looks at the wallpaper two weeks into her stay, only to see “two bulbous eyes” looking back at her. At this point the narrator begins to turn away from her husband and Jennie, and to turn inward by looking into her own eyes, as it were. She becomes increasingly interested in the paper’s “pointless pattern,” a reflection of her own life, but in trying to find a conclusion in the wallpaper she sees delirium tremens and fatuity (Gilman 162), which mirrors her inability to find the energy to control her state of mind. Eventually she sees a woman in the pattern, and later a woman behind bars.

The wallpaper becomes a source of secret information for her and by continually reading her own story in it, she becomes more and more a part of it. The woman behind bars is so obvious she is sure other people can see her. Therefore, when John or Jennie look at the wallpaper she becomes anxious and possessive because she does not want them to know the secrets which, in her mind, are there for all the world to read.

The projection of her self has become so intense that she is unaware of her physical self. After several months of confinement she becomes increasingly aware of the “yellow smell” of the wallpaper and a “smooch” that runs all around the room. Unconsciously she has created this smooch by rubbing her shoulder against it, as if she is circling the room looking for a way to merge with the pattern, and thereby unite herself with the self she has projected onto the paper.

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That self now shakes those bars but only in shady spots; in the “bright spots she keeps very still” just as the women she sees outside do; and no wonder, she says, “because it must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight.” She always locks the door so that John cannot see her creeping.

She identifies more and more with the projected woman until, during her last night in the mansion, she tries to set her free and then, when that fails, she tries to join her. “I shook and she pulled, I pulled and she shook, and by morning we had peeled off yards of that paper” (Gilman 167), she says, and when Jennie sees it and tries to make light of the narrator’s strange behavior, the narrator sees it as a threat to her very existence, and therefore vows that “no person touches this paper but me – not alive!” (Gilman 168). The process of projection must not be interfered with, she thinks, or both she and her alternate self may die.

As her condition worsens, the projection of her troubled self onto the wallpaper becomes more horrifying and threatening. She wants to tear it all off, but can’t reach high enough, and “all those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision” (Gilman 168). In her frustration she starts gnawing the bedposts, so preoccupied with the emerging self in the design that she chips her teeth and causes her gums to bleed without knowing it.

By now she sees women creeping through the garden and she wonders if they all came out of the wallpaper. The smooch inside fits her shoulder perfectly, and so she goes on creeping around the room, still trying to merge with her projected psyche. When John enters the room on the last day of their three months of recuperation he finds her obsessively circling the room, her hair tangled and stained by the yellow dye, her mouth bloody, her dress covered in yellow. In a very calm, controlled voice she tells her husband that “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back” (Gilman 169).

What John sees, says Hume, “is not ‘Jane’ but only what is left of ‘Jane,’ … the narrator, who chronicles these events. The narrator is the ‘woman in the wall-paper,’ one who is both in and out of her mind” (12). By projecting herself onto the wallpaper, she has seen how mad she is and that drove her even madder, until she threw off her body, that suffering thing, to join the women creeping through the yellow pattern of the wallpaper.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Ed. Ann Charters. Literature and Its Writers. Boston” Bedford/St. Martins, 2006.

Hume, Beverly. “Managing Madness in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 30, Issue 1, 2002.

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