Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
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...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
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.
Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised 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,...
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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Discussion
Ideas for Reports and Papers
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
For Further Reference
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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...
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