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Descent into Madness or Liberation of Self? An Analysis of the final scene of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2009 15 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: The final scene of „The Yellow Wallpaper“ – controversially discussed since 1973

2. Body: Madness or liberation of self? Victory or defeat?
An analysis of the ending of „The Yellow Wallpaper“
2.1. Gilman’s employment of Gothic conventions: The setting as a letter of indication for the narrator’s breakdown
2.2. The cause for the narrator’s mental derangement
2.2.1. The author’s intention: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s purpose in writing “The Yellow Wallpaper
2.2.2. John and Jennie as the embodiments of Victorian gender roles
2.2.3. Deciphering the yellow wallpaper: The narrator’s fragmentation of self due to the patriarchal system
2.3. The narrator’s attempt at constituting an intact and autonomous personality
2.3.1. Comparison of the earlier and the final entries in the narrator’s diary: significant changes in language and style
2.3.2. Jane’s failure

3. Conclusion:

Defeat and descent into madness due to a dispartment of identity

Works cited

1. Introduction:
The final scene of “The Yellow Wallpaper” - controversially discussed since 1973

When “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is first published in The New England Magazine in 1892, most readers and critics perceive it to be first and foremost a gothic tale following Poe.[1] Although Gilman is a known activist for women’s rights and notwithstanding the so-called woman question as one of the major issues of the 19th century, it is not until the short story’s republication in 1973 that a noteworthy number of critics adopt a feminist reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper”.[2]

Among these critics – whether they analyze the short story’s formal and stylistic features, prefer a reader-oriented approach or focus on the historical context - one of the most controversially discussed aspects of the short story is its ending[3]: the scene, where Jane, the protagonist[4], has stripped off the wallpaper to liberate the woman trapped behind it and crawls through the room over her unconscious husband.

Some critics, like Quawas, Gilbert and Gunbar claim that the narrator is not insane, but instead achieves a different, elevated state of sanity and truth[5] and therefore consider the ending as something positive, as a victory Jane gains over her husband and the patriarchal society.

Others however construe the final scene as a defeat and consider Jane to lose touch with reality and descend into insanity. Hedges, for instance, argues, that the protagonist “is at the end defeated, totally mad”[6] and Suess constitutes that she is unable to distinguish fantasy from reality and asks how “living in a state of psychosis [could] be considered triumphant in any way”[7]. Johnson again doubts whether Gilman herself actually fully comprehended the dimensions of her protagonist’s madness[8].

So what has really happened to the protagonist? How is the short story’s final scene to be understood? Is Jane defeated or does she experience a triumph? Does she lose her mind or liberate her true self?

2. Body: Madness or liberation of self? Victory or defeat?
An analysis of the ending of “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Jane’s behavior displays a number signs of what is generally denoted as mad, insane or crazy: She hallucinates when she perceives figures and motion in the wallpaper, she becomes paranoid, she tears the wallpaper down and gnaws at her bedstead, she locks herself in and crawls over her husband when he has fainted instead of demonstrating sympathy. She appears mentally deranged.

The following text attempts to investigate what these outward signs of insanity entail. It aspires to illustrate why the narrator’s breakdown was a foreseeable and natural consequence of certain circumstances, conditions and events. Furthermore it looks into what these factors are and examines whether the ending should be considered a triumph or a defeat.

It tries to exemplify to what extent the narrator manages to grow more self-aware and to claim her real identity and why nevertheless, in the end, she is not successful in constituting a whole, autonomous self.

2.1 Gilman’s employment of gothic conventions:

The setting as a letter of indication for the narrator’s breakdown

The story is set in an old, historical house. It stands secluded in the countryside, the village is miles away and it is surrounded by a beautiful garden with “hedges and walls and gates that lock”[9]. The narrator considers it a stroke of luck that she and her husband are able to stay in such a house and expresses her hope that it might be haunted.

The room she stays in has barred windows, the bed is bolted down to the floor and everything is worn down and partly destroyed. The narrator suspects it to have been a nursery and, as the children grew older, a playroom and gymnasium. Most critics follow this interpretation. Shumaker and Showalter however allege that it was used as a private asylum and that the rings and bars in the room were attached to prevent the mentally disturbed occupants from escaping.[10] Whichever reception one follows, the room’s implements interconnect with restraint and confinement[11].

With her description of the setting, Gilman creates right from the beginning a certain atmosphere: the ghostly dull ambience of a typical gothic tale with its ancient mansions haunted by ghosts, where the inhabitants live in solitude, far away from any other human beings and are locked in by a number of walls, doors, bars and gates.

It becomes clear why readers in Gilman’s time associated the short story with Edgar Allan Poe. Gilman deliberately employs gothic conventions in describing the setting[12]. But for what purpose?

The gothic is, according to Hume, a genre where “conventional madwomen flourish”[13]. People, especially women, who are driven crazy, who become insane, are typical components of a gothic story.

Thus the setting adumbrates the protagonist’s behavior in the end – the behavior of a typical madwoman. It completely fits in with the setting, it suits the picture. Of course, as Hume points out, the gothic conventions of the story do not explain Jane’s madness[14]. The source of her mental problems lies elsewhere. But by choosing this gothic surrounding and atmosphere Gilman makes her protagonist’s uncanny behavior appear more logically consistent. She points out that is the natural and predictable consequence of a series of occurrences and circumstances[15]: Jane does not just become mad, she is driven mad and it makes sense that she is.

The setting sends the message that the narrator’s psychological problems lie not within herself which was quite an usual statement for a text from the 19th century.

This finding is vital information one must keep at the back of one’s mind when scrutinizing the cause and character of the protagonist’s breakdown.

2.2 The cause for the narrator’s mental derangement

Since the setting alludes that there are reasons for Jane’s display of madness and that these reasons are to be found not just in her own mind, but in her surroundings, the next step must naturally be to consider these reasons. What factors lead to her mental derangement which causes her breakdown in the final scene?

2.2.1 The author’s intention:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s purpose in writing “The Yellow Wallpaper”

In her autobiography Gilman states that, like all her literary works, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written “with a purpose”[16]. Therefore one should consider this purpose, the intention behind her short story when dealing with its final scene. Why did Charlotte Perkins Gilman write “The Yellow Wallpaper”?

Gilman was a noted feminist.[17] With her literature she criticized 19th century society[18] ; she wanted to make a change. She wanted to convince people of the wrongfulness of the gender role prescriptions and the constraining behavioral standards for women prevalent in the patriarchic society of the 19th century.

Women in this society were expected to be dutiful housewives and devoted mothers, obedient and submissive to their husbands. They were not supposed to intellectually challenge themselves; instead they were expected to concentrate their life on what was called the domestic sphere[19]. Under these restrictions, women were rendered passive and inactive[20].

For a number of them this resulted in psychological problems – in that time rather unanimously labeled neurosis, neurasthenia or hysteria.


[1] Haney-Peritz, Janice (1986). “Monumental Feminism and literature’s ancestral house”. Women’s Studies. 12 (2), p. 113-114.

[2] Haney-Peritz, J. “Monumental Feminism and literature’s ancestral house”. p. 113-114. For more information on the various receptions since 1973, see Hedges, Elaine R. (1992). “Out at Last? ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ after Two Decades of Feminist Criticism”, in: Karpinski, Joanne B. (ed.). Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: G.K. Hall & Co.

[3] Hedges, Elaine R. “Out at Last?”, p. 222.

[4] Some critics assert that the name Jane denotes not the protagonist but her sister-in-law Jennie. See Hochmann, Barbara (2006). “The Reading Habit and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’” ”, in: Phegley, Jennifer (ed.). Reading Women: Literary Figures and Cultural Icons from the Victorian Age to the Present. Toronto: University of Toronto Press., p. 90, Quawas, Rula (2006). “A new Woman’s Journey into Insanity: Descent and Return in The Yellow Wallpaper”. AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association. 105. p. 40. and Johnson, Greg (1989). “Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’”. Studies in Short Fiction. 26(4),p. 523/526. This essay however follows the assumption that Jane is the narrator’s name.

[5] Quawas, R. “A new Woman’s Journey into Insanity”. p. 40. and Gilbert, Sandra M. & Gunbar, Susan (1980). The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven and London: Yale UP, p. 89-92.

[6] Hedges, E. „Out at Last?”, p. 223.

[7] Suess, Barbara (2003). “The Writings on the Wall: Symbolic Orders in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’”. Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 32(1), p. 81 & 95.

[8] Johnson, G. “Gilman’s Gothic Allegory”. p. 478.

[9] Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. (1997) “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Other Stories. New York: Dover Publications. p. 2.

[10] Davison, Carol Margarate (2004). “Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in “The Yellow Wallpaper””. Women’s Studies. 33(1). p. 58.

[11] Suess, B. “The Writings on the Wall”. p. 91.

[12] Johnson, G. “Gilman’s Gothic Allegory”. p. 528.

[13] Hume, B. A. “Gilman’s ‘Interminable Grotesque’”. p. 479.

[14] Hume, B. A. “Gilman’s ‘Interminable Grotesque’”, p. 479.

[15] Suess, B. “The Writings on the Wall”. p. 82.

[16] Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (1972). The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography. New York: Arno. p. 120.

[17] Quawas, R.. “A new Woman’s Journey into Insanity”. p.37.

[18] Hochmann, B. “The Reading Habit and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’”, p. 99.

[19] Quawas, R.. “A new Woman’s Journey into Insanity”. p. 35.

[20] Hochmann, B. “The Reading Habit and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’”. p. 91


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descent madness liberation self analysis yellow wallpaper” charlotte perkins gilman



Titel: Descent into Madness or Liberation of Self?  An Analysis of the final scene of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman