The Yellow Wallpaper; Charlotte Perkins; 1899.
The aim of the publication:
Dealing with Charlotte Perkins’ own voice about her writing:
“… It is a description of a case of nervous breakdown beginning something as mine did, and treated as Dr. S. Weir Mitchell treated me with what I considered the inevitable result, progressive insanity…”
On further reading, we may notice that this story speaks about illness, but also about some kind of “banishment” of a woman: the narrator becomes apparently mad, and it is not because of a feeble mind of her own that keeps on thinking about haunted houses, but because of the imposition of her husband (an important doctor) who insists on forbidding her all sorts of activities.
In her autobiography, Perkins describes the hard way her story has until it became published: editors told her that it was excessively “miserable and serious” to be used in a magazine, but they were excuses:
“…This was funny. The story was meant to be dreadful, and succeeded. I suppose he [the publisher] would have sent back one on the sane ground…”.
Although she finally got it published, she never received a cent for it until later publishers brought it out in book form, and very little then. Nevertheless, the story made a tremendous impression.
Perkins was frequently asked if the story was founded on fact and she always said all she decently could of her case as “foundation for the tale”. The real purpose for the story was to reach Dr S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways. She sent him a copy but got no response. However, many years later she knew by a friend that the Doctor had changed his treatment of nervous postration since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.
Analysing the story:
By looking at the formal structure of the text, it could be divided into several pieces, according to its content: by using the first person narrator, the first paragraphs describe the situation of the woman, forced to stay at a bedroom on a big colonial mansion. This part takes until page 32, when includes the sentence:
“So I will let it alone and talk about the house”
By this attitude, the protagonist reveals certain disobedience against her husband, who doesn’t allow her to write a word in her notebook. The reader may perceive as well a touch of discomfort in the words of the narrator: she tries to demonstrate herself that the house is perfect and also that her husband is not wrong in his decision and treatment:
“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression […] what is one to do?”.
The first moment in which is said that something wrong could be happening with the house takes place on page 32 as well:
“I don’t like our room a bit”.
The protagonist clearly shows her disappointment with the place in which she has been forced to remain, like a “punished bad girl” who needs to learn in order to become better.
Later on, a reference to suicide is also given, but in a subtle and hidden way; she is looking at the paper:
“… when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide –plunged off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions”.
Last paragraphs on page 33 deal with a detailed description of the wallpaper and its negative effect on the narrator: it is relevant to notice that she compares it, at first sight, with children’s world, actually a world that is close to the one of her own:
“The paint and paper looks as if boy’s school had used it […] I never saw a worse paper in my life […] No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long”.
Two weeks seem to have passed and the protagonist now is considering her husband’s attitude towards her and her illness; there is a subtle ironic message in her discourse at this moment (page 34):
“John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious. I’m glad my case is not serious! […] John does not know how much I really suffer […] I meant to be such a help to john, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already! […] I suppose John never was nervous in his life…”
She: the depressive woman who is telling the story, is supposed to have nothing to do with her own recovery but follow directions her intelligent husband is giving to her. She is not capable to know what she is really feeling. She is like a child and needs adult vigilance.
Nevertheless, the reader can easily perceive that she does not really believe all that ideas and also that, by watching constantly the drawings on the yellow wallpaper, she will progressively project her own feelings and fears on it.
Page 35 includes some sentences related to this before mentioned parallelism between narrator’s thoughts and the figures she appreciates on the wall; just after she had mentioned the opposition of her husband to her desire of receiving some visit from their relatives, the paper seems to communicate to her:
“I wish I could get well faster […] This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had! There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down. I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness…”
Maybe she perceives her own husband’s enclosement towards her illness: she fears for what could happen if she refused his recommendations and consequently, became a rebel woman against men’s impositions.
The following perceptions on the wall will be related to darkness and ambiguity: as if she really does not want to believe her own theories of disagreement. On page 36:
“This wallpaper has a kind of subpattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then. But in the places where it isn’t faded […] I can see a strange […] sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design. There’s sister on the stairs!”
That paragraph deals with another interesting idea: the fact that John’s sister always appears unexpectedly, forcing the narrator to stop abruptly her writings in order not to make her known about, like a shadow in the pattern, or a hidden figure in the yellow paper…
Next lines are centered on a sort of resignation the narrator assumes, by keeping watching the wall and studying their drawings, although she hates that. But suddenly, there is an image used to compare the pattern with her life that may upset the reader. On page 39 and 41:
“It is always the sane shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. […] I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman”
The protagonist finds herself reflected on the woman figure of the pattern, behaving like that figure is supposed to behave, hiding in the darkness and being “a good girl” during the day, but showing a “dark side” at night. Page 41:
“By daylight she is subdued, quiet. […] he [John] started the habit by making me lie down for an hour after each meal. It is a very bad habit I am convinced, for you see I don’t sleep. And that cultivates deceit, for I don’t tell them I’m awake –O no! […] It strikes me occasionally, just as a scientific hypothesis, -that perhaps it is the paper!”.
Since this moment and until the end of the story, the protagonist will progressively coming to reach the conclusion that she has been absorbed by the wallpaper, and will not let anybody to take part of it, such as if it was hers. On page 41:
“I have watched John when he did not know I was looking, and come into the room suddenly on the most innocent excuses, and I’ve caught him several times looking at the paper! And Jennie too. I caught Jennie with her hand on it once […] I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself!”.
The obsession with the paper increases until the end of the story, when the protagonist definitely transfers her sufferings to it and, consequently, puts her efforts on fighting against it: it will not only be the color or the design, but also the smell which traps her inside that imagined world of confusion. Page 42:
“But there is something else about that paper –the smell! […] whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here”.
Once the figure of the woman has been clearly identified in the wall, the narrator also discovers it as a moving one, or even a group of not quiet women:
“The front pattern does move –and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. […] They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!…”.
The last part of the story becomes more violent until it reaches the end: a real fight against woman and paper, that finally wins the woman but completely insane, believing she is the haunted creature of the pattern and doing what is in her hands to get out of there, and become free. Page 47:
“’I’ve got you at last,’ said I, in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’ Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”.
 The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. An Autobiography by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Introduction by Ann J. Lane); USA, Wisconsin; The University of Wisconsin Press; 1990. .
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