In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," the protagonist travels with her husband to the country to recover from a nervous condition she is suffering from after the birth of their child.
Ironically, one might imagine that because the narrator is married to a physician, that she would be in the best of hands. This is, however, not the case. John, her husband, has taken it upon himself to see to his wife's treatment. Without any specialized training, he decides to put her in a room all alone at the top of the house. Because it was at one time a nursery, there are bars on the windows. In that the protagonist spends most of her time here and is not allowed to enjoy the company of others or to read or write, the room has become a virtual prison.
At the beginning of the story, the narrator is writing (which she must do in secret). She seems quite capable of understanding what she needs to feel better.
John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is the one reason I do not get well faster.
(It is telling that she describes the paper as "dead." The reader can sense something is wrong.) The narrator's husband (who turns out to be a condescending boor) is so employed with feeding his ego that he refuses to consider that his wife has anything valuable to offer in her treatment. The socially accepted attitude that the man knows best is prevalent throughout the story. When John's wife tells him how awful the wallpaper is and how it upsets her, he decides he will not go out of his way to change anything in a rental property. It never occurs to him that a wife with a nervous condition might well benefit from soothing surroundings. If he had ever listened to her descriptions of the paper, he might have moved her as she requested:
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough constantly to irritate and provide study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.
We find out that John is not acting alone. The protagonist's brother is also a doctor. Neither man, it seems, has the slightest clue about what might be beneficial to their patient. She becomes obsessed with the paper: is it any wonder when she has nothing to do to occupy her mind?
I wish I could get well faster.
But I must not think about that. This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had.
There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.
Most of her time alone is spent studying the room. "She has minimal social interaction." She is constantly searching for refuge from the threat she feels from the wallpaper. At one point she describes furniture they once had—at a time when things were obviously not as bad as they are now. However, her memories imply that things have not been totally right even before now:
I remember what a kindly wink the knobs of our big old bureau used to have, and there was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend.
Her personification of the knobs and the chair show someone desperate for kindness and friendship, but then she goes on to note that if any of her other things seemed "fierce," she could be safe in that chair.
Then the woman sees a figure in the wallpaper.
But in the places where it isn't faded and where the sun is just so—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.
By now the reader understands that she is not getting better at all. The men in the story are all-knowing and overbearing. Even Jennie, John's sister, does not think to question the decisions of the men. In fact, the woman says that Jennie believes that writing has caused the deterioration of the woman's mind.
When the protagonist tries to approach her husband for help, he dismisses her. He tells her that she is getting better and that there is no need to leave the house early as his wife has asked. When she starts to disagree that only her body is better, he stops her with "a stern, reproachful look," as one might behave with a naughty child.
The woman is constantly weak. She cries all the time. She obsesses about the pattern of the wallpaper and then, she notices that it has a smell that pervades the house. She notes that she had thought of burning down the house to remove the smell. She does not sleep much at night anymore, but during the day. She is too busy to sleep after dark, for this is when the most interesting things happen in the wallpaper. She no longer wants to leave the house. With the passage of time, she has become engulfed by her delusions.
Eventually she makes a discovery. There is a woman behind the pattern in the wallpaper! In fact, sometimes she thinks there are many women behind the paper, all trying to get out! In her mind, the women are as trapped as she is. She describes the woman behind the paper:
And she is all the time trying to climb through.
The protagonist begins to see the trapped woman everywhere: in the yard, on the road..."creeping by daylight." She no longer trusts John. She suspects that he and Jennie are also interested in the paper. By the last day of her stay in the house, the narrator and the wallpaper woman have been working together to peel the wallpaper off so as to release the prisoner, when in fact the prisoner is the narrator.
When John comes to collect his wife, he struggles to open the door. When he finally gains access he cannot believe what he sees: his wife is creeping all along the walls. She triumphantly declares that she escaped and beat him and Jennie, and they can no longer put her back behind the paper. The physician is totally taken aback, confronted by a scene he cannot comprehend. He promptly faints, to his wife's surprise. But as he rests on the floor in her path, she continues "to creep over him every time!"
As an important note, this story is semi-autobiographical as the author...
...describes the treatment of women during a rest cure prescribed for nervous disorders by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, who was a famous physician. The story describes the submissive, childlike obedience of women to male authority figures that was considered typical at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Gilman's writing effectively conveys the sense of the woman's disorientation and separation from reality over the three-month period she and her husband live in the house.
From the beginning of "The Yellow Wallpaper" we see that the narrator is an imaginative and highly expressive woman, for example she remembers terrifying herself with imaginary nighttime monsters as a child, and she seems to enjoy the idea that the house she and her husband have just moved into is haunted. As part of a "cure," though, her husband forbids her from exercising her imagination in any kind of way. It is then that we begin to see both her reason and her emotions rebel at this treatment as she turns her imagination onto seemingly neutral objects (the house and the wallpaper) in an attempt to ignore her frustration. The negativity she feels influences the descriptions of her surroundings, making them appear uncanny and sinister.
Before long the narrator becomes solely focused on the wallpaper, and the more fixated with it that she becomes the more disassociated she is from her daily life. At the very moment she decides to keep a secret diary as "a relief to her mind," her true thoughts are hidden from the outer world and she begins to slip into a fantasy world in which "her situation" is made clear in symbolic terms.
Gilman shows us, as readers, the division in the narrator's consciousness by having the narrator puzzle over effects in the world that she herself has caused.
For example, the narrator does not immediately understand that the yellow stains on her clothing and the "smootch" on the wallpaper are connected. The narrator also fights the realization that the predicament of the woman in the wallpaper is a symbolic version of her own situation. In this instance she even goes as far as to disapprove of the woman's efforts to escape and intends to "tie her up." When the narrator finally identifies herself with the woman trapped in the wallpaper, she is able to see that other women are similarly forced to hide behind the domestic patterns of their lives, and that she is in fact the one in need of rescue.
The horror of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is that in order to find and understand herself, the narrator must first lose herself. By the end of the story the narrator has seemingly untangled the pattern of her life, but she has torn herself and her sanity apart in the process.
One of my favorite little odd details at the end of the story that truly shows her deterioration (and one that many people miss) is the quote, "I've got out at last, in spite of you and Jane." The narrator's name is never mentioned throughout the story, and while some critic's claim it is simply a misprint for her sister-in-law's name "Jennie," it is more likely (and disturbingly fitting) that "Jane" is the narrator, who is now free of the constraints of her marriage, her society, and the efforts to repress her mind.