In 1913, more than twenty years after the first publication of”The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote that she devised the story, “to save people from being driven crazy.” Gilman had suffered a near mental breakdown herself, and had been prescribed a rest treatment very similar to that prescribed to the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” For Gilman, the act of resuming her normal life, which certainly included writing, was what restored her health. Though we don’t know what became of Gilman’s narrator, we can chronicle Gilman’s own life after her near mental breakdown. If Gilman’s narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” regressed into her insanity, Gilman certainly did not; unlike the narrator she created, she made her voice heard. She pursued her career as a writer and lecturer, and she wrote works of theory and social commentary that brought her international fame. Though she concentrated on feminist issues, her influence reached beyond the woman’s sphere. She has been compared by some critics to the author George Bernard Shaw and the art critic John Ruskin, and the London Chronicle compared her book, Women and Economics, to the writings of John Stuart Mill.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” commands attention not only for the harrowing journey into madness it portrays, but also for its realism. It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that the “The Yellow Wallpaper” is autobiographical. In 1887, Charlotte Perkins Gilman placed herself under the care of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a well-known nerve specialist. She was suffering from depression,”nervous prostration” as diagnosed by the doctor, after the birth of her daughter. At that time, the medical profession had not yet distinguished between diseases of the mind and diseases of the brain; problems that would now be treated by psychiatrists, such as depression, were treated by neurologists such as Mitchell. The symptoms of depression—fatigue, hysteria, crying fits—were thought to stem from the body, and thus were treated through care of the body. Mitchell’s treatment for breakdowns of the nervous system, and the treatment he prescribed for Gilman, included total bed rest and isolating the patient from family and familiar surroundings. In ‘ “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman demonstrates the horror that such a treatment could induce in its subject. When the narrator is threatened by her husband with being sent to Weir Mitchell if she does not get better quickly, she says: “But I don’t want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!”
Gilman was sent home from Mitchell’s sanitarium after one month, having been pronounced “cured,” with the following instructions: “Live as domestic a life as possible…. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” When Gilman heeded this advice she came, in her own words,”perilously close to losing my mind.” Mitchell’s “rest cure” had been used on other literary figures—Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf— and other noted persons—Jane Addams and Winifred Howells, whose father, the editor William Dean Howells, was instrumental in the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Woolf, Addams, and Howells, like Gilman, protested against the treatment (Woolf also attacked it in her novel Mrs. Dalloway). In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman chronicles what happens to a woman forced to succumb to the “rest cure” and thus, to her inflexible position in society as a prisoner of the domestic sphere.
Gilman claimed a purpose for everything she wrote. “The Yellow Wallpaper” pointed out the dangers of the medical treatment imposed by Mitchell and other doctors like him. Years later, Gilman learned that Mitchell had changed his treatment of nervous prostration after reading the story, so she won her victory. Yet, the story is far more than just a crying out for improvement in one facet of a woman’s life; it touches on many issues relevant to women of the nineteenth century, particularly that of the limited roles available to them.
Despite Gilman’s avowal that her story was not literature, it has been appreciated as such since its rediscovery in the 1960s (Gilman’s works had been out of print since the 1930s). And just as “The Yellow Wallpaper” espoused Gilman’s feminist views when she wrote it, critics have analyzed it as a feminist work—or a work that has feminist issues as its main concerns—for the past two decades. As is often the case, the critics disagree. The story has been seen as a realistic tale in its portrayal of the narrator’s descent into madness, as a feminist Gothic tale in its use of abnormal behavior and occurrences, and as one of the earliest modernist texts for its unaware narrator and its intense focus on what she is thinking and feeling. Readers and critics alike have even disagreed over the meaning of the story’s ending. Some critics see the narrator’s defeat: she has retreated into the world of childishness. Others, such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, see in it the narrator’s triumph: by fainting, John shows he is defeated, and the narrator has become the woman behind the wallpaper, who can creep down the road, away from the house and her husband’s authority. Even attempts to understand why the story was ignored for so long have led to dissent. Some critics argue that Gilman’s contemporaries could not understand this story of a woman’s mental breakdown because they were accustomed to “traditional” literature. Still others believe that women could accurately read the story, but they chose not to because they were afraid of what they would find.
What then are we to make of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”? Essentially, it is a story of female confinement and escape. Gilman’s narrator is trapped in the home, in her maternal body, and in the text she has created for herself, which is the only escape she can find.
That Gilman’s narrator is physically and spiritually trapped by her husband is apparent from the beginning of the story. Though she “wanted [a room] downstairs that opened on the piazza … John would not hear of it.” The narrator strives for some space of her own; the room she would have chosen would not fit two beds and had no other bedroom for John nearby. Instead, John has put his wife on the top floor, away from the rest of the household (their baby, the nurse, and John’s sister) in a room she believes to have been a “nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium.” Though she recognizes her captivity—John “hardly lets me stir without special direction”—she overlooks other more ominous signs of her confinement: the bars at the window, the gate at the top of the stairs, steel rings on the wall, and the nailed-down bedstead.
This habit of the narrator of deliberately misreading her surroundings is apparent throughout the story. For instance, when John refuses to give in to her fancies about changing the wallpaper because, after that”it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on,” is he reminding her of her confinement? Does she recognize this subtle way of controlling her? Rather than confronting such a possibility she instead, outwardly, relies on John’s advice. “I think sometimes if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me,” she muses, which she then follows with a reiteration of what John wants her to think—”But I find I get pretty tired when I try.” Such is her effort to believe in him and thus preserve her sanity (sanity as defined by John), because she knows she has not the will to resist him: “But what is one to do?” she says. In fact, she does something John doesn’t approve of—she writes in a journal, thereby creating her own text. Unfortunately, because the text is her only place of true self-expression, it becomes as oppressive as the room, as oppressive as her husband.
Gilman’s narrator is so cruelly trapped both by the conventions of nineteenth-century American society, which says that a woman’s function is to bear and raise children, and by her husband’s inflexible belief in this code. John has attempted to take away one of the few things that bring her consistent pleasure, her writing, “He hates to have me write a word,” she says, and notes his determination to correct her “imaginative power and habit of storymaking.” Unfortunately, for Gilman’s narrator, these sentiments are shared by others in society. John’s sister, a woman who occupies her proper place in the domestic sphere by being “so good with the baby” and a “perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper,” seems to believe “it is the writing which made [the narrator] sick!”
Because the narrator has no physical or spiritual escape from her husband, she must seek relief elsewhere: in the yellow wallpaper, and thus, in the text she creates as she describes her relationship with the wallpaper. Though at first she says of it, “I never saw a worse paper in my life,” as she loses her slim hold on sanity, she gets”really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper.” Her initial discomfort decreases as she sees mirrored in the wallpaper her own existence. She realizes that the wallpaper has two patterns; the front pattern is made of bars, and in the back pattern is a woman “stooping down and creeping about,” and later shaking the bars. And the woman in the wallpaper continues to reflect the narrator: “she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through the pattern—it strangles so.” By the end of the story, the narrator finds escape when she becomes the wallpaper woman as she “creep[s] smoothly on the floor.” With this final action she escapes those places of her confinement. Her husband, the force that keeps her in the home, has become an inanimate object, one that only gets in the way of her “path by the wall, so that [she] had to creep over him.” She releases herself from her maternal role as she occupies the role of a “madwoman.” And, by refusing to write it anymore, she has freed herself from the text that chronicles her mental breakdown.
Virginia Woolf, in her important essay A Room of One’s Own, says that in order to write a woman must have money and her own private room. Perhaps implicit in Woolf’s words is that women also need to be accepted for what they are: creative, independent, thinking creatures. For Gilman’s narrator, having money, a private room, and the necessary leisure time certainly was not enough to sustain her as a writer and as a person; she was lacking that other essential element: a family who believed in a woman’s right to creativity and self-expression.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Published by Gale, 1997.
Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.