Writing Oneself into Existence: The Yellow Wallpaper and the Question of Female Self-Definition

Term Paper 2005 15 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Patriarchal Power Structures or “Be a Woman and Stay at Home”

3. The Unnatural Woman

4. Suppressed Creativity and the Consequences

5. The Wallpaper or Losing Herself

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

“My work is chosen – yet I’m free to be a wife.”

(from the poem “The Proposal”

by Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

1. Introduction

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is an exceptional piece of art by an author who, living at a time that put a heavy weight of social conventions and expectations on women, was trying to undermine these restrictions through sharp analysis of the man-made society surrounding and tying women. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a number of short stories, novels and poems all dealing with the situation of women as wives, mothers, workers, artists and individuals. But although the subjects of all her works are critical and particularly provoking for the time, not flattering Gilman with a lot of fame, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is both in style and draft distinctive, more subtle and effective, and it unites her various points of social criticism to a strong attack on a system that ruins female sanity and suppresses female creativity.

By the time of its first publication in 1892 it was read as a horror tale, since it contains elements typical for stories in the tradition of Poe, and because of its terrifying impact on the reader. To me a complete misunderstanding of the textual depth and message.

But nevertheless the famous sentence in the letter of Horace E. Scudder, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, rejecting the publication in his magazine, shows that there must have been a presentiment of the accusing content and real power of the story.

“I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself!”[1]

The ignorance from the male-dominated audience of Gilman’s time made the publication difficult and even after it was published, it remained widely unnoticed and unprinted until it was reinterpreted by Elaine R. Hedges from a feminist angle in 1973 during the rise of feminist literary criticism.[2] With Hedges interpretation the story got the attention it deserved and was, for the first time, acknowledged for what it is. In addition to that she connected the author’s life and the narrator’s story. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is fictive, but there are undoubtedly so many parallels to the authors biography that it cannot be understood without knowing the biographical background.

In no other story did Gilman reveal so much of herself, her feelings and her own experience of being driven to the edge of mental illness. No other story affects and persists so much. Her attack on the patriarchal system is sharp and her message remains. Women being forced into passiveness, being denied of developing their talents, being kept away from intellectuality and any activity apart from child caring and housekeeping can easily sink into depression.

To cure her own depression she was being ordered to “live as domestic a life as possible” and “never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live”[3] by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, which of course from today’s view can be seen as the attempt to bind women to the place they, through male eyes, traditionally belong to, namely the domestic sphere, bearing and raising children.[4]

She then “went home, followed these directions rigidly for some months, and came perilously near to losing my mind.”[5] For Charlotte Perkins Gilman there was only one solution: to leave the burdening domestic life and go to work. After separating from husband and child she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and continued writing as the only way to stay sane and herself.

As somebody who narrowly escaped “the border line of utter mental ruin”[6] she tells the story of a woman who was not able to defy her husband’s order of being a “natural woman” without any creative ambition and demonstrates the consequences.

Gilman’s message is clear: rejection of creative work is rejection of identity.

2. Patriarchal Power Structures or “Be a Woman and stay at Home”

The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” neither has a name nor appears with certain characteristics that could shape her a specific person. All we know is that we deal with a woman who is depressive, put down to rest and wants instead to be active, particularly to write. Her being nameless is in so far important as it lays the emphasis on the situation of women in general and the only specific feature on the desire or even need to be creative, to write. In order to assure the obedience of this total withdrawal she moves with her husband John and the nanny to an old, secluded house which does not make her feel comfortable for she senses something strange about it. Furthermore instructions are made by John, a doctor, which are identical with Dr. Mitchell’s Rest Cure to treat mental sickness of women, who besides is mentioned by name.

It becomes immediately obvious that something is not right in the relationship between John and the narrator. He does not take her serious and she seems to have already partly resigned to his superiority, “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that.”[7] She “personally disagrees with their ideas” of her staying in bed and declares that “congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good”[8], but her husband ignores her wishes, so she has to hide her writing from him. “There comes John, and I must put this away – he hates to have me write a word.”[9]

This determinant, guarding attitude of John seems to thrill her constantly, as she must put her remaining energy in controlling herself, not to let him see when she is trying to free her mind by writing. He does not at all function as a support of her being sick, but a factor putting even more pressure on her.

Nevertheless she tries to speak to him several times. Against her will he has decided to place her in a room upstairs which makes her feel uncomfortable and she tells him she would prefer one downstairs. But again “John would not hear of it.”[10]

Instead of talking to her like an adult he treats her like a child by calling her “blessed little goose” as reaction to her proposal to move downstairs and even manages to install guilt in her, because “he said he came here solely on my account” and she “feels basely ungrateful not to value that more”.[11] John manages to push her into complete passivity by not giving her the slightest chance to take her own decisions, by treating her as somebody with diminished responsibility, while at the same time he lays certain expectations on her such as being “his comfort” and taking care of herself “for his sake”.[12]

Therefore she has to control herself, but of course, in her psychological situation, that takes more strength than she has at her disposal. Added her constant attempts to speak with him and his constant oppression of everything she says, his care becomes more a burden than a relief. “It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise and because he loves me so.”[13]

Gilman sketches the typical husband-wife relationship of her time, in which it was absolutely clear what role the woman has to embody, at least from a male point of view, and therefore creative work was not considered proper.

3. The Unnatural Woman

As Toril Moi puts it: “Women are denied the right to create their own images of femaleness, and instead must seek to conform to the patriarchal standards imposed on them.”[14]

If the narrator has a chance to look at her inner self and to explore her inside in order to find her talents, it is taken from her by forbidding her to write. Instead she is indirectly demanded to be a conventional woman and she knows that.

Gilman brings in another character to underline her failure on being that woman. It is John’s sister, who seems to be the perfect mother and wife, not questioning her duties and not moving beyond the border of this defined area of female existence. She seems to not even think about breaking the rules for example through writing and considers it a sin. “She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing that makes me sick.”[15]

Obviously not all housewives and mothers are unsatisfied and seek for more. Also Gilman in her personal opinion stated that for some women it can be the right thing, but same as for men there must be the opportunity of choice without being condemned for those women who need another activity beside the mentioned.

“No man who spends his whole time in an office; no woman who spends her whole time in a kitchen can maintain the equipose of soul and body, unless – and here comes in one of our human superiorities – unless the individual is consciously convinced that the work he is doing is necessary and right.”[16]

For the narrator this other work is absolutely essential to maintain a “subject”, to keep at least one part of herself free and self-determinant. “I must say what I feel and think in some way – it is such a relief!”[17]


[1] Carlotte Perkins Gilman, “On the Reception of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’”. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The Yellow Wallpaper, ed. by Dale M. Bauer (Madison: Bedford Books, 1998) 349.

[2] Carlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The yellow wall-paper” and the History of Its Publication and Reception: a Critical Edition and Documentary Casebook, ed. by Julie Bates Dock (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998) 4.

[3] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography ( New York: Arno Press, 1972) 96.

[4] Catherine Golden, “’Overwriting’ the Rest Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Literary Escape from S. Weir Mitchell’s Fictionalization of Women.” Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ed. by Joanne B. Karpinski (New York: Hall, 1992) 146.

[5] Gilman 1972, 96.

[6] Gilman 1998, 349.

[7] The Yellow Wallpaper. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ed. by Elaine R. Hedges (New York: The Feminist Press, 1973) 9.

[8] Yellow Wallpaper, 10.

[9] ibid., 13.

[10] ibid., 12.

[11] ibid., 12.

[12] ibid., 21f.

[13] ibid., 23.

[14] Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London/New York: Methuen, 1985) 57.

[15] Yellow Wallpaper, 17f.

[16] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The ‘Nervous Breakdown’ of Women.” „The Yellow Wallpaper“: Carlotte Perkins Gilman, ed. by Thomas L. Erskin and Connie L. Richards (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993) 68.

[17] Yellow Wallpaper, 21.


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Writing Oneself Existence Yellow Wallpaper Question Female Self-Definition American Women Writers




Title: Writing Oneself into Existence: The Yellow Wallpaper and the Question of Female Self-Definition