“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman is a first person narrative that documents a housewife’s decent into madness. Written in 1892, the story follows the young narrator and her husband, John, as he treats her for “nervous tendencies,” and the story also explores how these oppressive therapies drive her to psychosis. John is a physician and assures our narrator that his house arrest-type orders are for her benefit and cannot be disputed. As time progresses, the narrator’s journal entries become exponentially more scattered and disorganized as her husband slowly limits her access to other rooms within the estate. While this is occurring, her thoughts–and in turn, her statements–become obsessive over the yellow wallpaper in the room she eventfully locks herself into. Our narrator grasps the delusion that other women are trapped behind this paper looking to be freed, which is synonymous with her personal case, and she begins destroying the walls with her bare hands in the intense and frightening conclusion. The story emphasizes the progression of her dissociation with reality–later understood as postpartum psychosis–in an attempt to confuse and intertwine actuality with these hallucinations. In doing so, Gilman terrifies the reader at the expense of our narrator’s sanity. In addition, Gilman also craftily and inexplicably embeds an incredibly powerful and personal account of patriarchy in the late 19th century.
The piece’s feminist undertones are one of the most notable and recognizable aspects of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in terms of contextual analysis. As mentioned above, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written in 1892, an undoubtedly oppressive time for women in America, something Gilman experienced firsthand. The horrific account of disconnection and delusion was partly autobiographical in nature. After being treated for the same nervous tendencies described in the story in an incredibly identical manner, she began hypothesizing that society was constructed in a way to constrain women in tightly regulated boxes, assuring no disturbances to the preset ways of social functioning. Gilman took action against this through her writings, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” is often cited as one of the most influential pieces in feminist literature to date. As an active feminist and sociologist, Gilman was interested and well versed in a wide array of topics, philosophy namely being one of them. Analyzing her beliefs in terms of existentialism, which emerged shortly after her death, Gilman exercised the power choice in all aspects of her life and, ironically, the most profoundly in death. Shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, Gilman chose to commit suicide in order to demonstrate her beliefs regarding treatment options for the terminally ill. Relating back to the story itself, the narrator concludes her journal entries as she successfully tears the remaining wallpaper down and screams, “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane, and I’ve pulled off most of the wallpaper so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman, 10). This iconic scene exemplifies a strong element of the feminism Gilman was looking to deliver.
This is a prominent moment in the story, as the tale concludes with John, the narrator’s physician and husband, fainting at her feet. In the short story, Gilman’s theoretical self loses sanity for power whereas her literal self loses life in exchange for power. These discrepancies are unique in comparing our narrator’s story to the author’s actual account on life and death itself. Gilman’s radical and intellectual methods were challenging and amazingly placed throughout her story. In terms of pure literary styles and devices, the way she portrays the “slipping narrator” is almost homage to Edgar Allen Poe and his “Tell Tale Heart.” Though the social context is much different, both authors suffered from apparent but mildly unknown mental disorders, which resulted in novellas that undeniably defined eras in American history.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. Boston: New England Magazine, 1892. Print.
Logan Schwartz is currently a sophomore in Portland State University’s Honors College pursuing a degree in Clinical Psychology.