In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," what happened in the room with the yellow wallpaper before the narrator lived there?

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booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator, her husband, her newborn child, and her sister-in-law move into a rental house for three months to give the narrator an opportunity to get better while struggling from severe depression.

The narrator notes:

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.

The house is described as "a colonial mansion" and "a hereditary estate." It is a large house with several floors and beautiful grounds with all kinds of plants growing. The house is located some distance from the road, standing alone; it is three miles or more from the village. It has outbuildings and "a delicious garden."

The narrator believes that there is something "queer" about the place because they are able to rent it so inexpensively, and it has been uninhabited for quite some time. While there may have been a disagreement between the heirs of the house that accounts for the length of its abandonment, the narrator still finds it a strange place. (She does believe, however, that it would be much more interesting if it were haunted, but her husband will not hear of something so silly.)

It is on the third floor that the narrator is placed. This is to be her room only.

So we took the nursery at the top of the house.

It is a big airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore.

The room had first been a nursery. It was then converted into a playroom, and eventually into a gymnasium of some kind. That is was set up originally for children is obvious as all the windows have bars on them.

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wildedorian's profile pic

wildedorian | eNotes Newbie

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There are two interpretations of the story.  The first, that it was originally a child's nursery.  When Gilman wrote the story in 1892, it was not uncommon for nurseries to be barred.  She describes the wallpaper as child like and for the scratches in the wall paper, it may have been a temperamental child. However, the second interpretation is that it is a mental institution. The bars on the window are keeping her in, the bed is bolted to the floor, she is only allowed outside at certain times, and the previous resident was scratching at the walls to get out.

This story is very personal to Gilman, it reflects her own history of her psychosis after having her child.

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