Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper". An analysis

Seminar Paper 2008 30 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of contents








1. Introduction

This paper seeks to shed light upon Charlotte Perkins Gilman’sshort story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892)[1] – a text that has become an American feminist classic[2] and has been interpreted as a ‘transformed autobiography’ (Shulman, xix), as a ‘journalistic/clinical account of a woman’s gradual descent into madness’ (Bak, 39), and in multiple ways as a ‘critique of gender relations’ (Shulman, xix). It is a ‘bitter story’, as Ann J. Lane describes it, ‘of a young woman driven to insanity by a loving husband-doctor, who, with the purest motives, imposed Mitchell’s “rest cure”’ (Lane, vii).[3] The narrator of the story is diagnosed as suffering from a ‘temporary nervous depression’ (W, 4), which is today known as ‘postpartum depression’, that is, a depression caused by profound hormonal changes after childbirth.[4] Written some five years after the author herself, following the birth of her first child, became ‘a mental wreck’ in need of a ‘rest cure’, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a fictionalized account of Gilman’s own subjection to the rest cure of Silas Weir Mitchell, whose mode of treatment so notoriously typified conventional late Victorian doctoring of women[5]. As Robert Shulman writes,

[u]nderlying the Mitchell rest cure is the assumption that women are intellectually inferior to men, that the source of their ‘neurasthenia’ or ‘hysteria’ […] is the overuse of their minds, and that even though a physical, neurological cause was posited but could never be located, physical treatment – air, rest, massage, feeding, and then moderate exercise – was prescribed to effect a cure. Total dependence on the will and authority of the male physician was basic, hence the isolation and the prohibition against lively company. (Shulman, viii-ix)

As one revealing approach to “The Yellow Wallpaper” is to regard it as a ‘chilling and largely autobiographical study of insanity’ (Lane, ix), which, according to its author, is written with ‘embellishments and additions’ (Forerunner, 271)[6], I shall briefly deal with Gilman’s biography and her experience with Mitchell’s treatment that inspired her to write “The Yellow Wallpaper” (sections 2.1 and 2.2).[7] The greatest part of this essay shall, however, be concerned with a variety of interesting aspects emerging from a close analysis of the text mentioned. Therefore, on the basis of my personal reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and discussions of several critics that I have drawn upon, I will take a rather detailed look at the story from a linguistic / literary perspective, starting with an analysis of its structure and narrative technique (section 3.1). Since several critics have also regarded “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a ‘horror story’, the section entitled “language and style” (3.2) includes a brief discussion of parallels and contrasts to the late eighteenth century Gothic tale and Poe’s psychological horror tales. I will subsequently proceed to a presentation of the main characters, that is, the narrator on her ‘voyage to insanity’ (Schwartz, xv), entailing the crucial questions of her (in)sanity and (un)reliability (section 4.1), as well as her relationship to the other characters (section 4.2). Among these is included the so crucial figure of the imaginary woman behind the wallpaper, whom Hume terms the narrator’s ‘repressed other’ or ‘suppressed self’ (Hume, 481). Moving towards a feminist perspective, section 5 entitled “‘I’ve got out at last’: reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ as an emergence of a feminist consciousness” shall address the story’s complex ending, and especially the controversial question of to what extent the narrator’s final words and actions might hint at her liberation and/or defeat. What will become evident through the overall discussion is that Gilman clearly wrote this story ‘as a harsh criticism of a culture that undermined a woman’s right to intellectual freedom and intellectual development’ (Simone, 136) – rights Gilman saw as instrumental to the well-being and progress of the individual and the society.

2. Life and work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

2.1 Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935): A brief biography

Born Charlotte Anna Perkins on July 3, 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, Gilman was the daughter of Mary Perkins (formerly Mary Fitch Westcott) and Fredric Beecher Perkins.[8] Mary and Frederic Perkins parented four children, but only Charlotte and her older brother Thomas survived past infancy. Soon after Charlotte’s birth, her father deserted the family, thereafter providing them with little emotional or financial support. Her childhood is described notably by Ann J. Lane as an introduction to the 1979 publication of Herland:

Charlotte and her brother grew up in an unhappy, cheerless home. Mother and children lived on the edge of poverty, moving nineteen times in eighteen years to fourteen different cities. (Lane, vi)

At the age of eighteen, Charlotte entered the Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied drawing and painting. To help support her family, she worked as a designer of greeting cards, an art teacher, and a governess. In 1884, after much hesitancy, she married aspiring artist Charles Walter Stetson. In letters to Stetson, Charlotte continually expressed her fear of relinquishing her own identity: ‘My life is one of private aspiration […] and of public service which only awaits to be asked. […] I will give and give and give you of myself, but never give myself to you or any man.’ (Letter dated 29 January 1882. Quoted in Hill, 29f)

The chronic depression that plagued Charlotte for most of her adult life seemed to have its origins during her engagement to Walter Stetson and the birth of Charlotte and Walter’s only child, Katharine, in 1885.[9] As Shulman writes,

[…] although he loved her, Stetson also basically accepted the conventional divisions: he was to be in his studio painting and trying to make a living for his family; she was to support him emotionally and care for the house and child. Gilman, however, was in her own right a skilful artist […]. And she continued to have intense intellectual ambitions that conflicted with the […] expectations of a conventional marriage. (Shulman, xii)

In 1887, Charlotte and Walter agreed to divorce.[10] Following her divorce, Charlotte went to California in 1888, where, for the first time, she began to thrive: ‘I [moved away] and left failure behind me.’ (Living, 164) In her first ‘year of freedom’ (Living, 107), she wrote thirty-three short articles, twenty-three poems, and ten child verses. She left California in 1895 and until 1900 led a somewhat nomadic existence as a voracious lecturer and writer. In 1900, Charlotte married her first cousin, George Houghton Gilman, a Wall Street attorney, who, as Knight writes, was to become her ‘confidant and ardent supporter for thirty-four years’[11] (Introduction, 20). They lived in New York until 1922, when they moved to Norwich, Connecticut. In 1932, Gilman was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. Following her husband’s death two years later, she returned to Pasadena, California, to be close to her daughter. In 1935, Gilman completed her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and on August 17, 1935 she committed suicide with a dose of chloroform she had long been accumulating. In addition to the cancer, she cited her inability to continue to serve humanity as a factor in choosing death:

[W]hen all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one. […] I have preferred chloroform to cancer. (Gilman, Living, 333)

2.2 The text and its context: “The Yellow Wallpaper” and other works

Over the course of her career Gilman produced enough writings to comprise twenty-five volumes. These include nearly two hundred short stories, five hundred poems, a handful of plays, nine novels, hundreds of essays, over a thousand lectures, an autobiography, dozens of diaries and journals, and by her own estimate ‘no end of stuff not good enough to keep’ (Living, 100).[12] Among the many ways Gilman might be described, one is as a ‘material feminist’. In her writings she proposed a radical revision to traditional approaches to the architectural spaces of daily life as they both create and are created by gender ideologies;[13] for instance, in The Home (1903), Gilman suggested the design and creation of such spaces as the ‘kitchenless house’, cutting the chain which bound most women by substituting ready-made dinners, professional cooking staffs for centralized housing, and a utopian community hotel.[14]

Gilman’s main concerns included the advancement of women’s rights (with economic independence being an indispensable requirement), and the structuring of a child-care system based in part on ‘socialized motherhood’, a system that would enlist the skills of professional child caretakers, not unlike today’s infant and preschool day-care operations.[15] These concerns are echoed in all of her writings, such as her first book In This Our World (1893), a collection of poems with feminist themes, and her seminal work, Women and Economics (1898), which ‘attacked the socio-economic system that forced women into domestic slavery’[16] (Kinkead, 75). In Human Work (1904), she argued that it was possible for women to have both work and marriage. She emphasized that without such far-reaching changes the evolution of society would grind to a halt because women would forever be trapped in a space that forced them to remain without access to the public sphere and its attendant privileges. As Polly Wynn Allen states, ‘more than anything else, she wanted to liberate women from solitary burdensome housework.’ (Allen, 163, cited in Gaudelius, 111).

It is, of course, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, written in California in 1890, that has received the widest critical acclaim of Gilman’s work. Following the birth of her daughter Katharine in 1885, Gilman found herself becoming increasingly depressed. As Denise D. Knight writes in her introduction to “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘[i]f Charlotte was ambivalent about jeopardizing her “life’s work” as a result of her marriage to Walter, the anger at a more total subjugation, stemming from her […] impending motherhood, must have been enormous’ (Knight, 14). Gilman developed neurasthenia, an emotional disorder characterized by depression and fatigue. When the emotional pain became almost unbearable, Charlotte and Walter decided that she would visit her father and brother and stay for several months with her old friend, Grace E. Channing, in Pasadena.[17] However, upon her return home to her husband and baby, the depression also returned:

[T]he dark fog rose in my mind, the miserable weakness – within a month I was as low as before leaving. […] This was a worse horror than before, for now I saw the stark fact – that I was well while away and sick while at home. (Living, 95)

In 1887, after suffering for about three years from ‘a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia – and beyond’, she consulted, ‘in devout faith and some faint stir of hope’ (Forerunner, 271), noted Philadelphia physician and ‘nerve specialist’ Silas Weir Mitchell. Following her unsuccessful stay in his institute, she was sent home, given the following prescription, which she reports in her autobiography:

“Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. […] Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” (Living, 96)

As Knight notes, Mitchell’s goal in prescribing enforced domesticity was to ensure that Charlotte would embrace, rather than reject, her ‘natural’ feminine duties of wife and mother.[18] As Bassuk explains, the ‘rest cure’, originally intended to treat soldiers suffering from battle fatigue, was later on primarily prescribed to women with ‘battle fatigue on the homefront’, that is, women suffering from emotional depression, caused, unsurprisingly, by their imprisonment within the domestic sphere.[19] As such, the rest cure achieved the exact opposite effect. The doctor’s advice not to do any creative work, which Gilman followed for three months after returning home, brought her ‘so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over’ (Forerunner, 271). She also contemplated suicide.[20] Finally recognizing that her illness was, at least partly, exacerbated by the treatment, she ‘cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds’, and with the help ‘of a wise friend’, she resumed work – ‘work, the normal life of every human being; work, which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite’ (Forerunner, 271). She was so ‘naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape’ that she decided to tell her story, but with a different ending. According to Gilman, the story describes the ‘inevitable result’ of Mitchell’s treatment for those who stay with it, which means ‘progressive insanity’; she wrote the piece ‘to save people from being driven crazy’ (Forerunner, 271).

Gilman’s original attempt at publishing “The Yellow Wallpaper” failed as Horace E. Scudder, editor of the influential Atlantic Monthly, said in his accompanying note, ‘I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself!’ (cited in Living, 119). It was eventually published in the New England Magazine in 1892 and later reprinted by William Dean Howells in Great Modern American Stories (1920), where he introduced it as ‘terrible and too wholly dire’, and ‘too terribly good to be printed.’ (Howells, vii, quoted in Shumaker, Good, 588). Despite (or perhaps because of) such acclaim, the story faded into comparative obscurity for over fifty years until its rediscovery in the 1973 Feminist Press edition with an afterword by Elaine R. Hedges, who praised it as ‘a small literary masterpiece’ (Hedges, Afterword, 37, quoted in Shumaker, 588). Gilman, however, emphasized that ‘it was no more “literature” than any of my other stuff, being definitely “written with a purpose”’, namely to convince S. Weir Mitchell of ‘the error of his ways’. When she learned many years later that Mitchell had changed his cure for ‘neurasthenic’ and ‘hysterical’ women since reading the story, Gilman was pleased: ‘If that is a fact, I have not lived in vain.’ (Living, 121)


[1] All references to “The Yellow Wallpaper” (henceforth abbreviated as W) are to the Reclam edition (Ditzingen: Reclam, 1992), which is based on the Virago edition of The Yellow Wallpaper (London: Virago Press, 1981).

[2] In 1987, the Feminist Press edition numbered among the ten best-selling works of university press fiction. Cf. Lanser, 415.

[3] Although Mitchell became internationally renowned, his rest cure did not work for intellectually active women like Gilman, Jane Addams, Alice James, Virginia Woolf, and two of Gilman’s Beecher aunts. Cf. Shulman, ix.

[4] Woman may have a number of symptoms such as sadness, lack of energy, trouble concentrating, anxiety, and feelings of guilt and worthlessness. Cf. Roca, http://www.4women.gov/FAQ/postpartum.htm

[5] Cf. Wegener, 58

[6] One of the most prominent embellishments is that Gilman never had hallucinations during her breakdown. For Gilman’s account of her treatment with Mitchell, see e.g. her short essay “Why I wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?”, first published in The Forerunner 4 (1913): 271 and reprinted in The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Stories, ed. Robert Shulman. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995: 331-332.

[7] Due to the limitations of this paper, the aim of section 2, “The life and work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman”, will be merely to provide an outline of the author’s life and the context of “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

[8] Perkins was the grandson of the distinguished theologian Lyman Beecher, and nephew of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Gilman credits this lineage for giving her the ‘Beecher urge to social service, the Beecher wit and gift of words’ (Gilman, Living, 6).

[9] For a more detailed treatment of Gilman’s battles with depression, cf. the separate section dedicated to “The text and its context: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and other works” (2.2).

[10] Stetson soon after married Grace E. Channing, Charlotte’s closest friend. Both parents agreed that their child would be best raised with her father and his new wife; a decision that caused much negative talk amongst society as Gilman was accused of ‘abandoning’ her child and being an ‘unnatural mother’. Cf. Gilman, Living, viii.

[11] While biographers are just beginning to document the details of their relationship, it seems clear that the arrangement allowed Charlotte to retain the independence and mobility she so highly prized. (See the chapter entitled “Houghton” in Ann J. Lane’s biography of Gilman, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Pantheon, 1990 for excerpts from letters written by Charlotte to Gilman).

[12] See Gary Scharnhorst’s Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Bibliography. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1985 for a virtually complete listing of Gilman’s written work.

[13] Cf. Gaudelius, 112

[14] However, as Gaudelius points out, the kitchenless house did not automatically translate into a recognition of the value of women’s labor. Instead, it transferred the burden of women’s unpaid domestic labor to low-paid workers who were usually female and often non-white or immigrant. (Gaudelius, 125)

[15] Cf. Knight, Introduction, 18

[16] As an extension of the rule that she articulated for her own life – ‘The first duty of a human being is to assume [a] right functional relation to society’ (Living, 42) – Gilman held that women cannot fulfil their roles as human beings unless they live useful and productive lives that requires human work.

[17] Cf. Knight, Introduction, 14

[18] Cf. Knight, Introduction, 15

[19] Cf. Bassuk, 141

[20] In a diary entry dated 30 June 1887 Walter Stetson wrote, ‘When I got home Charlotte was in the depths of melancholia again, with talk of pistols & chloroform. But I brought her around so far that she was comparatively cheerful before sleeping.’ (quoted in Hill, 342)


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Title: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper". An analysis