Study Guide

The Yellow Wallpaper

by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper Analysis

Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The structure of The Yellow Wallpaper creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy. The story is written in a journal-style, first-person narrative which includes nine short entries, each entry indicated by a small space between it and the last. The journal entries span three months during which John attempts to cure his wife’s “nervous condition” through the rest cure of Weir Mitchell, which assumes that intellectual stimulation damages a woman physically and psychologically. In the beginning of the story, the narrator appears sane and believable, but as the story continues, the reader realizes that she is unreliable because she withholds and confuses information. By the end, the structure—short paragraphs, fragmented and disjointed thought patterns— reflects the narrator’s mental disorder. Through the revelations contained in the journal, the reader is allowed an intimate view of the narrator’s gradual mental breakdown.

The journal begins when John and the narrator move into a temporary home John has procured to provide the narrator the break from routine that he believes necessary for her rest and recovery. She, on the other hand, doubts the necessity of such a move and wonders if the mysterious house is haunted. John reveals his superior attitude toward his wife by laughing at her “fancies,” a response which the narrator finds quite natural because, as she explains, one must expect such treatment in marriage. She even suggests that his indifference to her opinions on the house and her illness keeps her from getting well faster. Her suggestion turns out to be a fateful prediction.

Against her wishes, John decides that he and his wife will sleep in the attic room of the house, which at one point may have been a nursery. Actually, the room seems to be more of a prison than a place for children to play. The windows have bars on them, and the bed is nailed to the floor. There is even a gate at the top of the stairs. Even more disturbing to the narrator, however, is the yellow wallpaper, peeling or pulled off the walls in strips. In the beginning, the paper’s pattern jolts and annoys the narrator’s sensibilities, but later her attitude has a bizarre change.

The narrator’s morbid fascination with the yellow wallpaper is the first clue of her degenerating sanity. She begins to attribute lifelike characteristics to the paper, saying that it knows how it affects her and that its eyes stare at her. She even begins to believe that the paper has two levels, a front pattern and a shadowy figure trapped behind its bars. The narrator betrays the progression of her illness when she begins to believe that the figure behind the wallpaper is a woman, trapped like herself.

The woman behind the wallpaper becomes an obsession. The narrator begins to crawl, like the woman behind the paper, around the edge of the room, making a groove or “smooch” on the wall. The narrator begins to catch glimpses of the woman out the windows, creeping around the garden on her hands and knees. She also starts peeling off the wallpaper in an effort to completely free the woman (or women, as she soon believes) trapped in that second layer. John and his sister, Jennie, begin to suspect that something is terribly wrong, and yet they are pleased with her apparent progress. She appears more normal to them at times because she is saving her energy for nighttime, when the woman behind the paper is most active. Her apparent normality is merely a façade.

The story’s climactic scene occurs as their stay in the rented house is coming to a close. On their last night, John is once again in town attending to a patient, and the narrator asks Jennie not to disturb her. Left alone, the narrator locks herself in the nursery to allow uninterrupted time for peeling wallpaper and thus freeing the shadowy woman. As the narrator works, she identifies more closely and intensely with the trapped woman until, ultimately, she loses her sense of individual identity and merges with the woman behind the wallpaper. John breaks down the door to find his wife crawling amid the torn paper, proclaiming that she is free at last, and no one can put her back behind the wallpaper. John faints, and his wife continues her creeping over his fallen body.

The Yellow Wallpaper Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The publication of The Yellow Wallpaper had both immediate and long-term effects on women’s issues. Gilman writes in her essay “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” that the story was meant to save women from further suffering under the rest cure, and that her plan was successful. She says that after her former physician, Weir Mitchell, read a copy of the story that she had sent to him, he altered his treatment of women with nervous disorders. Therefore, the novella served an immediate purpose in the real, everyday lives of late nineteenth and early twentieth century women.

Originally viewed as a gothic horror story in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, The Yellow Wallpaper also helped to establish Gilman as an important woman writer in this genre. While few other critics gave it much attention, William Dean Howells praised the novella for its ability to “freeze the blood” and included it in his 1920 collection of The Great Modern American Stories. The novella became well known among such later horror writers as H. P. Lovecraft, who included it in Supernatural Horror in Literature (1945).

It was not until the 1970’s and the advent of feminist scholarship, however, that critics began to explore the social, political, and cultural implications of The Yellow Wallpaper. Since then, feminist scholars have identified the novella as an indictment of a social structure which deters women’s intellectual, psychological, and creative growth in an effort to keep women childlike and submissive. The work is now often included in American literature anthologies and feminist resources as a fine early example of fiction that criticizes social restrictions placed on women.

Feminist scholars have also found that the destructive impact of social definitions of womanhood on women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries illustrated in this novella appear in other women’s fiction of the time. For example, the central protagonist of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) faces similar damaging social definitions of womanhood and, not finding a place for herself among them, commits suicide (not madness, but a similar escape). In another example, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman writes of a woman, “Old Woman Magoun,” who allows her beloved granddaughter to die rather than be traded in a card deal; she then goes mad. Gilman was not alone in showing how misogynistic attitudes destroy women.

The Yellow Wallpaper Style and Technique (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The most prominent technical and stylistic feature of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is Gilman’s combining of the first-person narrator and present-tense narration. By allowing readers to see only what Jane sees as she sees it, Gilman duplicates as closely as possible the feelings of entrapment, isolation, and unreality that Jane experiences. Jane’s decline into true madness is so gradual and her narrative voice seems so level-headed, even when she describes events that one knows are impossible—such as the creeping women in the garden or the woman struggling to free herself from behind her room’s wallpaper—that one might misread this tale as a ghost story rather than as an account of Jane’s mental deterioration.

By making the descriptions of the women, the room, and the malevolent shapes and faces in the wallpaper so immediate and realistic, Gilman tricks the reader into seeing Jane as simultaneously mad and in the grips of some haunting supernatural specters. This ambiguity increases the shock that readers experience when they realize that Jane has been talking in metaphors throughout her narrative, that she has been recounting her own sense of intellectual and emotional oppression, rather than seeing actual women crawling about on the ground in the gardens or moving behind her room’s wallpaper.

Some readers may be content to let their interpretation of “The Yellow Wallpaper” rest with the supernatural; if left here, however, readers will miss the more important point of Gilman’s tale. Gilman forces readers to reconsider Jane’s entire narrative by means of the story’s conclusion, when Jane finally speaks her own name for the first time as she creeps over her husband’s inert body. Little of the story will then make sense unless reexamined. Gilman plants numerous clues throughout the story that express Jane’s interior struggle to be herself and to reclaim her independence: her need to be creative by keeping a journal, or the existence of the woman for whom Jane demolishes the yellow wallpaper to effect her escape. Similarly, the information that Jane offhandedly supplies readers in the story’s early stages—such as descriptions of the bars on her window, the bite marks on the bed that is bolted to the floor, and her increasing lassitude—now can be reinterpreted as describing the true nature of where Jane has been staying: at an asylum. On second reading, “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes the story of a woman who, while she may have been depressed, was not insane when she began her cure.

The Yellow Wallpaper Historical Context

"The Yellow Wallpaper" was written and published in 1892. The last three decades of the nineteenth century comprised a period of growth,...

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The Yellow Wallpaper Setting

"The Yellow Wallpaper" takes place in a country house located about three miles from the nearest village. Although the large house is...

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The Yellow Wallpaper Literary Style

"The Yellow Wallpaper'' tells the story of a woman's mental breakdown. Suffering from depression following the birth of her first child, the...

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The Yellow Wallpaper Literary Qualities

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is an example of a first-person narrative because it is told exclusively from the viewpoint of the unnamed...

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The Yellow Wallpaper Social Sensitivity

"The Yellow Wallpaper" was written and published in 1892. The last three decades of the nineteenth century comprised a period of growth,...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

The Yellow Wallpaper Compare and Contrast

1892: Women cannot vote for public officials or hold public office. Occupations other than teaching, nursing, low-level factory labor,...

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The Yellow Wallpaper Topics for Discussion

1. Imagine how you would respond to the rest-cure. What would be the most difficult aspect of it? Why?

2. Discuss the limited...

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The Yellow Wallpaper Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Research literature on hysteria and other "women's problems" published at the end of the 1800s and relate them to "The Yellow Wallpaper."...

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The Yellow Wallpaper Topics for Further Study

Research literature on hysteria and other ''women's problems'' published at the end of the 1800s and relate them to "The Yellow Wallpaper."...

(The entire section is 74 words.)

The Yellow Wallpaper Related Titles / Adaptations

In her nonfiction work Women and Economics (1898), Gilman argues that men and women are more similar than different, and that women...

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The Yellow Wallpaper Media Adaptations

A short film adaptation of "The Yellow Wallpaper'' was produced in 1977 by Marie Ashton and is available on videotape through Women Make...

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The Yellow Wallpaper What Do I Read Next?

The short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe is told from the perspective of an insane man who murders an old man and...

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The Yellow Wallpaper For Further Reference

Bak, John S. "Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper.'" Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Winter 1994): 39-48. Bak explores the evolution of...

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The Yellow Wallpaper Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, "Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship," in...

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The Yellow Wallpaper Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. One of the premier critical works on nineteenth century women writers. Includes a discussion of The Yellow Wallpaper linking the pattern in the wallpaper to patriarchal text patterns that women writers had to escape.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” Forerunner 4 (1913): 271. A one-page article in which Gilman explains that her main reason for writing The Yellow Wallpaper was to save other women from fates similar to her own under the rest cure.

Golden, Catherine. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper.” New York: Feminist Press, 1992. This indispensable compilation includes the text of The Yellow Wallpaper with the original illustrations, useful biographical and background information, well-selected critical essays, and a solid introduction.

Kolodny, Annette. “A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts.” New Literary History 11, no. 3 (1980): 451-467. In this article, Kolodny argues that Gilman’s contemporaries did not understand the implications of The Yellow Wallpaper because they did not have the context to understand her point.

Meyering, Sheryl L., ed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989. An important collection of critical essays on Gilman and her works, including one by Linda Wagner-Martin focusing on The Yellow Wallpaper.