Critic Catherine Golden describes what happens to the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" as a double palimpsest. What does she mean?

This response is a synthesis of the following: "The Yellow Wallpaper," The Analytic Reader. Eds. Marjorie Bair and Elizabeth Abel (New York: Norton, 1989), p.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Charlotte Perkins Gillman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper " is an overlay of the story of so many repressed women during the Victorian era as it presents the medical and professional dominance of women as well as hegemonic masculinity. Also, in support of Golden's claim that the story is a...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Charlotte Perkins Gillman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper" is an overlay of the story of so many repressed women during the Victorian era as it presents the medical and professional dominance of women as well as hegemonic masculinity. Also, in support of Golden's claim that the story is a double palimpsest, which is a manuscript that has been once written, effaced and written over anew; the story can be read as a chronicle of more than one aspect of sensory experience brought on by male repression.

  • Medical/professional dominance and male hegemony

Gillman has the explicit purpose of exposing the oppressive forces of a male-dominated society and medical profession that was insensitive, as well as demeaning, to the unique nature of women. Dr. Mitchell's prescription for the narrator of complete "rest" devoid of any intellectual stimulation is peremptory and completely insensitive to her artistic nature. For, frequently the narrator mentions her pleasure in the various aspects of the garden that ignite her imagination--

...those mysterious deep-shaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees....I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least.

But, her pleasure is foiled by her physician husband's cautions that in her nervous and weak condition, she will have "all manner of excited fancies" if she gives in to her tendency to imagine things. 
The insensitive doctor and her husband keep her in a room that has unsymmetrical and ugly wallpaper with a "sub-pattern in a different shade," as well as furniture that is "no worse than inharmonious," while the floor has splintered wood with unsightly gouges taken from it "as if it had been through the wars."

In addition, her satisfaction in being able to write is also thwarted by the doctors,

I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.

The narrator is also isolated as she is forbidden any companionship. She is promised the visit of relatives only after she becomes well as her physician husband declares that "stimulating people" would be detrimental to her.

  • Multiple aspects of sensory experience brought on by the repression of such an artistic personality

Early in her confinement, the narrator begins to focus upon the unsightly wallpaper, noticing that it has "a kind of sub-pattern of a different shade." This lack of balance and aesthetic design, as well as the horrid color becomes very disturbing to the artistic narrator. In fact, she fixates upon this color so much that her experience of it breaks into two sensations, a perceptual anomaly termed synesthesia:

It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper – the smell! ... The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell."

Further, the narrator begins to perceive a woman trapped behind the "bars" of the yellow wallpaper [yellow is a color of a certain malice or evil, corruption or decay]. And, thus, there is an experience of separation and duality in the narrator as this woman behind the bars becomes something like an alter-ego--"I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?"--as well as a supernatural force to her:

"I've got a rope up here....If that woman does get out, and tries to get away, I can tie her!"

 Compelled, then, to free this woman, the narrator rips the paper: "I pulled and she shook."

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story is an exposé of the mistreatment of women by both a medical profession and a patriarchal society. It also a chronicle of the multi-layered aspects of the artistic mind when it is repressed, as well as a Gothic tale of supernatural forces and the horrors of the mind. Indeed, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a narrator's double palimpsest.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team