Suppression and Escape in “The Yellow Wallpaper”
The 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman gives readers an opportunity to look into the mind of a woman going mad. Through its first person narration, we are given insight into the thoughts and feelings of the narrator, as she is slowly consumed, and eventually driven mad, by an obsession with the yellow wallpaper hung throughout her bedroom in the house rented by she and her husband. It is clear throughout the story that the narrator has dealt with a previous “nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency … ” (56), which we might assume was some sort of nervous breakdown, however, little is said about its origins or circumstances. As the story progresses, the narrator’s notice of the wallpaper transforms into an obsession, causing her mental state to once again deteriorate, eventually resulting in her complete psychological collapse. What causes this deterioration and how does it progress as the story develops?
It is important to note that the yellow wallpaper which consumes the narrator is not the origin of her psychotic behavior. While the narrator appears to be in a perfectly stable mental state through much of the beginning of the story, there are signs which hint at remnants of her previous breakdown, still present in her subconscious. The first of these is her comparison of the estate to a haunted house and her perception “that there is something queer about it” (56). Of course, this is by no means an insane statement, however, it does signify a certain level of superstition if not a mild delusion, possibly an effect of incomplete recovery from her previous mental breakdown. More pronounced indications of this unresolved mental instability occur when she states, “John is a physician, and PERHAPS … that is one reason I do not get well faster … You see he does not believe I am sick!” (56). These lines provide significant evidence reaffirming the fact that the narrator still has not fully recovered from her illness and is conscious of this fact, leading us to once again consider that she may still be subject to hallucinations or other psychotic tendencies. One could argue that these “silly fancies” (62) stem all the way from her childhood which she briefly describes on pages 59 and 60:
I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy store. (59)
I used to feel that if any of the other things looked too fierce I could always hop into that chair and be safe. (60)
Being a child, it isn’t strange that the narrator should create characters from inanimate objects however, the fact the narrator herself admits that she had more of an imagination than “most children” (59) suggests that she may have dealt with some level of psychosis throughout her entire life. It is these personifications by the narrator that ultimately develop into her hallucinations of the “woman behind [the pattern]” (64). The yellow wallpaper in her room simply acts as a stimulus, causing these innocent fantasies to transform into dangerous hallucinations. Because of this, it is also necessary that we question every statement made throughout the story. Being written in the first person by a mentally unstable narrator, it is impossible for us to discern between what the narrator is really seeing and what she thinks she is seeing without some level of doubt. As a result, we must consider her an unreliable narrator.
Barbara A. Suess attributes the narrator’s “slight hysterical tendency” (56) not to a mental disorder but instead to postpartum depression:
At the beginning of the story, the protagonist/narrator, Jane, has just given birth to a baby boy. Although for most mothers a newborn's infancy is a joyous time, for others, like Jane, it becomes a trying emotional period that is now popularly understood to be the fairly common disorder, postpartum depression …
However, as the term postpartum depression was not extant in the Victorian vocabulary, John has diagnosed Jane as suffering from “temporary nervous depression [with] a slight hysterical tendency” (56). (16)
Suess further states that the symptoms the narrator later exhibits, such as hallucinations and paranoia, which had previously been kept under control, may be more directly related to the influence the wallpaper has on her (¶16).
With the understanding that the narrator is in the process of recovering from either a mental disturbance or postpartum depression, we are faced with a new question: How did the yellow wallpaper reverse her recovery? It becomes quickly apparent that the narrator has an unnatural obsession with the wallpaper. Upon first seeing the nursery, she quickly summarizes the majority of the room in a few sentences while the following four paragraphs are devoted to describing only the wallpaper (58), clearly showing that it had an effect on her as soon as she entered the room. As the story continues, more and more of the narrator’s time is devoted towards describing the wallpaper, which ultimately becomes the exclusive subject of her writing. While her original description of the wallpaper illustrates it’s torn patches, pattern and color (58), later descriptions seem to shift focus more exclusively towards the pattern, eventually leading to her imagining “a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade” (60), finally evolving into the woman. This leads us to assume that, more specifically than the wallpaper, the pattern is the main source of what causes the narrator to slip back into insanity. As she states on page 58, “[The pattern] is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough constantly to irritate and provoke study … ”. Spending the majority of her time resting in her room, the pattern soon becomes a source of entertainment. “I lie here … and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you … I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion” (61). The wallpaper’s intriguing pattern at first stimulates interest, gradually becoming a way to pass the time but ultimately transforms into the narrator’s obsession.
Heidi Scott argues that the narrator’s case is not unique, drawing attention to the narrator’s description of the room prior to her insanity, describing the floor as “scratched and gouged and splintered” (60), the strips of torn wallpaper (58) as well as “a long, straight, even smooch (65)” which “goes behind every piece of furniture, except the bed … ” (65). Scott reasons that these descriptions indicate that previous occupants of the room had been in a similar state as the narrator (200). Scott also states that the features of the room, which the narrator assumes were in place for the children, instead indicate that the room was previously used as an asylum (200): “It was a nursery at first, and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge, for the windows are barred for little children and there are rings and things in the walls” (Gilman 58). Scott continues, “[These things] are all evidence of behavior of the room’s earlier inhabitants and provide evidence of previous habitat adaptation for the narrator to study” (200). Scott’s argument states that the evidence of the room’s previous occupants may have had an unconscious effect on the narrator who, after observing them week after week, begins to create similar marks of her own (200). The fact that she is recovering from a previous nervous breakdown may also make her more susceptible to the influence of these images, as well as account for the fact that her husband is seemingly unaffected.
As the narrator’s fixation with the wallpaper’s pattern advances, so does the severity of her fantasies. Her tendency to personify inanimate objects as a child reappears in her description of the yellow wallpaper. “ … The lame uncertain curves … suddenly commit suicide … destroy themselves” (58). “The paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!” (59). “ … The pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down” (59). As the story progresses, this personification becomes more vivid in the narrator’s mind, evolving into a direct description of what the narrator believes she is seeing. “ … I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design” (60). These hallucinations gradually become clearer, demanding the narrator’s attention. “Behind that outside pattern the dim shape gets clearer and clearer every day” (62). “The woman behind it is as plain as can be!” (64). As the woman behind the pattern becomes more definite, she also becomes more violent, from “ … stooping down and creeping about … ” (62) to “ … [taking] hold of the bars and [shaking] them hard.” in an attempt to escape the pattern. In addition to the hallucinations of a woman behind the pattern, the narrator develops the belief that the wallpaper has a physically harmful effect:
There’s one comfort—the baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy this nursery with the horrid wallpaper.
If we had not used it, the blessed child would have! What a fortunate escape!
Why, I wouldn’t have a child of mine, an impressionable little thing, live in such a room for worlds …
It is lucky that John kept me here after all; I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see. (62)
Of course, in a sense, the wallpaper does have a harmful effect on the narrator, she is confusing the wallpaper’s psychological influence on her particular mind with a more broader, physical impact that might affect any individual, including her baby. However, under Scott’s theory that the narrator is adapting to her new habitat, the narrator’s statement has some basis, considering that other occupants might “adapt”, as well.
As her hallucinations become more vivid, the narrator begins to make more and more unconscious comparisons between the woman and herself, most notably the bars that appear on the wallpaper at night, which reflect the narrator’s marriage. Being a feminist, Charles Perkins Gilman’s short stories often center around feminist topics. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is no exception. John, the narrator’s husband, is, while caring, overprotective and controlling of his wife, treating her like a child and generally ignoring her opinions. Over the course of their marriage the narrator, most likely having been “corrected” for years, has come to accept whatever her husband tells her, despite her true feelings, stating early in the story how she does not agree with her husband’s denial that she is sick, but is pressured to accept this, given that he is a physician (62). Oftentimes she translates her husband’s dominating behavior into acts of selfless love and care. On page 62, we see her convincing herself that John’s insistence that she stay home is purely for her own good. Her acceptance of male superiority may also originate from the way she is treated by her family, more specifically her brother. “My brother is a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing” (56). The pressure of both her brother and her husband, if not other family members, force her to accept the fact that there is nothing wrong with her. This relates back to the bars the narrator sees on the wallpaper, an unconscious symbol of her limitations, due not only to her husband’s overbearing behavior but her own acceptance of this, as well. This recurrent image of being restrained by her husband eventually becomes too much for her to bear and she becomes desperate to help the woman (herself) escape the pattern (symbolizing her husband’s and her own unwillingness to be anything other than a simple housewife) (the author’s choice of the word “pattern” may also allude to the “pattern” of male dominance during that time period).
Leading up to her mad destruction of the wallpaper, the narrator begins to see the woman “creeping around” (66) outside of the house, hiding from passing carriages (66). In another unconscious comparison to herself the narrator mentions in the following lines, “I always lock the door when I creep by daylight. I can’t do it at night, for I know John would suspect something at once” (66). This “creeping” may be referring to the narrator’s writing, something that her husband does not approve of. “I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it …” (57). Just as the woman is free to creep by daylight, the narrator is free to write during the day, while her husband is away. In contrast, at night the woman is trapped, just as the narrator can’t write without making her husband aware of it. This further relates to the fact that during the day she is free of her husband’s control, and, as a result, his insistence “that there is … nothing the matter with [her]” (56) isn’t present to keep her wild “fancies” (58) under control, while during the night the opposite is true. It isn’t until their final night in the house that the narrator is left alone in the room while her husband stays in town overnight (67). The narrator takes advantage of this opportunity and attempts to free the woman, “peel[ing] off yards of [the] paper” (67). By tearing down the wallpaper and freeing the woman, she reaches the height of her madness, freeing the insanity her husband attempted to ignore. The wallpaper being torn down, the sole barrier separating the narrator and her hallucination is removed and the narrator assumes the identity of “the woman”:
I wonder if they all came out of the wallpaper as I did!
But I am securely fastened now by my well-hidden rope—you don’t get me out in the road there!
I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard! (68)
When her husband returns, he finds that she has not only assumed the woman’s identity but has also forgotten her own, referring to her true self in the third person and, as a result, revealing her name. “‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane’” (68). This point marks the completion of the narrator’s transition into insanity, filling a role similar to that of previous occupants as stated by Scott (200).
Through her writing, Gilman’s narrator provides chilling details of her shift from stable new mother to delusional madwoman, taking only a simple pattern to undo all of her husband’s attempts to disguise her insanity. Perhaps this serves as a reminder that anyone, no matter how normal they may seem, is susceptible to the same insanity faced by Jane.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper” Literature: A Pocket Anthology. Ed. R. S. Gwynn. 6th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2015. 351. Print.
Scott, Heidi. "Crazed Nature: Ecology in THE YELLOW WALL-PAPER."Academic Search Complete. EBSCO, n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
Suess, Barbara A. "The Writing's on the Wall" Symbolic Orders in 'The Yellow Wallpaper'"Academic Search Complete. EBSCO, Jan. 2003. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.