In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story The Yellow Wallpaper, what makes the ending effective scary or disturbing or not scary or disturbing? Then what are your final opinions of the narrow and...

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story The Yellow Wallpaper, what makes the ending effective scary or disturbing or not scary or disturbing? Then what are your final opinions of the narrow and her husband John is each a good or bad person?  How so?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is significant that the text of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper is available on the website of the U.S. Government National Institutes of Health.  Gilman’s short story, based upon her own experiences, provides a textbook description of the effects on the human psyche of prolonged detention under isolated conditions, and the ramifications of cultures that treat women as secondary figures demanding of minute control by the men in their lives.  Gilman’s story ends with the following exchange between the narrator and her husband, John, which follows logically from the preceding narrative:

"What is the matter?" he cried. "For God's sake, what are you doing!"

I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. "I've got out at last," said I, "in spite of you and Jane? And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back! "

Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!

Whether one perceives this climactic scene as disturbing or not is entirely a product of one’s own mental and emotional development, but for most of us it is definitely a frightening depiction of one woman’s descent into madness.  In fact, The Yellow Wallpaper could have been written by Edgar Allan Poe, another author of note from the 19th Century.  The narrator in Gilman’s story is presumably undergoing some form of emotional distress – what today could be considered depression, or even a bipolar disorder of some sort – but demonstrates no tendencies towards delusionary behavior.  Her biggest problem, it appears, is that she lives in an age when women were almost universally viewed as intellectually and emotionally inferior to men.  And, physicians during the period in question were almost always men.  For the narrator, this situation leads to a ‘double whammy.’  Her husband is a physician possessed of the primitive views of women dominant throughout history:

“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 one reason I do not get well faster. You see he does not believe I am sick!  And what can one do? If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency - what is one to do?

“My brother is also a physician and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.”

This passage from early in the story clearly reflects the social stigma associated with mental illness, the ignorance surrounding it, and the deleterious effects of male chauvinism.  That the narrator’s condition degenerates as a direct result of her treatment at the hands of these educated men is precisely what makes her situation so horrifying.  She is literally being destroyed by those who claim to have her best interests at heart.  The yellow wallpaper in the room in which she is basically imprisoned, of course, comes to represent her involuntary confinement because it resembles prison bars.  Her only escape from this confinement is the destruction of the wallpaper.  The story’s ending is disturbing because it does represent the reality that existed – and continues to exist – throughout the history of mankind.  This is a human being whose well-intentioned treatment causes her destruction, when her sole crime was, as she puts it, the occasional outburst directed against John:

“I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition.”

The narrator (the question specifies “the narrow”; it is assumed that this is an error, and that it meant to say “narrator”) is a good person.  There is no reason to suggest otherwise.  The more difficult question pertains to John’s nature.  He is a physician, dedicated to healing the sick, and he clearly intends to help his wife.  That his views on mental illness and its treatment are primitive and destructive simply illuminates that he is a product of his times.  He is not trying to beat the evil out of his wife; on the contrary, he brings her to a country estate that even she concedes is “the most beautiful place.”  He provides for her needs as he sees appropriate, and there is no question that he loves her.  In short, he is not a bad person.  To the extent that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, however, then John is certainly derelict in his responsibilities.  His failure, under the code of ethics to which he is sworn, to ‘first do no harm,’ marks him as a tragic figure in his own way.  He is ill-informed, and the instrument of his wife’s doom, but, to the extent intentions are factored into the equation, he is a good person, also.  Unfortunately, good people sometimes do bad things.

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The Yellow Wallpaper

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