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Charlotte Perkins Gilman used her personal bout with postpartum depression to create a powerful fictional narrative which has broad implications for women. When the narrator recognizes that there is more than one trapped, creeping woman, Gilman indicates that the meaning of her story extends beyond an isolated, individual situation. Gilman’s main purpose in writing The Yellow Wallpaper is to condemn not only a specific medical treatment but also the misogynistic principles and resulting sexual politics that make such a treatment possible.

The unequal relationship between the narrator and John is a microcosm of the larger gender inequity in society. Gilman makes it clear that much of John’s condescending and paternal behavior toward his wife has little to do with her illness. He dismisses her well-thought-out opinions and her “flights of fancy” with equal disdain, while he belittles her creative impulses. He speaks of her as he would a child, calling her his “little girl” and saying of her, “Bless her little heart.” He overrides her judgments on the best course of treatment for herself as he would on any issue, making her live in a house she does not like, in a room she detests, and in an isolated environment which makes her unhappy and lonely. John’s solicitous “care” shows that he believes the prevailing scientific theories which claim that women’s innate inferiority leaves them, childlike, in a state of infantile dependence.

Gilman makes John the window through which readers can view the negative images of women in her society. In Gilman’s lifetime, women’s right to become full citizens and to vote became one of the primary issues debated in the home, the media, and the political arena. As women’s reform movements gained the strength that would eventually win the vote in 1920, the backlash became more vicious and dangerous. Noted psychologists detailed theories that “proved” women’s developmental immaturity, low cognitive skills, and emotional instability. Physicians, who actually had little knowledge of the inner workings of the female body, presented complex theories arguing that the womb created hysteria and madness, that it was the source of women’s inferiority. Ministers urged women to fulfill their duty to God and their husbands with equal submission and piety. In indicting John’s patronizing treatment of his wife, Gilman indicts the system as a whole, in which many women were trapped behind damaging social definitions of the female.

One can see the negative effects of John’s (and society’s) treatment of the narrator in her response to the rest cure. At first, she tries to fight against the growing lethargy that controls her. She even challenges John’s treatment of her. Yet, while one part of her may believe John wrong, another part that has internalized the negative definitions of womanhood believes that since he is the man, the doctor, and therefore the authority, then he may be right. Because they hold unequal power positions in the relationship and in society, she lacks the courage and self-esteem to assert her will over his even though she knows that his “treatment” is harming her. Deprived of any meaningful activity, purpose, and self-definition, the narrator’s mind becomes confused and, predictably, childlike in its fascination with the shadows in the wallpaper.

In the end, the narrator triumphs over John—she literally crawls over him—but escapes from him only into madness. As a leading feminist lecturer and writer, Gilman found other options than madness to end her confinement in traditional definitions of womanhood. Eventually, Gilman divorced her husband, who married her best friend, and her husband and her best friend reared her child. The public, friends, and family so sharply censured Gilman for her actions that she knew many women would stay in unhealthy situations rather than risk such condemnation. By having the story end with the narrator’s descent into insanity, Gilman laments the reality that few viable options exist for creative, intellectual women to escape the damaging social definitions of womanhood represented by John. In her horrifying depiction of a housewife gone mad, Gilman attempts to warn her readership that denying women full humanity is dangerous to women, family, and society as a whole.

Female Confinement and Escape in "The Yellow Wallpaper"

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In 1913, more than twenty years after the first publication of ''The Yellow Wallpaper," Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote that she devised the story, "to save people from being driven crazy." Gilman had suffered a near mental breakdown herself, and had been prescribed a rest treatment very similar to that prescribed to the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper." For Gilman, the act of resuming her normal life, which certainly included writing, was what restored her health. Though we don't know what became of Gilman's narrator, we can chronicle Gilman's own life after her near mental breakdown. If Gilman's narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" regressed into her insanity, Gilman certainly did not; unlike the narrator she created, she made her voice heard. She pursued her career as a writer and lecturer, and she wrote works of theory and social commentary that brought her international fame. Though she concentrated on feminist issues, her influence reached beyond the woman's sphere. She has been compared by some critics to the author George Bernard Shaw and the art critic John Ruskin, and the London Chronicle compared her book, Women and Economics, to the writings of John Stuart Mill.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" commands attention not only for the harrowing journey into madness it portrays, but also for its realism. It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that the "The Yellow Wallpaper" is autobiographical. In 1887, Charlotte Perkins Gilman placed herself under the care of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a well-known nerve specialist. She was suffering from depression, "nervous prostration" as diagnosed by the doctor, after the birth of her daughter. At that time, the medical profession had not yet distinguished between diseases of the mind and diseases of the brain; problems that would now be treated by psychiatrists, such as depression, were treated by neurologists such as Mitchell. The symptoms of depression—fatigue, hysteria, crying fits—were thought to stem from the body, and thus were treated through care of the body. Mitchell's treatment for breakdowns of the nervous system, and the treatment he prescribed for Gilman, included total bed rest and isolating the patient from family and familiar surroundings. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman demonstrates the horror that such a treatment could induce in its subject. When the narrator is threatened by her husband with being sent to Weir Mitchell if she does not get better quickly, she says: "But I don't want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!"

Gilman was sent home from Mitchell's sanitarium after one month, having been pronounced ''cured,'' with the following instructions: ''Live as domestic a life as possible ... Have but two hours' intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brash or pencil as long as you live." When Gilman heeded this advice she came, in her own words, ''perilously close to losing my mind." Mitchell's "rest cure" had been used on other literary figures—Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf—and other noted persons--Jane Addams and Winifred Howells, whose father, the editor William Dean Howells, was instrumental in the publication of "The Yellow Wallpaper." Woolf, Addams, and Howells, like Gilman, protested against the treatment (Woolf also attacked it in her novel Mrs. Dalloway). In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman chronicles what happens to a woman forced to succumb to the "rest cure" and thus, to her inflexible position in society as a prisoner of the domestic sphere.

Gilman claimed a purpose for everything she wrote. "The Yellow Wallpaper" pointed out the dangers of the medical treatment imposed by Mitchell and other doctors like him. Years later, Gilman learned that Mitchell had changed his treatment of nervous prostration after reading the story, so she won her victory. Yet, the story is far more than just a crying out for improvement in one facet of a woman's life; it touches on many issues relevant to women of the nineteenth century, particularly that of the limited roles available to them.

Despite Gilman's avowal that her story was not literature, it has been appreciated as such since its rediscovery in the 1960s (Gilman's works had been out of print since the 1930s). And just as "The Yellow Wallpaper" espoused Gilman's feminist views when she wrote it, critics have analyzed it as a feminist work—or a work that has feminist issues as its main concerns—for the past two decades. As is often the case, the critics disagree. The story has been seen as a realistic tale in its portrayal of the narrator's descent into madness, as a feminist Gothic tale in its use of abnormal behavior and occurrences, and as one of the earliest modernist texts for its unaware narrator and its intense focus on what she is thinking and feeling. Readers and critics alike have even disagreed over the meaning of the story's ending. Some critics see the narrator's defeat: she has retreated into the world of childishness. Others, such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, see in it the narrator's triumph: by fainting, John shows he is defeated, and the narrator has become the woman behind the wallpaper, who can creep down the road, away from the house and her husband's authority. Even attempts to understand why the story was ignored for so long have led to dissent. Some critics argue that Gilman's contemporaries could not understand this story of a woman's mental breakdown because they were accustomed to "traditional" literature. Still others believe that women could accurately read the story, but they chose not to because they were afraid of what they would find.

What then are we to make of Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"? Essentially, it is a story of female confinement and escape. Gilman's narrator is trapped in the home, in her maternal body, and in the text she has created for herself, which is the only escape she can find.

That Gilman's narrator is physically and spiritually trapped by her husband is apparent from the beginning of the story. Though she "wanted [a room] downstairs that opened on the piazza ... John would not hear of it." The narrator strives for some space of her own; the room she would have chosen would not fit two beds and had no other bedroom for John nearby. Instead, John has put his wife on the top floor, away from the rest of the household (their baby, the nurse, and John's sister) in a room she believes to have been a "nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium." Though she recognizes her captivity—John "hardly lets me stir without special direction"—she overlooks other more ominous signs of her confinement: the bars at the window, the gate at the top of the stairs, steel rings on the wall, and the nailed-down bedstead.

This habit of the narrator of deliberately misreading her surroundings is apparent throughout the story. For instance, when John refuses to give in to her fancies about changing the wallpaper because, after that ''it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on," is he reminding her of her confinement? Does she recognize this subtle way of controlling her? Rather than confronting such a possibility she instead, outwardly, relies on John's advice. "I think sometimes if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me," she muses, which she then follows with a reiteration of what John wants her to think—"But I find I get pretty tired when I try." Such is her effort to believe in him and thus preserve her sanity (sanity as defined by John), because she knows she has not the will to resist him:''But what is one to do?" she says. In fact, she does something John doesn't approve of—she writes in a journal, thereby creating her own text. Unfortunately, because the text is her only place of true self-expression, it becomes as oppressive as the room, as oppressive as her husband.

Gilman's narrator is so cruelly trapped both by the conventions of nineteenth-century American society, which says that a woman's function is to bear and raise children, and by her husband's inflexible belief in this code. John has attempted to take away one of the few things that bring her consistent pleasure, her writing, "He hates to have me write a word," she says, and notes his determination to correct her ''imaginative power and habit of story-making." Unfortunately, for Gilman's narrator, these sentiments are shared by others in society. John's sister, a woman who occupies her proper place in the domestic sphere by being "so good with the baby" and a "perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper," seems to believe "his the writing which made [the narrator] sick!"

Because the narrator has no physical or spiritual escape from her husband, she must seek relief elsewhere: in the yellow wallpaper, and thus, in the text she creates as she describes her relationship with the wallpaper. Though at first she says of it, "I never saw a worse paper in my life," as she loses her slim hold on sanity, she gets "really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper." Her initial discomfort decreases as she sees mirrored in the wallpaper her own existence. She realizes that the wallpaper has two patterns; the front pattern is made of bars, and in the back pattern is a woman "stooping down and creeping about,'' and later shaking the bars. And the woman in the wallpaper continues to reflect the narrator, "she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through the pattern—it strangles so." By the end of the story, the narrator finds escape when she becomes the wallpaper woman as she "creep[s] smoothly on the floor." With this final action she escapes those places of her confinement. Her husband, the force that keeps her in the home, has become an inanimate object, one that only gets in the way of her ''path by the wall, so that [she] had to creep over him." She releases herself from her maternal role as she occupies the role of a ''madwoman.'' And, by refusing to write it anymore, she has freed herself from the text that chronicles her mental breakdown.

Virginia Woolf, in her important essay A Room of One's Own, says that in order to write a woman must have money and her own private room. Perhaps implicit in Woolf's words is that women also need to be accepted for what they are: creative, independent, thinking creatures. For Gilman's narrator, having money, a private room, and the necessary leisure time certainly was not enough to sustain her as a writer and as a person; she was lacking that other essential element: a family who believed in a woman's right to creativity and self-expression.

Source: Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
Rena Korb is a writer and editor.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (essay date 1913)

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SOURCE: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” edited by Catherine Golden, pp. 51-53. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1992.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1913 in The Forerunner, a magazine founded and edited by Gilman, the author offers an explanation of her original intention in writing “The Yellow Wallpaper.”]

Many and many a reader has asked that. When the story first came out, in the New England Magazine about 1891, a Boston physician made protest in The Transcript. Such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.

Another physician, in Kansas I think, wrote to say that it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen, and—begging my pardon—had I been there?

Now the story of the story is this:

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia—and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours' intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as I lived.” This was in 1887.

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and went to work again—work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite; ultimately recovering some measure of power.

Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.

The little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has to my knowledge saved one woman from a similar fate—so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.

But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.

It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.


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“The Yellow Wallpaper” Charlotte Perkins Gilman

(Full name Charlotte Anna Perkins Stetson Gilman) American short story writer, essayist, novelist, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Gilman's short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892).

The short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by nineteenth-century feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was first published in 1892 in New England Magazine. Gilman's story, based upon her own experience with a “rest cure” for mental illness, was written as a critique of the medical treatment prescribed to women suffering from a condition then known as “neurasthenia.” The significance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a feminist text, however, was not acknowledged until the critically acclaimed 1973 reissue of the story by the Feminist Press. Henceforth, “The Yellow Wallpaper” made its way into the canon of feminist literature, becoming a staple of university women's studies courses. Since 1973, “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been reissued by several publishers in various volumes edited by literary critics. It was also adapted to film in a 1992 made-for-television production by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Plot and Major Characters

While in her twenties, Gilman was diagnosed with a mental disorder called neurasthenia or “nervous prostration.” She was treated by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the leading authority on this illness. Mitchell's rest cure, prescribed primarily to women, consisted of committing the patient to bed for a period of months, during which time the patient was fed only mild foods and deprived of all mental, physical, and social activity—reading, writing, and painting were explicitly prohibited. Gilman once stated that the rest cure itself nearly drove her insane.

The parallels between Gilman's experience and that of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” are evident in the story. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is structured as a series of secret diary entries by an unnamed woman, a young wife and new mother whose debilitating mental condition has prevented her from caring for her infant. She and her husband John, who is a doctor, have rented a house in the country, in which she is to take a rest cure. The narrator is confined to an upstairs room that was once a child's nursery but has been stripped of all furnishings and decor, except for a bed that is nailed to the floor, bars over the windows, and a garish yellow wallpaper. She describes the color and pattern of the wallpaper in an assortment of distasteful ways. The narrator becomes more obsessed with the wallpaper and begins to imagine that a woman is trapped behind it. The story's finale finds the narrator creeping around the edges of the room and tearing the wallpaper in ragged sheets from the walls in an attempt to free the woman she believes to be trapped behind it. When her husband unlocks the door and finds his wife and the room in these conditions, he is appalled. “I've got out at last,” she explains, “And I've pulled off most of the paper so you can't put me back!” He faints, and she continues to creep around the room, crawling over her husband as he lies unconscious on the floor.

Major Themes

Several major themes emerge from the narrative of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman's story expresses a general concern with the role of women in nineteenth-century society, particularly within the realms of marriage, maternity, and domesticity. The narrator's confinement to her home and her feelings of being dominated and victimized by those around her, particularly her husband, is an indication of the many domestic limitations that society places upon women. The yellow wallpaper itself becomes a symbol of this oppression to a woman who feels trapped in her roles as wife and mother. Gilman's story further expresses a concern for the ways in which society discourages women of creative self-expression. The narrator's urge to express herself through writing is stifled by the rest cure. Yet, the creative impulse is so strong that she assumes the risk of secretly writing in a diary, which she hides from her husband. Finally, “The Yellow Wallpaper” addresses issues of mental illness and the medical treatment of women. While the narrator is clearly suffering from some kind of psychological distress at the beginning of the story, her mental state is worsened by her husband's medical opinion that she confine herself to the house. The inadequacy of the patriarchial medical profession in treating women's mental health is further indicated by the narrator's fear of being sent to the famous Dr. Weir, proponent of the rest cure treatment.

Critical Reception

At the time of its initial publication in 1892, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was regarded primarily as a supernatural tale of horror and insanity in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe. In 1920, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was reprinted in the volume Great Modern American Short Stories, edited by William Dean Howells, who described it as a story to “freeze our … blood.” Elaine R. Hedges, author of the afterword to the 1973 version, praised the work as “one of the rare pieces of literature we have by a nineteenth-century woman who directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship.” Since that time, Gilman's story has been discussed by literary critics from a broad range of perspectives—biographical, historical, psychological, feminist, semiotic, and socio-cultural. Nearly all of these critics acknowledge the story as a feminist text written in protest of the negligent treatment of women by a patriarchal society. Furthermore, the story has sparked lively critical discussion and ongoing debate over the symbolic meaning of the wallpaper, the extent to which the story represents an effective feminist statement, and the implications of the story's ending. Critics continue to debate the question of whether Gilman provides a feminist solution to the patriarchal oppression that is exposed in the story, while acknowledging the enduring significance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as both a feminist document and a literary text for contemporary readers.

Gilman's Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in "The Yellow Wallpaper''

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In the autumn of 1830, shortly before Emily Dickinson's birth, her mother made an unusual request. At a time when her pregnancy—or as it was then called, her "confinement"—might have been expected to absorb her attention, Mrs. Dickinson abruptly demanded new wallpaper for her bedroom. Apparently dismayed by this outburst of feminine whimsy, her stern-tempered husband refused, prompting Mrs. Dickinson to her only recorded act of wifely defiance. Though "the Hon. Edward Dickinson would not allow her to have it done," a neighbor's descendant recalled, "she went secretly to the paper hanger and asked him to come and paper her bedroom. This he did, while Emily was being born."

To place this incident in context, we should note that Mrs. Dickinson, aged twenty-six, had just moved into her father-in-law's Amherst mansion and now faced the grim prospect of living with her husband's unpredictable relatives, along with the even grimmer perils of early nineteenth-century childbirth. Although Mrs. Dickinson was by most accounts a submissive, self-abnegating, rather neurasthenic woman—in short, the nineteenth-century ideal—it is tempting to read the wallpaper incident as a desperate gesture of autonomy and self-assertion. Emily Dickinson's most recent biographer, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, suggests that "The little explosion of defiance signaled fear and distress, and it was the prelude to unhappy, silent acceptance."

Though the color of Mrs. Dickinson's wallpaper went unrecorded, the anecdote forms a striking parallel to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ''The Yellow Wallpaper,'' first published in 1892 but, like Emily Dickinson's work, under-appreciated until decades after her death. Both the domestic incident and the terrifying short story suggest the familiar Gothic themes of confinement and rebellion, forbidden desire and "irrational" fear. Both include such Gothic staples as the distraught heroine, the forbidding mansion, and the powerfully repressive male antagonist. If we focus on the issue of the Gothic world and its release of imaginative power, however, the stories form a dramatic contrast. A woman of ordinary abilities, the unimaginative Mrs. Dickinson would later represent the nadir of female selfhood to her brilliant, rebellious daughter. "Mother does not care for thought," the poet remarked dryly in 1862; and by 1870, she could issue this blunt dismissal: "I never had a mother." But Dickinson surely would have admired the unnamed heroine of "The Yellow Wallpaper," who willingly accepts madness over repression, refusing a life of ''unhappy, silent acceptance." The poet would have especially responded to the woman's identity as a writer, and to the way in which her story adroitly and at times parodically employs Gothic conventions to present an allegory of literary imagination unbinding the social, domestic, and psychological confinements of a nineteenth-century woman writer.

Rather than simply labeling the narrator a madwoman at the story's close, we might view her behavior as an expression of long-suppressed rage: a rage which causes a temporary breakdown (like those actually suffered by both Dickinson and Gilman) but which represents a prelude to psychic regeneration and artistic redemption. This reading accounts for two elements of the story usually ignored: its emphasis upon the narrator as a writer, who is keeping a journal and putting forth her own text—''The Yellow Wallpaper''—as an antithetical triumph over the actual wallpaper that had nearly been her undoing; and its brittle, macabre, relentlessly satiric humor that suggests, in the story's earlier sections, her barely suppressed and steadily mounting anger. As in many of Poe's tales, this seemingly incongruous humor serves only to accentuate the Gothic terror of the narrator's situation....

The narrative focus of "The Yellow Wallpaper'' moves relentlessly inward, detailing the narrator's gradual absorption into the Gothic world of psychic chaos and imaginative freedom; but Gilman controls her heroine's deepening subjectivity through repetition, irony, parodic humor, and allegorical patterns of imagery. The two worlds of the story—the narrator's husband and sister-in-law's daylight world of masculine order and domestic routine, and her own subjective sphere of deepening imaginative insight—are kept clearly focused and distinct. Most important, Gilman reminds the reader frequently that her narrator is a habitual writer for whom ''The Yellow Wallpaper" is a kind of diary, an accurate record of her turbulent inward journey. Drawing on Gilman's experience of post-partum depression and breakdown, the story is far more than an indictment of nineteenth-century attitudes toward women and an account of one woman's incipient psychosis. Gilman made her heroine a writer for purposes of art, not autobiography, and the story as a whole describes a woman attempting to save herself through her own writing, to transform what she calls "dead paper" into a vibrant Gothic world of creative dreamwork and self-revelation.

Two of the story's major structural devices are its contrasting of the husband's daylight world and his wife's nocturnal fantasy, and the religious imagery by which she highlights the liberating and redemptive qualities of her experience. When the story opens, she acknowledges that the idea of their rented summer house as a Gothic setting is laughable, a romantic fancy of the kind her husband wishes to repress. The allegorical opposition is quickly established: her husband (named John, suggesting a male prototype) is a "physician of high standing,'' a figure of dominance in every sense—social, domestic, intellectual, physical. He is a thorough-going empiricist who "scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures." Throughout the story John, along with his like-named sister and housekeeper Jane, is associated with the rigidly hierarchical and imaginatively sterile daylight world that ridicules Gothic "fancies" and represses in particular the "hysterical tendency" of women. Before the story opens, the narrator had abandoned her own social responsibility of motherhood, and the object of this summer retreat is a ''rest cure'' (of the kind made popular by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the famous Philadelphia neurologist who treated Gilman during her own depression, and against whom the story enacts a brilliant literary revenge). That her husband exerts his tyrannical control in the guise of protectiveness makes the narrator feel all the more stifled and precludes outright defiance. As she remarks sarcastically in the opening section, ''He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction."

It is the daylight consciousness of late-Victorian America, of course, which has designed the flamboyantly hideous yellow wallpaper that the narrator initially finds so repulsive. Even John wants to repaper the room, but after his wife complains about the wallpaper, he benevolently changes his mind, since "nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies." Associating her nervous illness with her ''imaginative power and habit of story-making," he forces his wife into daily confinement by four walls whose paper, described as "debased Romanesque," is an omnipresent figuring of the artistic degeneration and psychic chaos she fears. It is here that John makes a significant error, however, as he underestimates the very imaginative power he is seeking to repress. By placing his distraught wife in a nursery, he is merely following the nineteenth-century equation of non-maternal women—that is, spinsters and "hysterics"—with helpless children. Yet he is unthinkingly allowing her the free play of imagination and abdication of social responsibility also characteristic of children. Thus as the story progresses, the narrator follows both her childlike promptings and her artistic faith in creating a Gothic alternative to the stifling daylight world of her husband and the society at large.

The story's terrific suspense derives from the narrator's increasingly uncertain fate and from the considerable obstacles blocking her path from one world to the other, not the least of which is her own self-doubt and debilitating psychic exhaustion. Near the end of the next section, she glimpses a subpattern in the wallpaper, which can be seen only "in certain lights, and not clearly then"; beneath the ''silly and conspicuous front design'' is a figure she describes as "strange, provoking, formless." These three adjectives suggest a notably ambivalent attitude toward her own inchoate, slowly emerging selfhood; but significantly, she notes that she is viewing the pattern by sunlight. Near the end of the next section, at sunset, she can "almost fancy" a coherent design in the wallpaper. Yet immediately after using her husband's forbidden word, she feels an emotional and psychological depletion that is emphasized by a series of brief, depressed paragraphs:

It makes me tired to follow [the pattern], I will take a nap, I guess. I don't know why I should write this. I don't want to. I don't feel able. And I know John would think it absurd. But I must say what I feel and think in some way—it is such a relief! But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief.

This passage describes the narrator's spiritual nadir, and may be said to represent her transition from conscious struggle against the daylight world to her immersion in the nocturnal world of the unconscious—or, in other terms, from idle fancy to empowering imagination. The nature of Gilman's allegory becomes especially clear when, for the first time, the narrator watches the wallpaper by moonlight and reports with childlike glee: "There are things in the paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will." Yet the transition is incomplete and puzzling. While John sleeps, she lies awake ''trying to decide whether that front pattern and the back pattern really did move together or separately," noting that "by daylight" the pattern is a constant irritant to a "normal mind." Then comes the moment of terrified but thrilling revelation:

By moonlight—the moon shines in all night when there is a moon—I wouldn't know it was the same paper. At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern, I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.

As we witness the narrator in the final scene, creeping along the floor, we might recall once again that her bedroom is actually a nursery. The fact that she is crawling on all fours—as opposed to lying still and docile under her husband's "rest cure"—suggests not only temporary derangement but also a frantic, insistent growth into a new stage of being. From the helpless infant, supine on her immovable bed, she has become a crawling, "creeping" child, insistent upon her own needs and explorations. (The parallel with Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, who likewise crawls on all fours and exhibits similar destructiveness, is surely deliberate.) To the daylight world, of course, this transition is terrifying; poor John, in Gilman's witty inversion of a conventional heroine's confrontation with Gothic terror, faints dead away. Seizing rather than surrendering to power, the narrator is thus left alone, the mad heroine of her own appalling text.

Although Gilman's Gothic allegory so powerfully demonstrates that writing is her only salvation, the poignant facts of her own biography point to her internalization of the restrictions enforced by John in her story and by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell in her life. A compulsive writer who produced scores of volumes and earned a worldwide reputation as an eloquent advocate of women's rights, Gilman discredited the value of her imaginative writing throughout her career; she wrote to William Dean Howells, who asked to reprint "The Yellow Wallpaper" in a collection of American masterpieces, that the story was ''no more 'literature' than my other stuff, being definitely written 'with a purpose'"—that purpose being to demonstrate to Dr. Mitchell the cruelty and inefficacy of the restcure. (She sent him a copy of the story upon publication, but received no response.) Patricia Meyer Spacks, in an incisive discussion of Gilman's curiously impersonal autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, notes that although Gilman's breakdown led her to abandon marriage and motherhood, become a professional writer, and devote herself to social causes, this self-determination was limited strictly by her continuing need to be "good" and necessarily precluded the acknowledged use of her own imaginative power.

Thus Gilman's life story became, as Spacks asserts, "a paradigm of feminine anger," what Gilman herself called "a lifetime of limitation and wretchedness.'' Denied the artistic redemption that Emily Dickinson had achieved by renouncing the world, as well as the conventional satisfactions of nineteenth-century housewifery and motherhood, Gilman uneasily compensated for her denial of creative selfhood with the fulfillment of useful work. Committing suicide not because her inoperable cancer caused her pain but because she felt her "usefulness was over"—the phrase comes from her suicide note, a poignant last text of self-effacement—Gilman stayed true to her own daylight world of feminism, social commitment, and constant hard work. Still under-read, still haunting the margins of the American literary canon, Gilman and the full scope of her achievement await their due recognition. Reading "The Yellow Wallpaper'' we can only guess at the furious effort, and the constant bargaining with her own demons, by which that achievement came into being.

Source: Greg Johnson, "Gilman's Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in 'The Yellow Wallpaper'," In Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 521-30.
Johnson is an American critic, short fiction writer, and novelist.

Critical Overview

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"The Yellow Wallpaper," which was first published in the New England Magazine in 1892 after being rejected by the editor of The Atlantic, did not receive much serious attention until American writer and critic William Dean Howells published it in his The Great Modern American Stories in 1920. In that volume he wrote: "Now that I have it in my collection, I shiver over it as much as I did when I first read it in manuscript, though I agree with the editor of The Atlantic of the time that it was too terribly good to be printed." It was not until 1973, when it was republished after being out of print for years, that the first lengthy analysis of the story was written by Elaine R. Hedges. Writing in the afterword to the volume, she stated that '"The Yellow Wallpaper' is a small literary masterpiece" and a work that "does deserve the widest possible audience."

Since then, "The Yellow Wallpaper" has received widespread critical attention. Contemporary scholars have interpreted the story in numerous ways, with feminist readings being the most common. Reviewers focus on the relationship between the narrator and her husband John, maintaining that John's treatment of his wife represents the powerlessness and repression of women during the late nineteenth century. Hedges concluded that the story is ''one of the rare pieces of literature we have by a nineteenth-century woman which directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship."

Critics have also commented on the story's focus on psychology and its influence as an example of both psychological realism and Gothic fiction. It is often considered one of the most detailed and emotionally charged accounts of depression and despair in short fiction because it is told from the vantage point of the person actually suffering a nervous breakdown. Furthermore, Gilman does not romanticize or downplay the realities of mental suffering. In addition to being discussed as feminist literature and as an example of psychological realism, "The Yellow Wallpaper'' has been lauded as a preeminent piece of Gothic fiction because of its incorporation of such Gothic literary elements as horror, suspense, and the supernatural.

"The Yellow Wallpaper," like Gilman's other short stories, has been faulted by some critics who claim the story is nothing more than a vehicle through which she explicated her feminist social beliefs. In fact, Gilman once stated that she wrote the story "to preach. If it is literature, that just happened." However, most critics have acknowledged that "The Yellow Wallpaper" is realistic, accessible, and thought-provoking and have called it Gilman's best work of fiction.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. “From The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.” In The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” edited by Catherine Golden, pp. 145-48. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1992.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1979, Gilbert and Gubar discuss the relationship between madness and female authorship in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”]

As if to comment on the unity of all these points—on, that is, the anxiety-inducing connections between what women writers tend to see as their parallel confinements in texts, houses, and maternal female bodies—Charlotte Perkins Gilman brought them all together in 1890 in a striking story of female confinement and escape, a paradigmatic tale which (like Jane Eyre) seems to tell the story that all literary women would tell if they could speak their “speechless woe.” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which Gilman herself called “a description of a case of nervous breakdown,” recounts in the first person the experiences of a woman who is evidently suffering from a severe postpartum psychosis.1 Her husband, a censorious and paternalistic physician, is treating her according to methods by which S. Weir Mitchell, a famous “nerve specialist,” treated Gilman herself for a similar problem. He has confined her to a large garret room in an “ancestral hall” he has rented, and he has forbidden her to touch pen to paper until she is well again, for he feels, says the narrator, “that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency” (15-16).

The cure, of course, is worse than the disease, for the sick woman's mental condition deteriorates rapidly. “I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me,” she remarks, but literally confined in a room she thinks is a one-time nursery because it has “rings and things” in the walls, she is literally locked away from creativity. The “rings and things,” although reminiscent of children's gymnastic equipment, are really the paraphernalia of confinement, like the gate at the head of the stairs, instruments that definitively indicate her imprisonment. Even more tormenting, however, is the room's wallpaper: a sulphurous yellow paper, torn off in spots, and patterned with “lame uncertain curves” that “plunge off at outrageous angles” and “destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.” Ancient, smoldering, “unclean” as the oppressive structures of the society in which she finds herself, this paper surrounds the narrator like an inexplicable text, censorious and overwhelming as her physician husband, haunting as the “hereditary estate” in which she is trying to survive. Inevitably she studies its suicidal implications—and inevitably, because of her “imaginative power and habit of story-making,” she revises it, projecting her own passion for escape into its otherwise incomprehensible hieroglyphics. “This wall-paper,” she decides, at a key point in her story,

has a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then.

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.


As time passes, this figure concealed behind what corresponds (in terms of what we have been discussing) to the facade of the patriarchal text becomes clearer and clearer. By moonlight the pattern of the wallpaper “becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.” And eventually, as the narrator sinks more deeply into what the world calls madness, the terrifying implications of both the paper and the figure imprisoned behind the paper begin to permeate—that is, to haunt—the rented ancestral mansion in which she and her husband are immured. The “yellow smell” of the paper “creeps all over the house,” drenching every room in its subtle aroma of decay. And the woman creeps too—through the house, in the house, and out of the house, in the garden and “on that long road under the trees.” Sometimes, indeed, the narrator confesses, “I think there are a great many women” both behind the paper and creeping in the garden,

and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes [the paper] all over. … And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.


Eventually it becomes obvious to both reader and narrator that the figure creeping through and behind the wallpaper is both the narrator and the narrator's double. By the end of the story, moreover, the narrator has enabled this double to escape from her textual/architectural confinement: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper.” Is the message of the tale's conclusion mere madness? Certainly the righteous Doctor John—whose name links him to the anti-hero of Charlotte Brontë's Villette—has been temporarily defeated, or at least momentarily stunned. “Now why should that man have fainted?” the narrator ironically asks as she creeps around her attic. But John's unmasculine swoon of surprise is the least of the triumphs Gilman imagines for her madwoman. More significant are the madwoman's own imaginings and creations, mirages of health and freedom with which her author endows her like a fairy godmother showering gold on a sleeping heroine. The woman from behind the wallpaper creeps away, for instance, creeps fast and far on the long road, in broad daylight. “I have watched her sometimes away off in the open country,” says the narrator, “creeping as fast as a cloud shadow in a high wind.”

Indistinct and yet rapid, barely perceptible but inexorable, the progress of that cloud shadow is not unlike the progress of nineteenth-century literary women out of the texts defined by patriarchal poetics into the open spaces of their own authority. That such an escape from the numb world behind the patterned walls of the text was a flight from dis-ease into health was quite clear to Gilman herself. When “The Yellow Wallpaper” was published she sent it to Weir Mitchell, whose strictures had kept her from attempting the pen during her own breakdown, thereby aggravating her illness, and she was delighted to learn, years later, that “he had changed his treatment of nervous prostration since reading” her story. “If that is a fact,” she declared, “I have not lived in vain.”2 Because she was a rebellious feminist besides being a medical iconoclast, we can be sure that Gilman did not think of this triumph of hers in narrowly therapeutic terms. Because she knew, with Emily Dickinson, that “Infection in the sentence breeds,” she knew that the cure for female despair must be spiritual as well as physical, aesthetic as well as social. What “The Yellow Wallpaper” shows she knew, too, is that even when a supposedly “mad” woman has been sentenced to imprisonment in the “infected” house of her own body, she may discover that, as Sylvia Plath was to put it seventy years later, she has “a self to recover, a queen.”3


  1. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (New York: The Feminist Press, 1973). All references in the text will be to page numbers in this edition.

  2. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press), 1991, p. 121.

  3. “Stings,” Ariel, p. 62.

Principal Works

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The Yellow Wallpaper [The Yellow Wallpaper, A Novella] [as Charlotte Perkins Stetson] 1892

The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader: “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Other Fiction [Reader] [edited by Ann J. Lane] 1980

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings [edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz] 1989

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman [edited by Denise D. Knight] 1994

The Yellow Wallpaper, and Other Stories [edited and introduction by Robert Shulman] 1995

The Yellow Wallpaper [afterword by Elaine R. Hedges] 1996

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Other Stories [edited by Robert Shulman] 1997

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the History of Its Publication and Reception: A Critical and Documentary Casebook [edited by Julie Bates Dock] 1998

The Yellow Wallpaper [edited by Dale M. Bauer] 1998

“Herland,” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Selected Writings [edited by Denise D. Knight] (novel, short story, and prose) 1999

A Clarion Call to Redeem the Race! (nonfiction) 1890

In This Our World and Other Poems (poetry) 1893

The Labor Movement (nonfiction) 1893

Women and Economics: A Study of Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (nonfiction) 1898

Concerning Children (nonfiction) 1900

The Home: Its Work and Influence (nonfiction) 1903

Human Work (nonfiction) 1904

The Punishment that Educates (nonfiction) 1907

Women and Social Service (nonfiction) 1907

What Diantha Did (novel) 1910

The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture (nonfiction) 1911

The Crux (novel) 1911

Moving the Mountain (novel) 1911

Benigna Machiavelli (novel) 1914

Herland (novel) 1915

With Her in Ourland [Ourland] (novel) 1916

His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers (nonfiction) 1923

The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (autobiography) 1935

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader [edited by Larry Ceplair] (nonfiction) 1991

The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman [edited by Denise D. Knight] (diaries) 1994

A Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1900 [edited by Mary A. Hill] (letters) 1995

The Later Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman [edited by Denise D. Knight] (poetry) 1996

Unpunished: A Mystery [edited by Catherine J. Golden and Denise D. Knight] (novel) 1997

*Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Utopian Novels [edited by Minna Doskow] (novels) 1999

“Mag—Marjorie”; and, “Won Over”: Two Novels (novels) 1999

*Includes Moving the Mountain, Herland, and With Her in Ourland.

Paula A. Treichler (essay date spring/fall 1984)

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SOURCE: Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 3, no. 1-2 (spring/fall 1984): 61-77.

[In the following essay, Treichler asserts that the underlying narrative of “The Yellow Wallpaper” involves the narrator's confrontation with language, by which she defies patriarchal control and male judgment.]

Almost immediately in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the female narrator tells us she is “sick.” Her husband, “a physician of high standing,” has diagnosed her as having a “temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency.”1 Yet her journal—in whose words the story unfolds—records her own resistance to this diagnosis and, tentatively, her suspicion that the medical treatment it dictates—treatment that confines her to a room in an isolated country estate will not cure her. She suggests that the diagnosis itself, by undermining her own conviction that her “condition” is serious and real, may indeed be one reason why she does not get well.

A medical diagnosis is a verbal formula representing a constellation of physical symptoms and observable behaviors. Once formulated, it dictates a series of therapeutic actions. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the diagnosis of hysteria or depression, conventional “women's diseases” of the nineteenth century, sets in motion a therapeutic regimen which involves language in several ways. The narrator is forbidden to engage in normal social conversation; her physical isolation is in part designed to remove her from the possibility of over-stimulating intellectual discussion. She is further encouraged to exercise “self-control” and avoid expressing negative thoughts and fears about her illness; she is also urged to keep her fancies and superstitions in check. Above all, she is forbidden to “work”—to write. Learning to monitor her own speech, she develops an artificial feminine self who reinforces the terms of her husband's expert diagnosis: this self attempts to speak reasonably and in “a very quiet voice,” refrains from crying in his presence, and hides the fact that she is keeping a journal. This male-identified self disguises the true underground narrative: a confrontation with language.

Because she does not feel free to speak truthfully “to a living soul,” she confides her thoughts to a journal—“dead paper”—instead. The only safe language is dead language. But even the journal is not altogether safe. The opening passages are fragmented as the narrator retreats from topic after topic (the first journal entry consists of 39 separate paragraphs). The three points at which her language becomes more discursive carry more weight by contrast. These passages seem at first to involve seemingly unobjectionable, safe topics: the house, her room, and the room's yellow wallpaper. Indeed, the very first mention of the wallpaper expresses conventional hyperbole: “I never saw worse paper in my life.” But the language at once grows unexpected and intense:

One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke 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.


Disguised as an acceptable feminine topic (interest in decor), the yellow wallpaper comes to occupy the narrator's entire reality. Finally, she rips it from the walls to reveal its real meaning. Unveiled, the yellow wallpaper is a metaphor for women's discourse. From a conventional perspective, it first seems strange, flamboyant, confusing, outrageous: the very act of women's writing produces discourse which embodies “unheard of contradictions.” Once freed, it expresses what is elsewhere kept hidden and embodies patterns that the patriarchal order ignores, suppresses, fears as grotesque, or fails to perceive at all. Like all good metaphors, the yellow wallpaper is variously interpreted by readers to represent (among other things) the “pattern” which underlies sexual inequality, the external manifestation of neurasthenia, the narrator's unconscious, the narrator's situation within patriarchy.2 But an emphasis on discourse—writing, the act of speaking, language—draws us to the central issue in this particular story: the narrator's alienation from work, writing, and intellectual life. Thus the story is inevitably concerned with the complicated and charged relationship between women and language: analysis then illuminates particular points of conflict between patriarchal language and women's discourse. This conflict in turn raises a number of questions relevant for both literary and feminist scholarship: In what senses can language be said to be oppressive to women? How do feminist linguistic innovations seek to escape this oppression? What is the relationship of innovation to material conditions? And what does it mean, theoretically, to escape the sentence that the structure of patriarchal language imposes?


The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” has come with her husband to an isolated country estate for the summer. The house, a “colonial mansion,” has been untenanted for years through some problem with inheritance. It is “the most beautiful place!” The grounds contain “hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people” (11). Despite this palatial potential to accommodate many people, the estate is virtually deserted with nothing growing in its greenhouses. The narrator perceives “something queer about it” and believes it may be haunted.

She is discouraged in this and other fancies by her sensible physician-husband who credits only what is observable, scientific, or demonstrable through facts and figures. He has scientifically diagnosed his wife's condition as merely “a temporary nervous depression”; her brother, also a noted physician, concurs in this opinion. Hence husband and wife have come as physician and patient to this solitary summer mansion in quest of cure. The narrator reports her medical regimen to her journal, together with her own view of the problem:

So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

But what is one to do?


Her room at the top of the house seems once to have been a nursery or a playroom with bars on the windows and “rings and things on the walls.” The room contains not much more than a mammoth metal bed. The ugly yellow wallpaper has been stripped off in patches—perhaps by the children who formerly inhabited the room. In this “atrocious nursery” the narrator increasingly spends her time. Her husband is often away on medical cases, her baby makes her nervous, and no other company is permitted her. Disturbed by the wallpaper, she asks for another room or for different paper; her husband urges her not to give way to her “fancies.” Further, he claims that any change would lead to more change: “after the wall-paper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on” (14). So no changes are made, and the narrator is left alone with her “imaginative power and habit of storymaking” (15). In this stimulus-deprived environment, the “pattern” of the wallpaper becomes increasingly compelling: the narrator gradually becomes intimate with its “principle of design” and unconventional connections. The figure of a woman begins to take shape behind the superficial pattern of the paper. The more the wallpaper comes alive, the less inclined is the narrator to write in her journal—“dead paper.” Now with three weeks left of the summer and her relationship with the wallpaper more and more intense, she asks once more to be allowed to leave. Her husband refuses: “I cannot possibly leave town just now. Of course if you were in any danger, I could and would, but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know” (23). She expresses the fear that she is not getting well. “Bless her little heart!” he responds, “She shall be as sick as she pleases” (24). When she hesitantly voices the belief that she may be losing her mind, he reproaches her so vehemently that she says no more. Instead, in the final weeks of the summer, she gives herself up to the wallpaper. “Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be,” she tells her journal. “You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch. I really do eat better, and am more quiet than I was” (27). She reports that her husband judges her “to be flourishing in spite of my wall-paper.”

She begins to strip off the wallpaper at every opportunity in order to free the woman she perceives is trapped inside. She becomes increasingly aware of this woman and other female figures creeping behind the surface pattern of the wallpaper: there is a hint that the room's previous female occupant has left behind the marks of her struggle for freedom. Paranoid by now, the narrator attempts to disguise her obsession with the wallpaper. On the last day, she locks herself in the room and succeeds in stripping off most of the remaining paper. When her husband comes home and finally unlocks the door, he is horrified to find her creeping along the walls of the room. “I've got out at last,” she tells him triumphantly, “And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back” (36). Her husband faints, and she is obliged to step over him each time she circles the room.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” was read by nineteenth-century readers as a harrowing case study of neurasthenia. Even recent readings have treated the narrator's madness as a function of her individual psychological situation. A feminist reading emphasizes the social and economic conditions which drive the narrator—and potentially all women—to madness. In these readings, the yellow wallpaper represents (1) the narrator's own mind, (2) the narrator's unconscious, (3) the “pattern” of social and economic dependence which reduces women to domestic slavery. The woman in the wallpaper represents (1) the narrator herself, gone mad, (2) the narrator's unconscious, (3) all women. While these interpretations are plausible and fruitful, I interpret the wallpaper to be women's writing or women's discourse, and the woman in the wallpaper to be the representation of women that becomes possible only after women obtain the right to speak. In this reading, the yellow wallpaper stands for a new vision of women—one which is constructed differently from the representation of women in patriarchal language. The story is thus in part about the clash between two modes of discourse: one powerful, “ancestral,” and dominant; the other new, “impertinent,” and visionary. The story's outcome makes a statement about the relationship of a visionary feminist project to material reality.


It is significant that the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is keeping a journal, confiding to “dead paper” the unorthodox thoughts and perceptions she is reluctant to tell to a “living soul.” Challenging and subverting the expert prescription that forbids her to write, the journal evokes a sense of urgency and danger. “There comes John,” she tells us at the end of her first entry, “and I must put this away,—he hates to have me write a word” (13). We, her readers, are thus from the beginning her confidantes, implicated in forbidden discourse.

Contributing to our suspense and sense of urgency is the ambiguity of the narrator's “condition,” whose etiology is left unstated in the story. For her physician-husband, it is a medical condition of unknown origin to be medically managed. Certain imagery (the “ghostliness” of the estate, the “trouble” with the heirs) suggests hereditary disease. Other evidence points toward psychological causes (e.g., postpartum depression, failure to adjust to marriage and motherhood). A feminist analysis moves beyond such localized causes to implicate the economic and social conditions which, under patriarchy, make women domestic slaves. In any case, the fact that the origin of the narrator's condition is never made explicit intensifies the role of diagnosis in putting a name to her “condition.”

Symptoms are crucial for the diagnostic process. The narrator reports, among other things, exhaustion, crying, nervousness, synesthesia, anger, paranoia, and hallucination. “Temporary nervous depression” (coupled with a “slight hysterical tendency”) is the medical term that serves to diagnose or define these symptoms. Once pronounced, and reinforced by the second opinion of the narrator's brother, this diagnosis not only names reality but also has considerable power over what that reality is now to be: it dictates the narrator's removal to the “ancestral halls” where the story is set and generates a medical therapeutic regimen that includes physical isolation, “phosphates or phosphites,” air, and rest. Above all, it forbids her to “work.” The quotation marks, registering her husband's perspective, discredit the equation of writing with true work. The diagnostic language of the physician is coupled with the paternalistic language of the husband to create a formidable array of controls over her behavior.

I use “diagnosis,” then, as a metaphor for the voice of medicine or science that speaks to define women's condition. Diagnosis is powerful and public; representing institutional authority, it dictates that money, resources, and space are to be expended as consequences in the “real world.” It is a male voice that privileges the rational, the practical, and the observable. It is the voice of male logic and male judgment which dismisses superstition and refuses to see the house as haunted or the narrator's condition as serious. It imposes controls on the female narrator and dictates how she is to perceive and talk about the world. It is enforced by the “ancestral halls” themselves: the rules are followed even when the physician-husband is absent. In fact, the opening imagery—“ancestral halls,” “a colonial mansion,” “a haunted house”—legitimizes the diagnostic process by placing it firmly within an institutional frame: medicine, marriage, patriarchy. All function in the story to define and prescribe.

In contrast, the narrator in her nursery room speaks privately to her journal. At first she expresses her views hesitantly, “personally.” Her language includes a number of stereotypical features of “women's language”: not only are its topics limited, it is marked formally by exclamation marks, italics, intensifiers, and repetition of the impotent refrain, “What is one to do?”3 The journal entries at this early stage are very tentative and clearly shaped under the stern eye of male judgment. Oblique references only hint at an alternative reality. The narrator writes, for example, that the wallpaper has been “torn off” and “stripped away,” yet she does not say by whom. Her qualms about her medical diagnosis and treatment remain unspoken except in her journal, which functions only as a private respite, a temporary relief. “Dead paper,” it is not truly subversive.

Nevertheless, the narrator's language almost from the first does serve to call into question both the diagnosis of her condition and the rules established to treat it. As readers, therefore, we are not permitted wholehearted confidence in the medical assessment of the problem. It is not that we doubt the existence of her “condition,” for it obviously causes genuine suffering; but we come to doubt that the diagnosis names the real problem—the narrator seems to place her own inverted commas around the words “temporary nervous depression” and “slight hysterical tendency”—and perceive that whatever its nature it is exacerbated by the rules established for its cure.

For this reason, we are alert to the possibility of an alternative vision. The yellow wallpaper provides it. Representing a different reality, it is “living paper,” aggressively alive: “You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream” (25). The narrator's husband refuses to replace the wallpaper, “whitewash” the room, or let her change rooms altogether on the grounds that other changes will then be demanded. The wallpaper is to remain: acknowledgment of its reality is the first step toward freedom. Confronting it at first through male eyes, the narrator is repelled and speculates that the children who inhabited the room before her attacked it for its ugliness. There is thus considerable resistance to the wallpaper and an implied rejection of what it represents, even by young children.

But the wallpaper exerts its power and, at the same time, the narrator's journal entries falter; “I don't know why I should write this” (21), she says, about halfway through the story. She makes a final effort to be allowed to leave the room; when this fails, she becomes increasingly absorbed by the wallpaper and by the figure of a woman that exists behind its confusing surface pattern. This figure grows clearer to her, to the point where she can join her behind the paper and literally act within it. At this point, her language becomes bolder: she completes the predicates that were earlier left passively hanging. Describing joint action with the woman in the wallpaper, she tells us that the room has come to be damaged at the hands of women: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper” (32); “I am getting angry enough to do something desperate” (34). From an increasingly distinctive perspective, she sees an alternative reality beneath the repellent surface pattern in which the figures of women are emerging. Her original perception is confirmed: the patriarchal house is indeed “haunted” by figures of women. The room is revealed as a prison inhabited by its former inmates, whose struggles have nearly destroyed it. Absorbed almost physically by “living paper”—writing—she strives to liberate the women trapped within the ancestral halls, women with whom she increasingly identifies. Once begun, liberation and identification are irreversible: “I've got out at last …” cries the narrator, “And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!” (36).

This ending of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is ambiguous and complex. Because the narrator's final proclamation is both triumphant and horrifying, madness in the story is both positive and negative. On the one hand, it testifies to an alternative reality and challenges patriarchy head on. The fact that her unflappable husband faints when he finds her establishes the dramatic power of her new freedom. Defying the judgment that she suffers from a “temporary nervous depression,” she has followed her own logic, her own perceptions, her own projects to this final scene in which madness is seen as a kind of transcendent sanity. This engagement with the yellow wallpaper constitutes a form of the “work” which has been forbidden—women's writing. As she steps over the patriarchal body, she leaves the authoritative voice of diagnosis in shambles at her feet. Forsaking “women's language” forever, her new mode of speaking—an unlawful language—escapes “the sentence” imposed by patriarchy.

On the other hand, there are consequences to be paid for this escape. As the ending of the narrative, her madness will no doubt commit her to more intense medical treatment, perhaps to the dreaded Weir Mitchell of whom her husband has spoken. The surrender of patriarchy is only temporary: her husband has merely fainted, after all, not died, and will no doubt move swiftly and severely to deal with her. Her individual escape is temporary and compromised.

But there is yet another sense in which “The Yellow Wallpaper” enacts a clash between diagnosis and women's discourse. Asked once whether the story was based on fact, Gilman replied “I had been as far as one could go and get back.”4 Gilman based the story on her own experience of depression and treatment. For her first visit to the noted neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, she prepared a detailed case history of her own illness, constructed in part from her journal entries. Mitchell was not impressed: he “only thought it proved conceit” (The Living, 95). He wanted obedience from patients, not information. “Wise women,” he wrote elsewhere, “choose their doctors and trust them. The wisest ask the fewest questions.”5 Gilman reproduced in her journal Mitchell's prescription for her:

Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. (Be it remarked that if I did but dress the baby it left me shaking and crying—certainly far from a healthy companionship for her, to say nothing of the effect on me.) Lie down an hour after every meal. Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.

(The Living, 96)

Gilman spent several months trying to follow Mitchell's prescription, a period of intense suffering for her:

I could not read nor write nor paint nor sew nor talk nor listen to talking, nor anything. I lay on that lounge and wept all day. The tears ran down into my ears on either side. I went to bed crying, woke in the night crying, sat on the edge of the bed in the morning and cried—from sheer continuous pain.

(The Living, 121)

At last, in a “moment of clear vision,” Gilman realized that for her the traditional domestic role was at least in part the cause of her distress. She left her husband and with her baby went to California to be a writer and a feminist activist. Three years later she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.” After the story was published, she sent a copy to Mitchell. If it in any way influenced his treatment of women in the future, she wrote, “I have not lived in vain” (The Living, 121).

There are several points to note here with respect to women's discourse. Gilman's use of her own journal to create a fictional journal which in turn becomes a published short story problematizes and calls our attention to the journal form. The terms “depression” and “hysteria” signal a non-textual as well as a textual conundrum: contemporary readers could (and some did) read the story as a realistic account of madness; for feminist readers (then and now) who bring to the text some comprehension of medical attitudes toward women in the nineteenth century, such a non-ironic reading is not possible. Lest we miss Gilman's point, her use of a real proper name in her story, Weir Mitchell's, draws explicit attention to the world outside the text.6

Thus “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not merely a fictional challenge to the patriarchal diagnosis of women's condition. It is also a public critique of a real medical treatment. Publication of the story added power and status to Gilman's words and transformed the journal form from a private to a public setting. Her published challenge to diagnosis has now been read by thousands of readers. By living to tell the tale, the woman who writes escapes the sentence that condemns her to silence.


To call “The Yellow Wallpaper” a struggle between diagnosis and discourse is to characterize the story in terms of language. More precisely, it is to contrast the signification procedures of patriarchal medicine with discursive disruptions that call those procedures into question. A major problem in “The Yellow Wallpaper” involves the relationship of the linguistic sign to the signified, of language to “reality.” Diagnosis, highlighted from the beginning by the implicit inverted commas around diagnostic phrases (“a slight hysterical tendency”), stands in the middle of an equation which translates a phenomenological perception of the human body into a finite set of signs called “symptoms”—fever, exhaustion, nervousness, pallor, and so on—which are in turn assembled to produce a “diagnosis”; this sign generates treatment, a set of prescriptions that impinge once more upon the “real” human body. Part of the power of diagnosis as a scientific process depends upon a notion of language as transparent, as not the issue. Rather the issue is the precision, efficiency, and plausibility with which a correct diagnostic sign is generated by a particular state of affairs that is assumed to exist in reality. In turn, the diagnostic sign is not complete until its clinical implications have been elaborated as a set of concrete therapeutic practices designed not merely to refer to but actually to change the original physical reality. Chary with its diagnostic categories (as specialized lexicons go), medicine's rich and intricate descriptive vocabulary testifies to the history of its mission: to translate the realities of the human body into human language and back again. As such, it is a perfect example of language which “reflects” reality and simultaneously “produces” it.7

Why is this interesting? And why is this process important in “The Yellow Wallpaper”? Medical diagnosis stands as a prime example of an authorized linguistic process (distilled, respected, high-paying) whose representational claims are strongly supported by social, cultural, and economic practices. Even more than most forms of male discourse, the diagnostic process is multiply-sanctioned.8 “The Yellow Wallpaper” challenges both the particular “sentence” passed on the narrator and the elaborate sentencing process whose presumed representational power can sentence women to isolation, deprivation, and alienation from their own sentencing possibilities. The right to author or originate sentences is at the heart of the story and what the yellow wallpaper represents: a figure for women's discourse, it seeks to escape the sentence passed by medicine and patriarchy. Before looking more closely at what the story suggests about the nature of women's discourse, we need to place somewhat more precisely this notion of “the sentence.”

Diagnosis is a “sentence” in that it is simultaneously a linguistic entity, a declaration or judgment, and a plan for action in the real world whose clinical consequences may spell dullness, drama, or doom for the diagnosed. Diagnosis may be, then, not merely a sentence but a death sentence. This doubling of the word “sentence” is not mere playfulness. “I sat down and began to speak,” wrote Anna Kavan in Asylum Piece, describing the beginning of a woman's mental breakdown, “driving my sluggish tongue to frame words that seemed useless even before they were uttered.” This physically exhausting process of producing sentences is generalized: “Sometimes I think that some secret court must have tried and condemned me, unheard, to this heavy sentence.”9 The word “sentence” is both sign and signified, word and act, declaration and discursive consequence. Its duality emphasizes the difficulty of an analysis which privileges purely semiotic relationships on the one hand or the representational nature of language on the other. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the diagnosis of hysteria may be a sham: it may be socially constituted or merely individually expedient quite apart from even a conventional representational relationship. But it dictates a rearrangement of material reality nevertheless. The sentence may be unjust, inaccurate, or irrelevant, but the sentence is served anyway.10

The sentence is of particular importance in modern linguistics, where it has dominated inquiry for twenty-five years and for more than seventy years has been the upper cut-off point for the study of language: consideration of word sequences and meaning beyond the sentence has been typically dismissed as too untidy and speculative for linguistic science. The word “sentence” also emphasizes the technical concentration, initiated by structuralism but powerfully developed by transformational grammar, on syntax (formal grammatical structure at the sentence level). The formulaic sentence S r NP + VP which initiates the familiar tree diagram of linguistic analysis could well be said to exemplify the tyranny of syntax over the study of semantics (meaning) and pragmatics (usage). As a result, as Sally McConnell-Ginet has argued, linguistics has often failed to address those aspects of language with which women have been most concerned: on the one hand, the semantic or non-linguistic conditions underlying given grammatical structures, and on the other, the contextual circumstances in which linguistic structures are actually used.11 One can generalize and say that signs alone are of less interest to women than are the processes of signification which link signs to semantic and pragmatic aspects of speaking. To “escape the sentence” is to move beyond the boundaries of formal syntax.

But is it to move beyond language? In writing about language over the last fifteen years, most feminist scholars in the United States have argued that language creates as well as reflects reality and hence that feminist linguistic innovation helps foster more enlightened social conditions for women. A more conservative position holds that language merely reflects social reality and that linguistic reform is hollow unless accompanied by changes in attitudes and socio-economic conditions that also favor women's equality. Though different, particularly in their support for innovation, both positions more or less embody a view that there is a non-linguistic reality to which language is related in systematic ways.12 Recent European writing challenges the transparency of such a division, arguing that at some level reality is inescapably linguistic. The account of female development within this framework emphasizes the point at which the female child comes into language (and becomes a being now called female); because she is female, she is from the first alienated from the processes of symbolic representation. Within this symbolic order, a phallocentric order, she is frozen, confined, curtailed, limited, and represented as “lack,” as “other.” To make a long story short, there is as yet no escaping the sentence of male-determining discourse.13

According to this account, “the sentence,” for women, is inescapably bound up with the symbolic order. Within language, says Luce Irigaray for example, women's fate is a “death sentence.”14 Irigaray's linguistic innovations attempt to disrupt this “law of the father” and exemplify the possibilities for a female language which “has nothing to do with the syntax which we have used for centuries, namely, that constructed according to the following organization: subject, predicate, or, subject, verb, object.”15 Whatever the realities of that particular claim, at the moment there are persuasive theoretical, professional, and political reasons for feminists to pay attention to what I will now more officially call discourse, which encompasses linguistic and formalistic considerations, yet goes beyond strict formalism to include both semantics and pragmatics. It is thus concerned not merely with speech, but with the conditions of speaking. With this notion of “sentencing,” I have tried to suggest a process of language production in which an individual word, speech, or text is linked to the conditions under which it was (and could have been) produced as well as to those under which it is (and could be) read and interpreted. Thus the examination of diagnosis and discourse in a text is at once a study of a set of representational practices, of mechanisms for control and opportunities for resistance, and of communicational possibilities in fiction and elsewhere.16

In “The Yellow Wallpaper” we see consequences of the “death sentence.” Woman is represented as childlike and dysfunctional. Her complaints are wholly circular, merely confirming the already-spoken patriarchal diagnosis. She is constituted and defined within the patriarchal order of language and destined, like Athena in Irigaray's analysis, to repeat her father's discourse “without much understanding.”17 “Personally,” she says, and “I sometimes fancy”: this is acceptable language in the ancestral halls. Her attempts to engage in different, serious language—self-authored—are given up; to write in the absence of patriarchal sanction requires “having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition” (10) and is too exhausting. Thus the narrator speaks the law of the father in the form of a “women's language” which is prescribed by patriarchy and exacts its sentence upon her: not to author sentences of her own.

The yellow wallpaper challenges this sentence. In contrast to the orderly, evacuated patriarchal estate, the female lineage that the wallpaper represents is thick with life, expression, and suffering. Masquerading as a symptom of “madness,” language animates what had been merely an irritating and distracting pattern:

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.

I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere.


The silly and grotesque surface pattern reflects women's conventional representation; one juxtaposition identifies “that silly and conspicuous front design” with “sister on the stairs!” (18). In the middle section of the story, where the narrator attempts to convey her belief that she is seriously ill, the husband-physician is quoted verbatim (23-25), enabling us to see the operation of male judgment at first hand. He notes an improvement in her symptoms: “You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better, I feel really much easier about you.” The narrator disputes these statements: “I don't weigh a bit more, nor as much; and my appetite may be better in the evening when you are here, but it is worse in the morning when you are away!” His response not only pre-empts further talk of facts, it reinforces the certainty of his original diagnosis and confirms his view of her illness as non-serious: “‘Bless her little heart!’ said he with a big hug, ‘she shall be as sick as she pleases!’” (24).

His failure to let her leave the estate initiates a new relationship to the wallpaper. She begins to see women in the pattern. Until now, we as readers have acquiesced in the fiction that the protagonist is keeping a journal, a fiction initially supported by journal-like textual references. This now becomes difficult to sustain: how can the narrator keep a journal when, as she tells us, she is sleeping, creeping, or watching the wallpaper the whole time? In her growing paranoia, would she confide in a journal she could not lock up? How did the journal get into our hands? Because we are nevertheless reading this “journal,” we are forced to experience a contradiction: the narrative is unfolding in an impossible form. This embeds our experience of the story in self-conscious attention to its construction. A new tone enters as she reports that she defies orders to take naps by not actually sleeping: “And that cultivates deceit, for I don't tell them I'm awake—O no!” (26). This crowing tone announces a decisive break from the patriarchal order. She mocks her husband's diagnosis by diagnosing for herself why he “seems very queer sometimes”: “It strikes me occasionally, just as a scientific hypothesis,—that perhaps it is the paper!” (26-27).

The wallpaper never becomes attractive. It remains indeterminate, complex, unresolved, disturbing; it continues to embody, like the form of the story we are reading, “unheard of contradictions.” By now the narrator is fully engrossed by it and determined to find out its meaning. During the day—by “normal” standards—it remains “tiresome and perplexing” (28). But at night she sees a woman, or many women, shaking the pattern and trying to climb through it. Women “get through,” she perceives, “and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!” (30). The death sentence imposed by patriarchy is violent and relentless. No one escapes.

The story is now at its final turning point: “I have found out another funny thing,” reports the narrator, “but I shan't tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much” (31). This is a break with patriarchy—and a break with us. What she has discovered, which she does not state, is that she and the woman behind the paper are the same. This is communicated syntactically by contrasting sentences: “This bedstead is fairly gnawed!” she tells us, and then: “I bit off a little piece [of the bedstead] at one corner” (34). “If that woman does get out, and tries to get away, I can tie her!” and “But I am securely fastened now by my well-hidden rope” (34-35). The final passages are filled with crowing, “impertinent” language: “Hurrah!” “The sly thing!” “No person touches this paper but me,—not alive!” (32-33). Locked in the room, she addresses her husband in a dramatically different way: “It is no use, young man, you can't open it!”

She does not make this declaration aloud. In fact, she appears to have difficulty even making herself understood and must repeat several times the instructions to her husband for finding the key to the room. At first we think she may be too mad to speak proper English. But then we realize that he simply is unable to accept statement of fact from her, his little goose, until she has “said it so often that he had to go and see” (36). Her final triumph is her public proclamation, “I've got out at last … you can't put me back!” (36).

There is a dramatic shift here both in what is said and in who is speaking. Not only has a new “impertinent” self emerged, but this final voice is collective, representing the narrator, the woman behind the wallpaper, and women elsewhere and everywhere. The final vision itself is one of physical enslavement, not liberation: the woman, bound by a rope, circles the room like an animal in a yoke. Yet that this vision has come to exist and to be expressed changes the terms of the representational process. That the husband-physician must at last listen to a woman speaking—no matter what she says—significantly changes conditions for speaking. Though patriarchy may be only temporarily unconscious, its ancestral halls will never be precisely the same again.

We can return now to the questions raised at the outset. Language in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is oppressive to women in the particular form of a medical diagnosis, a set of linguistic signs whose representational claims are authorized by society and whose power to control women's fate, whether or not those claims are valid, is real. Representation has real, material consequences. In contrast, women's power to originate signs is monitored; and, once produced, no legitimating social apparatus is available to give those signs substance in the real world.

Linguistic innovation, then, has a dual fate. The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” initially speaks a language authorized by patriarchy, with genuine language (“work”) forbidden her. But as the wallpaper comes alive she devises a different, “impertinent” language which defies patriarchal control and confounds the predictions of male judgment (diagnosis). The fact that she becomes a creative and involved language user, producing sentences which break established rules, in and of itself changes the terms in which women are represented in language and extends the conditions under which women will speak.

Yet language is intimately connected to material reality, despite the fact that no direct correspondence exists. The word is theory to the deed: but the deed's existence will depend upon a complicated set of material conditions. The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not free at the end of the story because she has temporarily escaped her sentence: though she has “got out at last,” her triumph is to have sharpened and articulated the nature of women's condition; she remains physically bound by a rope and locked in a room. The conditions she has diagnosed must change before she and other women will be free. Thus women's control of language is left metaphorical and evocative: the story only hints at possibilities for change. Woman is both passive and active, subject and object, sane and mad. Contradictions remain, for they are inherent in women's current “condition.”

Thus to “escape the sentence” involves both linguistic innovation and change in material conditions: both change in what is said and change in the conditions of speaking. The escape of individual women may constitute a kind of linguistic self-help which has intrinsic value as a contribution to language but which functions socially and politically to isolate deviance rather than to introduce change. Representation is not without consequences. Thus the study of women and language must involve the study of discourse, which encompasses both form and function as well as the representational uncertainty their relationship entails. As a metaphor, the yellow wallpaper is never fully resolved: it can be described, but its meaning cannot be fixed. It remains trivial and dramatic, vivid and dowdy, compelling and repulsive: these multiple meanings run throughout the story in contrast to the one certain meaning of patriarchal diagnosis. If diagnosis is the middle of an equation that freezes material flux in a certain sign, the wallpaper is a disruptive center that chaotically fragments any attempt to fix on it a single meaning. It offers a lesson in language, whose sentence is perhaps not always destined to escape us.


  1. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (Old Westbury, New York: The Feminist Press, 1973), p. 13. Subsequent references are cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. Umberto Eco describes a “good metaphor” as one which, like a good joke, offers a shortcut through the labyrinth of limitless semiosis. “Metaphor, Dictionary, and Encyclopedia,” New Literary History, 15 (Winter 1984), 255-71. Though there is relatively little criticism on “The Yellow Wallpaper” to date, the wallpaper seems to be a fruitful metaphor for discussions of madness, women's relationship to medicine, sexual inequality, marriage, economic dependence, and sexuality. An introduction to these issues is provided by Elaine R. Hedges in her “Afterword,” The Yellow Wallpaper, pp. 37-63. Hedges also cites a number of nineteenth-century responses to the story. A useful though condescending discussion of the story in the light of Gilman's own life is Mary A. Hill, “Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Feminist's Struggle with Womanhood,” Massachusetts Review, 21 (Fall 1980), 503-26. A Bachelardian critical reading is Mary Beth Pringle, “‘La Poetique De L'Espace’ in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” The French-American Review, 3 (Winter 1978/Spring 1979), 15-22. See also Loralee MacPike, “Environment as Psychopathological Symbolism in the ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” American Literary Realism 1870-1910, 8 (Summer 1975), 286-88, and Beate Schopp-Schilling, “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Rediscovered ‘Realistic’ Story,” American Literary Realism 1870-1910, 8 (Summer 1975), 284-86.

  3. “Women's language” is discussed in Robin Lakoff, Language and Woman's Place (New York: Harper and Row, 1975); Casey Miller and Kate Swift, Words and Women (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1976); Barrie Thorne, Cheris Kramarae, and Nancy Henley, eds., “Introduction,” Language, Gender and Society (Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 1983); Cheris Kramarae, Women and Men Speaking (Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 1981); Sally McConnell-Ginet, Ruth Borker, and Nelly Furman, eds., Women and Language in Literature and Society (New York: Praeger, 1980); Mary Ritchie Key, Male/Female Language (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1975); and Paula A. Treichler, “Verbal Subversions in Dorothy Parker: ‘Trapped like a Trap in a Trap,’” Language and Style, 13 (Fall 1980), 46-61.

  4. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New York: Appleton-Century, 1935), p. 121. Subsequent references are cited parenthetically in the text.

  5. S. Weir Mitchell, Doctor and Patient (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1888), p. 48.

  6. A feminist understanding of medical treatment of women in the nineteenth century is, however, by no means uncomplicated. An analysis frequently quoted is that by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women (Garden City, New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1979). Their analysis is critiqued by Regina Morantz, “The Lady and her Physician,” in Clio's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women, eds. Mary S. Hartman and Lois Banner (New York: Harper Colophon, 1974), pp. 38-53; as well as by Ludi Jordanova, “Conceptualising Power Over Women,” Radical Science Journal, 12 (1982), 124-28. Attention to the progressive aspects of Weir Mitchell's treatment of women is given by Morantz and by Suzanne Poirier, “The Weir Mitchell Rest Cure: Four Women who ‘Took Charge,’” paper presented at the conference Women's Health: Taking Care and Taking Charge, Morgantown, West Virginia, 1982 [Author's affiliation: Humanistic Studies Program, Health Sciences Center, University of Illinois at Chicago]. See also Barbara Sicherman, “The Uses of Diagnosis: Doctors, Patients, and Neurasthenia,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 32 (January 1977), 33-54; Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Charles Rosenberg, “The Female Animal: Medical and Biological Views of Woman and Her Role in Nineteenth-Century America,” rpt. in Concepts of Health and Disease: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, eds. Arthur Caplan, H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., and James J. McCartney (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1981), pp. 281-303; and Ann Douglas Wood, “‘The Fashionable Diseases’: Women's Complaints and Their Treatment in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Clio's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women, pp. 1-22.

  7. The notion that diagnosis is socially constituted through doctor-patient interaction is discussed by Marianne A. Paget, “On the Work of Talk: Studies in Misunderstanding,” in The Social Organization of Doctor-Patient Communication, eds. Sue Fisher and Alexandra Dundas Todd (Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1983), pp. 55-74. See also Barbara Sicherman, “The Uses of Diagnosis.”

  8. Discussions of the multiple sanctions for medicine and science include Shelley Day, “Is Obstetric Technology Depressing?” Radical Science Journal, 12 (1982), 17-45; Donna J. Haraway, “In the Beginning was the Word: The Genesis of Biological Theory,” Signs, 6 (Spring 1981), 469-81; Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: Social Construction of Scientific Facts (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1979); Evan Stark, “What is Medicine?” Radical Science Journal, 12 (1982), 46-89; and P. Wright and A. Treacher, eds., The Problem of Medical Knowledge (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1982).

  9. Anna Kavan, Asylum Piece (1940; rpt. New York: Michael Kesend, 1981), pp. 63, 65.

  10. Reviewing medical evidence in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Suzanne Poirier suggests that a diagnosis of “neurasthenia” would have been more precise but that in any case, given the narrator's symptoms, the treatment was inappropriate and probably harmful. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ as Medical Case History,” paper presented to the Faculty Seminar in Medicine and Society, University of Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign, April 13, 1983. On the more general point, two recent contrasting analyses are offered by Umberto Eco, “Metaphor, Dictionary, Encyclopedia,” who poses a world of language resonant with purely semiotic, intertextual relationships, and John Haiman, “Dictionaries and Encyclopedias,” Lingua, 50 (1980), 329-57, who argues for the total interrelatedness of linguistic and cultural knowledge.

  11. Sally McConnell-Ginet, “Linguistics and the Feminist Challenge,” in Women and Language in Literature and Society, pp. 3-25. The linguistic formula S r NP + VP means that Sentence is rewritten as (consists of) Noun Phrase + Verb Phrase. Sentences are “generated” as tree diagrams that move downward from the abstract entity S to individual components of actual sentences. It could be said that linguistics misses the forest for the trees. But the fact that the study of women and language has concentrated on meaning and usage does not mean that syntax might not be relevant for feminist analysis. Potentially fruitful areas might include analysis of passive versus active voice (for example, see my “The Construction of Ambiguity in The Awakening: A Linguistic Analysis,” in Women and Language in Literature and Society, pp. 239-57), of nominalization (a linguistic process particularly characteristic of male bureaucracies and technologies), of cases (showing underlying agency and other relationships), of negation and interrogation (two grammatical processes implicated by “women's language,” Note 3), and of the relationship between deep and surface structure. Julia Penelope Stanley has addressed a number of these areas; see, for example, “Passive Motivation,” Foundations of Language, 13 (1975), 25-39. Pronominalization, of course, has been a focus for feminist analysis for some time.

  12. See, for example, Maija Blaubergs, “An Analysis of Classic Arguments Against Changing Sexist Language,” in The Voices and Words of Women and Men, ed. Cheris Kramarae (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1980), pp. 135-47; Francine Frank, “Women's Language in America: Myth and Reality,” in Women's Language and Style, eds. Douglas Butturff and Edmund L. Epstein (Akron, Ohio: L& S Books, 1978), pp. 47-61; Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology (Boston: Beacon, 1978); and Wendy Martyna, “The Psychology of the Generic Masculine,” in Women and Language in Literature and Society, pp. 69-78. A general source is Barrie Thorne, Cheris Kramarae, and Nancy Henley, eds., Language, Gender and Society (Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 1983).

  13. See, for example, Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, eds., Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), pp. 1-57.

  14. Luce Irigaray, “Veiled Lips,” trans. Sara Speidel, Mississippi Review, 33 (Winter/Spring 1983), 99. See also Luce Irigaray, “Women's Exile: Interview with Luce Irigaray,” trans. Couze Venn, Ideology and Consciousness, 1 (1977), 62-76; and Cary Nelson, “Envoys of Otherness: Difference and Continuity in Feminist Criticism,” in For Alma Mater: Theory and Practice in Feminist Scholarship, eds. Paula A. Treichler, Cheris Kramarae, and Beth Stafford, forthcoming from University of Illinois Press.

  15. Luce Irigaray, “Women's Exile,” 64.

  16. See the discussion of discourse in Meaghan Morris, “A-Mazing Grace: Notes on Mary Daly's Poetics,” Intervention, 16 (1982), 70-92.

  17. Luce Irigaray, “Veiled Lips,” 99-101. According to Irigaray's account, Apollo, “the always-already-speaking,” drives away the chorus of women (the Furies) who want revenge for Clytemnestra's murder. His words convey his repulsion for the chaotic, non-hierarchical female voice: “Heave in torment, black froth erupting from your lungs”; “Never touch my halls, you have no right”; “Out you flock without a herdsman—out!” Calling for the forgetting of bloodshed, Athena, embodying the father's voice and the father's law, pronounces the patriarchal sentence on the matriarchal chorus: the women will withdraw to a subterranean cavern where they will be permitted to establish a cult, perform religious rites and sacrifices, and remain “loyal and propitious to the land.” They are removed from positions of influence, their words destined to have only subterranean meaning.

Gilman's ''The Yellow Wallpaper": A Centenary

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It seems no accident that important recent novels have been Tom Morrison's Beloved, about the power of a sacrificed child over her mourning mother's life, and Marilyn French's Her Mother's Daughter, a major fiction about four generations of women, linked together in their martyred and futile lives through the mother-daughter bond. For at least these hundred years, since Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote her controversial and relentlessly accurate "The Yellow Wallpaper," women writers have confronted the basic conflicts of women's lives: how to be both a person and a wife and mother; how to live with acceptable passivity in a patriarchal culture while yet being aggressive enough to stay alive; and how to be both "good" and sensual, supportive and necessarily selfish, and, above all, sane.

Of these many conflicts inherent in women's trying to lead acceptable female lives, perhaps the most troublesome is that of motherhood, its attendant responsibilities, and its almost inevitable loss of self-identity. Women who care for infants are almost literally used up in the process, the twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance subsuming their own mental and physical activities. No other human situation demands the same level of inexorable attention. Yet of the many controversies about women's roles, that of motherhood—and, as Dorothy Dinnerstein emphasized, the care-giving during childhood as much as the actual birthing—has seldom been discussed. It is almost as if the role of mother is beyond discussion, beyond change: if one is a mother, one accepts its burdens with its joys, and does not in any way try to tailor its numerous givens....

When Gilman wrote the short novella, she—married and a mother—had recently recovered from the trauma of a severe post-partum depression. And she had managed that recovery by defying the advice of one of the most respected of American physicians, S. Weir Mitchell. Mitchell was the physician of Jane Addams, Edith Wharton, and Winifred Howells, among other women who suffered from inexplicable Victorian "female" ailments such as hysteria and neurasthenia. Mitchell's treatment was a rest cure which depended upon seclusion, massage, electricity, immobility, and overfeeding. Isolated for up to six weeks, some women gained as much as fifty pounds on a milk-based diet. As a parallel to the rest and diet, most patients were forbidden to use their minds in any way. Gilman recalled in her autobiography that, because her "cure" added the almost constant presence of her infant daughter, Katharine, she ''made a rag baby, hung it on a doorknob and played with it. I would crawl into remote closets and under beds—to hide from the grinding pressure of that profound distress." ...

Gilman's autobiography makes clear her years of poverty and debt, her loneliness, and her arduous life. No wonder "The Yellow Wallpaper'' portrays a spent woman so accurately. But it is not so much the truth of Gilman's presentation as the immediacy of her theme that attracts today's readers. "The Yellow Wallpaper" gives us the young married woman as mother.

In the narrative, the protagonist's baby appears infrequently, but at crucial times; his existence is clearly a key to his mother's problems. Gilman underscores the identity of the protagonist as wife-mother (a bewildered wife-mother, who sometimes becomes a child) by placing her in a room that was formerly a nursery—a nursery, however, with barred windows so that she cannot escape. The conflation of the roles of child and mother occurs as the narrator keeps her focus entirely on the enclosing walls of the sinister room. An infant would not be able to leave its nursery; neither is the mother (though Gilman makes clear that the protagonist does sometimes leave the house and walks in the garden or sits downstairs). For the purposes of our involvement with this narrative, however, the story's location is the nursery. And just as an infant would spend hours staring at walls and ceilings, kept in one place at the mercy of whatever authority was responsible for its care, so too does the protagonist. An infant would also have difficulty finding language to express its feelings. With a brilliance rare in nineteenth-century fiction, Gilman gives her suffering protagonist a restricted language that conveys her childlike frustration, even though it is not obviously childlike. For its effect, the protagonist's language works in tandem with the narrative's structure....

Gilman's protagonist may have found a more compatible world in her fantasy, but she still worries about her role as wife and mother. As the narrative ends—with her life as much in her own control as it has ever been—she is worried about wandering in this labyrinth, about physically losing her way. She is never to be the self-reliant, capable help-meet of John's dreams.

And that is one of Gilman's points, that a woman reared to be a child, treated like a child by her husband (and, one supposes, a father) will respond in kind. No woman expects to be literally put to bed, or removed from all responsibility. Gilman's prose tells of the greatest indignity: the mother of the child becomes the child, the ''little girl" of the household (though the mention of the double bed and the husband's presence at night suggests that a sexual role still dominates the relationship). And what is the role of the young daughter in a patriarchal household? To be Daddy's favorite. This is the anger that Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy" bares—the rage that, once having been brought up to trust the father figure, in whatever guise it appears, then being abandoned by it, being misled by it, being misused by it is insufferable. Gilman's young unnamed wife thus shares in two kinds of anger: that at having her rightful responsibilities taken from her, and that at being misled and miscounseled by the father figures (husband as well as brother) in her life.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" shows what a frustrated woman does with anger. Repression cannot be healthful, and as the protagonist grows more and more quiet, she is becoming more and more mad. Her world has become the world of seething self-enclosure, sparked only by bright, jolting colors and the miasma of rotting odor. In the 1880s, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg points out, a woman would probably have repressed her anger instead of showing it. If she had showed it, she might have been thought insane and institutionalized, a process which would probably have led only to deeper insanity. The ideal female would become the peaceful "good" girl, who does not cause trouble, does not want attention or help, but is content to wreak havoc in her own way—usually a silent, surreptitious, and vicious way. Gilman's protagonist does just that. The defiance she comes to feel has finally been shed in favor of outright rebellion, yet what would have been more obvious rebellion (harming the baby or John, running away, destroying things important to the household instead of just the horrible wallpaper) does not occur. Instead, the well-behaved woman protagonist (the "good" girl even in her madness) stays within the room, although she has a house key and could easily leave, joining the imaginary women who creep through the wallpaper. (The whole tribe of rebelling women are moving as if they were infants just learning to crawl.) The pathos of the characteristically docile protagonist finally coming to rage, and action, but venting her anger in such a tentative and hidden way underscores Gilman's irony. Even coming to anger does not mean change or improvement. It certainly does not mean victory for the protagonist of this novella. Her escape into madness may have won her continuing argument with John, though he will not recognize that it has done that, but it is only a Pyrrhic victory because her present life is valueless to anyone, particularly to herself.

The larger question, once the literary merits of Gilman's text have been proved, is what significance does this trapped protagonist have for today's readers? What does it mean to write about a woman caught within these circles of male authority (and cultural reification of that authority), trapped within a sickening room and made, in effect, to lose her mind because of the disgust she feels for not only her culture and the roles it mandates for women, but for herself as a sexual, procreative woman? What is the mode of literature that results from such deep anger, such unrelieved depression, that the text itself is unrelieved, pointed inevitably toward an ending that only repeats—relentlessly—the text's theme?

In Gilman's ''The Yellow Wallpaper,'' subtext becomes text, repressed discourse becomes visible. Gilman explained that in writing this novella, she had not intended ''to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy." Her didactic purpose, her intentional theme, was in some ways subverted by her own artistry. Unlike many of her shorter stories, "The Yellow Wallpaper" convinces less by its explicit content than by its metaphoric impression. As captured by the confines of the attic room as the protagonist is, the reader plots and charts, reads and worries as the story progresses. It is the Modernists' ideal of involving the reader to the fullest possible extent. In current narratological terms, according to Fetterley, the movement of the end of the story is precise and highly directional; the reader goes where Gilman takes him or her. ''Increasingly, her behavior becomes flamboyant and outrageous. Getting out through the text of the wallpaper, she not surprisingly gets in to the subtext within the text that presents the story of a woman trying to get out." She wins back her language, and vanquishes her husband—who has neither speech nor action by the end of the story. He lies as if dead in the path of her highly functional movement, and she simply crawls over him. The wallpaper has replaced the writing paper that he would have taken from her, and she has in some ways won back her right to speech and control.

Source: Linda Wagner-Martin, "Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper": A Centenary," in Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Woman and Her Work edited by Sheryl L. Meyering, UMI Research Press, 1989, pp. 51-64.

Judith Fetterley (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Fetterley, Judith. “Reading about Reading: ‘A Jury of Her Peers,’ ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, edited by Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart, pp. 147-64. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Fetterley discusses the elements of gendered narrative self-reflexivity in Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as well as in “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe.]

As a student of American literature, I have long been struck by the degree to which American texts are self-reflexive. Our “classics” are filled with scenes of readers and readings. In The Scarlet Letter, for example, a climactic moment occurs when Chillingworth rips open Dimmesdale's shirt and finally reads the text he has for so long been trying to locate. What he sees we never learn, but for him his “reading” is complete and satisfying. Or, to take another example, in “Daisy Miller,” Winterbourne's misreading of Daisy provides the central drama of the text. Indeed, for James, reading is the dominant metaphor for life, and his art is designed to teach us how to read well so that we may live somewhere other than Geneva. Yet even a writer as different from James as Mark Twain must learn to read his river if he wants to become a master pilot. And, of course, in Moby Dick, Melville gives us a brilliant instance of reader-response theory in action in the doubloon scene.

When I first read Susan Glaspell's “A Jury of Her Peers” in Mary Anne Ferguson's Images of Women in Literature (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973, pp. 370-85) I found it very American, for it, too, is a story about reading. The story interested me particularly, however, because the theory of reading proposed in it is explicitly linked to the issue of gender. “A Jury of Her Peers” tells of a woman who has killed her husband; the men on the case can not solve the mystery of the murder; the women who accompany them can. The reason for this striking display of masculine incompetence in an arena where men are assumed to be competent derives from the fact that the men in question can not imagine the story behind the case. They enter the situation bound by a set of powerful assumptions. Prime among these is the equation of textuality with masculine subject and masculine point of view. Thus, it is not simply that the men can not read the text that is placed before them. Rather, they literally can not recognize it as a text because they can not imagine that women have stories. This preconception is so powerful that, even though, in effect, they know Minnie Wright has killed her husband, they spend their time trying to discover their own story, the story they are familiar with, can recognize as a text, and know how to read. They go out to the barn; they check for evidence of violent entry from the outside; they think about guns. In their story, men, not women, are violent, and men use guns: “There was a gun in the house. He says that's what he can't understand.” Though Mrs. Hale thinks the men are “kind of sneaking … coming out here to get her own house to turn against her,” in fact she needn't worry, for these men wouldn't know a clue if they came upon it. Minnie Foster Wright's kitchen is not a text to them, and so they can not read it.

It is no doubt in part to escape the charge of “sneaking” that the men have brought the women with them in the first place, the presence of women legitimating male entry and clearing it of any hint of violence or violation. But Mrs. Hale recognizes the element of violence in the situation from the outset. In Sheriff Peters, she sees the law made flesh. “A heavy man with a big voice” who delights in distinguishing between criminals and noncriminals, his casual misogyny—“not much of a housekeeper”—indicates his predisposition to find women guilty. Mrs. Hale rejects the sheriff's invitation to join him in his definition and interpretation of Minnie Wright, to become in effect a male reader, and asserts instead her intention to read as a woman. Fortunately, perhaps, for Minnie, the idea of the woman reader as anything other than an adjunct validator of male texts and male interpretations (“a sheriff's wife is married to the law”) is as incomprehensible to these men as is the idea of a woman's story. With a parting shot at the incompetence of women as readers—“But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?”—the men leave the women alone with their “trifles.”

Martha Hale has no trouble recognizing that she is faced with a text written by the woman whose presence she feels, despite her physical absence. She has no trouble recognizing Minnie Wright as an author whose work she is competent to read. Significantly enough, identification determines her competence. Capable of imagining herself as a writer who can produce a significant text, she is also capable of interpreting what she finds in Minnie Wright's kitchen. As she leaves her own house, Martha Hale makes “a scandalized sweep of her kitchen,” and “what her eye took in was that her kitchen was in no shape for leaving.” When she arrives at Minnie Wright's house and finds her kitchen in a similar state, she is prepared to look for something out of the ordinary to explain it—that is, she is in a position to discover the motive and the clue which the men miss. Identification also provides the key element in determining how Mrs. Peters reads. From the start, Martha Hale has been sizing up Mrs. Peters. Working from her perception that Mrs. Peters “didn't seem like a sheriff's wife,” Martha subtly encourages her to read as a woman. But Mrs. Peters, more timid than Mrs. Hale and indeed married to the law, wavers in her allegiance: “‘But Mrs. Hale,’ said the sheriff's wife, ‘the law is the law’.” In a comment that ought to be as deeply embedded in our national folklore as are its masculinist counterparts—for example, “a woman is only a woman but a good cigar is a smoke”—Mrs. Hale draws on Mrs. Peters's potential for identification with Minnie Wright: “The law is the law—and a bad stove is a bad stove. How'd you like to cook on this?” At the crucial moment, when both motive and clue for the murder have been discovered and the fate of Minnie Wright rests in her hands, Mrs. Peters remembers her own potential for violence, its cause and its justification: “‘When I was a girl,’ said Mrs. Peters, under her breath, ‘my kitten—there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes—before I could get there—’ She covered her face an instant. ‘If they hadn't held me back I would have’—she caught herself, looked upstairs where footsteps were heard, and finished weakly—‘hurt him’.”

At the end of the story, Martha Hale articulates the theory of reading behind “A Jury of Her Peers”: “We all go through the same things—it's all just a different kind of the same thing! If it weren't—why do you and I understand? Why do we know—what we know this minute?” Women can read women's texts because they live women's lives; men can not read women's texts because they don't lead women's lives. Yet, of course, the issues are more complicated than this formulation, however true it may be. A clue to our interpretation of Glaspell's text occurs in a passage dealing with Mrs. Peters's struggle to determine how she will read: “It was as if something within her not herself had spoken, and it found in Mrs. Peters something she did not know as herself. ‘I know what stillness is,’ she said, in a queer, monotonous voice.” Obviously, nothing less than Mrs. Peters's concept of self is at stake in her decision. The self she does not recognize as “herself” is the self who knows what she knows because of the life she has lived. As she reads this life in the story of another woman, she contacts that self from which she has been systematically alienated by virtue of being married to the law and subsequently required to read as a man.

When I was in high school and first introduced to literature as a separate subject of study, I was told that one of the primary reasons people read, and, thus, one of the primary justifications for learning how to read, is to enlarge their frame of reference through encountering experiences that are foreign to them which are not likely to happen in their own lives and, thus, to enrich and complicate their perspective. Since as a young woman reader I was given to read primarily texts about young men, I had no reason to question the validity of this proposition. It was not until I got to college and graduate school and encountered an overwhelmingly male faculty intent on teaching me how to recognize great literature that I began to wonder about the homogeneity of the texts that got defined as “classic.” But of course it took feminism to enable me finally to see and understand the extraordinary gap between theory and practice in the teaching of literature as I experienced it. If a white male middle-class literary establishment consistently chooses to identify as great and thus worth reading those texts that present as central the lives of white male middle-class characters, then obviously recognition and reiteration, not difference and expansion, provide the motivation for reading. Regardless of the theory offered in justification, as it is currently practiced within the academy, reading functions primarily to reinforce the identity and perspective which the male teacher/reader brings to the text. Presumably this function is itself a function of the sense of power derived from the experience of perceiving one's self as central, as subject, as literally because literarily the point of view from which the rest of the world is seen. Thus men, controlling the study of literature, define as great those texts that empower themselves and define reading as an activity that serves male interests, for regardless of how many actual readers may be women, within the academy the presumed reader is male.

Outside the academy, of course, women, operating perhaps instinctively on the same understanding of the potential of reading, have tended to find their way to women's texts. One of the most striking experiences of my own teaching career occurred recently, when I taught a graduate course designed to introduce students to the work of nineteenth-century American women writers. Though I had been working on these writers for three years and was engaged at the time in writing about them, I nevertheless arrived in the classroom full of anxiety, for I was still sufficiently a product of the system that had trained me to worry that my students might resent being asked to read literature that was not “classic.” I was, however, completely mistaken in my apprehension, for in fact my women students (and the class was almost entirely women) loved the literature of nineteenth-century American women, and at the end of the course they indicated in a variety of ways their intention to keep on reading it. Many of them spoke movingly about the ratification and legitimization of self, indeed the sense of power, they derived from reading these texts and the relief they felt at finding within the academy an opportunity to read something other than texts by and about men. At one class session, however, an interesting phenomenon emerged. My students began describing the various methods they had developed for hiding from husbands, lovers, male professors, employers, and other male graduate students the nature of the texts they were reading. As we began to explore the reasons behind this behavior, we came to understand most immediately how politicized the act of reading is in a sexist culture. For it is not simply the case that men, in determining what is read, wish to provide a certain experience for themselves; it is equally the case that they do not want women to have this experience. Nothing else can explain the intensity and the persistence of male resistance to the inclusion of women writers on reading lists, examination lists, bibliographies, and so forth, where the concept of inclusion is almost always token and at best is an equal sharing of time and space. My students, in playing with the title of E.D.E.N. Southworth's popular novel of 1859 and describing themselves as reading with “a hidden hand,” hit on the fact that women's reading of women's novels is not a culturally validated activity. Indeed, to the degree that such reading, by giving women the experience of seeing themselves as central, subject, and point of view, empowers the woman reader, and to the degree that such empowerment contravenes the design of patriarchal culture, women's reading of women's texts is literally treason against the state and of necessity must be a covert and hidden affair.

Our discussion led us to feel closer to nineteenth-century women readers as well as to women writers, for we began to think that we might understand in some essential way why nineteenth-century American women read with such passion, even avidity, the work of their contemporaries, despite the steady stream of warnings delivered to them on the abuses of novel reading. And, playing still further with the implications of “the hidden hand,” we began to speculate on the degree to which the reading of women's texts by women might have been and might still be eroticized. For what else might one have to do with a hidden hand besides read? And might not the gratifications of masturbation and the gratifications of reading women's texts be similar for women? In a sexist culture, which has as one of its primary components institutionalized and enforced heterosexuality designed to serve the sexual interests of men, masturbation for women carries with it the potential of putting women in touch with their own bodies, of giving us a knowledge of our flesh which permissible sexual activity does not necessarily provide. Similarly, the reading of women's texts has the potential for giving women a knowledge of the self, for putting us in contact with our real selves, which the reading of male texts can not provide. Which, of course, brings us back to Mrs. Peters and “A Jury of Her Peers” and to a final question that the story raises.

Just as the women in the story have the capacity to read as men or as women, having learned of necessity how to recognize and interpret male texts, so are the men in the story presumably educable. Though initially they might not recognize a clue if they saw it, they could be taught its significance, they could be taught to recognize women's texts and to read as women. If this were not the case, the women in the story could leave the text as they find it; but they don't. Instead, they erase the text as they read it. Martha Hale undoes the threads of the quilt that, like the weaving of Philomel, tells the story of Minnie Wright's violation and thus provides the clue to her revenge; Mrs. Peters instinctively creates an alternate story to explain the missing bird and then further fabricates to explain the absent cat; and Mrs. Hale, with the approval of Mrs. Peters, finally hides the dead bird. Thus, we must revise somewhat our initial formulation of the story's point about reading: it is not simply the case that men can not recognize or read women's texts; it is, rather, that they will not. At the end of the story, the county attorney summarizes the situation “incisively”: “It's all perfectly clear, except the reason for doing it. But you know juries when it comes to women. If there was some definite thing—something to show. Something to make a story about. A thing that would connect up with this clumsy way of doing it.” But why, if it is all so perfectly clear to them, have the men made so little intelligent effort to find that “something” that would convince and convict? Why, in fact, has this same county attorney consistently deflected attention from those details that would provide the necessary clues: “Let's talk about that a little later, Mr. Hale”; “I'd like to talk to you about that a little later, Mrs. Hale.” This is the question that “A Jury of Her Peers” propounds to its readers, making us ask in turn why it is more important for the men in this story to let one woman get away with murder than to learn to recognize and to read her story?

Part of the answer to this question has already been suggested in the previous discussion. The refusal to recognize women as having stories denies women the experience it ensures for men—namely, reading as a validation of one's reality and reinforcement of one's identity. But there is still more at issue here. Let us return for a moment to that gap between theory and practice which I mentioned in connection with my own introduction to reading. Certainly in theory there is nothing wrong with the idea that one might read to experience a reality different from one's own, to encounter the point of view of another who is other, and thus to broaden one's own perspective and understanding. Indeed, there is much to be said for it, for as Patsy Schweickart has cogently argued in her commentary on an earlier draft of this paper, the extreme anxiety raised by the issue of solipsism in masculine Western thought derives from that pattern of habitually effacing the other, of which the control of textuality is but one manifestation. However, it may well be the case that the gap between theory and practice at issue here has less to do with a need to efface the other than with a need to protect a certain concept of the self. In a sexist culture the interests of men and women are by definition oppositional—what is good for men is bad for women, and vice versa, given the nature of men's definition of their “good” in a sexist context. Inevitably, then, texts produced in a sexist culture will reflect this fact. Thus, texts written by men in such a context will frequently be inimical to women; and, while I would argue that there is no equivalent in the literature of women for the palpable misogyny of much of male literature, nevertheless, as the analysis of “A Jury of Her Peers” demonstrates, women's texts frequently present a radical challenge to the premises of men texts, premises that men rely on to maintain the fictions of their own identity. Thus, when men ask women to read men's texts under the guise of enlarging their experience and perspective, they are in fact asking women to undergo an experience that is potentially inimical to them; and when men insist that men's texts are the only ones worth reading, they are in fact protecting themselves against just such an experience. If we examine “A Jury of Her Peers” with this hypothesis in mind, we may find in the story an answer to the question that it propounds. For what is the content of the text that Minnie Wright has written and that the men are so unwilling to read? It is nothing less than the story of men's systematic, institutionalized, and culturally approved violence toward women, and of women's potential for retaliatory violence against men. For the men to find the clue that would convict Minnie Foster Wright, they would have to confront the figure of John Wright. And if they were to confront this figure, they would have to confront as well the limitations of their definition of a “good man,” a phrase that encompasses a man's relation to drink, debt, and keeping his word with other men but leaves untouched his treatment of women. And if a man's treatment of women were to figure into the determination of his goodness, then most men would be found not good. Thus, for the men in the story to confront John Wright would mean confronting themselves. In addition, were they to read Minnie Wright's story, they would have to confront the fact that a woman married to a man is not necessarily married to his law, might not in fact see things “just that way,” might indeed see things quite differently and even act on those perceptions. They might have to confront the fact that the women of whom they are so casually contemptuous are capable of turning on them. For, of course, in refusing to recognize the story of Minnie Wright, the men also avoid confrontation with the story of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters—they never know what their wives have done alone in that kitchen.

Male violence against women and women's retaliatory violence against men constitute a story that a sexist culture is bent on repressing, for, of course, the refusal to tell this story is one of the major mechanisms for enabling the violence to continue. Within “A Jury of Her Peers,” this story is once again suppressed. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters save Minnie Foster Wright's life, but in the process they undo her story, ensuring that it will never have a public hearing. The men succeed in their refusal to recognize the woman's story because the women are willing to let the principle stand in order to protect the particular woman. Thus, if the men are willing to let one woman get away with murder in order to protect their control of textuality, the women are willing to let the men continue to control textuality in order to save the individual. The consequence of both decisions is the same: Minnie Wright is denied her story and hence her reality (What will her life be like if she does get off?), and the men are allowed to continue to assume that they are the only ones with stories. So haven't the men finally won?

Glaspell, of course, chooses differently from her characters, for “A Jury of Her Peers” does not suppress, but, rather, tells the woman's story. Thus, Glaspell's fiction is didactic in the sense that it is designed to educate the male reader in the recognition and interpretation of women's texts, while at the same time it provides the woman reader with the gratification of discovering, recovering, and validating her own experience. For “A Jury of Her Peers,” I would argue, from my own experience in teaching the text and from my discussion with others who have taught it, is neither unintelligible to male readers nor susceptible to a masculinist interpretation. If you can get men to read it, they will recognize its point, for Glaspell chooses to make an issue of precisely the principle that her characters are willing to forgo. But, of course, it is not that easy to get men to read this story. It is surely no accident that “A Jury of Her Peers” did not make its way into the college classroom until the advent of academic feminism.

In the second story under discussion here, Edgar Allan Poe's “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the very absence of any distinction between character and author, or, perhaps, between the experience of reading presented within the story and the experience of reading produced by the story, served as the generative fact in my developing reflections on gender and reading. I will never forget my first experience of teaching “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as a feminist. When we had finished what I was then calling the “traditional” interpretation of the story, I asked my students a question I thought would inevitably open the way for a feminist analysis of the text. I asked them whether the sex of the victims played any part in the story's design or effect. Specifically, I asked them whether the story would be different, even imaginable, if the victims were male. In my naive assumption that the truths of feminism would be obvious once the right questions were asked, in my failure to recognize the significance of my own personal history, which included many readings of this story in which this question never occurred to me, I fully expected my students, in considering my question, to recognize what is to me now obvious—that is, that the sex of the victims was the hidden spring that has to be there to make the story work—and thus to commit themselves to a feminist interpretation of the text. Of course, my students did no such thing; they resolutely denied that gender had anything to do with the story and vehemently argued that it would work just the same if the victims were men.

At this point, the class went on to Hawthorne. But I went home to think, for here a version of the theory of reading proposed in “A Jury of Her Peers” was borne out in practice. Further, I was intrigued by the similarity between my students' behavior and that of the characters in the story. So I began to wonder if “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” like so many other American texts, was not another story about reading and, particularly, about the connections between reading and gender.

In this context, I remembered the analysis of “The Purloined Letter” by Daniel Hoffman in his brilliant book Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972). Here Hoffman argues that Dupin can solve the crime of the purloined letter because he can imagine having committed it; in fact, as Hoffman points out, in order to resolve the situation Dupin exactly duplicates the initial event. The police, on the other hand, have been completely ineffective in the case because the strategy of the criminal does not coincide with the paradigm that they bring with them into the situation. The police assume that something stolen is something hidden, for that is how they would do it. Thus, though their labors at exploring every conceivable hiding place in the apartment of the Minister D_____ are herculean in their thoroughness, they can not find the letter that has been left unconcealed. Like “A Jury of Her Peers,” then, “The Purloined Letter” asserts that one is a competent reader only of texts that one has written or can imagine having written.

Now, what happens when we take this theory of reading and apply it to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”? What are we to understand from Dupin's ability to solve this crime, to read this particular text? We can begin our reading by considering the nature of the crime/text at issue. Two women have been brutally murdered in a fashion that suggests the idea of sexual violation. They have been attacked in their bedroom late at night with only their night clothes on. One of the bodies has been forcibly thrust up a chimney, an image evocative of rape; hair, traditionally associated with feminine sexuality and allure, and described in the newspaper accounts of the event as “tresses,” has been pulled from the head of one of the women, and strands of it lie about the hearth. If, as is the case in “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin's ability to solve this crime depends on his ability to have committed it, then the beast who has done the deed becomes a metaphor for Dupin himself, and we are reading about a man who reveals his own tendency toward and capacity for violence against women, and, further, who reveals the connection between the violence and his idea of the erotic. But in contrast to the situation presented in “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin's ability to solve this crime depends equally on his willingness to recognize this fact about himself, to recognize the existence of the beast in and as himself. For consider the behavior of other readers in the story. The depositions published in the newspapers contain some crucial features in common. All of the witnesses who try to identify the criminals are men; all of them agree that they heard two voices; all of them agree that one voice was that of a Frenchman; all of them agree that the other voice belonged to someone of a nationality not their own and someone with whose language they were unfamiliar; some of them think it was a man's voice, some think it was a woman's, but all of them agree that it was not their own voice that they heard in that room. In other words, each testifier is primarily determined to dissociate himself from the crime, to insist on his own innocence by attributing the crime to a “foreigner.” With this as their agenda, these men will, of course, never solve the crime.

Dupin, as the master reader in the story, accords considerable significance to this particular feature of the collective male testimony. Like the women in “A Jury of Her Peers,” Dupin is capable of more than one mode of reading. He understands how men usually read, since he can read them, and he understands the role that denial and projection play in facilitating the pleasure of recognition which is at the heart of the experience of reading. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” then, we have a story that at once dramatizes the intimate connection between “the creative and the resolvent,” the writer and the reader, and also dramatizes the mechanisms for denying such a connection when it would interfere with the pleasure of reading. For “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” facilitates as it exposes the mechanisms of masculinist reading. The “criminal” in the case turns out, after all, to be a real, live, flesh and blood, orangoutang, not a metaphor and not a man, and this revelation clearly collaborates in maintaining the collective male position that they are innocent of such violence against women. The mutilation and death of the victims is random, accidental, and motiveless, and the point of the story is merely to demonstrate the extraordinary analytic intellect of Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. But why, then, are the victims women? And why is the beast male? And why has the sailor wished to keep in his closet a “pet” of such “intractable ferocity” and “imitative propensities”? And why does Dupin choose this particular situation for the demonstration of his analytic powers?

At one point in his “resolution” of the case, Dupin discourses on the “invariably superficial” nature of truth, proclaiming that it will inevitably reside in the most obvious features of any situation. If we take Dupin as Poe's idea of the good reader and follow his direction, we are, I believe, brought back to the issue that I originally raised with my students. The sex assigned to victim and violator is so obvious as to pass almost entirely without comment. Yet to change the sex of either or both parties would produce a completely different story. Here, then, is truth on the mountaintop, not in the valley, the hidden spring which must be there if the story is to work. For Dupin's delight in the exercise of his analytic powers would not provide much pleasure for the reader were it merely demonstrated through the mind-reading sequence with which the story opens. Dupin recognizes the element of “amusement” in the affair—the pleasure of reenacting the crime in the process of resolving it. More obviously, perhaps, the reader of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” under the cover of witnessing the wonders of Dupin's analytic intellect, gets a steady supply of vignettes of violence; the mutilated bodies of the female victims remain center stage, providing the crucial though unremarked source of interest. In this story, of course, the presumed reader is male. Poe gives us a striking picture of him: “A man entered. He was a sailor, evidently—a tall, stout, and muscular-looking person, with a certain daredevil expression of countenance, not altogether unprepossessing. His face, greatly sunburnt, was more than half hidden by whisker and mustachio. He had with him a huge oaken cudgel, but appeared to be otherwise unarmed.” This handsome, rakish, cudgel-carrying sailor, like the reader of the story, gets to watch through the window the violent behavior of his “pet.” Poor beast! His penchant for imitation began quite innocently with shaving, an operation that he has watched his master perform through the keyhole of his closet; it ends with his flourishing the razor as his master flourishes whip and cudgel, the production of terror in another providing him with a master-like pleasure. Seeing his master's face through the window, the beast reverts and tries to remove the evidence of his assumption of the master's role. But he has given his master a good show, as well as a good out.

Though Dupin steadily refers to the “murderers” in the case, he collaborates in the sailor's illusion of innocence. Le Bon is released, but the sailor is not punished. Indeed, he subsequently recovers the beast and obtains for it “a very large sum.” Dupin may sneer at a police force that, when presented with two mutilated corpses, can still end its report wondering “if indeed a murder has been committed at all,” but in his resolution of the affair, no crime has been committed at all. Is it possible, then, that gender provides the hidden spring for the resolvent as well as the creative faculty? Would such a resolution be tolerable to Dupin if the victims were male? In sum, then, though he comprehends the dishonesty of masculinist reading, Dupin chooses to collaborate in it and get his pleasure from it. Should I wonder that my students chose to do the same? For, unlike “A Jury of Her Peers,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is not didactic. As Dupin allows the sailor his illusion of innocence, so Poe allows the reader his. It is easy to miss the role gender plays in the story; Poe has made it so, thereby proving his point that one can only recover from a text what one already brings to it.

In her “Afterword” to the 1973 Feminist Press Edition of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Elaine Hedges claims that until recently “no one seems to have made the connection between the insanity and the sex, or sexual role, of the victim.” Nevertheless, it seems likely, as she also suggests, that the content of the story has provided the reason for its negative reception, outright rejection, and eventual obliteration by a male-dominated literary establishment. Though not, I would argue, as determinedly instructive as “A Jury of Her Peers,” neither, I would equally propose, is “The Yellow Wallpaper” susceptible of a masculinist reading as, for example, is “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” That it has taken a generation of feminist critics to make Gilman's story a “classic” bears out the truth of Glaspell's thesis.

Gilman opens her story with language evocative of Poe: “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.” Here we have echoes of the “scenes of mere household events” which the narrator of “The Black Cat” wishes “to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment.” Poe's ancestral halls serve as image and symbol of the mind of his narrator, and they serve as analogue for the texts men write and read. These halls/texts are haunted by the ghosts of women buried alive within them, hacked to death to produce their effect, killed by and in the service of the necessities of male art: “The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” Die, then, women must so that men may sing. If such self-knowledge ultimately drives Roderick Usher mad, nevertheless as he goes down he takes self and text and sister with him; no other voice is heard, no alternate text remains. No doubt the madness of Poe's narrators reflects that masculine anxiety mentioned earlier, the fear that solipsism, annihilation, nothingness, will be the inevitable result of habitually silencing the other. Yet apparently such anxiety is preferable to the loss of power and control which would accompany giving voice to that other.

Gilman's narrator recognizes that she is in a haunted house, despite the protestations of her John, who is far less up-front than Poe's Roderick. Writing from the point of view of a character trapped in that male text—as if the black cat or Madeline Usher should actually find words and speak—Gilman's narrator shifts the center of attention away from the male mind that has produced the text and directs it instead to the consequences for women's lives of men's control of textuality. For it is precisely at this point that “The Yellow Wallpaper” enters this discussion of the connections between gender and reading. In this text we find the analysis of why who gets to tell the story and what story one is required, allowed, or encouraged to read matter so much, and therefore why in a sexist culture the practice of reading follows the theory proposed by Glaspell. Gilman's story makes clear the connection between male control of textuality and male dominance in other areas, and in it we feel the fact of force behind what is usually passed off as a casual accident of personal preference or justified by invoking “absolute” standards of “universal” value: these are just books I happen to like and I want to share them with you; these are our great texts and you must read them if you want to be literate. As man, husband, and doctor, John controls the narrator's life. That he chooses to make such an issue out of what and how she reads tells us what we need to know about the politics of reading.

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman argues that male control of textuality constitutes one of the primary causes of women's madness in a patriarchal culture. Forced to read men's texts, women are forced to become characters in those texts. And since the stories men tell assert as fact what women know to be fiction, not only do women lose the power that comes from authoring; more significantly, they are forced to deny their own reality and to commit in effect a kind of psychic suicide. For Gilman works out in considerable detail the position implicit in “A Jury of Her Peers”—namely, that in a sexist culture the interests of men and women are antithetical, and, thus, the stories each has to tell are not simply alternate versions of reality, they are, rather, radically incompatible. The two stories cannot coexist; if one is accepted as true, then the other must be false, and vice versa. Thus, the struggle for control of textuality is nothing less than the struggle for control over the definition of reality and hence over the definition of sanity and madness. The nameless narrator of Gilman's story has two choices. She can accept her husband's definition of reality, the prime component of which is the proposition that for her to write her own text is “madness” and for her to read his text is “sanity”; that is, she can agree to become a character in his text, accept his definition of sanity, which is madness for her, and thus commit psychic suicide, killing herself into his text to serve his interests. Or she can refuse to read his text, refuse to become a character in it, and insist on writing her own, behavior for which John will define and treat her as mad. Though Gilman herself was able to choose a third alternative, that of writing “The Yellow Wallpaper,” she implicitly recognizes that her escape from this dilemma is the exception, not the rule. Though the narrator chooses the second alternative, she does as a result go literally mad and, thus, ironically fulfills the script John has written for her. Nevertheless, in the process she manages to expose the fact of John's fiction and the implications of his insistence on asserting his fiction as fact. And she does, however briefly, force him to become a character in her text.

An appropriate title for the story the narrator writes, as distinct from the story Gilman writes, could well be “John Says.” Though the narrator attempts to confide to “dead” paper her alternate view of reality, she is, at least initially, careful to present John's text as well. Thoroughly subject to his control, she writes with the distinct possibility of his discovering her text and consequently escalating her punishment for refusing to accept his text—punishment that includes, among other things, solitary confinement in an attic nursery. She rightly suspects that the treason of a resisting author is more serious than that of a resisting reader; for this reason, in part, she turns the wallpaper into her primary text: what she writes on this paper can not be read by John.

Gilman, however, structures the narrator's reporting of John's text so as to expose its madness. John's definition of sanity requires that his wife neither have nor tell her own story. Presumably the narrator would be released from her prison and even allowed to write again were John sure that she would tell only “true” stories and not “fancies”; “John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.” But, of course, what John labels “fancies” are the narrator's facts: “Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it. Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted? John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage. John is practical in the extreme”; “that spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid, but I don't care—there is something strange about the house—I can feel it.” John's laughter, like that of the husbands in “A Jury of Her Peers,” is designed to undermine the narrator's belief in the validity of her own perceptions and to prevent her from writing them down and thus claiming them as true. Indeed, John is “practical in the extreme.”

Conversely, John's facts appear rather fanciful. In John's story, he “loves” his wife and everything he does is for her benefit: “He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get.” Yet he denies her request for a room on the first floor with access to the air outside, and confines her instead to the attic, where she can neither sleep nor rest. Later, when she asks to have the attic wallpaper changed, he “took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain.” Yet while he may be willing to whitewash the cellar, he won't change the attic because “I don't care to renovate the house for a three months' rental.” For a three months' confinement, though, John has been willing to rearrange the furniture so as to make her prison ugly: “The furniture in this room is no worse than inharmonious, however, for we had to bring it all from downstairs.” Though the narrator is under steady pressure to validate the fiction of John's concern for her—“He is very careful and loving … he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more”—she nevertheless intuits that his “love” is part of her problem: “It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.” And, in fact, her narrative reveals John to be her enemy whose “love” will destroy her.

John's definition of sanity for the narrator, however, includes more than the requirement that she accept his fiction as fact and reject her facts as fancy. In effect, it requires nothing less than that she eliminate from herself the subjectivity capable of generating an alternate reality from his. Thus, “John says that the very worst thing I can do is think about my condition,” and he designs a treatment calculated to pressure the narrator into concluding that herself not him is the enemy, and calculated also to force her to give herself up. She is denied activity, work, conversation, society, even the opportunity to observe the activity of others. She is to receive no stimulus that might lead to the development of subjectivity. Indeed, one might argue that the narrator overinterprets the wallpaper, the one stimulus in her immediate environment, as a reaction against this sensory deprivation. Nor is the narrator allowed access to her feelings: “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. … But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control, so I take pains to control myself.” By “proper self-control,” John means control to the point of eliminating the self that tells a different story from his. If the narrator learns the exercise of this kind of self-control, John need no longer fear her writing.

The more the narrator “rests,” the more exhausted she becomes. Her exhaustion testifies to the energy she devotes to repressing her subjectivity and to the resistance she offers to that effort. In this struggle, “dead” paper provides her with her only vital sign. It constitutes her sole link with her embattled self. Yet because she is imprisoned in John's house and text and because his text has infected her mind, she experiences anxiety, contradiction, and ambivalence in the act of writing. Forced to view her work from the perspective of his text, to see it not as work but “work”—the denigrating quotation marks reflecting John's point of view—she finds it increasingly difficult to put pen to paper. Blocked from expressing herself on paper, she seeks to express herself through paper. Literally, she converts the wallpaper into her text. Initially the narrator identifies the wallpaper with her prison and reads the text as enemy. The wallpaper represents the condition she is not to think about as she is being driven into it. It is ugly, “one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin,” disorderly, confusing, and full of contradictions. In struggling to organize the paper into a coherent text, the narrator establishes her artistic self and maintains her link with subjectivity and sanity. Yet the narrator at some level identifies with the wallpaper, as well. Just as she recognizes that John's definition of madness is her idea of sanity, so she recognizes in the wallpaper elements of her own resisting self. Sprawling, flamboyant, sinful, irritating, provoking, outrageous, unheard of—not only do these adjectives describe a female self intolerable to the patriarchy, they are also code words that reflect the masculinist response to the perception of female subjectivity per se. In identifying with the wallpaper and in seeing herself in it, the narrator lets herself out; increasingly, her behavior becomes flamboyant and outrageous. Getting out through the text of the wallpaper, she not surprisingly gets in to the subtext within the text that presents the story of a woman trying to get out.

Possessed by the need to impose order on the “impertinence” of row after row of unmatched breadths and to retain, thus, a sense of the self as orderly and ordering, and at the same time identifying with the monstrously disruptive self implicit in the broken necks and bulbous eyes, the narrator continues to elaborate and revise her text. Her descriptions of the wallpaper become increasingly detailed and increasingly feminine, reflecting the intuition that her disintegration derives from the “condition” of being female: “Looked at in one way each breadth stands alone, the bloated curves and flourishes—a kind of ‘debased Romanesque’ with delirium tremens—go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity.” Yet the “delirium tremens” of “isolated columns of fatuity” can serve as a metaphor for the patterns conventionally assigned to women's lives and for the “sanity” conventionally prescribed for women. In the “pointless pattern,” the narrator senses the patriarchal point. Thus, the narrator concentrates on her subtext, “a thing nobody seems to notice but myself,” on the pattern behind the pattern, the woman who wants out.

At the end of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” we witness a war between texts. The patriarchal text is a formidable foe; it has an enormous capacity for maintaining itself: “there are always new shoots on the fungus”; and its influence is pervasive: “I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs. It gets into my hair. … I thought seriously of burning the house—to reach the smell.” Its repressive power is equally large: “But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so.” Nevertheless, the narrator is sure that her woman “gets out in the daytime.” And she is prepared to help her: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper.”

Despite the narrator's final claim that she has, like the woman in the paper, “got out at last,” she does not in fact escape the patriarchal text. Her choice of literal madness may be as good as or better than the “sanity” prescribed for her by John, but in going mad she fulfills his script and becomes a character in his text. Still, going mad gives the narrator temporary sanity. It enables her to articulate her perception of reality and, in particular, to cut through the fiction of John's love: “He asked me all sorts of questions, too, and pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn't see through him!” It also enables her to contact her feelings, the heart of the subjectivity that John seeks to eliminate. She no longer needs to project her rage onto the imaginary children who occupied her prison before her, gouging the floor, ripping the paper, gnawing the bedstead, for she is now herself “angry enough to do something desperate.” Angry, she is energized; she has gotten through to and found her work. If the effort to be sane has made her sick, her madness makes her feel “ever so much better.”

This relief, however, is only temporary, for the narrator's solution finally validates John's fiction. In his text, female madness results from work that engages the mind and will; from the recognition and expression of feelings, and particularly of anger; in a word, from the existence of a subjectivity capable of generating a different version of reality from his own. And, indeed, the onset of the narrator's literal madness coincides precisely with her expression of these behaviors. More insidious still, through her madness the narrator does not simply become the character John already imagines her to be as part of his definition of feminine nature; she becomes a version of John himself. Mad, the narrator is manipulative, secretive, dishonest; she learns to lie, obscure, and distort. Further, she masters the art of sinister definition; she claims normalcy for herself, labels John “queer,” and determines that he needs watching. This desire to duplicate John's text but with the roles reversed determines the narrator's choice of an ending. Wishing to drive John mad, she selects a denouement that will reduce him to a woman seized by a hysterical fainting fit. Temporary success, however, exacts an enormous price, for when John recovers from his faint, he will put her in a prison from which there will be no escape. John has now got his story, the story, embedded in a text like Jane Eyre, of the victimized and suffering husband with a mad wife in the attic. John will tell his story, and there will be no alternate text to expose him.

Gilman, however, has exposed John. And in analyzing how men drive women mad through the control of textuality, Gilman has escaped the fate of her narrator and created a text that can help the woman reader to effect a similar escape. The struggle recorded in the text has its analogue in the struggle around and about the text, for nothing less than our sanity and survival is at stake in the issue of what we read.


In conceptualizing this essay, I have been enormously helped by the work of Annette Kolodny, in particular her “A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts” (New Literary History 11 [1980]: 451-67), and of Jean E. Kennard in “Convention Coverage, or How to Read Your Own Life” (New Literary History 8 [1981]: 69-88). In writing, revising, and rewriting, I owe a large debt to the following readers and writers: Judith Barlow, Susan Kress, Margorie Pryse, Joan Schulz, Patsy Schweickart.

Further Reading

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Hill, Mary A. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 362 p., 1980.

Biography of Gilman, with particular focus on the development of her political thought and activities.

Kessler, Carol Farley. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress toward Utopia with Selected Writings. New York: Syracuse University Press, 316 p., 1995.

Biography of Gilman, with particular focus on Utopianism in her thought and writing.

Lane, Ann J. To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Pantheon Books, 413 p., 1990.

Biography of Gilman.


Allen, Polly Wynn. Building Domestic Liberty: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Architectural Feminism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 195 p., 1988.

Critical essays on the themes of gender and domestic space in Gilman's writings.

Beer, Janet. Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Press, 223 p., 1997.

Critical essays comparing the short fictions of three American women authors writing around the turn of the nineteenth-to-twentieth century.

Gaudelius, Yvonne. “Kitchenless Houses and Homes: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Reform of Architectural Space.” In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer, edited by Jill Rudd and Val Gough, pp. 111-26. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Offers an interpretation of “The Yellow Wallpaper” in terms of Gilman's other feminist writings regarding the gender politics implicit in the architectural design of domestic space.

Golden, Catherine J. “One Hundred Years of Reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” edited by Catherine Golden, pp. 1–23. New York: Feminist Press, 1992.

Offers an overview of the publication history of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and a discussion of critical response to the story.

Golden, Catherine J., and Joanna Schneider Zangrando, editors. The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. London: Associated University Presses, 235 p., 2000.

Critical essays by various authors on the life and work of Gilman. Includes essays on “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Gough, Val, and Jill Rudd, editors. A Very Different Story: Studies on the Fiction of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 188 p., 1998.

Collection of critical essays on the life and work of Gilman. Includes essays on “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Hedges, Elaine R. Afterword to The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 1899. Reprint, pp. 37-63. New York: Feminist Press, 1973.

Discusses the biographical, historical, and literary significance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a feminist text.

———. “‘Out at Last?’: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ after Two Decades of Feminist Criticism.” In The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” edited by Catherine Golden, pp. 319-33. New York: Feminist Press, 1992.

Provides an overview of critical response to “The Yellow Wallpaper” that has emerged since its republication by The Feminist Press in 1973, as well as examines this body of criticism as a means of assessing developments in feminist literary criticism over a twenty-year period.

Karpinski, Joanne B., editor. Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 272 p., 1992.

Collection of essays by various authors on the life and work of Gilman. Includes essays on “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Meyering, Sheryl L., editor. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and her Work. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 211 p., 1989.

Collection of essays by various authors on Gilman and her writings. Includes critical essays on “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Rudd, Jill, and Val Gough, editors. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 310 p., 1999.

Collection of critical essays on the life and work of Gilman. Includes essays on “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Tuttle, Jennifer S. “Rewriting the West Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Owen Wister, and the Sexual Politics of Neurasthenia.” In The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Catherine J. Golden and Joanna Schneider Zangrando, pp. 103-21. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.

Discusses “The Yellow Wallpaper” as one of several texts by Gilman that critique patriarchal medical discourse.

Additional coverage of Gilman's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 11; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 106, 150; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 221; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Modern American Women Writers; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 1; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 13; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 9, 37, 117.

Janice Haney-Peritz (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Haney-Peritz, Janice. “Monumental Feminism and Literature's Ancestral House: Another Look at ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work, edited by Sheryl L. Meyering, pp. 95-107. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989.

[In the following essay originally published in 1986, Haney-Peritz asserts that the 1973 Feminist Press edition of “The Yellow Wallpaper” functioned to disrupt and displace the line of male critical response to the story.]

In 1973, the Feminist Press brought forth a single volume edition of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story which had originally appeared in the May 1892 issue of New England Magazine. Since William Dean Howells included Gilman's story in his 1920 collection of Great Modern American Short Stories, it cannot be said that between 1892 and 1973 “The Yellow Wallpaper” was completely ignored. What can be said, however, is that until 1973, the story's feminist thrust had gone unremarked; even Howells, who was well aware not only of Gilman's involvement in the women's movement but also of her preference for writing “with a purpose,” had nothing to say about the provocative feminism of Gilman's text.1 In the introduction to his 1920 collection, Howells notes the story's chilling horror and then falls silent.2

Although brief, Howells's response does place him in a long line of male readers, a line that includes the following: M.D., the anonymous doctor who in an 1892 letter to the Boston Transcript complained about the story's morbidity and called for its censure; Horace Scudder, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly who in a letter to Gilman claimed to have been made so miserable by the story that he had no other choice than to reject it for publication; Walter Stetson, Gilman's first husband who informed her that he found the story utterly ghastly, more horrifying than even Poe's tales of terror;3 John, the physician-husband of the story's narrator who in coming face to face with his mad wife is so astonished that he faints; and last but not least, Milton's Adam, the “first” man, who is represented as being both chilled and horrified by a woman's storytelling:

Thus Eve with Count'nance blithe her story told;

But in her Cheek distemper flushing glow'd.

On th'other side, Adam, soon as he heard

The fatal Trespass done by Eve, amaz'd,

Astonied stood and Blank, while horror chill

Ran through his veins, and all his joints relax'd.4

It is this male line of response that the 1973 edition of “The Yellow Wallpaper” seeks to disrupt and displace, implicitly by affixing to the text the imprint of the Feminist Press and explicitly by appending to the text an afterword in which Elaine Hedges reads the story as a “feminist document,” as “one of the rare pieces of literature we have by a nineteenth-century woman which directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship.”5 So effective has this disruption and displacement been that it is not much of an exaggeration to say that during the last ten years, Gilman's short story has assumed monumental proportions, serving at one and the same time the purposes of a memorial and a boundary marker. As a memorial, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is used to remind contemporary readers of the enduring import of the feminist struggle against patriarchal domination; while as a boundary marker, it is used to demarcate the territory appropriate to a feminist literary criticism.6 Although I am interested in pointing out some of the more troubling implications of a literary criticism in which Gilman's story functions as a feminist monument, before doing so, it is necessary to take another look at “The Yellow Wallpaper” itself.

From beginning to end, “The Yellow Wallpaper” presents itself as the writing of a woman who along with her physician-husband John and her sister-in-law Jennie is spending the summer in what she calls an “ancestral hall,” a home away from home which has been secured in the hope that it will prove beneficial to the narrator's health and well-being. In ten diarylike entries that span her three-month stay in this ancestral hall, the narrator not only recounts her interactions with John and Jennie but also describes in detail the yellow wallpaper that covers the walls of a large upstairs room, a room which at one time seems to have been a nursery and, at another, a gymnasium; this summer, however, it has become the master bedroom, a place where the narrator spends much of her time, drawn in, it seems, by the very yellow wallpaper which so repels her.

However, before her attention becomes focused on the wallpaper, the narrator attempts to grasp her situation by naming the kind of place in which she finds herself as well as the kind of place she would like it to be. In the opening lines of her text, she refers to the place as both a “colonial mansion” and an “hereditary estate”; however, what she would like to believe is that the place is really a “haunted house.”7 According to the narrator, a haunted house would be “the height of romantic felicity,” a place more promising than that which “fate” normally assigns to “mere ordinary people like John and [herself]” (9). Since haunted houses are a peculiarly literary kind of architecture, the narrator's desire for such a place may be associated not only with her desire for writing but also with her interest in the wallpaper; in all cases, what is at issue is the displacement of a colonial inheritance that fate seems to have decreed as her lot.

But even though a haunted house may be desired, the possibility of realizing that desire is seriously in doubt. Not only does John find his wife's desire laughable but in the beginning, the narrator also demurs, afraid that at this point she is demanding too much too soon of either fate or John. As the narrator sees it, the problem is that John scoffs at “talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (9). To John, the narrator's haunted house is nothing; however, so too is her feeling that she is not well. Nevertheless, at the same time that he assures his wife that there is really nothing the matter with her, John also prescribes a regimen which will help her get well: she is not to think about haunted houses or her condition; nor, given her habit of fanciful storymaking, is she to write. Instead, she is to eat well, exercise in moderation, and rest as much as she can in the airy upstairs room, the master bedroom.

Ironically, it is precisely because the narrator is patient enough to follow some of the doctor's orders that she finds it necessary to deal with the yellow wallpaper which covers the walls of the master bedroom. At first glance, that wallpaper appears to be nothing more than an error in taste—“one of those sprawling, flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin” (13); at second glance, however, more troubling possibilities emerge, for as the narrator notes, the wallpaper's pattern “is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke 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” (13, emphasis added). Although commentators have seen in this description of the wallpaper a general representation of “the oppressive structures of the society in which [the narrator] finds herself” (Madwoman, p. 90), the word “pronounced” as well as the phrase “unheard of contradictions” suggest that the specific oppressive structure at issue is discourse. Furthermore, since we have just been treated to an account of John's discourse on his wife's condition, a discourse based on the unspoken and therefore “unheard of contradiction” that somehow she is both well and ill, we may want to be even more specific and say that the oppressive structure at issue is a man's prescriptive discourse about a woman.

However, as it is described by the narrator, the yellow wallpaper also resembles the text we are reading—that is, it resembles the narrator's own writing. In part, this resemblance can be attributed to the fact that the narrator's writing not only recounts John's prescriptive discourse but also relies on the very binary oppositions which structure that discourse—oppositions like sick and well, the real and the fanciful, order and anarchy, self and other, and male and female. Thus, it is not surprising to find that the narrator's reflections produce a text in which one line of thinking after another “suddenly commits suicide—plung[ing] off at outrageous angles, [and] destroy[ing itself] in unheard of contradictions.” For example, although the narrator claims that writing would do her good, she also says that it tires her out (21). Worse yet, at the very moment that she is writing, she expresses a wish that she were well enough to write (16). Such contradictions not only betray the narrator's dependence on the oppressive discursive structure we associate with John but also help us to understand why she jumps from one thing to another, producing paragraphs that are usually no more than a few lines in length. Since a discursive line of reasoning based on binary oppositions like sick and well is bound to “destroy” itself in “unheard-of contradictions,”8 one way the narrator can continue to produce a text that has some pretence to being reasonable is quickly to change the subject, say from her condition to the house or from the wallpaper to John.

If the resemblance between the narrator's writing and John's discourse is disturbing—so much so that it often goes unremarked—it may be because what we want of a woman's writing is something different, a realization of that écriture féminine which figures so significantly in many contemporary attempts to specify what makes a woman's writing distinctive.9 However, if we repress this resemblance, we may forget to pose what Luce Irigaray calls “the first question”: that is, “how can women analyze their own exploitation, inscribe their own demands, within an order prescribed by the masculine?” Having posed this first question, Irigaray suggests that one answer might be for a woman “to play with mimesis,” to deliberately “resubmit herself … to ‘ideas,’ in particular to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by a masculine logic.” Although such miming runs the risk of reproducing a discursive system in which woman as Other is repressed, according to Irigaray, it may also have the uncanny effect of making “‘visible’ … what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language.”10

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator's labor of miming does seem to produce just some such uncanny effect, for not only does her writing expose the “unheard of contradictions” in a man's prescriptive logic but in dealing with those contradictory impasses by jumping from one thing to another, it also makes the reader aware of gaps in that discursive structure. Furthermore, since the narrator occasionally notes what she might have said but didn't, those gaps can also be read as “unheard of contradictions”; that is, they can be read as the places where the narrator might have contradicted John's prescriptions, if only the woman had a voice to do so. Lacking such a voice, the narrator partially recoups her loss in a writing that is punctuated by the “unsaid,” by what remains muted in a discourse which at this point seems to be what matters most.

To the extent that the narrator's writing does indeed display discourse to be what is really the matter, then we cannot presume that the text's “hereditary estate” is built on or out of the bedrock of a real anatomical difference between the sexes. However, if the ancestral hall is not to be considered a real “hereditary estate,” neither is it to be considered a real “colonial mansion,” a place defined by the nondiscursive social relations between masters and slaves. Instead, the ancestral house must be thought of as in and of what Lacan has called the symbolic order, the order of Language.11 By committing herself to a writing about discourse and by focusing her attention on the yellow wallpaper as a discursive structure, the narrator has turned what seemed to be a real hereditary and colonial estate into an uncanny place in which nobody is or can be at home—no matter what s/he might say to the contrary.

If “The Yellow Wallpaper” ended at this point, we might consider it a Poesque text, for as Joseph Riddel has convincingly argued, what Poe introduced into American literature was the theme of “de-constructed architecture,” a them which later American writers obsessively repeat.12 By locating man's ancestral house within the symbolic order, Poe produced a writing that disrupted all nontextual origins which might once have made the house of man seem sufficient to have stood its ground. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” however, does not end at this point—the point of deconstructed architecture—for in the text's crucial third section, the narrator discerns something “like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind [the wallpaper's] pattern” (22) and with this vision, the register of the narrator's reading and writing begins to shift from the symbolic to the imaginary.

The possibility of such a shift was foreshadowed in the text's second movement wherein the narrator counterpointed her description of Jennie as the perfect housekeeper with a remark that the wallpaper had some kind of subpattern—a “formless sort of figure that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design” (18). However, at this point no explicit splitting of the subject occurred, for the narrator still appeared to be both willing and able to comprehend this nascent imaginary figure within the symbolic order. Instead of apprehending the formless figure as a really different body, the narrator merely noted that from one perspective, the paper's design seemed to be composed of “bloated curves and flourishes … [which] go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity” (20).

By the end of the third movement, however, the imaginary does emerge as a distinctly different way of seeing and an explicit splitting of the subject does indeed take place. This crisis of sorts seems to be precipitated by a failure of intercourse; first, there is the narrator's unsuccessful attempt to have a “real earnest reasonable talk” with John; then, there is a prohibition—John's refusal to countenance his wife's proposed visit to Henry and Julia; and finally, there is a breakdown in the master bedroom itself as John reads to his wife until her head tires. The scene is now set for the emergence of something different; as the moonlight creeps into the darkened bedroom, something “like a woman” is seen “creeping about” behind the wallpaper's outer pattern. Although this vision initiates the shift in register from the symbolic to the imaginary, the explicit splitting of the subject only takes place after the awakened John resolutely dismisses his wife's apprehensions by reminding her that as a doctor, he is the one who really knows. From this point on, the narrator sees things otherwise; now the wallpaper's “outside pattern” is perceived to be bars, while its subpattern is perceived to be a woman rather than something “like a woman” (26).

With the emergence of the imaginary over the symbolic, the narrator's writing takes a different tack than that of a Poe text in which a haunted house is revealed to be nothing more nor less mysterious than a house of fiction. Unable to rest secure in the no-place of such a deconstructed architecture, the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” turns a symbolic house into the haunted house she initially feared might be too much to demand of fate. But even though this haunted house may seem to promise “the height of romantic felicity”—that is, the realization of a self—we should not forget that it is located within and constituted by what Lacan calls the Imaginary.13

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the Imaginary is specified not only by its assimilation to a dual relation between, on the one hand, a subject and an image, and, on the other, a subject and an other, but also by the absence or repression of a symbolic mediation between the subject and its doubles. Without mediation, a subject has no access to the symbolic dimension of his or her experience and is therefore driven to establish the imaginary in the real. As a result of this realization, a complicated interplay between the eroticism and aggression characteristic of unmediated dual relations surfaces, as does a childlike transitivism.

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the emergence of the imaginary as well as its assimilation to an unmediated dual relation first produces a clarity of perception and purpose which temporarily obscures the transitivism the story's ending exposes. As the shadow-woman becomes as “plain as can be,” the narrator finds that it is possible to distinguish clearly day from night, sleep from waking, and most importantly, “me” from them. Now the woman who had earlier wondered what one was to do when caught in a contradictory situation (10) knows exactly what she must do: she must free the shadow-woman from the paper-pattern that bars her full self-realization and through identification, bind that woman to herself. However, since this process of identification necessitates the alienation of the subject by and in an image, it engenders not only an implicitly ambivalent relation between the narrator and her imaginary double but also an explicit rivalry between the narrator and John. Perceiving John to be her other, the narrator acts as though she could only win a place for herself at his expense; hence, when she undertakes the realization of her imaginary double, she does so with the express intention of “astonish[ing]” John (34). Apparently, the narrator wants to amaze John as Eve did Adam and as the Medusa did many a man.

If at one level this desire seems aggressive, then at another it appears erotic, for what is involved is a transitivism in which it is unclear exactly who is doing what to whom. Indeed, if it can be said that by becoming another woman, the narrator realizes herself in spite of John, then it can also be said that the self she realizes is not “her” self but a self engendered by John's demands and desires. On the one hand, the narrator seems to have become the child John has always demanded she be, for like a child, she crawls around the perimeter of the master bedroom, bound by an umbilical cord that keeps her firmly in place. On the other hand, however, the narrator's identification with the wallpaper's shadow-woman seems to have turned her into the woman of John's dreams, for not only did the shadow woman first appear while John was sleeping, but the narrator also suspects that when all is said and done, she is what John really desires, the secret he would reveal if he were given the opportunity to do so.

In the final words of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator describes how she must crawl over John's astonished body. Like the transitivism of the narrator's ‘self-realization,’ this closing image displays a conjunction of erotic and aggressive impulses, a conjunction which once again suggests that by identifying herself with the wallpaper's shadow-woman, the narrator has firmly installed herself in the realm of the imaginary, the realm of haunted houses.

Although the text of “The Yellow Wallpaper” ends at this point, the story does not, for it has been repeated by a number of important feminist critics who have seen in “The Yellow Wallpaper” not only an accurate representation of the situation of woman in patriarchal culture but also a model of their own reading and writing practices. While Elaine Hedges can be said to have begun this repetition in her influential afterword to the Feminist Press's edition of the text, it is Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar who turn repetition into monumentalism. In their magisterial work, The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar not only repeat the story but also present it as a paradigm, as “the story that all literary women would tell if they could speak their ‘speechless woe’” (89). According to Gilbert and Gubar, that woe begins when like the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a woman writer senses her “parallel confinements” in patriarchal texts, paternal houses, and maternal bodies (89); and, it ends when like the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the woman writer “escape[s] from her textual/architectual confinement” (91). The way to this end, however, is fraught with difficulty for like the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the woman writer must engage in a revisionary reading of the handwriting on the wall; only then will she discover her double, the other woman whose passion for escape demands recognition. By identifying with this other woman, the writer effects her liberation from disease into health and thereby finds that she has entered a new space, “the open space of [her] own authority” (91).

Although my reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper” makes me doubt that an imaginary revision and identification can indeed free women from either textual or architectural confinement, at this point I am less interested in questioning the specifics of Gilbert and Gubar's interpretation and more interested in pointing out some of the side effects such a monumental reading may have on feminist literary criticism. These side effects are particularly evident in two recently published essays that attempt to delineate the nature and function of contemporary Anglo-American feminist literary criticism.

In her 1980 essay entitled “A Map for Re-Reading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,” Annette Kolodny continues the story of “The Yellow Wallpaper” more or less along the feminist lines set down by Hedges, Gilbert and Gubar. However, since Kolodny is interested in explaining why this feminist story was not recognized as such in its own time, her essay can also help us toward an understanding of what is involved when “The Yellow Wallpaper” is turned into a feminist monument. According to Kolodny, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was unreadable in its own time because neither men nor women readers had access to a tradition or shared context which would have made the “female meaning” of the text clear. Men readers may have been familiar with Poe but Poe would not have prepared them for a woman narrator whose problems are sociocultural rather than idiosyncratic. On the other hand, women readers may have been familiar with domestic fiction but such fiction would not have prepared them for a narrator whose home life is psychologically disturbing. Although Kolodny contends that Gilman uses the breakdown in communication between the narrator and John to prefigure her story's unreadability, she also declares this unreadability to be historically contingent. Nowadays, it seems, we have the wherewithal to read the story “correctly,” for nowadays we have the shared context, if not the tradition we need to identify what she calls the story's “female meaning.”

In an attempt to be more precise about how we know what we now know about female meaning, Jean Kennard takes up the story of “The Yellow Wallpaper” once again in her 1981 essay entitled “Convention Coverage or How to Read Your Own Life.” Linking the feminism of the 1970s and 1980s with a massive reversal of both literary and nonliterary conventions, Kennard claims that a new and explicitly feminist set of interpretive conventions has made it possible to agree on the following ideas: that the oppressive use of power by a male is an instance of patriarchy; that a patriarchal culture's socialization of women makes them ill; that a woman's discomfort in ancestral halls indicates a healthy desire for a room of her own; and that both a revisionary reading of texts and a descent into madness are creditable ways for a woman to find and therefore free herself. Although Kennard shows how all these ideas engender a reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as the story of woman's quest for identity within an oppressive patriarchal culture, what I find particularly valuable about her essay is its explicit linking of a certain kind of feminism, a certain kind of feminist literary criticism, and a certain reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

But what, we might wonder, accounts for this linking? Here too Kennard may be of assistance, for to some extent she realizes that even before new conventions can be used to engender this feminist reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the contemporary critic must recognize and accept the narrator as a double with whom she can identify. However, in so doing, the contemporary critic can be said to repeat the move the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” makes when she discovers and identifies herself with an imaginary woman, the woman behind the wallpaper's pattern. As I see it, this repetition accounts for a number of similarities between the narrator's imaginary mode of conceiving and representing her situation and the seemingly ‘new’ conventions that support a certain kind of modern feminist literary criticism which might also be called imaginary. Like the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” some contemporary feminist critics see in literature a really distinctive body which they seek to liberate through identification. Although this body goes by many names, including the woman's story, female meaning, écriture féminine, and the maternal subtext, it is usually presented as essential to a viable feminist literary criticism and celebrated as something so distinctive that it shakes, if it does not destroy, the very foundations of patriarchal literature's ancestral house.14

However, if it is at all accurate to say that in repeating the story of “The Yellow Wallpaper” this kind of modern feminist criticism displays itself as imaginary, then it seems to me that it behooves us to be more skeptical about what appears to be “the height of romantic felicity.”15 Although inspiring, imaginary feminism is locked into a rivalry with an other, a rivalry that is both erotic and aggressive. As I see it, the transitivism of this dual relation belies not only claims to having identified the woman's story or female meaning but perhaps more importantly, assurances that identification is liberating. Just as we cannot be sure who engenders the shadow-woman of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” neither can we be sure that the story we're reading is the woman's story; indeed, it may be the case that in reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” we are reading the story of John's demands and desires rather than something distinctively female. If so, then the assurance that identification is liberating becomes highly problematic, for it too appears to be an assurance generated and sanctioned by the very ancestral structure that feminists have found so confining.16

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator does not move out into open country; instead, she turns an ancestral hall into a haunted house and then encrypts herself therein as a fantasy figure.17 If we wish to consider the result of this turn to be a feminist monument, then perhaps it would be better to read such a monument as a mememto mori that signifies the death of (a) woman rather than as a memorial that encloses the body essential to a viable feminist literary criticism. Unlike a memorial, a memento mori would provoke sympathy rather than identification and in so doing, would encourage us to apprehend the turn to the imaginary not as a model of liberation but as a sign of what may happen when a possible operation of the feminine in language is repressed.

If such an apprehension seems an uninspiring alternative for those of us committed to feminism, then I suggest that we look to Gilman rather than to the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” for the inspiration we seek. By representing the narrator as in some sense mad, Gilman can be said to have preferred sympathy to identification, a preference which becomes all the more significant once we recall that much of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is based on Gilman's personal experience. However, Gilman did more than sympathize, for as Dolores Hayden has documented, she also involved herself in efforts to change the material conditions of social existence through the construction of kitchenless houses and feminist apartment hotels—new architectural spaces in which alternative social and discursive relations might emerge.18 Although those of us interested in literature may find Gilman's concern for the material conditions of social life a troubling defection,19 it is also quite possible to consider that concern a thoughtful deferral based on a recognition that the prevailing social structure made it idealistic, if not dangerously presumptuous to lay claim to having identified either the woman's story or female meaning. Indeed, it may just be that what Gilman learned in writing and reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” was that as yet, a woman could only imagine that she had found herself, for until the material conditions of social life were radically changed, there would be no ‘real’ way out of mankind's ancestral mansion of many apartments.


  1. When Howells requested permission to include “The Yellow Wallpaper” in his collection, Gilman responded that the story “was no more ‘literature’ than [her] other stuff, being definitely written with a purpose.” See The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1935), p. 121. For evidence of Howells' familiarity with Gilman's interest in the ‘woman question,’ see p. 113.

  2. William Dean Howells, ed., The Great Modern American Stories (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1920), p. vii.

  3. For the letters by M. D. and Horace Scudder, see The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, cited above, pp. 119-20. For Gilman's account of Walter Stetson's response, see Mary A. Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist 1860-1896 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), p. 186.

  4. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Merrit Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1962), p. 226. To my knowledge, no critic has yet noted in print the connection between Paradise Lost and the ending of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” That connection rests not only on John's response to his “mad” wife but also on the narrator's statement to John that the “key” to the room is to be found in the garden under a “plantain leaf.” In Paradise Lost, Eve tells Adam that she first “espi'd” him, “fair indeed and tall / Under a Plantan” (Book IV, 11.447-8). Although a plantain leaf is not exactly the same as a Plantan or plane tree, there is a sound resemblance between the two words as well as an etymological connection by way of plátano, plátano, the Spanish words for plane tree. Since I am interested in other matters, I do not deal at length with the connection between “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Paradise Lost; nevertheless, I trust that the reader will keep the connection in mind, for it does have a bearing on both my interpretation of the story and my response to critics who read the story as a feminist monument.

  5. Elaine R. Hedges, “Afterword” to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper (Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press, 1973), p. 39.

  6. Although much of this monumentalizing occurs within classes devoted to women's studies or women's literature, at least three influential publications treat the story as both a memorial and a boundary marker: Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 89-92; Annette Kolodny, “A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,” NLH 11 (1980). 451-67; and Jean Kennard, “Convention Coverage or How to Read Your Own Life,” NLH 13 (1981), 69-88. Hereafter, Gilbert and Gubar's book will be cited as Madwoman.

  7. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press, 1973), p. 9. Subsequent references to “The Yellow Wallpaper” will be to this edition.

  8. For a more theoretical explanation of why and how a discourse based on binary oppositions is bound to destroy itself in unheard of contradictions, see the work of Jacques Derrida, especially Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

  9. The term écriture féminine names the desired or hypothetical specificity of woman's writing; as a concept, it underwrites the work of certain French feminists, most importantly Helene Cixous's “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith and Paula Cohen, Signs, 1 (1976), 875-93, and Luce Irigaray's Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un (Paris: Minuit, 1977). Irigaray's text has been translated by Catherine Porter as This Sex Which Is Not One (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985). In both France and America, the concept of écriture féminine has occasioned much debate; for a French questioning of the appeal to écriture féminine, see “Variations sur des themes communs” in Questions feministes 1 (1977), translated by Yvonne Rochette-Ozzello as “Variations on Common Themes” in New French Feminisms, pp. 212-30; for Anglo-American responses to the postulate of écriture féminine, see the following: Ann Rosalind Jones, “Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of L'Ecriture Feminine,” Feminist Studies 7 (1981), pp. 247-63; Helene Vivienne Wenzel, “The Text as Body/Politics: An Appreciation of Monique Wittig's Writings in Context,” Feminist Studies 7 (1981), pp. 264-87; Carolyn Burke, “Irigaray Through the Looking Glass,” Feminist Studies 7 (1981), pp. 288-306; Elaine Showalter, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 9-35; Mary Jacobus, “The Question of Language: Men of Maxims and The Mill on the Floss,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, pp. 37-52; and Hester Eisenstein and Alice Jardine, eds., The Future of Difference (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1980). As this essay indicates, I am both sympathetic to the utopian political impulse that underwrites appeals to écriture féminine and wary of various and sundry claims to having produced or identified a demonstrably feminine writing. Like Mary Jacobus, I think such claims too often “founder on the rock of essentialism (the text as body) [or] gesture towards an avant-garde practice which turns out not to be specific to women.” See Jacobus's essay cited above, p. 37.

  10. Luce Irigaray, “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine” in This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter, p. 81 and p. 76, respectively.

  11. Although the significance of the Symbolic order is best apprehended in terms of its relationship to what Lacan calls the Imaginary and the Real, it is possible to describe the Symbolic as if it were a determinate space in which the relations between subject and sign as well as subject and other are mediated by the law of the signifier or the structure of Language. This triadic relation in which the subject is alienated in and by the symbolic mediations of language rests on a necessary separation of the paternal role from the biological father, a separation effected by the subject's awakening not only to the “Name-of-the-Father” but also to the general naming function of language. It is this separation which allows me to claim that discourse is a structure in which nobody is or can be at-home; by (dis)placing the subject in a chain of signifiers, the symbolic institutes a double disruption between on the one hand, biological need and articulate demand and on the other, articulate demand and unconscious desire. For a more detailed exposition of the Symbolic order, see the following texts: Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self, trans. Anthony Wilden (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1968); Jacques Lacan Ecrits (Paris: Editions du Sueil, 1966); Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982); Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978); Anika Lemaire, Jacques Lacan, trans. David Macey (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977); Samuel Ysseling, “Structuralism and Psychoanalysis in the Work of Jacques Lacan,” International Philosophical Quarterly 10 (1970), pp. 102-17; Martin Thom, “The Unconscious Structured Like a Language” in Economy and Society 5 (1976), pp. 435-69; Frederic Jameson, “Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan: Marxism, Psychoanalytic Criticism, and the Problem of the Subject,” YFS 55-56 (1977), pp. 338-95; Richard Wolheim, “The Cabinet of Dr. Lacan,” NYRB 25 (January, 1979), pp. 36-45; Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (New York: Random House, 1975), pp. 382-98; Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 1-55; and Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, eds., Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne, trans. Jacqueline Rose (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982).

  12. Joseph Riddel, “The Crypt of Edgar Poe” Boundary 2, 7 (1979), pp. 117-44; the reference to ‘de-constructed architecture’ appears on p. 125.

  13. Although the significance of the Imaginary is best apprehended in terms of its relationship to what Lacan calls the Symbolic and the Real, it is possible to describe the Imaginary as if it were a specific kind of psychic space wherein bodies or forms are related to one another by means of such basic oppositions as inside-outside and container/contained. Developmentally speaking, the Imaginary originates in what Lacan calls the “mirror stage,” that period between six and eighteen months during which the infant becomes aware of its image in the mirror, thereby fixing the self in a line of fiction, a line of imaginary doubles. Although this doubling is the precondition of primary narcissism, it is also the source of human aggression, for in both cases there is a transitivistic substitution of images, an indifferentiation of subject and object which leads the child who hits to image that s/he is being hit. For more on the Imaginary, see the works cited in note 11.

  14. For the appeal to “the woman's story,” see Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman; for the appeal to “female meaning,” see not only Annette Kolodny's “A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts” but also her more controversial essay, “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism,” Feminist Studies 6 (1980), pp. 1-25; for the appeal to écriture féminine as a body, see Helene Cixous's “The Laugh of the Medusa;” for the appeal to a maternal subtext, see Judith Kegan Gardiner's “On Female Identity and Writing by Women,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 177-91. In “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Elaine Showalter distinguishes between feminist critics who appeal to the difference of the woman's body and feminist critics who appeal to the difference of a woman's language, psychology, or culture; in practice, however, much feminist criticism belies the theoretical distinction Showalter makes, for the identification of a woman's language, psychology, or culture is often presented as though it were the discovery of a distinctly feminine body, even though that body may now be defined structurally rather than biologically.

  15. Since the imaginary is associated with pre-oedipal relations with the mother, the thrust of Lacanian psychoanalysis is to value the symbolic over the imaginary. Like many other feminists, I do not accept wholeheartedly this value judgment; however, I also do not believe that a simple reversal wherein the imaginary is valued over the symbolic suffices. Thus, I ask for skepticism rather than either denigration or celebration of the imaginary. For a more detailed exploration of the claims of the imaginary and the symbolic as well as an account of Julia Kristeva's attempt to effect a semiotic displacement of the Lacanian Imaginary, see Jane Gallop's The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis.

  16. Although “identity” is often considered to be one of the key benefits of the women's liberation movement, it seems to me that the relationship between identity and liberation is much more problematic than we sometimes care to admit. To the extent that identity means being at-one with oneself, then it necessitates the repression of a difference within, a repression which Jacques Derrida sees as characteristic of the phallologocentric discourse of the West. However, even though I am not willing to equate identity with liberation, neither am I willing to claim that it is either possible or desirable to forgo identity; again, I ask only for a more skeptical approach to the issue of identity, an approach that refuses to accept wholeheartedly the notion that identity is liberating.

  17. For a meditation on crypts and encrypting, especially as they relate to the psychoanalytic processes of introjection and incorporation, see Jacques Derrida's “Fors,” trans. Barbara Johnson in The Georgia Review 31 (1977), pp. 64-116.

  18. Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981), pp. 182-277.

  19. Some such discomfort may account for Gilbert and Gubar's defensive insistence that “we can be sure that Gilman … knew that the cure for female despair must be spiritual as well as physical, aesthetic as well as social” (Madwoman, p. 92).

Linda Wagner-Martin (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Gilman's ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Centenary.” In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work, edited by Sheryl L. Meyering, pp. 51-64. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Wagner-Martin discusses the themes of motherhood and self-identity in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” asserting that the story is “a splendid example of gender-based narrative.”]

A friend is dead.

We cannot discount pain but the least bearable pain is the husband's cry of anger: You cannot die. I need you. The children need you. Your duty is to us.

The answer to that is silence.

Written by the author for a friend who died at the age of 39.

It seems no accident that important recent novels have been Toni Morrison's Beloved, about the power of a sacrificed child over her mourning mother's life, and Marilyn French's Her Mother's Daughter, a major fiction about four generations of women, linked together in their martyred and futile lives through the mother-daughter bond. For at least these hundred years, since Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote her controversial and relentlessly accurate “The Yellow Wallpaper,” women writers have confronted the basic conflicts of women's lives: how to be both a person and a wife and mother; how to live with acceptable passivity in a patriarchal culture while yet being aggressive enough to stay alive; and how to be both “good” and sensual, supportive and necessarily selfish, and, above all, sane.

Of these many conflicts inherent in women's trying to lead acceptable female lives, perhaps the most troublesome is that of motherhood, its attendant responsibilities, and its almost inevitable loss of self-identity. Women who care for infants are almost literally used up in the process, the twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance subsuming their own mental and physical activities. No other human situation demands the same level of inexorable attention. Yet of the many controversies about women's roles, that of motherhood—and, as Dorothy Dinnerstein emphasized, the care-giving during childhood as much as the actual birthing—has seldom been discussed. It is almost as if the role of mother is beyond discussion, beyond change: if one is a mother, one accepts its burdens with its joys, and does not in any way try to tailor its numerous givens.1

Recent studies have begun to question some of these assumptions. Marilyn Yalom in her important Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness questions “the extent to which maternity, as option or experience, serves as a catalyst for mental breakdown.”2 She discusses women's fear of childbirth, the guilt of not having children opposing the satisfaction (or, at times, dissatisfaction) with bearing a child, and other dimensions of women's psychology as it is affected by motherhood; and concludes, “The relationship between parenthood and madness seems to have no parallel in the lives of men.”3 Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born, Motherhood as Experience and Institution confronts many of the same issues, using a more subjective model. That book opens with one of Rich's journal entries. “My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance.”4 The point, obviously, is that society expects women to be fulfilled through motherhood, and that women who question their roles as mothers, who complain or are angry about those roles, are suspect if not beyond human comprehension.5

A corollary to this attitude is the anger that greets the death of any woman who dies when her children are small. The case of Sylvia Plath's suicide—which was met with horror, largely because she had two children (one a year old, one nearly three), not because she was a promising young writer herself—is legendary, but it is equally clear that an almost automatic anger exists when any young mother dies of natural causes. People seem as likely to feel anger as sorrow, as if the mother—by dying—has purposely denied her responsibility for rearing her children.6

This tendency to judge, and often to condemn, women in their roles as mothers, is one reason Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” remains moving and powerful even a hundred years after it was written. In its deft portrayal of women's roles, it attacks directly the most inimical stereotypes about wives and mothers—and, conversely, about husbands and fathers.

When Gilman wrote the short novella, she—married and a mother—had recently recovered from the trauma of a severe postpartum depression. And she had managed that recovery by defying the advice of one of the most respected of American physicians, S. Weir Mitchell. Mitchell was the physician of Jane Addams, Edith Wharton, and Winifred Howells, among other women who suffered from inexplicable Victorian “female” ailments such as hysteria and neurasthenia. Mitchell's treatment was a rest cure which depended upon seclusion, massage, electricity, immobility, and overfeeding. Isolated for up to six weeks, some women gained as much as fifty pounds on a milk-based diet. As a parallel to the rest and diet, most patients were forbidden to use their minds in any way. Gilman recalled in her autobiography that, because her “cure” added the almost constant presence of her infant daughter, Katharine, she “made a rag baby, hung it on a doorknob and played with it. I would crawl into remote closets and under beds—to hide from the grinding pressure of that profound distress.”7

Closed out and away from any life other than that of feeding and sustaining their own bodies and those of their children, Mitchell's patients lost much sense of themselves as people. Two years later, Gilman left her husband, believing that she could not endure the role of wife. Several more years later, she sent Katharine to him and his new wife, Grace Channing, her own closest friend. Ann J. Lane recounts that when Charlotte sent Katharine back to her father—at least partly because she was lecturing and traveling a great deal in connection with woman suffrage and trade union issues, she was “promptly condemned by the press for ‘abandoning’ her child and being ‘an unnatural mother.’” She had already affronted public opinion by divorcing a man for no apparent cause and, even more, by continuing a warm friendship with his new wife. However, placing her career above her responsibilities as a mother proved unforgivable, especially to a world that had locked women securely in their place—at home.”8

The story as Gilman tells it in The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the autobiography published just after her death in 1935, is much more agonizing. Once she had taken Katharine and her mother to California to make a home, after separating from Stetson, she lived a weary existence, taking in sick boarders to make a living. “‘It appears that I am sicker than I thought.’ ‘I am very weak.’ ‘Gave out in the morning. Sick—sicker. …’” “I did all the housework and nursed mother [who had cancer] till I broke down; then I hired a cook and did the nursing till I broke down; then I hired a nurse and did the cooking till I broke down. Dr. Kellog Lane said I must send mother to a hospital. This I could not bear to do. ‘If you say definitely as a physician that I shall die, or go crazy,’ I told her, ‘I'll do as you say. But if I can possibly stand it I want to go on, I do not wish to have it said that I have failed in every relation in life.’”9 Her omnipresent guilt at leaving her husband (even though, as her memoir also tells, poignantly, when she was with him, even before their child was born, “A sort of gray fog drifted across my mind, a cloud that grew and darkened”)10 colored all her interactions with people. She surely had done as much as any daughter could have done for her mother, who died at home in Gilman's care in 1893.

Gilman's love for her daughter Katharine shines through her autobiography. “We had happy years together, nine of them, the last four she was mine alone,” she writes. Yet when the press censured her for sending Katharine to live with Stetson and Grace, Gilman was puzzled. “No one suffered from it but myself. … There were years, years, when I could never see a mother and child together without crying. … This, however, was entirely overlooked in the furious condemnation which followed. I had ‘given up my child.’ … To hear what was said and read what was printed one would think I had handed over a baby in a basket. In the years that followed she [Katharine] divided her time fairly equally between us, but in companionship with her beloved father she grew up to be the artist that she is, with advantages I could never have given her. I lived without her, temporarily, but why did they think I liked it? She was all I had.”11

Gilman's autobiography makes clear her years of poverty and debt, her loneliness, and her arduous life. No wonder “The Yellow Wallpaper” portrays a spent woman so accurately. But it is not so much the truth of Gilman's presentation as the immediacy of her theme that attracts today's readers. “The Yellow Wallpaper” gives us the young married woman as mother.

In the narrative, the protagonist's baby appears infrequently, but at crucial times; his existence is clearly a key to his mother's problems. Gilman underscores the identity of the protagonist as wife-mother (a bewildered wife-mother, who sometimes becomes a child) by placing her in a room that was formerly a nursery—a nursery, however, with barred windows so that she cannot escape. The conflation of the roles of child and mother occurs as the narrator keeps her focus entirely on the enclosing walls of the sinister room. An infant would not be able to leave its nursery; neither is the mother (though Gilman makes clear that the protagonist does sometimes leave the house and walks in the garden or sits downstairs). For the purposes of our involvement with this narrative, however, the story's location is the nursery. And just as an infant would spend hours staring at walls and ceilings, kept in one place at the mercy of whatever authority was responsible for its care, so too does the protagonist. An infant would also have difficulty finding language to express its feelings. With a brilliance rare in nineteenth-century fiction, Gilman gives her suffering protagonist a restricted language that conveys her childlike frustration, even though it is not obviously childlike. For its effect, the protagonist's language works in tandem with the narrative's structure.

The narrative opens with the house which has been rented for the summer described an “ancestral hall.”12 The reader quickly thinks of the family line, with women the means of creating the children. Some baronial estate, some ancestor's place, all attention focused on the children of the family—implicitly the reader knows the true “place” and role of the unnamed protagonist. (Because she is never named, Gilman forces the reader to describe her as wife and, later, as mother, because the prominent characters in the story are John—who is named repeatedly, emphatically—and their child. Three of the paragraphs from the first page open with the husband's name, “John,” and describe him in the act of either laughing at her, losing patience with her, or identifying himself as a physician, a tactic he chooses frequently to end arguments with his wife.)

In contrast to John's being named directly and often, the protagonist/writer refers to herself as “one.” In the impersonal form (only later does she use I), she distances herself from the issues. She also creates a kind of prose poem on the second page of the text, which opens with the question “And what can one do?”and closes with the refrain, “But what is one to do?” Between these lines, Gilman writes a five-paragraph paradigm of the inequality possible between husbands and wives. The paradigm opens with the longest paragraph, stressing that John is a physician and using the pronoun one so often the reader nearly loses the sense of the passage: “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?” Charged modifiers (high, really, temporary, and slight) undermine whatever complaint the depressed wife has, and by keeping the tone so impersonal, the narrator hides her anger and bewilderment.

The second paragraph links John with the protagonist's brother, another physician (“also of high standing”) who agrees with John's diagnosis. The third has the protagonist using the wrong word for her medication, as if she is unable to understand medical terms, being female. But in the fourth and fifth segments, she speaks in the I persona for the first time—but in a heavily defensive construction:

Personally, I disagreed with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.13

The force of these aggressive, sharp comments—the only arguments which are phrased directly in the novella—is undercut immediately as the reader comes to the closing refrain of the segment, “But what is one to do?” In giving up her authority, in trading her I for the one, the protagonist drops back into the posture of helplessness which her culture has helped her view as more acceptable than argumentation.

Admitting her frustration, the protagonist then begins to talk about the house. In fact, she calls the reader's attention to the strategy of talking “about the house” instead of about her anger. With this linguistic cue, the reader comes to see that whenever the protagonist makes a point of describing anything (description is rare in the story, except when the wallpaper begins to take over her consciousness), she is probably attempting—obliquely—to describe herself. In this passage, the house is beautiful as we assume she is or has been, but it is “quite alone … quite three miles from the village.” The repetition of quite intensifies the distance between this location and that of other people, people who might help her. The rest of her description is of separation devices—walls, hedges, and gates that lock. These images of separation create the aura of emptiness that shadows the property, its greenhouses broken, its family gone through controversy and lawsuits.

Gilman repeats this pattern in later sections of the narrative: the protagonist uses details to describe some place or object, but the description also conveys the emotional tone of the narrative. This is most obvious when she describes the garden (with its imagery of rot and waste), the labyrinth of the wallpaper (which becomes the labyrinth of her life), and the wallpaper when it reflects her impression of herself as somehow sinning, dull, irritating, repellent, unclean, and suicidal. This powerful section of the text ends with the first admission of harsh feeling—hatred—she has allowed: “No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long / There comes John, and I must put this away,—he hates to have me write a word.”14 The juxtaposition of the hated room with John's appearance (John as responsible for her being kept in that particular room, as well as John responsible for her not being allowed to write) confirms her designating him her jailer, in several ways.

This section of suicidal thoughts and admitted hatred closes the first segment of the text. When the protagonist resumes her secret journal, two weeks have passed. The tone of the second section has changed: she has moved from anger to guilt. Early in this segment, the reader is told about the “dear baby,” that the protagonist “cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous.” The indefinite him suggests that she also cannot be with John (who is never nervous), who continues to laugh at her fears and her ailments. He has also begun to stay away overnight, claiming he must care for his “serious” cases. He has told her repeatedly that hers is not a serious case and Gilman suggests that she believes his words: his language tends to replace hers in the text from this point on.

The emphasis in this section is on the protagonist's guilt at not being able to do her “duty” as wife and mother. “I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!” The use of already suggests that her view is that women eventually become only burdens to their husbands, but that at first they are meant to play a supportive role. Elaine Showalter describes the high rate of increase in female insanity during the Victorian period as “one of history's self-fulfilling prophecies. In a society that not only perceived women as childlike, irrational, and sexually unstable but also rendered them legally powerless and economically marginal, it is not surprising that they should have formed the greater part of the residual categories of deviance from which doctors drew a lucrative practice and the asylum much of their population. Moreover, the medical belief that the instability of the female nervous and reproductive systems made women more vulnerable to derangement than men had extensive consequences for social policy. It was used as a reason to keep women out of the professions, to deny them political rights, and to keep them under male control in the family and the state. Thus medical and political policies were mutually reinforcing.”15 Gilman's protagonist acts out this scenario: she laments her failures, and couples them with the fact that she is by nature a “story-maker.” Using the term in derogation rather than pride, she links that skill with whimsical thinking and fantasizing. One continuing struggle between John and his wife is his forcing her to think in a different way, to become “rational,” to know with the same surety and dogmatism that her husband does. Anything other than this assertive knowledge is feminine whim, and is totally objectionable.

To show the metamorphosis of the wife into John's child, Gilman makes her more and more childlike. John calls her “a blessed little goose” as he hugs her, “takes all care from her,” and laughs at her fears. She, accordingly and in response, remembers being afraid as a child in a dark room, identifying with a chair that seemed to be a “strong friend.” She has this same response to the nursery bedroom, picking out friendly objects and fantasizing about them. A few days later, she writes that she is “fretful.” She cries “at nothing”; she cries all the time. She cannot stand to be alone, yet she is alone much of the time. She takes cod liver oil and tonics, and when her depression seems unbearable, she “takes naps.” A climactic scene in this second section of the narrative is John's carrying her to bed and reading to her, a scene Annette Kolodny and Judith Fetterley interpret as his assuming her language, stripping her of even that.16

The dishonest rhetoric of the comforting husband displays itself at this, the midpoint of the text. John says to reassure her “that I was his darling and his comfort and all he had, and that I must take care of myself for his sake.”17 The complete falsity of these comments (all he had, this highly regarded physician?) and his admonition to get well for his sake combine to emphasize the control he exerts, or tries to exert, over her. Even though she is told to do these things because she is his, rather than because she is herself, at the next moment he abandons her. The next paragraph states, “He says no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me.” Since hers are only “silly” fancies, and since her illness is not serious at all, why must she be concerned with her condition—especially since he seems to care nothing for her health? (It is only for her use to him that she should recover.)

A three-paragraph meditation on the baby follows, as if to answer his admonition. Surely, the baby needs her as much as he does, yet he does not even mention the child. Her thoughts about the baby are selfless. She is glad the infant is not living in the “atrocious nursery”: that is one benefit of her having the room. But then she refers to the baby as “a child of mine, an impressionable little thing.”18 Her wording claims the child, but also stresses its inferiority in its resemblance to herself: as impressionable, rather than rational, like its mother; as little, a female trait; and as inanimate as a thing.

Immediately following this identification, John calls the protagonist “little girl” and scolds her for walking in her bare feet during the night. (He discounts her insomnia as a symptom of her condition.) He insists that she is recovering, and when she argues with him—giving him facts—he hugs her rather than responding to what she has said. He answers her with meaningless rhetoric: “Bless her little heart! … she shall be as sick as she pleases! But now let's improve the shining hours by going to sleep, and talk about it in the morning!” There is no question that her illness is her creation, one more product of her willful imagination. She tries again to argue with him, only to receive the argument that he and their child need her; therefore, she must get well. “My darling … I beg of you, for my sake and for our child's sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea [that she is mad] enter your mind! There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?”19

Gilman chose to let the narrative's structure answer him in the negative. From this scene on, the protagonist hides her real feelings, pretends to get better, and moves into hallucinations of the bilious wallpaper and its trapped women. She has tried to reason with the authority figure—husband/physician—who guards and minimalizes her life, but her words have no effect. She has before her the example of his sister, a woman content to be a perfect housekeeper and nothing else. She knows all too well that the qualities of creativity that she values are deprecated constantly by the learned physician. Without any positive response, Gilman's frustrated protagonist becomes mad.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” also shows clearly that without any way to use her own language, the protagonist adopts John's conception of what is appropriate for her to say. Once he has closed off her writing, so that she feels guilty for attempting to record her thoughts (in her own words), she speaks in a different language pattern—and she stops writing altogether. When she does try to talk with him, it is in monosyllables, plaintively, as if she were a child: “And you won't go away?” she asks the often-absent man. His all-too-practical answer, particularly heartless for the woman who fears being alone, is “It is only three weeks more and then we will take a nice trip of a few days.” Juxtaposing three (long) weeks with a few days shows his insensitivity to her real concerns.

Once she has left John's province of control—real life—and escaped into the madness of her yellow wallpaper world, her comments are much more direct: “I thought seriously of burning the house,” “It does not do to trust people too much.” She is still caught in her role of “lady” of the manor and physician's wife, but she can find language to express her sense of contradiction: “I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try. / Besides I wouldn't do it. Of course not. I know well enough that a step like that is improper and might be misconstrued. …”20

Gilman's protagonist may have found a more compatible world in her fantasy, but she still worries about her role as wife and mother. As the narrative ends—with her life as much in her own control as it has ever been—she is worried about wandering in this labyrinth, about physically losing her way. She is never to be the self-reliant, capable helpmeet of John's dreams.

And that is one of Gilman's points, that a woman reared to be a child, treated like a child by her husband (and, one supposes, a father) will respond in kind. No woman expects to be literally put to bed, or removed from all responsibility. Gilman's prose tells of the greatest indignity: the mother of the child becomes the child, the “little girl” of the household (though the mention of the double bed and the husband's presence at night suggests that a sexual role still dominates the relationship). And what is the role of the young daughter in a patriarchal household? To be Daddy's favorite. This is the anger that Sylvia Plath's poem “Daddy” bares—the rage that, once having been brought up to trust the father figure, in whatever guise it appears, then being abandoned by it, being misled by it, being misused by it is insufferable. Gilman's young unnamed wife thus shares in two kinds of anger: that at having her rightful responsibilities taken from her, and that at being misled and miscounseled by the father figures (husband as well as brother) in her life.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” shows what a frustrated woman does with anger. Repression cannot be healthful, and as the protagonist grows more and more quiet, she is becoming more and more mad. Her world has become the world of seething self-enclosure, sparked only by bright, jolting colors and the miasma of rotting odor. In the 1880s, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg points out, a woman would probably have repressed her anger instead of showing it. If she had showed it, she might have been thought insane and institutionalized, a process which would probably have led only to deeper insanity. The ideal female would become the peaceful “good” girl, who does not cause trouble, does not want attention or help, but is content to wreak havoc in her own way—usually a silent, surreptitious, and vicious way.21 Gilman's protagonist does just that. The defiance she comes to feel has finally been shed in favor of outright rebellion, yet what would have been more obvious rebellion (harming the baby or John, running away, destroying things important to the household instead of just the horrible wallpaper) does not occur. Instead, the well-behaved woman protagonist (the “good” girl even in her madness) stays within the room, although she has a house key and could easily leave, joining the imaginary women who creep through the wallpaper. (The whole tribe of rebelling women are moving as if they were infants just learning to crawl.) The pathos of the characteristically docile protagonist finally coming to rage, and action, but venting her anger in such a tentative and hidden way underscores Gilman's irony. Even coming to anger does not mean change or improvement. It certainly does not mean victory for the protagonist of this novella. Her escape into madness may have won her continuing argument with John, though he will not recognize that it has done that, but it is only a Pyrrhic victory because her present life is valueless to anyone, particularly to herself.

The larger question, once the literary merits of Gilman's text have been proved, is what significance does this trapped protagonist have for today's readers? What does it mean to write about a woman caught within these circles of male authority (and cultural reification of that authority), trapped within a sickening room and made, in effect, to lose her mind because of the disgust she feels for not only her culture and the roles it mandates for women, but for herself as a sexual, procreative woman? What is the mode of literature that results from such deep anger, such unrelieved depression, that the text itself is unrelieved, pointed inevitably toward an ending that only repeats—relentlessly—the text's theme?

In Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper,” subtext becomes text, repressed discourse becomes visible. Gilman explained that in writing this novella, she had not intended “to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy.”22 Her didactic purpose, her intentional theme, was in some ways subverted by her own artistry. Unlike many of her shorter stories, “The Yellow Wallpaper” convinces less by its explicit content than by its metaphoric impression. As captured by the confines of the attic room as the protagonist is, the reader plots and charts, reads and worries as the story progresses. It is the Modernists' ideal of involving the reader to the fullest possible extent. In current narratological terms, according to Fetterley, the movement of the end of the story is precise and highly directional; the reader goes where Gilman takes him or her. “Increasingly, her behavior becomes flamboyant and outrageous. Getting out through the text of the wallpaper, she not surprisingly gets in to the subtext within the text that presents the story of a woman trying to get out.”23 She wins back her language, and vanquishes her husband—who has neither speech nor action by the end of the story. He lies as if dead in the path of her highly functional movement, and she simply crawls over him. The wallpaper has replaced the writing paper that he would have taken from her, and she has in some ways won back her right to speech and control.

By choosing to tell the protagonist's story from her perspective, complete with her changing psyche as she moves steadily into her madness, Gilman reverses the traditional plot of having an observer act as the narrator for the journey to insanity. In this choice, she has accomplished what Rachel Blau DuPlessis might call telling “the untold story, the other side of a well-known tale.”24 To handle this narration in such a superbly ironic manner, with the protagonist's language first contradicting and then reifying that of her physician-husband, adds yet another valence to the complexity of such “telling.” Even though the story ends with the protagonist's madness, it also suggests some ambivalence in the fact that—temporarily at least—her husband is silenced. He is no longer an obstacle to her doing what she intends, though she cannot behave with any constructive possibility at the present.

Perhaps setting the novella within the single restrictive room is also a kind of irony. Though it would be thirty years later that Virginia Woolf would write about the necessity for “a room of one's own,” in “The Yellow Wallpaper” Gilman presents the perils of unsympathetic isolation. The protagonist has all too much of a room of her own, but she is isolated within it, and made to think that any artistic or intellectual activity is worthless. Rather than nurturing her efforts, the room suffocates them.

The contrary movement of the story, toward freedom from that oppression, does dominate the second half of Gilman's narrative, but it too takes the protagonist into only a false freedom. The woman is never “free”: she does not dance or skip or fly, common images for the state of freedom. She only creeps, a derogation of the more positive word crawls, which is not in itself a very positive movement. Gilman's reliance on the word creeps almost silently reinforces the protagonist's role as mother. Just at the time when a mother would be eagerly charting her infant's progress by observing his physical skills, Gilman's protagonist is entirely removed from the charge of her child. Yet in her skewed vision, she asks for herself—and her trapped sisters behind the wallpaper—this stage of minimal physical prowess, to be able to creep. The ironic pathos of her “achievement” is intensified when the reader realizes that creeping is an accomplishment that most infants acquire naturally, and by themselves. It is only the first stage of a child's movement toward desires. Through her three-month incarceration in the nursery, a setting that customarily aids development, this adult woman has not “grown.” She has regressed to a state where creeping is the height of her power.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” throughout is a splendid example of a gender-based narrative. Readers, especially male readers, may not see the importance of the word creep, or of the nursery with barred windows, or of the woman's speaking in a childlike language. The text may suffer because its full comprehension depends on the reader's understanding its codes, codes of language as well as codes of society and custom and world view. As Annette Kolodny has said so well, readers must come to a text with experience in both the literary traditions being used by the author and the real-life experiential contexts of the work: “as every good novelist knows, the meaning of any character's action or statement is inescapably a function of the specific situation in which it is embedded.” Kolodny quotes Virginia Woolf as she comments that women writers might well alter established values in order to make serious what a male reader might think insignificant and then summarizes,

Males ignorant of women's “values” or conceptions of the world will necessarily, thereby, be poor readers of works that in any sense recapitulate their codes.

The problem is further exacerbated when the language of the literary text is largely dependent upon figuration … figurative use can be inaccessible to all but those who share information about one another's knowledge, beliefs, intentions, and attitudes.25

Part of the difficulty with Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” is that it is an elliptical, highly figurative narrative. Rather than being simple and direct, it is poem-like in its indirection: it creates a total fabric of meaning, the misreading of any part of which could change impact and intention. And because it is such an essential text, because its “meanings” are so central to the lives of millions of women readers both contemporary with it and existing in the hundred years since its publication, it deserves good readings. It is one powerful indictment of characteristic cultural position, that men control women, and that women are made to feel so guilty, and so dependent through their own roles as mothers, that male control becomes even more acceptable.

To judge “The Yellow Wallpaper” in light of criticism of the 1980s is difficult in many respects, because the reader has come to Gilman's text from reading Toni Morrison, Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, Marilyn French, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and other contemporary women writers. 1980 texts are—happily—different from those written a hundred years earlier (though perhaps not so different as that amount of time might warrant). Many women characters in today's serious fiction stay sane, choose to lead their own lives, accomplish things, and pass on superior and practical values to their children. (The present concern with “ancestry” in both Morrison's and French's novels is a matriarchal emphasis, not a patriarchal.)

Not all women protagonists in contemporary fiction succeed, however, and as Linda Howe pointed out in a 1982 essay, “Narratives of Survival,” many women protagonists are not fully achieving people. Unlike male characters in fiction, women seldom find success, happiness, or answers. They instead are content with mere survival. “Our heroine does not choose this struggle; it was given her along with her sex. She is the victim of society and accident, never of her own folly.”26 In what Howe calls the “narrative of survival,” the heroine demonstrates that she possesses the courage, strength, inner resources, and power to stand alone, self-supporting and fulfilled, denying the need for parent, husband, lover or friend. Even though Gilman's protagonist did have some of these traits, she did not have enough—she was not allowed to understand enough, to cultivate enough skills—to save herself.

What she did accomplish, however, was a retreat into a world of her own making, a complete separation from the patriarchal existence that used her to be the mother of an ancestral line over which she had no control, and to which—subsequently—she had no value. Gilman did not think that such a retreat was an answer, nor did she see it as adequate in any way. Her own life proved what one frail but intelligent woman could accomplish, against many harsh odds. She therefore wrote her own narrative of survival, but the survival is not praised. Accordingly, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is—as Gilman intended—a cautionary and chilling experience.


  1. Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York: Harper Colophon, 1976); Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); Nancy Chodorow and Susan Contratto, “The Fantasy of the Perfect Mother” in Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions, ed. Barrie Thorne with Marilyn Yalom (New York: Longman, 1982, 54-71).

  2. Marilyn Yalom, Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985), p. 5.

  3. Ibid., p. 8.

  4. Adrienne Rich, Of Women Born, Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976), p. 21.

  5. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985); Eugenia Kaladin, Mothers and More, American Women in the 1950s (Boston: Twayne, 1984); Barbara E. Sang, “Women and the Creative Process,” The Arts in Psychotherapy 8 (1981): 43-48; Paula Bennett, My Life a Loaded Gun, Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986).

  6. Edward Butscher, Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (New York: Seabury, 1976); Elizabeth Hardwick, “Sylvia Plath,” Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (New York: Random House, 1974); Phyllis Chesler, Women and Madness (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1972); Ellen L. Bassuk, “The Rest Cure: Repetition or Resolution of Victorian Women's Conflicts” in The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 139-51.

  7. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, An Autobiography (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935). p. 96; see also Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good, 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979) and Diane Hunter, “Hysteria, Psychoanalysis, and Feminism: The Case of Anna O,” in The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, eds. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 89-115.

  8. Ann J. Lane, “The Fictional World of Charlotte Perkins Gilman,” in The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), p. xii.

  9. Gilman, Living, pp. 141, 140.

  10. Ibid., p. 88.

  11. Ibid., pp. 162-64.

  12. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, Afterword by Elaine R. Hedges (Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1973), p. 9. Because the text is so short, I will not use page numbers in the essay as a rule.

  13. Ibid., p. 10.

  14. Ibid., p. 13.

  15. Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady, Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830-1980 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), p. 73.

  16. Annette Kolodny, “A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,” New Literary History 11 (1979-80), p. 457; Judith Fetterley, “Reading about Reading: ‘A Jury of Her Peers,’ ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’” in Gender and Reading, Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, eds. Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins, 1986), pp. 147-64.

  17. Gilman, “Yellow Wallpaper,” p. 22.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid., p. 24.

  20. Ibid., pp. 34-35.

  21. Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct.

  22. Gilman, “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?” in Gilman Reader, p. 20.

  23. Fetterley, “Reading about Reading.”

  24. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Writing Beyond the Ending, Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), pp. 3-5.

  25. Annette Kolodny, “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism,” Feminist Studies 6:1 (Spring 1980), pp. 12-13.

  26. Linda Howe, “Narratives of Survival,” Literary Review 26 (Fall 1982).

Catherine Golden (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Golden, Catherine. “‘Overwriting’ the Rest Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Literary Escape from S. Weir Mitchell's Fictionalization of Women.” In Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Joanne B. Karpinski, pp. 144-58. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992.

[In the following essay, Golden discusses the writings of novelist and doctor S. Weir Mitchell, on whom the doctor in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is based. Golden demonstrates the ways in which “The Yellow Wallpaper” provides a feminist counter-discourse to nineteenth-century patriarchal medical discourse.]

In 1887 S. Weir Mitchell treated Charlotte Perkins Gilman (then Stetson)1 for a nervous breakdown following a postpartum depression and forbade her to write.2 A specialist in women's nervous disorders, Mitchell attended well-known male and female literary figures. George Meredith and Walt Whitman apparently experienced no ill effects from his prescriptions; Jane Addams, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Virginia Woolf suffered from his Rest Cure treatment.3 After nearly losing her sanity by rigidly following his parting advice “never [to] touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live” (Living, 96), Gilman defied Mitchell and transformed him into a minor but memorable character in her fiction. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” the nameless narrator, undergoing a three-month Rest Cure for a postpartum depression, protests that her physician/husband John “says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.”4 Although Gilman does not discuss her physician in detail in her story, she does name him as well as indict him in this one salient reference, which continues: “But I don't want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!” (19).

Gilman's introduction of her doctor into a first-person narrative gains interest and complexity when we consider that this foremost nineteenth-century American neurologist had a second career as a novelist. In addition to medical books and essays on the nervous system, mental fatigue, and convalescence, he published several collections of short stories, three volumes of poetry, and nineteen novels between 1884 and 1913.5 Although virtually unknown today, Mitchell was, in fact, one of the most popular turn-of-the-century American writers; critics compared Mitchell's Hugh Wynne (1896) to Thackeray's Henry Esmond (1852).6 Many of his literary efforts incorporated psychiatric themes and doctor-patient relationships informed by his own practice and that of his affluent physician father, John Kearsley Mitchell.

Supporters of Mitchell's fiction such as David Rein and Ernest Earnest argue that Mitchell “deserves to be restored to the canon of American literature” (Earnest, 235).7 Rein praises Mitchell as an author, for “in his fictional studies of nervous disorders he stood alone. He was the first novelist in American literature to present such clinically accurate portraits of mentally ill characters. No one else had done it, except Oliver Wendell Holmes. But even Holmes's work lacks much of the merit of Mitchell's” (Rein, 182-83). However, even those who commend Mitchell's fictional studies modeled after his own patients are quick to raise his shortcomings as a novelist. Mitchell's fiction disappoints because it often fails to bring a character vividly to life, to explore the causes of the protagonists' nervous breakdowns, or to show their progressive deterioration into hysteria, as Rein and Jeffrey Berman have noted.8 Moreover, as a writer, Mitchell sacrifices the plotline of his novels to feature conversations his characters have with one another; as a result, his style is conversational at best.

Mitchell never wrote about Gilman in his fiction exploring abnormal psychology or in his psychiatric books detailing the Weir Mitchell Rest Cure. Nonetheless, his almost forgotten fiction offers insight into why Gilman decided to write “The Yellow Wallpaper”; in her words, “to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways” (Living, 121). A comparison of the fictional female characters in S. Weir Mitchell's late nineteenth-century novels and Gilman's own protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) suggests that through his Rest Cure treatment Mitchell tried to reform his patient Charlotte Perkins Gilman along the lines of his fictional female protagonists, many of whom followed a version of his Rest Cure. Mitchell's Characteristics (1891), written shortly after Gilman's treatment in Mitchell's sanitarium, demonstrates the physician/author's patriarchal portrayal of the (male) doctor-(female) patient relationship that Gilman revised in “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). She defied her doctor in 1890 not only by writing “The Yellow Wallpaper” but also, more specifically, by creating a protagonist who also writes. Her creative life and her fiction reveal that she ultimately “overwrote” Mitchell's efforts to make her more like the ideal female patients predominant in his affluent medical practice and his fiction.

Gilman was twenty-six years old when she traveled to Philadelphia to enter the sanitarium of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell. Like Sigmund Freud, Mitchell was trained as a neurologist, but he earned special recognition as a nerve specialist for women. Only by the end of the century did the medical profession, influenced by the work of Freud, begin to distinguish between diseases of the mind, to be treated by psychiatrists, and diseases of the brain, to be treated by neurologists. Neurology in the mid-to-late nineteenth century explored the relationship between psychology and physiology. Nerves were considered the link between the mind and the body, and the symptoms of mental exhaustion and depression were thought to be somatic in origin. Aiming to heal the mind by healing the body, Mitchell's Rest Cure attended to the physical symptoms of depression. Although Mitchell is credited with the Rest Cure, he developed it from a number of accepted medical practices. His Rest Cure earned him international acclaim (his work was translated into four languages before his death in 1914). In fact, Freud favorably reviewed Mitchell's first book, Fat and Blood (1877), approved of his Rest Cure, and even adapted and used it for a period of time.9

Mitchell diagnosed Gilman's condition as “nervous prostration” or “neurasthenia,” a breakdown of the nervous system, and prescribed his Rest Cure. Following the birth of her daughter, she had become depressed, spiritless, weak, and hysterical. This psychiatric condition was in no way unique to Gilman or to the female population; men also suffered from it, as had Mitchell himself.10 Because of the strains on the Victorian woman imposed by the rigid ideals of femininity, debilitating nervous disorders were more common among upper-and middle-class women than men. The causes of neurasthenia were thought to be gender-specific: while men succumbed from overwork, women suffered from too much social activity, sustained or severe domestic trials (e.g., nursing a sick family member), and overexertion brought on by pursuing higher education.

In treating his patients Mitchell demanded obedience and deliberately assumed a detached, stern manner that he believed helpful, especially for patients who had been pampered and indulged by well-intentioned relatives. He was patronizing to women, a trend that characterizes his extensive writings about the Rest Cure, mental fatigue, and convalescence. For instance, in Doctor and Patient, Mitchell writes that “there are many kinds of fool, from the mindless fool to the fiend-fool, but for the most entire capacity to make a household wretched there is no more complete human receipt than a silly woman who is to a high degree nervous and feeble, and who craves pity and likes power”;11 in fact, he considered Gilman's involvement in the history of her own case “proved self-conceit” (Living, 95). Nonetheless, Mitchell was more liberal than many male physicians of his time. He believed in the legitimacy of and the suffering caused by neurasthenia, validating women's complaints. He openly scorned the abuse of ovariotomies and other forms of commonly prescribed radical gynecological surgery. Mitchell also approved of physical exercise as well as higher education for women in the areas of child care and home management in order to fit women for the domestic sphere.12

Although Mitchell's Rest Cure was in accordance with the most advanced neurological thinking of his day, in modern eyes it can be read as an attempt to reorient women to the domestic sphere (and away from influences of their changing world) so that they could fulfill their most important role in society: to bear and rear children. The covert aim of severely enforcing the treatment was so that the patient would feel “surfeited with [rest] and [would] welcome a firm order to do the things she once felt she could not do.”13 Typically lasting six to eight weeks, the Rest Cure focused on nutrition and revitalization of the body. It included five components: total, enforced, extended bed rest (the patient was forbidden to sew, converse, move herself in and out of bed, read, write, and, in more extreme cases, even to feed herself); seclusion from family and familiar surroundings (to remove the patient from the pampering of well-meaning relatives would sever hurtful old habits); a carefully controlled diet (overfeeding, the key ingredient being milk and cream to create new energy by increasing body volume); massage; and electricity (the latter two components were introduced to prevent muscular atrophy).14

The Rest Cure was not without merits; similar to the spa water cures in fashion in nineteenth-century Europe and America, the Rest Cure removed the individual from the tensions of his or her world and offered a sanctuary for rest. Hundreds of women traveled to Mitchell's sanitarium from around the world to seek his Rest Cure. Many felt relieved that their complaints had been both recognized and treated, and they left satisfied. Nonetheless, to many women, including Gilman, Mitchell's Rest Cure was punitive. Mitchell admitted that his methods of treating women for neurasthenia were harsh: “Rest can be made to help. Rest can also hurt.”15 Despite this admission of what many women feared about his Rest Cure, Mitchell consistently defended his methods as necessary to cure them, allowing them to resume their traditional domestic roles.

Threatened by the direction of the “new woman” emerging in the late nineteenth century, Mitchell clung to the traditional view of the dutiful, protected woman and immortalized her in his fiction. Unlike the women in Gilman's stories, passive heroines abound in Mitchell's writings. Some female characters demonstrate intellectual vigor, such as Alice Leigh in Characteristics, or exert strong will, such as Serena Vernon in A Comedy of Conscience (1900). Both ultimately put aside their independent notions and follow the advice of strong male characters, taking the opposite course from that of Gilman's protagonists.

At least in the novel's opening, A Comedy of Conscience reveals a portrait of a liberated woman. A spinster by choice, Serena is described as a healthy, attractive, strong-willed, and “intelligent, but not intellectual”16 woman who often asks for but seldom takes advice. Similar to the nameless protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Serena keeps a diary throughout the novel and has a suitor named John (a common name in Mitchell's fiction).17 While the nameless protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper” defies her husband/physician John, Serena Vernon increasingly relies on her male cousin John Winterbourne, her rejected suitor who remains devoted to her. Serena becomes more dependent upon others for advice after she is robbed—a criminal steals her wallet on the trolley-car (and inadvertently drops a stolen diamond ring into her handbag); although Mitchell does not overtly discuss the robbery as a cause for her change, this event seemingly accounts for Serena's dramatic transformation from self-sufficiency to dependency on the advice of male figures, namely the trusted Doctor Saffron, her rector, and John. Although Serena asks advice of her “nearest female friend” (8) Mrs. Clare regarding what to do with the “stolen” diamond ring and even claims “A woman will see this miserable business from my side” (41), she discounts Mrs. Clare's advice; she listens instead to John, whose hand in marriage she accepts at the very end of the novel (despite her strong convictions not to marry him at the beginning). At this point, Serena's John declares her “nervous” (although we were initially assured that she was rarely ill) and prescribes rest: “Go to bed, dear” (125). When she resists, he calls her a “Dear child!” (127), paternalistic language reminiscent of the nameless protagonist's husband John in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

In an earlier novel, Roland Blake (1886), the most interesting character is not the hero Roland, an intelligence officer in the Union army, but a more minor character, Octopia Darnell, a patient similar to those Mitchell describes again and again in Doctor and Patient and Fat and Blood.18 Octopia—who shuns the light, constantly complains, and prefers to recline rather than stand—is thin and lacks blood. By giving Octopia an attenuated frame and impoverished blood, Mitchell embodies in his fictional patient two of the outstanding characteristics of the class of nervous women for whom he devised and prescribed his Rest Cure.19 At the onset of the novel, Octopia is a “settled inmate”20 in the home of a distant relative, the elderly Mrs. Wynne. The cause of her physical condition, which we are told has no physiological origin, remains unclear until the second third of the novel. Nursing Mrs. Wynne's son, Arthur, during the last week of his life, Octopia witnesses his suicide and immediately proclaims herself ill. She gains power over Mrs. Wynne by declaring that her illness results from the strain of attending Arthur Wynne at his deathbed and by threatening to reveal Arthur's suicide (her recovery would thus diminish her claim on Mrs. Wynne).

Arthur Wynne's daughter, Olivia, comes to live in the home of her paternal grandmother, in which her distant invalid cousin Octopia has earned a permanent residence. With Olivia's arrival, the hysterical Octopia, whom Mitchell describes as “too wicked to die” (62), becomes a scheming chronic invalid who assigns herself to bed but continues to use her invalid status to plague her younger, passive cousin Olivia (e.g., “‘That was rough child. You forget I am an invalid’” [44]); she also tyrannizes Mrs. Wynne (e.g., “She [Octopia] is killing me by inches” [62]), who fears Octopia too much to remove her from her own home. Throughout the novel Olivia defers to her petulant, selfish, and cunning older cousin and becomes nursemaid both to her elderly grandmother and Octopia.

Mitchell does not glorify Octopia's well-meaning “victim” (97) but uses Olivia to make a point in fiction central to his medical writings on the Rest Cure: the overindulgence of well-intentioned relatives can only exacerbate the hysterical patient's condition and weaken the caretaker's health.21 In Olivia's case, “the exactions of her nervous, sickly cousin were surely sapping the wholesome life of the younger woman, and as surely lessening her power of self-restraint” (50). The forbearing Olivia, whose health deteriorates, admits that the capricious Octopia is only “half-sick”: “what must be the worst evil of half-sick people is the absence of regular work, of set duties—things that must be done” (376). However, Octopia, like many of the hysterically ill women Mitchell treated in his practice, does not know she is cruel to others: “she thought about herself and thought she didn't think about herself” (376). At the end of the novel, Mitchell rewards Olivia with marriage to Roland Blake and frees her from her nursemaid position. Olivia's departure, compounded by Mrs. Wynne's death, leads Octopia to wed Addenda Pennell, who caters to her whims as Olivia once did (e.g., “As for Pennell, he followed her [Octopia] about with a shawl and a scent-bottle, and says he has left the club and prefers the evening tranquility of domestic life” [379]). Mitchell is too much a realist to reform Octopia or to restore her health. Rather, this final twist shows how both sexes can succumb to the tyranny of the kind of “half-sick” patient possessing “the most entire capacity to make a household wretched” that Mitchell bemoans in Doctor and Patient and his other medical writings.

An apparent exception to the undermining of women's initiative by male (typically the physician's) authority occurs in Constance Trescot (1905). The eponymous heroine avenges the unjust death of her lawyer/husband George Trescot, who was shot by an emotionally unstable lawyer named Greyhurst under the pretense of a duel. Constance's power and authority, however, are only seen to serve male authority: these traits allow her to ruin her husband's murderer and to restore George Trescot's name and reputation. In other respects, Constance behaves like a typical Mitchell hysteric. Predictably, at the scene of the murder, Constance falls “insensible, convulsed, and quivering” at her husband's murderer's feet.22 Although a physically healthy woman at the opening of the novel, her passionate and obsessive love for her husband (which lies beyond the scope of Mitchell's inquiry) triggers an emotional collapse that leaves her physically wasted and eventually turns her into an anemic, “couch-loving invalid,”23 rivaling Octopia Darnell. She devotes her life to ruining Greyhurst (who is not found guilty of murder) and uses her disabled status to rule her caretakers (e.g., “Constance relied on her misfortunes and her long illness to insure her an excess of sympathetic affection and unremitting service” [382]). In fact, just as Octopia made Olivia the victim of her demands in Roland Blake, Constance expects her well-meaning sister Susan to care for her tirelessly and, like Octopia, seems unaware of her own selfish nature.24

Unlike Roland Blake and Constance Trescot, which offer portraits of tiresome invalids whose conditions worsen due to the indulgence of well-intentioned relatives, Characteristics and its sequel, Dr. North and His Friends (1900), epitomize the relationship between the (male) doctor and the ideal (female) patient that Mitchell prescribes and Gilman defies in the literary arena.25 Two parts of the same story, these semi-autobiographical novels of conversation contain developed characters but do not have a sustained plot. Both works, narrated by Dr. Owen North, offer veiled self-portraits of Mitchell's own life; this is particularly true of Characteristics, which describes North's war injuries (Mitchell himself suffered greatly from the Civil War) and his ambivalence about pursuing medicine (Mitchell battled with his father, who initially objected to his career choice). Both novels feature female patients and offer but one strong female protagonist; Anne Vincent, the wife of Dr. North's best friend, Frederick Vincent, stands out as an intelligent and intrusive social matron, yet her strong role as a female adviser is undermined by Mitchell's frequent references to her unfortunate childless state. Both works offer Mitchell an occasion to present his belief that women can be good patients but not necessarily successful doctors.

In Fat and Blood, Mitchell states that women doctors “do not obtain the needed control over those of their own sex” (41). Mitchell questioned whether women doctors could exert the strict, objective manner necessary to manage the class of hysterical invalids that his fictional characters Octopia Darnell and Constance Trescot represent. Of course, in Fat and Blood he also admits that the male physician may also experience difficulty with this type of patient, and he does refer in passing to the abilities of women physicians as he qualifies: “it is in these cases that women who are in all other cases capable doctors fail” (41).26 More than by the issue of competence, Mitchell was disturbed by the personal consequences for women entering medicine. Through the development of Alice Leigh in Characteristics, he presents his belief that a “capable” woman doctor would lose her essential femininity.

While the nameless protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper” defies her physician/husband John as the story continues, Alice Leigh enters the story as a woman with a mind and will of her own who sacrifices her convictions to follow the ideas of Dr. Owen North, who speaks Mitchell's views. Anne Vincent initially describes Alice as “a woman of unusual force of character … and intellect (for she is more than merely intelligent).”27 Her quality of mind at the outset of the novel surpasses that of Serena Vernon's in A Comedy of Conscience. Mrs. Leigh, Alice's mother, turns to the much-respected Dr. North for advice when she discovers the extent of her daughter's ambitions: “Now she [Alice] proposes to … it is awful. She wants to study medicine, and, oh, you do not know Alice. She is so determined” (235). Owen North shares Mrs. Leigh's belief that a woman's entrance into the medical profession is “awful.” Though initially “determined” to pursue “something which offers an enlarging life” (249), Alice rather quickly abandons her plans to study and practice medicine right after Dr. North prescribes otherwise.

Although Owen does not attend Alice for a physical malady, her plan to be a doctor is referred to as a “disease” (235), and North counsels her as he would his female patients. When she first meets Owen North, the twenty-four-year-old Alice passionately ridicules her mother's suggestions that she sketch, play music, and sew. Spirited Alice argues for the need for “an enlarging life” (249), not for personal ambition but to benefit her society. Owen wins Alice's favor when he professes that “every human being is entitled to any career he or she may please to desire” (251); however, he soon reveals his prejudices. He tells Alice: “I said I did not believe it was best either for the sick or for society for women to be doctors; that, personally, women lose something of the natural charm of their sex in giving themselves either to this or to the other avocations until now in the sole possession of a man” (264). Immediately following their discussion, Alice becomes “quite tranquil” (275) and acquiesces to her mother's plan to leave behind her “‘hunger for imperative duties’” (235) and concentrate on marriage. Unfortunately, Mitchell neither explores nor explains the cause of Alice's sudden transformation, which seems implausible to the contemporary reader.

When Alice suddenly becomes ill (she starts looking pale), Mrs. Leigh attempts to engage Owen North as Alice's physician. He refuses because he has fallen in love with her. Proposing to Alice on the penultimate page of the novel, Owen secures the hand of the once willful Alice, who has become so rattled that she shreds her fan in a dozen bits as she accepts his proposal. Reduced to tears, she “sobbed like a child” and admits defeat: “Owen North, be very good to me. I meant to have done so much” (306). Rather than become a doctor, she marries the man who advises her not to develop her intellect. Mitchell concludes that, Alice, like her mother before her, is “cured” of her ambitions by marriage (235). At the end of the novel, Alice represents the ideals Mitchell prescribes to women through his medical writings and in his fiction. Nonetheless, the tearful state of the obedient Alice testifies to the trauma she experiences in putting aside her desire for a purposeful career only to gain usefulness through her physician/husband's life.

The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” also sobs uncontrollably, although primarily at the beginning of the story.28 Gilman revises the typical (male) doctor-(female) patient relationship by reversing the heroine's progress: Mitchell's strong-willed Alice is made passive, whereas Gilman's once submissive protagonist gains a forceful sense of self as she acts out of madness. Initially Gilman's nameless protagonist is as obedient to her physician/husband John as Mitchell's Alice Leigh sadly becomes toward her future husband/physician Owen North. Gilman's narrator defers to “Dear John” as well as to what “John says” (16) when he prescribes Mitchell's Rest Cure. Even though her room initially repulses her, she rests in the former nursery because John chose it for her. She stops her writing when she senses John's entry.

In her own text Gilman creates through the characterization of John a physician of “high standing” (10) who is also self-assured (“I am a doctor, dear, and I know” [23]) and thus similar to Owen North and to Mitchell himself. Moreover, John's authority is backed by the protagonist's well-respected physician/brother and by the threat of S. Weir Mitchell “only more so” (19). Unlike Mitchell's Alice, Gilman's heroine becomes aware of her submissiveness and defies her doctor's advice. Referring and deferring less to John as the story continues, the narrator pursues her ambitions: first, to find out the pattern of the wallpaper, then to tear it away, freeing the woman (and that part of herself) trapped behind the pattern. As she creeps along the walls of the sanitarium/prison, her actions move beyond the realm of sanity. Nonetheless, acting out of madness, she defies John and the male-dominated medical profession he represents. She creeps flamboyantly in the daytime as she desires. While Alice Leigh rips her fan to bits and acquiesces to her physician/husband, the nameless protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper” creeps over her physician/husband—a crucial reversal. Although her mad state allows her only a dubious victory,29 in Gilman's story it is the male physician whose force is circumvented and who faints when confronted by the newly claimed autonomy of his female patient.

The behavior of Gilman's narrator also diverges from that of the female protagonists in Dr. North and His Friends, the sequel to Characteristics. This novel confirms the total submission of Alice Leigh, for whom even a dubious victory never comes. The narrator of Dr. North and His Friends refers to the once independent Alice Leigh as Mrs. North or “my wife.” Throughout this novel, Alice's voice is silenced as a result of her constant deference to her husband/physician. Now unsure of her intellectual abilities, Alice Leigh relies on her husband to supply her with knowledge and support during social conversations: “I never can express what I mean. Sometimes I think I am clever, but when I talk it out I conclude that I am a fool. Tell me what I mean.”30 Frequently her discussions of social issues are flavored with her husband's paternalistic views. Although she once fervently wished to be a doctor, Alice radically alters her perception of a woman's aptitude for medicine and comes to hold her husband's—and Mitchell's—belief that a woman should solely be educated in the area of domestic duties. Her friend Sibyl Maywood, a memorable invalid in Mitchell's fiction, shares this view and voices Mitchell's belief in a woman doctor's inability to exert control: “I do not think I should like to have a woman doctor. … Oh, I should never obey her—never; why, I could not say. I should have no confidence” (127).

Sibyl Maywood enters Dr. North's circle when North's friend Xerxes Claybourne hires his cousin Sibyl as his secretary to aid him in his scholarship. Sibyl has a physical disability that becomes the subject of much conversation throughout the novel. Victor St. Clair, the free-spirited, attractive bachelor artist, says: “She is lame and not quite erect” (34). Claybourne explains apologetically: “She is slightly, very slightly deformed, and halts” (35). Using more graphic, clinical terms, Owen North laments that Sibyl has a “maimed body” (76). One shoulder is slightly higher than the other, and she walks in a halting gait, but “above this crooked frame rose a head of the utmost beauty” (42). Anne Vincent regrets that Sibyl is not also “deformed of face” (35) because her physical beauty makes her attractive to men whereas her “crumpled figure” (65)—a spinal distortion resulting from childbirth—precludes her chances for marriage. Her physical deformity is presented as an impediment to marriage and thus true happiness.

When Sibyl falls in love with St. Clair, Dr. North and his wife worry that she will lose her heart, that her strong romantic nature coupled with her “physical incompleteness” (230) will lead St. Clair to spurn her. Although Sibyl displays a vast amount of knowledge throughout the novel, her intelligence is compromised by her fits of hysterical passion.31 Her friends Dr. and Mrs. North and Mrs. Vincent overlook her intellect—that she can cite Shakespeare and Goethe—and focus instead on her writing of anonymous poetic love letters to win the love of St. Clair. Alice and Owen North discover these letters, which they regard as dangerous folly because, in their opinion, St. Clair could never love a deformed person. St. Clair's initial rebuff worsens Sibyl's already unstable emotional condition and weakens her physical condition: she becomes nervous and anemic. Quickly intervening, Dr. North treats Sibyl with the Rest Cure and advises that Sibyl stop writing, rest after every meal, and give up her job as a secretary, because he believes that any type of work is too stressful for her. Exerting his power as a physician, he tells Sibyl that in order to become well again she must not become excited. He treats his patient like a child and exhibits a bedside manner similar to the physician/husband in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Eager to cure herself of nervousness and anemia, Sibyl adheres to all the components of the Rest Cure without hesitation: “I am in bed by your orders, sir, at nine; also, I sleep at once and well” (232). She has confidence in Owen North, obeys her male doctor completely, and is miraculously—and implausibly—cured. Sibyl's physical and emotional ailments virtually disappear as a result of her devotion to the Rest Cure (“the halt in her gait is at times hardly visible” [486]), making her fit for marriage to Victor St. Clair.

Dr. John in “The Yellow Wallpaper” attempts to cure the nameless narrator, as Dr. North did Sibyl, but fails to understand her nature. Not a docile patient like Mitchell's Sibyl or readily susceptible to influence like Alice Leigh, Gilman's protagonist at first subverts Dr. John's treatment by writing secretly. Abandoning her timidity, which Sibyl sustains throughout Dr. North and His Friends, the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” “disagrees” with the diagnosis of the male medical authorities (10). Instead of dutifully climbing into bed after every meal as Sibyl Maywood does, Gilman's narrator escapes what she considers to be punitive rest by feigning sleep. She writes covertly, hiding her journal when she hears John approaching because he “hates to have [her] write a word” (13). If we conceive of the narrator and protagonist as one, she continues to defy John merely through the act of writing her story.32 Ironically, Gilman's narrator ultimately proves the dangerous consequences of her Rest Cure by remaining entrapped within the sanctity of the home. She actively explores the only text allowed to her—the yellow wallpaper in her prison/sanitarium. Her defiance leads her to crawl in madness in front of Dr. John, who faints before his wife. The nameless narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” shows the extreme consequences of living in a society in which the sanctified home proves confining to women. Gilman's narrator illuminates the dangers of following a rigid, restrictive therapeutic treatment. The narrator, though mad, defies the doctor's prescription for healthy eating, moderate exercise, and extended rest and chooses literal madness over John's cure for sanity. In defying her physician's attempt to suppress her, she writes herself into a position of power: she defiantly creeps over John but remains trapped within the home from which Gilman freed herself in order to stay “sane.”

Had Gilman's fiction followed Mitchell's prescription for female patients, the righteous Dr. John would not have been “floored”; rather, by following the Rest Cure, the narrator, like Alice Leigh, would have been cured of her ambition to develop her intellect. Gilman concludes that had she herself followed Mitchell's advice, her fate would have been similar to her own narrator's: “It was not a choice between going and staying, but between going, sane, and staying, insane” (Living, 97).

In “overwriting” his treatment and the choices available to Mitchell's protagonists, Gilman challenges the happy ending that Mitchell envisions for obedient women. The grimness of Gilman's ending calls attention to the compromises that Mitchell's women make even though they seemingly achieve a happy ending. Although Sibyl Maywood becomes physically cured through following Dr. North's rigid prescription, she does not use her intellectual abilities. In Dr. North and His Friends Alice Leigh gains social stature and respectability as Mrs. North, but she loses the very spirit that makes her a compelling female character at the beginning of Characteristics.

Rejecting Mitchell's advice—“‘And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live’” (96)—Gilman defied Mitchell and the typical behavior he imposed on his female patients both within his medical practice and his fiction. Continuing to revise Mitchell's fictionalization of female patients, she wrote plays, stories, novels, and nonfiction, with Women and Economics (1898) bringing her international acclaim. Although she believed that she never fully recovered from the nervous breakdown brought on by the strains of marriage and motherhood, she concluded of her writing: “A brain may lose some faculties and keep others. … To write was always as easy to me as to talk. Even my verse, such as it is, flows as smoothly as a letter, is easier in fact” (Living, 98-99).33

Although only “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Herland are well known today, Gilman was as prolific a writer as Mitchell. Like Mitchell's novels, her other fiction is formulaic, but her stock characters and the formula she prescribes diverge radically from his. Typically, through the intervention of an older woman, often a doctor, a young and innocent girl breaks from the restrictions or limitations that endanger her. For example, in “The Girl in the Pink Hat” (1916) a strong, older woman (whose occupation and name are never revealed) helps an innocent, courageous girl escape from the clutches of her criminal boyfriend who has deceived her about his intentions to marry her.

In “Mr. Peebles' Heart” (1914), Gilman's Dr. Joan Bascom appears to be the kind of physician Mitchell's Alice Leigh longed to be. In this story Gilman reverses the typical dynamics of the (male) doctor-(female) patient relationship. Dr. Bascom's brother-in-law suffers from a nervous breakdown that results, in her opinion, from his confining occupation, which proves necessary to support all the women who have clung to him with “tentacles.” Dr. Bascom demands the confidence of her male patient, who protests a bit but follows her advice as docilely as Mitchell's female patients do Dr. Owen North. She prescribes a very different cure than S. Weir Mitchell's enforced rest, however—two years of independent travel. Mr. Peebles returns younger, healthier, stimulated. Without her husband to depend upon during his absence, his wife gains independence. Both improve due to the intervention of Dr. Bascom, who serves as a “new woman” and a role model for women readers.

Gilman's commitment to advance the lives of women and her understanding of women's problems engage the reader more than the style of her writing, which sounds hastily crafted at times. Nonetheless, Gilman never lost her faculty to write: literature offered her an opportunity to challenge the restrictions imposed upon women. By writing numerous stories voicing her dedication to improve conditions for women, Gilman defied Mitchell and the ethos he used to describe women in his fiction. To call upon the apt title of one of Gilman's own poems, Mitchell became “An Obstacle”34 both in real life and fiction, one that Gilman implicated in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and ultimately “overwrote” by touching pen and pencil as long as she lived.35


  1. Gilman was then Charlotte Perkins Stetson. She also published “The Yellow Wallpaper” under that name. For consistency, this article refers to her throughout as Gilman.

  2. Gilman discusses S. Weir Mitchell's full prescription following her Rest Cure treatment in her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1935), 96; hereafter cited as Living.

  3. George Meredith was pleased with the results of a buttermilk diet S. Weir Mitchell had recommended, and he was enthusiastic about Mitchell's fiction; he considered Roland Blake Mitchell's best novel. Mitchell treated Walt Whitman occasionally and gave him funds to help him to continue writing. Suzanne Poirier notes, however, that “Mitchell's treatment of Jane Addams, Winifred Howells (daughter of William Dean Howells), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and the use of his treatment on Virginia Woolf caused cries of protest from all these women and their families” (15). Although Woolf never saw Mitchell, a British neurologist, Dr. Playfair, brought the Weir Mitchell Rest Cure to England in 1880 and encouraged its use. The treatment Woolf's physician, Dr. Savage, prescribed following her second breakdown in 1904 included a milk regimen, rest, and isolation. Although Woolf did not completely reject the treatment, she complained bitterly about it to friends and attacked it through her fiction such as Mrs. Dalloway (1925). In 1898 Edith Wharton traveled to Mitchell's sanitarium in Philadelphia to seek Mitchell's care. Her treatment was more moderate: not hospitalized, she remained in a hotel room and was allowed to write letters; however, she had enforced bed rest and was permitted no visitors for four months. For more information on Mitchell's treatment of male and female literary figures, see Suzanne Poirier, “The Weir Mitchell Rest Cure: Doctor and Patients,” Women's Studies Quarterly 10, no. 1 (1983): 15-40. For more discussion of Mitchell's relationship with Meredith and Whitman, see Ernest Earnest, S. Weir Mitchell: Novelist and Physician (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950), 40, 99-100, 115; hereafter cited as Earnest.

  4. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (Old Westbury: Feminist Press, 1973), 18; hereafter cited in the text.

  5. The Definitive Edition of S. Weir Mitchell's oeuvre amounts to 6500 pages. The exact number of his short story volumes and novels remains unknown because he destroyed several of these works before they were actually published.

  6. Hugh Wynne sold over one-half million copies and is often regarded as Mitchell's best book. In the foreword to S. Weir Mitchell: Novelist and Physician, Ernest Earnest writes that Mitchell's “Hugh Wynne was compared to Henry Esmond, his Ode on a Lycian Tomb to Lycidas.” Jeffrey Berman also makes this point in “The Unrestful Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” The Talking Cure: Literary Representations of Psychoanalysis (New York: New York University Press, 1985), 48; hereafter cited as Berman.

  7. David Rein similarly states: “Mitchell's novels should be evaluated anew, for his accomplishments deserve to be recalled more widely and wrought into the tradition of American culture” (S. Weir Mitchell as a Psychiatric Novelist [New York: International Universities Press, 1952], 202); hereafter cited as Rein.

  8. See Berman, 45-49, and Rein, 186-202. Berman's essay cites this important connection and discusses the range of Mitchell's fiction; however, his chapter does not explore the relationship between Gilman's fiction and Mitchell's.

  9. Earnest, 227, and Regina Markell Morantz, “The Perils of Feminist History,” Women and Health in America, ed. Judith Walzer Leavitt (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), 239-45. In her criticism of Ann Douglas Wood's essay, “‘The Fashionable Diseases’: Women's Complaints and Their Treatment in Nineteenth-Century America,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4 (1973): 25-52, Morantz offers a much more favorable reading of S. Weir Mitchell than Wood, Poirier, and Gilman's biographer Ann J. Lane, author of To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990); hereafter cited as Lane. Perturbed that Mitchell's personality “is so utterly distorted in Wood's characterization” (240), Morantz rebuts specific claims that Wood makes in her essay: that Mitchell believed that women doctors would always be inferior to male doctors, that doctors were gods, and that patients were to be docile children. She presents Mitchell as a neurologist, not a “woman's doctor” as Wood does; she also discusses the effective use of his treatment on soldiers suffering from battle fatigue as well as the praise Mitchell received from Freud.

  10. Although Mitchell initially earned his reputation during the Civil War for his treatment of gunshot victims suffering from paralysis, he came to specialize in nervous diseases, which had plagued him as a young man. His first nervous breakdown occurred just after the Civil War, following the death of his young wife and his affluent Virginia physician father (who had initially opposed his decision to enter medicine); his second breakdown came three years after in 1872, following the death of his mother.

  11. S. Weir Mitchell, Doctor and Patient (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1888), 117.

  12. S. Weir Mitchell, Wear and Tear (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1871), 33.

  13. S. Weir Mitchell, quoted in Lane, 117.

  14. Mitchell did not anticipate that his female patients, under treatment, would continue to question and apply their creative minds as was the case with Gilman, who followed his treatment for one month.

  15. S. Weir Mitchell, “Rest in Nervous Disease: Its Use and Abuse,” A Series of American Clinical Lectures, ed. E. C. Sequin, M.D., 1 (1875): 102.

  16. S. Weir Mitchell, A Comedy of Conscience (New York: The Century Co., 1903), 8; hereafter cited in the text.

  17. John was also S. Weir Mitchell's father's name and his son's name. Although the choice of name for the male protagonist in Mitchell's and Gilman's fiction may be merely coincidental, Characteristics was published prior to “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

  18. Rein also makes this point and argues, “While the main story [of Roland Blake] is about quite normal people, the main attraction is in the abnormal minor characters” (Rein, 190). Octopia, however, is not as minor a character as he implies.

  19. Mitchell describes these women in Fat and Blood as “nervous women, who as a rule are thin, and lack blood” (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1878), 7; hereafter cited in the text.

  20. S. Weir Mitchell, Roland Blake (New York: The Century Co., 1901), 40; hereafter cited in the text.

  21. In Fat and Blood, Mitchell describes this relationship and concludes “the nurse falls ill, and a new victim is found. I have seen an hysterical, anemic girl kill in this way three generations of nurses” (30).

  22. S. Weir Mitchell, Constance Trescot (New York: The Century Co., 1909), 222; hereafter cited in the text.

  23. Rein uses this term to describe Octopia Darnell in Roland Blake, Constance Trescot in Constance Trescot, and Ann Penhallow in Westways (1914), Mitchell's last novel. See his chapter “The Couch-Loving Invalids.”

  24. Susan in Constance Trescot, like Olivia in Roland Blake, escapes her ministering role through marriage, and Constance goes abroad with a nursemaid.

  25. These novels were not as well reviewed as some of Mitchell's other fiction. The Nation called Characteristics “not very exciting” but recognized that it was “sane and even in tone” (“More Novels,” Nation 55 [8 December 1892], 437). The style of Dr. North and His Friends received more stringent criticism: “Almost everybody who believes himself to be intelligent may be heard, at one time or another, expressing a regret that the age of conversation is past. An attempt to read the conversations between ‘Dr. North and His Friends’ is likely to stifle such regrets; indeed, to convert them into an ardent prayer that the art may not be revived, at least in our time” (“Recent Novels,” Nation 72 [28 February 1901], 182). The book was better received by the Critic, which called Dr. North and His Friends “a book such as only a wise and learned man could write, for it garners the wit and wisdom of a lifetime” (“Fiction,” Critic 37 [January 1901], 86). For more discussion of these and other works, see Rein, particularly his concluding chapter entitled “Mitchell as a Novelist” (178-202).

  26. This point has been much debated between Wood and Morantz; while Wood claims that Mitchell believes “women doctors would always be inferior to male physicians” in “‘The Fashionable Diseases’” (228), Morantz finds no firm support for this claim in Fat and Blood or any of Mitchell's writings (240).

  27. S. Weir Mitchell, Characteristics (New York: The Century Co., 1891), 234; hereafter cited in the text.

  28. While Mitchell's females typically cry in front of their physicians, Gilman's narrator conceals her sobbing.

  29. The end of Gilman's controversial story invites conflicting interpretations of entrapment and liberation. While many critics read the conclusion as a triumph, some argue that she is defeated, and others assert that she achieves a partial victory. For further reading on this range of interpretations, see The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” ed. Catherine Golden. (New York: Feminist Press, 1991).

  30. S. Weir Mitchell, Dr. North and His Friends (New York: Century, 1900), 18; hereafter cited in the text.

  31. Sibyl Maywood is described as having a dual personality who carries out passionate acts in a somnambulist state.

  32. This issue has recently been raised by Paula Treichler and Richard Feldstein. See Paula A. Treichler, “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 3 (1984): 61-77; Richard Feldstein, “Reader, Text, and Ambiguous Referentiality in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” Feminism and Psychoanalysis, eds. Richard Feldstein and Judith Roof (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1989), 269-79.

  33. Gilman mentions in her autobiography that she lost the ability to read for longer than a short period of time. She also had trouble learning languages and following indexes.

  34. In her foreword to The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Zona Gale includes this poem along with “Similar Cases” as an indication of Gilman's constant preoccupation with the advance of women (xxxiii-xxxiv).

  35. This essay grew out of a Collaborative Student-Faculty Research Grant funded by Skidmore College during the summer of 1990. Erin Senack, now Assistant to the Editor of Woman of Power magazine, was instrumental in the research involved in this project.

Joanne B. Karpinski (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Karpinski, Joanne B. “When the Marriage of True Minds Admits Impediments: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and William Dean Howells.” In Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Joanne B. Karpinski, pp. 202-21. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992.

[In the following essay, Karpinski discusses the role of William Dean Howells in the development of Gilman's literary career and in the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”]

At first glance, the intellectual minuet between Charlotte Perkins Gilman and William Dean Howells seems vulnerable to Gertrude Stein's complaint about Gilman's onetime home of Oakland, California: “There isn't any there, there.” Unlike the Larcom-Whittier relationship, for example, this one lacks an elaborate prior myth to deconstruct.1 Nor is there a complex text of correspondence to (mis)-read, as in the case of Dickinson and Higginson. But postmodern criticism alerts us to the heuristic value of absence, allowing us to focus on Howell's cautious fulfillment of the mentorial role he had initiated with such rhetorical fervor. Sincere but correct, Howells was not suited by temperament or conviction to become the passionate champion that Gilman had hoped for.

Gilman's first major poem, “Similar Cases,” was published in the April 1890 issue of the socialist periodical the Nationalist, where it attracted the appreciative attention of William Dean Howells. Gilman recorded his “unforgettable letter” and her reaction to it in her autobiography:

Dear Madam,

I have been wishing ever since I first read it—and I've read it many times with unfailing joy—to thank you for your poem in the April Nationalist. We have had nothing since the Biglow Papers half so good for a good cause as “Similar Cases.”

And just now I've read in The Woman's Journal your “Women of To-day.” It is as good almost as the other, and dreadfully true.

Yours sincerely,

Wm. Dean Howells

That was a joy indeed. … There was no man in the country whose good opinion I would rather have had. I felt like a real “author” at last.2

Gilman's enthusiastic response to Howells's letter may seem overdone to twentieth-century readers for whom Howell's reputation has been eclipsed, but in 1890 Howells was a name to conjure with. As editor of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, as a contributor of fiction and reviews to such significant periodicals as the Century and Scribner's, and as writer of “The Editor's Easy Chair” column for Harper's Monthly, he was “in a position of greater prestige and authority than any other reformer of his time.”3 Thus, Gilman had good reason to be pleased. As fellow socialist Edward Bellamy wrote to Howells in thanks for his praise of Dr. Heidenhoff's Process, notice from such an august quarter was “as refreshing to me as you may suppose a note from Hawthorne in recommendation of one of your earlier efforts would have been to you.”4

The esteem in which Howells held Gilman's writing receives forceful expression in his 1899 article, “The New Poetry,” published in the North American Review:

Her civic satire is of a form which she herself invented; it recalls the work of no one else; you can say of it (and I have said this before), that since the Biglow Papers there has been no satire approaching it in the wit flashing from profound conviction … but the time has not yet come when we desire to have the Original Socialists for our ancestors, and I am afraid that the acceptance of Mrs. Stetson's [Gilman's first married name] satire is mostly confined to fanatics, philanthropists and other Dangerous Persons. But that need not keep us from owning its brilliancy.5

As Gloria Martin points out in her dissertation on women in Howell's criticism and fiction, the irony of Howells's assessment might seem at first to be directed against Gilman, but is in fact directed at his audience, “implying that only when the country has accepted the humane theories of socialism will Stetson's work become as respectable as Lowell's famous satire has now become.” Martin characterizes this passage as “a rare acceptance of another author by Howells into the privacy of the editorial tone.”6

Personal similarities and political sympathies disposed Howells to be appreciative of Gilman and her work. Both writers experienced financially insecure childhoods, with their mothers marshaling the family struggle for economic security. Each fought with recurring depression from adolescence until late in life. Gilman's affiliation with socialism came early and enthusiastically, while Howells embraced the same social philosophy later in life and more gradually. Never the ardent feminist that Gilman was, Howells nevertheless supported the cause of women's equality with a vigor unusual for a man of his times.

With so much in common, it would seem inevitable for the dean of American letters to foster the professional fortunes of the young woman whose work he praised so highly. Instead, Howells temporized, using his influence to get her work brought out by other publishers than those with which he was directly associated. Why did the budding mentorial relationship not flourish? Apparently, it suffered from a residual timorousness on Howells' part about the bitterness of Gilman's social indictment, even at its most humorous. Moreover, Howells' relationship with his oldest daughter and with the female writers whose work he did promote suggest a patriarchal temperament poorly suited both to Gilman's emotional needs and to her style of writing.

Gilman's father, Frederick Beecher Perkins, held a variety of editorial and library jobs while trying unsuccessfully to establish himself as a fiction writer. He left the family when Charlotte was nine, after increasingly lengthy periods of separation during which he left his family (four children, of whom only Charlotte and her older brother, Thomas, survived infancy) in the care of relatives. After his departure from the family scene, Charlotte's mother supported the household by taking in boarders or by acting as companion to invalid relations, since Frederick's contributions were both meager and irregular. Periodically, Gilman would attempt to reestablish contact with her absent father, but found him emotionally as well as physically distant.7

Howells's praise of her poetry and political opinions thus satisfied a deep thirst for something like paternal approval. However, Gilman could no more rephrase her polemics to please Howell's sense of decorum than she could retract the impolitic kiss she once offered her father in the Boston Public Library.

Like Gilman, Howells had spent his childhood wandering nomadically on the frontiers of respectable poverty. His father, William Cooper Howells, began married life as an itinerant printer. He moved rapidly into the editorial office, where radical opinions in both religion and politics often irritated his subscribers. His outspoken support of abolition and the Free-Soil party lost him several positions at newspapers run by the Whig party in Ohio, while his ardor for the mystical doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg outstripped even the New Church loyalists of that state. The senior Howells had “the heroic superiority to mere events and shifts of fortune which was in keeping with his religion and his temperament as an idealist,”8 but the loss of income and alienation from community life were more difficult for his wife and family to bear.

Staunchly loyal to her husband, Mary Dean Howells undertook the financial management of their affairs to protect the family from the consequences of his principled indifference to money. Like Mary Perkins, she took in boarders. When Howells again found editorial work in a more congenial political climate, she had title to the business and the property placed in her name and that of her oldest son.

These mothers, forced into roles of unusual self-reliance, were deeply influential on Gilman and Howells. Neither woman particularly liked the autonomy that was thrust upon her: Gilman's mother cast herself as the victim of fate, while Howells's steeled herself to endure what she could not cure. The frictions produced between their dislike of their new roles and their competence in pursuing them greatly affected their children.

Gilman alternately blamed her mother's smothering affection for driving her father away, admired her as a tower of strength in adversity, and resented the severity and irritability that her mother's overwhelming responsibilities had engendered. Howells idolized his father's principles, but keenly felt the consequences of his honoring them. As a result, his naturally lively affection for his mother grew into an attachment so fervent and idealized that it became unbearable for him to leave her, even for a brief period. Several times in his adolescence he was humiliated by having to return home from a job because of homesickness.

Ironically, Howells adopted toward his own family the role of Victorian paterfamilias despite the opportunity afforded by his upbringing to evade this stereotype, since his wife and oldest daughter suffered debilitating health conditions. His acquiescence to the prevailing mythology of gender had tragic consequences for the family. Convinced by the doctors he consulted that his daughter Winifred's reluctance to eat was psychological rather than physical in origin, Howells committed her to a variety of therapeutic regimes, and regarded her resistance to these as a contest of wills.9 When a postmortem examination revealed an organic cause for her pain, Howells was devastated by remorse, although he accepted the doctors' reassurance that the problem could not have been discovered by the diagnostic procedures then available.10 Even after her death, however, Howells continued to associate Winifred's symptoms with a level of intellectual activity deemed excessive for a woman.11

This inability of a loving and compassionate father to comprehend his intellectual daughter's illness seems the more poignant in that Howells himself periodically suffered from bouts of an acute but obscure malaise that left him unable to work or study. He recovered his health by resorting to the type of nature cure imposed on his daughter Winifred, but these breakdowns permanently dimmed the optimism of his earlier character.

Gilman's physical and emotional makeup, so similar to his own, might have disturbed Howells by its likeness to Winifred's as he understood it. Gilman's adult life alternated between periods of exultant productivity and paralyzing depression. Already at age fifteen she wrote to her long-absent father for “a good strong dose of advice” on this issue:

“Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel” said the patriarch to his son. The words often ring in my ears, and I sometimes feel, as if there was not hope, and the irrevocable Word of the Lord had pronounced my doom. That is in my intervals of depression; few and far between you may think, but it is not so. I often feel hopelessly despairing, at my total inability to work.

[Emphasis in the original]12

Adolescent hyperbole aside, this preoccupation with the necessity of useful work and the emotional obstacles to accomplishing it satisfactorily reappears in Gilman's letters and journal entries ever after. “Useful work” for Gilman always meant something creative or done for the public good. The traditional work of women exacerbated her depression, particularly after her marriage to Walter Stetson and the birth of their only child, Katherine.

Paradoxically, these depressions spurred her literary career. Her poem “The Answer,” an outcry against the “work that brainless slaves might do” that ultimately kills an optimistic bride, won first prize for the year from the Woman's Journal: more important, it strengthened her affiliation with the American Woman Suffrage Organization, which sponsored the journal.13 Also, Gilman's struggle with the misdirected therapy prescribed for her depression formed the anecdote for “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the story for which she is best known today.

Unable to endure the tension between growing public success and domestic misery, Gilman sought professional help. Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who had treated several of Gilman's Beecher relatives for “nervous ailments,” prescribed his six-week “rest cure”: bed rest, massage, lots of food, and complete avoidance of mental stimulation. Gilman followed the regimen under Mitchell's supervision, but once she returned home, his admonition—“live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live”14—drove her to the brink of mental collapse. In desperation, Gilman abandoned the regime and her household. The separation from Stetson became permanent; divorce followed soon after.

Curiously, this emancipation from traditional womanliness did not put an end to Gilman's depressive episodes. Any protracted contact with domesticity—her own or others'—tended to bring one on. She visited Jane Addams at Hull House and was so impressed by the “useful work” done there that she intended to stay on, but soon the drudgery and dreary climate overcame her. After an enthusiastic beginning, a trip to England to participate in the socialist experiments of the Fabians came to a similar end.

Gilman wrote in her memoir that “Mr. Howells told me that I was the only optimist reformer he ever met,”15 but for much of his life this evaluation was true of Howells himself. Brought up in the golden age of American rural egalitarianism, Howells increasingly saw the values of that era sacrificed to the rampant acquisitiveness of the industrial Gilded Age. Two major influences on this altered point of view were the Haymarket bombing and Howells's introduction to the Christian Socialism of Tolstoy.

Howells was one of the few opinion leaders of the era to defend the Haymarket anarchists in print, and he was pilloried in the press for it. Although Howells vacillated for weeks after writing to the anarchists' defense attorney that he believed the defendants to be innocent, he ultimately acted courageously on the attorney's advice that Howells initiate a press campaign in their behalf. Thus it appears that fear of controversy alone cannot account for Howells's holding back in his mentorial relationship with Gilman.

Just at the time that he was forced to confront the accumulated shortcomings of his beloved Republic, Howells “became interested in the creed of Socialism,” in which “the greatest influence … came to me through Tolstoy.”16 Tolstoy's repudiation of industrial society, based as it was on the Christian tenets Howells had imbibed as a youth, revived Howells' optimism by redirecting it:

Tolstoy gave me heart to hope that the world may yet be made over in the image of Him who died for it. … He gave me new criterions, new principles.17

Howells acted on his new convictions both in his own fiction and in the editorial support he gave to other writers of similar persuasions. He gave an enthusiastic review to Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward, which reversed the trend of mixed reviews and poor sales that had initially greeted the book. Hamlin Garland credited Howells's favorable review of Main-Travelled Roads with winning it a place in the east. Thorstein Veblen's biographer noted that Howells's two laudatory columns on The Theory of the Leisure Class “helped to make the book a sensation.”18 And, at various times, Howells published his admiration of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Late in his career he praised her work as “witty and courageous,” adding that “the best things that have been said about woman suffrage in our time have been said by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.”19

When Gilman received Howells's compliments on “Similar Cases,” she sent a copy of his letter to her friend Martha Lane, with the following comments:

I'm glad you thought my poem funny. I herein boastfully enclose a copy of a letter showing it was thought rather more of by some!

… Isn't that a delightful letter? I am so pleased too to find the man thinks well of Nationalism in spite of its “flabby apostle.”20

The “apostle” was Edward Bellamy, whose novel was helped to prominence by Howells's favorable review.

Gilman was prepared by nature and education to embrace the Nationalist creed, which expounded the necessity of the government's taking complete control of the means of production in order to eradicate the panoply of evils generated by laissez-faire economics. Like Howells, Gilman had grown up in a family atmosphere suffused with belief in progress. Her maternal relatives, the Nonconformist Beecher preachers, extended from the spiritual to the social sphere their conviction that the individual could improve his own life with the help of grace. Reading lists compiled by her father nurtured this conviction into support for the theories of the Reform Darwinists, who saw evolutionary progress as the collective right and duty of the entire enlightened human species.

This linking of social progress to natural law appealed to Gilman's personal tendency toward rational optimism and preference for provable over revealed truth. For Gilman, the “will of God” meant “health, intelligence, normal development, beauty, joyous fulfillment of all life's processes,” and she believed that “economic measures which promote such things must be in accordance with it.”21 As Howells had also done, Gilman rejected sectarian Christianity in favor of a God-ordered universe in which Christian ethics assisted the laws of evolution to pursue the perfection intended by the Creator. Both authors linked social responsibility to religious tenets rather than political ideology.

The family environment also oriented Gilman toward feminism. Her great-aunts included the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catharine Beecher (the architect of “domestic feminism”), and suffrage worker Isabella Beecher Hooker. Gilman came to know these women and their convictions during the extended family visits brought about by her father's lapses in financial support. From them she learned that women could have a stimulating intellectual and social life of their own, without standing in the shadow of husband or father, yet without sacrificing womanliness.

She also learned that exposing men's exploitation of women to public criticism would bring a storm of recrimination around a woman's head, but that a strong woman could survive it. Harriet Beecher Stowe provoked a considerable scandal when she insisted on publishing Lady Byron's accusation that her husband had seduced his half sister. Isabella Beecher Hooker caused a major rift in family relations by supporting fellow suffragist Victoria Woodhull's right to publish the story of Henry Ward Beecher's many lapses from the sexual propriety expected of a minister. These role models undoubtedly assisted Gilman in managing the spiteful publicity generated by her divorce as well as reinforcing her outspoken opinions about women's rights. Nationalism and feminism worked together, in Gilman's view: nationalism was “the most practical form of human development,” but equality of the sexes was “the most essential condition of that development.”22

For both Gilman and Howells, the political rights of women were founded on their equality with men. Howells was frequently misunderstood on this topic, because his fiction treats women evenhandedly rather than idealistically: Dr. Breen's Practice, for example, deals with the setbacks experienced by a female homeopathic doctor in her encounters with the maledominant allopathic medical establishment; A Woman's Reason looks at the limited economic options open to a woman lacking a male protector; and A Modern Instance charts the catastrophic effects of the stigma of divorce on a woman's life. In his “Editor's Easy Chair” column, Howells argued that women had the duties of citizens, and therefore should have citizens' rights as well. Since women lived within the State, they ought to be able to vote on its practices, and since they had to pay taxes, the principle of “no taxation without representation” ought to entitle women to suffrage.23

Howells wrote on women's issues as part of a general commitment to social reform. Gilman did the reverse: she committed herself to a general reform of “masculinist” social order as a precondition to the achievement of equality for women. Her monumental study of Women and Economics (1898) won her international recognition. It was followed by Concerning Children (1900), The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), Human Work (1904), Man Made World: or, Our Androcentric Culture (1911), and His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers (1923). For seven years (1909-1916), she published a quarterly journal called the Forerunner, writing all the columns, fiction, poetry, and even the advertisements herself. She supported this endeavor by lecturing and contributing to other publications. The Forerunner addressed feminist issues great and small: suffrage; dress reform; sexual autonomy and family planning; the efficient management of housework, cooking, and child care by experts; men's oppression of women and women's oppression of themselves.

The quarterly serialized Gilman's utopian novel, Herland, which pictures the successful operation of a society entirely without men. Miraculously endowed with the power to reproduce by parthenogenesis when a catastrophe permanently isolates the women at home from the men who have gone off to war, the female citizens of Herland put the stamp of nurture on traditionally male domains. When a trio of male adventurers stumbles upon this sanctuary, their efforts to comprehend its extraordinary environment and to explain the workings of their own society produce a humorous and satirical indictment of sex-specific divisions in human activity. Thus, this utopia avoids the usual pitfall of the genre, namely ponderous didacticism, a fault that mars its sequel, With Her in Ourland.

Howells, too, used the utopian genre to envision a society based on gender equality. His Alturian romances assume that an enlightened proletariat would use the democratic process to ensure that men and women have not only equal opportunities but equal obligations in the economic, political, and domestic spheres. With women freed from the pressure of supporting the entire family unit, both sexes of Alturians are able to achieve their full human potential. Curiously, the American woman who travels to Alturia and marries there follows a career path not unlike Gilman's; she becomes a traveling lecturer, combining intellectual work and domestic chores through a communal housekeeping arrangement. This heroine's name, Eveleth Strange, brings together the female archetypes of Eve and Lilith without reference to the sanctified, pedestaled archetype of the Virgin.

More important to the cause of gender equality than Howells's fiction, however, was his editorial support of women writers. In “Recollections of an Atlantic Editorship,” Howells lists nineteen women whose work appeared during his tenure and adds that he does not know whether he published more men or women,

but if any one were to prove that there were more women than men I should not be surprised. … For in our beloved republic of letters the citizenship is not reserved solely to males of twenty-one and over.24

As Ann Douglas Wood points out, Howells held up for special praise several representatives of the local-color school, finding that their “directness and simplicity” is of a piece with “the best modern work everywhere.”25 While the high quality of the local colorists' literary achievement and the sincerity of Howells's support for them are incontestable, these women's motives and methods are so different from Gilman's that it is easy to see why Howells, admiring the former, would be disconcerted by the latter.

The qualities of style that Howells praised in the work of the local colorists were on the whole foreign to Gilman's. While the local colorists wrote in the realistic mode, Gilman's fiction and poetry were unabashedly romantic in the intensity and extravagance of her expression. In general, Howells disparaged the romance genre for presenting women with unwholesomely exaggerated role models, and for making it possible for them to take refuge from their real problems in a world of fictional triumphs. Gilman's utopian novels and serial fiction could be seen as vulnerable to such a critique, but oddly enough in this context, the Gilman short story that Howells elected to anthologize belongs to the Gothic tradition. Even when Howells writes about Gilman's poems, which do not exhibit the presumed defects of the romance genre, a consistent motif of his letters to Gilman is enthusiasm for her convictions tempered by genteel consternation over her verbal deportment.

The restraint that differentiated the local colorists' literary style from Gilman's extended to their professional styles as well. Contrasting them to the assertively professional women of the earlier sentimentalist school, Wood notes that the local colorists tended to be reclusive “pure artists,” neither subscribing to the cult of domesticity nor competing in the male-dominated marketplace. While the former quality places their writings in the artistic and social vanguard, the latter preserved their personal aura of conventional femininity. That both qualities figured centrally in Howells' esteem of these women can be seen in his correspondence with and about them.

In an 1885 letter to Edmund Gosse, for example, Howells expresses his astonishment that “Charles Egbert Craddock” turns out to be a woman writer in terms that revere her feminine weakness:

We are just now in an excitement as great as the Gosse boom at its wildest, about Charles Egbert Craddock, the author of the Tennessee mountain stories, who has turned up in Boston, a little girl-cripple [emphasis in original], not so big as Pilla. … She has a most manful and womanly soul in her poor, twisted little body. Her stories are extraordinary; but I dare say you know them.26

A similar emphasis appears in a fulsome but domesticated compliment to Sarah Orne Jewett:

You have a precious gift, and you must know it, and can be none the worse for your knowledge. We all have a tender pleasure in your work, which there is no name for but love. I think no one [emphasis in original] has shown finer art in a way, than you, and that something which is so much better than art, besides. Your voice is like a thrush's in the din of all the literary noises that stun us so.27

It is hard to recognize in this rhetorical throwback to the “sweet singer” that stereotyped an earlier generation of literary women the same stylist whom Howells had praised in the Cosmopolitan Magazine for “the perfect artistic restraint, the truly Greek temperance” of her prose.28

In several respects Gilman's career differed from those of the local colorists whom Howells deservedly placed on a critical pedestal. Gilman made her living by writing, while of that group “only Freeman and Stuart supported themselves by their pens.”29 In addition, she earned money from public speaking, still a daring occupation for a female at the turn of the century. She wrote and spoke explicitly about the invidious way “in which the sexuo-economic relation has operated in our species,”30 while the local colorists' frequent focus on female protagonists living independently from men only implicitly addressed the material price paid for this autonomy. Neither in their person nor in their work did the local colorists challenge conventionally imposed standards of feminine virtue, while Gilman did both.

These differences are significant because Howells indulged in the unfortunate habit of impugning the femininity of women writers with whom he disagreed. He once wrote to Henry James about his unpleasant meeting with “a certain celebrated lady novelist, who once turned to criticism long enough to devote me to execration” that “I find I don't take these things Pickwickianly; but she avenged me by the way she dressed and the way she talked. I wish I could present you with the whole scene, but I mustn't.”31

It should be noted that Howell's admiration for Gilman's writing evidently did not extend to appreciation for her unconventional domestic arrangements: her divorce from Walter Stetson and relinquishment of their daughter's custody to him and his new wife, who happened to be Gilman's best friend and her housemate during her year of separation (Hill asserts that Gilman encouraged Stetson to court her friend).32 He attached the following acidulous biographical account to an 1898 letter from Gilman recommending some stories written by her “friend and co-mother,” Grace Ellery Channing:

Mrs. Stetson's “co-mother” is married to Mrs. Stetson's divorced husband. Mrs. S. attended the wedding and gave her young daughter to her “co-mother” as a wedding present.33

The scandalous “abandonment” of her five-year-old daughter, Katherine, to the child's father and stepmother on the undoubtedly accurate grounds that they were better suited both temperamentally and economically to take care of her haunted Gilman's career as a writer and lecturer for years: however, Howells's privately expressed opinion did not prevent him, or his wife and daughter, from socializing with Gilman. He attended her lectures—indeed, on one occasion she substituted for him on the lecture platform when he was unable to keep a speaking engagement—and she visited Howells's family at home. Gilman regarded this friendship as a “special pleasure.”34

Howells could offer unqualified enthusiasm for Gilman's “Similar Cases” because it satirized resistance to social change without going into embarrassing particulars. Written in the “thump and swack” meter popular to nineteenth-century oratorical verse, the poem's three “cases” represent stages in evolutionary development: the Eohippus, the Anthropoidal Ape, and the Neolithic Man. Each of these announces to his coeval creatures his vision of his future greatness, but is hooted down by them on the basis of his present unprepossessing status. “You would have to change your nature,” argue the soon-to-be evolutionary castoffs against the aspirations of the progressive species.

The best verse of the poem shows the Neolithic Man's unfazed awareness that civilization will have its pitfalls as well as peaks:

We are going to live in cities!
          We are going to fight in wars!
We are going to eat three times a day
          Without the natural cause! …
We are going to have Diseases!
          And Accomplishments!! And Sins!!!(35)

This irony within an irony is typical of Gilman's satire at its sharpest. The barb seems at first somewhat softened by the fact that the “similar cases” under discussion have come to view from the pre-societal past, but a missing case is clearly implied by the “you would have to change your nature” refrain—that of women, whose efforts to evolve into fully human dignity and competence were regularly condemned as “unnatural” in Gilman's era.

In his letter congratulating Gilman on the appearance of “Similar Cases,” Howells also complimented her poem “Women of Today” (that Howells read it in the Woman's Journal, sponsored by the American Woman Suffrage Association, testifies to his sympathetic interest in this issue). This short work chastises the “women of today who fear so much / The women of the future,” and who proudly cling to the traditional roles of mother, wife, and housekeeper. The poet questions whether the “woman of today” indeed fulfills these roles: as a housekeeper, unlike her ancestors, she only keeps servants, and she cannot even keep them in service for long; as a wife, who in principle holds the key to her husband's heart, she must fear the consequences of the prevailing sexual double standard; and as a mother, she must suffer the grievous knowledge that half of the children born in the nineteenth century were doomed to die in infancy. The jeremiad predicts that the “woman of today” will never improve her blighted lot unless she can recognize her contentment as an unenlightened sham:

And still the wailing babies come and go,
And homes are waste, and husband's hearts fly far,
There is no hope until you dare to know
The thing you are!(36)

Howells somewhat overstated the case when he told Gilman that this poem “is as good almost as the other”—it lacks the lash of wit to give it energy, and tries to supply the missing verve with exclamation points—but he was no doubt correct in calling it “dreadfully true.” However, as will be seen more strongly in his response to “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the word “dreadfully” and its synonyms apparently cut two ways in Howells's lexicon: the production of dread in the reader may be a worthy aesthetic goal, yet not be worthwhile as a publisher's risk.

Six months after his first paean, Howells again wrote to Gilman, this time on letterhead from the Cosmopolitan Magazine's editorial department:

Do you think you could send me for this magazine something as good and wicked as Similar Cases, and of the like destructive tendency? And could you send it “in liking?”37

Gilman sent him “The Amoeboid Cell,” which recounts a conversation between an amoeboid cell and a specialized one, in which the latter urges the advantages of development upon the former.

The amoeba resists the motion, unwilling to lose its personal freedom. The specialized cell retorts that in its present state the amoeba is just a “speck in the slime at the birthday of time,” subject to mass death at the whim of nature. In contrast, the specialized cell enjoys the fruits of cooperation, while retaining the pleasures of diversity's “limitless range.”

In the last stanza, the amoeba appears to get its just deserts, but the smugness of the specialized cell is also undermined by the final line of the poem:

Just then came a frost and the Amoeboid Cell
          Died out by the billion again:
                    But the Specialized Cell
                    In the body felt well
          And rejoiced in his place in the brain!
          The dead level of life with a brain!(38)

Howells's letter of response to this offering giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other, as do many of his assessments of Gilman's writing:

The Amoeboid Cell is so good that I think it deserves working over more carefully, and condensing a good deal. I don't like any part of the joke that's in the spelling, like “individualitee” and “anybodee,” and I think your moral is a little too sharply pointed. Couldn't it be incidental, somehow? Perhaps I am over-particular, but then I always think I am worth pleasing, as an admirer of your gifts.39

The available correspondence does not indicate whether Gilman made the effort to please the “admirer of her gifts,” but “The Amoeboid Cell” never appeared in the Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Gilman's and Howells's estimates vary about his role in the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” By Gilman's description, Howells was an ineffective advocate for the story:

This [“The Yellow Wallpaper”] I sent to Mr. Howells, and he tried to have the Atlantic Monthly print it, but Mr. Scudder, then the editor, sent it back with this brief card:

Dear Madam:

Mr. Howells has handed me this story. I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself!40

After lamenting Scudder's lapse of perception (“I suppose he would have sent back one of Poe's on the same ground”), Gilman notes that she then put the story in the hands of a commercial agent, who placed it with the New England Journal. The agent never transmitted the Journal's stipend to the author.

In “A Reminiscent Introduction” to the anthology in which Howells finally reprinted “The Yellow Wallpaper,” however, he credits himself with assuring the story's first appearance in print:

It wanted at least two generations [after Poe] to freeze our young blood with Mrs. Perkins Gilman's story of The Yellow Wallpaper, which Horace Scudder (then of The Atlantic) said in refusing it that it was so terribly good that it ought never to be printed. But terrible and too wholly dire as it was. I could not rest until I had corrupted the editor of The New England Magazine into publishing it. Now that I have got it into my collection here, I shiver over it as much as I did when I first read it in manuscript, though I agree with the editor of The Atlantic of the time that it was too terribly good to be printed.41

While Gilman could scarcely blame Howells for Scudder's refusal to print “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the Atlantic Monthly, she either did not know about Howells' efforts to “corrupt” the editor of the New England Journal or did not appreciate them sufficiently to take note of them in her memoir, where she records only the activities of the tightfisted commercial agent.

In addition to accounting himself more active in the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper” than Gilman acknowledged, Howells's introductory assessment of the piece in his anthology suggests—by its repetition of the adjective “terrible”—the grounds for his reluctance to press Scudder more assertively for the story's publication. During his own tenure as editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Howells had a taste of the consequences that could attend the publication of material “too wholly dire” for the public taste.

In September 1869, Howells brought out Harriet Beecher Stowe's “True Story of Lady Byron's Life,” which included Lady Byron's accusation that her husband had committed incest with his half sister. The content of the charge was moral indignation about the things a married woman must endure with patience, but public indignation with the Atlantic Monthly for putting such shocking material in print cost the magazine 15,000 subscribers. Since Stowe was absolutely determined to publish her exposé somewhere, and since Howells wanted to keep her contributing to the Atlantic Monthly despite his reservations about any particular article, he could hardly have refused to print it. This episode, however—the third publication scandal to plague the magazine during Howells's association with it, although the only one for which he was accountable—made Howells somewhat more chary of offending the subscribers' sense of decency. This hard-earned editorial caution would have led Howells to respect Scudder's decision not to “make others miserable” by publishing “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Gilman was not unaware of Howells's aesthetically if not politically conservative tastes. Although she valued his praise, his writing was

never a favorite of mine you know. His work is exquisite, painfully exquisite, but save for that Chinese delicacy of workmanship it seems to me of small artistic value. And its truth is that of the elaborate medical chart, the scientific photograph.42

On the other hand, she apparently was not aware of the painful personal connection that Howells had had with the rest-cure regimen lambasted by “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

S. Weir Mitchell, who had supervised Gilman's disastrous rest cure, was a personal friend and artistic discovery of Howells, who published some of the doctor's fiction in the Atlantic Monthly. Mitchell had also prescribed this treatment for Winifred Howells, who gained physical strength but died of “a sudden failure of the heart” while under his care.

It is unclear whether Howells understood that Mitchell's methods were the particular target of Gilman's wrath in “The Yellow Wallpaper” at the time that she sent it to him for the Atlantic Monthly. Not until her letter to Howells accepting his invitation to anthologize the story in 1919 does Gilman make this explicit:

Did you know that one piece of “literature” of mine was pure propaganda? I was under Dr. Weir Mitchell's treatment, at 27. … I tried it one summer, and went as near lunacy as one can, and come back. So I wrote this, and sent him a copy. He made no response, but years after some one told me that he had told a friend “I have completely altered my treatment of neurasthenia since reading “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Triumph!43

Gilman's failure to credit Howells with facilitating the initial appearance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” in print follows a pattern of denying the actual contributions of those who, in Gilman's opinion, ought to have done more. Her correspondence with Lester Ward, the father of American sociology, shows a similar reaction.44

In 1893, the year following the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman brought out a volume of her collected poetry, entitled In This Our World. Again, Howells sent Gilman a letter praising the poems and their author in the warmest terms:

I am ashamed not to have said long ago how much pleasure we have all taken in your book of poems. They are the wittiest and wisest things that have been written this many a long day and year. You are not only the prophetess of the new religion (in the new conception of religion) but you speak with a tongue like a two-edged sword.

Once again, however, Howells's reservations begin to appear even as he praises:

I rejoice in your gift fearfully [emphasis added], and wonder how much more you will do with it. I can see how far and deep you have thought about the things at hand, and I have my bourgeois moments when I could have wished you for success's sake to have been less frank. But of course you know that you stand in your own way!45

Thus it comes as no surprise that Howells graciously declines the opportunity to escort any more of Gilman's poems into print:

I like your Immortality, but I can understand why magazines would not. As to the volume of poetry, I suggest your sending it by Ripley Hitchcock, the literary man of Appletons, who have just brought out Bellamy's book. He will give it intelligent attention, and I beg you to quote me as cordially in its favor as your self respect will allow. I will tell him you are going to send it.46

The poem that magazines would not like depicts a conscious being in various stages of evolution: as grass, ape, man, and immortal soul. In its earliest avatars, the conscious being passively endured its fate or futilely rebelled against it. As man, it self-consciously gloried in its existence and learned to aspire to immortality. So far so good, in terms of conventional Christian evolution. The penultimate stanza, however, attacks the vision of the afterlife's reward as “hypothetical” as well as egotistical (“In this an endless, boundless bliss I see,— / Eternal me!”), while the final verse contradicts the idea of divine providence with a perspective supremely indifferent to human events:

When I was a man, no doubt I used to care
About the little things that happened there,
And fret to see the years keep going by,
And nations, families, and persons die.(47)

The bromidic concluding couplet—“I didn't much appreciate life's plan / When I was a man”—can hardly counteract the acid tone of the poem as a whole.

Since Gilman published only the one collection of poetry, it is not clear whether Howells' letter refers to a projected second volume or to the 1898 reprint of In This Our World. In either case, Gilman's self-respect apparently would not allow her to quote Howells cordially enough to “the literary man at Appletons”: no second volume ever appeared, and the copyright to the 1898 reprint was entered by Small, Maynard and Company of Boston.

Except for including “The Yellow Wallpaper” in The Great Modern American Stories, Howells's mentorial efforts for Gilman did not operate on the practical level: however, he never ceased to offer her sweeping moral support on the order of “when the gods really wake up and begin to behave justly you will have no cause to complain.”48 Why did Howells prefer to leave Gilman's career in the lap of the gods when he took other women writers under his own wing? The evidence suggests that while Howells held in high esteem Gilman's passionate defense of principles he, too, held sacred, he could not espouse her rhetorical and personal flamboyance. From childhood on, the ideal of the gracious lady exercised a powerful attraction over him. As Edwin H. Cady notes:

His recollections of their drawing rooms and conservatories in Years of My Youth is almost a hymn to the ladyhood he learned to worship in Columbus. In later life he became disenchanted of almost all his other romanticisms. But he never entirely sloughed off his worship of the lady, though by means of it he gained deep insights into the nature of the civilized woman.49

Even on the issue of women's suffrage, about which Howells believed Gilman to have been the best and wisest exponent, his approach is genteel where Gilman's is wryly impatient. Howells believed that suffrage would come to women (in some unspecified, spontaneous manner) when women themselves sufficiently wanted this right. Gilman gleefully satirized this point of view in a poem entitled “Women Do Not Want It”:

What women want has never been a strongly acting cause
When women has been wronged by man in churches, customs, laws:
Why should he find this preference so largely in his way
When he himself admits the right of what we ask today?(50)

Perhaps, too, Gilman sought a mentorial relationship with Howells at a level of emotional intensity to which he was not prepared to respond. Her letters of compliment to him are couched in no more exaggerated terms than his to her, but women of that period were expected to express themselves to men more circumspectly; apparently even Walter Stetson felt that his wife's demonstrations of emotional need were a little too frank.51 Their correspondence indicates that Gilman initiated all the meetings that took place between them, with Howells occasionally (though graciously) demurring on the grounds of his own or his family's ill health.

Certainly her need for his assistance was great, since she published almost all of her works at her own expense, but the directness of her appeal may have put off a man accustomed to being the patriarch in such situations—he wrote to Lucy Larcom, for example. “You take rejection so sweetly that I have scarcely the heart to accept anything of yours.”52

In the letter that thanks Howells for wishing to include “The Yellow Wallpaper” in his anthology, Gilman anxiously seeks his approval of her magazine:

Please—did you ever receive either one of the bound volumes of the first year of my precious Forerunner? … I did want you to notice my baby, and tried twice, letter and book.53

Howell's one-line reply simply regrets that he never received her book, ignoring her plea for reassurance.

Summing up the successes and failures of her efforts to place work in magazines other than the Forerunner, Gilman made a list of those who were “good friends among editors.” Howells's name is not among them, although she claims to have had so many that she can “by no means remember them all.”54 Recalling Theodore Dreiser's gloomy advice to “consider more what the editors want,” Gilman explains the reason she ignored his counsel:

There are those who write as artists, real ones; they often find it difficult to consider what the editor wants. There are those who write to earn a living, who if they succeed, must please his purchasers, the public, so we have this great trade of literary catering. But if one writes to express important truths, needed yet unpopular, the market is necessarily limited.55

Taking into account its defensively self-congratulatory tone, this explanation seems essentially valid with respect to Howells's unwillingness to publish Gilman's work himself or to strongly advocate its publication by his powerful friends.

It was undoubtedly easier for Howells to praise Gilman's opinions than to take responsibility for them. Nevertheless, Howells's public votes of confidence in Gilman's writing enhanced its credibility and gave it a broader forum than it had achieved on its own. Despite his reservations, Howells kept faith with Gilman—in his fashion.


  1. The Howells biographies I consulted (see below) simply do not mention the Gilman connection, probably because the major ones were written before interest in her work was revived in the early 1960s. Hill's biography of Gilman (see below) merely refers to Howells's enthusiasm for Gilman's “Similar Cases” and In This Our World, and notes his socialist sympathies. Hill only goes up to 1896 in this volume, so perhaps she will have more to say in a subsequent installment. In her introduction to Gilman's Herland (New York: Pantheon, 1979), vii. Ann J. Lane says that Howells “did much to sustain her career,” but does not go into detail. So far as I know, the present study is the first treatment of the Gilman-Howells relationship.

  2. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (1935, repr. New York: Arno Press, 1972), 113.

  3. Robert L. Hough, The Quiet Rebel: William Dean Howells as Social Commentator (1959; reprint, Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968), 4.

  4. Edwin H. Cady, The Road to Realism: The Early Years (1837-1885) of William Dean Howells (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1956), 173. Bellamy probably did not know how close to the mark his compliment came. When Howells first arrived in New England, he achieved an audience with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Upon learning that Howells intended next to visit Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hawthorne gave Howells one of his visiting cards to take to Emerson: the card bore the message, “I find this young man worthy” (Hough, Quiet Rebel, 1).

  5. William Dean Howells, “The New Poetry,” North American Review 168 (May 1899):589-590.

  6. Gloria M. Martin, “Women in the Criticism and Fiction of William Dean Howells” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1982), 170.

  7. Mary A. Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), 38-41, and passim.

  8. Cady, Road to Realism, 28-39.

  9. William Dean Howells to his father, 18 November 1888, 30 November 1888, and 6 January 1889, in Selected Letters of W. D. Howells, ed. George Arms, Don L. Cook, Christopher K. Lohman, and David J. Nordloh, 6 vols. (Boston: Twayne, 1980), vol. 3. 1882-1891, ed. Robert C. Leity III. 235, 243.

  10. Howells to his father, 17 March 1889, and Howells to S. Weir Mitchell, 7 March 1889, in ibid., 3:249, 247.

  11. Ibid., 3:53.

  12. Hill, Gilman, 39, quoting a letter from Gilman to her father, undated (probably after 1875); quoted by permission of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlessinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Mass.

  13. Hill, Gilman, 136.

  14. Gilman to Howells, 17 October 1919: quoted by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

  15. Gilman, Living, 182.

  16. Hough, Quiet Rebel, 29, quoting Gilman, “Mr. Howells' Socialism,” American Fabian 4 (February 1898):2.

  17. William Dean Howells, Criticism and Fiction (New York: Harper's, 1910), 183-184.

  18. Hough, Quiet Rebel, 112-113.

  19. Joyce Kilmer, “War Stops Literature, Says William Dean Howells,” New York Times, 16 December 1914.

  20. Hill, Gilman, 176.

  21. Gilman, “A Socialist Prayer,” Forerunner 2 (May 1911):124.

  22. Gilman, unpublished lectures given on 20 and 21 December 1890, quoted by Hill, Gilman, 182.

  23. Howells, “Editor's Easy Chair,” Harper's Monthly 111 (October 1905):796: and 118 (May 1909):967.

  24. Howells, “Recollections of an Atlantic Editorship,” quoted by Martin, “Women in Howells,” 186.

  25. Ann Douglas Wood, “The Literature of Impoverishment: The Women Local Colorists in America, 1865-1914,” Women's Studies 1 (1972):4, quoting Howells, Criticism and Fiction (1910; reprint, New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 134, 168-169.

  26. Selected Letters, 3:117.

  27. Ibid., 3:305.

  28. “Editor's Study” (April 1891), 804-805.

  29. Wood, “Literature of Impoverishment,” 15.

  30. Charlotte Perkins Stetson [Gilman], Women and Economics (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1898), 75.

  31. Selected Letters, 4:305.

  32. Hill, Gilman, 158.

  33. Gilman to Howells, 8 March 1898: quoted by permission of the Houghton Library.

  34. Gilman, Living, 222.

  35. Gilman, “Similar Cases,” in In This Our World, 3d ed. (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1898), 99-100.

  36. Gilman, Our World, 128-129.

  37. Howells to Gilman, 10 December 1891: quoted by permission of the Schlesinger Library.

  38. Gilman, Our World, 205-208.

  39. Howells to Gilman, AESL, 31 January 1892: quoted by permission of the Schlesinger Library.

  40. Gilman, Living, 119.

  41. Howells, “A Reminiscent Introduction,” in The Great Modern American Stories (New York: Boni and Liverlight, 1920), vii.

  42. Gilman to Martha Lane, 27 July 1890, Rhode Island Historical Society, quoted by Hill, Gilman, 176.

  43. Gilman to Howells, 17 October 1919: quoted by permission of the Houghton Library.

  44. Gilman was much impressed with Ward's gynecocentric theory of evolution (which held that in most species the female controlled both selection of the mate and reproduction, making her rather than the male the dominant partner), and did much to popularize it in her own writing. When Ward complained that his theory had not received the attention it deserved, Gilman wrote several letters reminding him of her appreciative efforts in its behalf. When no acknowledgment of her reminders appeared, she sent him a copy of her book Human Work and expressed the hope that she would someday have the time to read some more of his writing: “So far—except for the Phylogenic forces in Pure Sociology; and some of the shorter papers—… I have not really read you at all.” Thus prodded, Ward finally produced the desired tribute:

    I have read your book. I could hear my own voice all the time. But of course, it was not an echo. It is pitched much higher than I can strike and differs also entirely in timbre. (See Hill, Gilman, 266-267)

  45. Howells to Gilman, 11 July 1894: quoted by permission of the Schlesinger Library.

  46. Howells to Gilman, 25 June 1897: quoted by permission of the Houghton Library.

  47. Gilman, Our World, 62-63.

  48. Howells to Gilman, 8 May 1911: quoted by permission of the Schlesinger Library.

  49. Cady, Road to Realism, 74.

  50. Gilman, Our World, 156-157.

  51. Hill, Gilman, 123.

  52. Cady, Road to Realism, 242, quoting Daniel Dulany Addison, Lucy Larcom: Life, Letters, and Diary (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1894), 189.

  53. Gilman to Howells, 17 October 1919 (emphasis added), quoted by permission of the Houghton Library.

  54. Gilman, Living, 302-303.

  55. Ibid., 304.

Sharon Felton (review date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: Felton, Sharon. Review of “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Thomas L. Erskine and Connie L. Richards. Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 273-74.

[In the following review of a critical edition of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” edited by Thomas L. Erskine and Connie L. Richards, Felton asserts that the volume fails to address the needs of either an introductory reader or a literary scholar. Felton, however, observes that the introduction, chronology, and bibliography included in the volume are useful.]

This volume on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one of four titles selected to kick off the Women Writers: Texts and Contexts series by Rutgers University Press. According to the press release accompanying the work, the new series is “designed for use in introductory classes in writing and literature but will serve equally well in advanced classes. …” While I applaud the decision to promote this niche market and to make accessible to students a variety of literary texts by women, I must temper my praise if this particular volume is to be held accountable to its advertising claim. To be quite specific, the majority of selections in “The Yellow Wallpaper” volume will far surpass the needs of most introductory students, and the early portions will fail to challenge the needs of more advanced scholars. As one might suspect from the press release excerpt noted above, this volume's fundamental flaw is its failure to capture a distinct audience. That weakness aside, a closer look at the volume might be in order.

Following the text of “The Yellow Wallpaper” itself is a powerful component called “Background to the Story.” This fine section includes two rarely anthologized Gilman stories that will allow introductory students to obtain a fuller picture of Gilman's style, tone, and favorite themes. Moreover, “The ‘Nervous Breakdown’ of Women” overtly affirms Gilman's political stance:

Even if we should remove every legal and political discrimination against women; even if we should accept their true dignity and power as a sex; so long as their universal business is private housework they remain, industrially, at the level of private domestic hand labor, and economically a nonproductive, dependent class. … The wonder is not that so many women break down, but so few.

An understanding of this element of Gilman's writing will help students appreciate the politically charged institution of medicine, especially in the treatment of women, circa 1877. The inclusion of S. Weir Mitchell's investigations on hysteria and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's modern assessment of the role of the hysterical woman in nineteenth-century America provides instructive complements to the main work.

The collection of nine critical essays in the next major section of the text, however, leaps ahead to a level of sophisticated criticism that will leave the introductory student gasping. Here are some classics from feminist criticism: Gilbert and Gubar's “The Madwoman in the Attic,” Kolodny's “A Map for Rereading,” Fetterley's “Reading about Reading.” Susan S. Lanser argues an immensely provocative thesis: that Gilman held non-Aryan/“yellow” people responsible for filling America with “undesirables” and that a connection may be made between her anti-immigrant sentiments and the bilious color of the title wallpaper. Juliann E. Fleenor's study skillfully links the complex trappings of Gothic literature (specifically, social and/or physical entrapment) to Gilman's biography. Each focus here—feminist, sociopolitical, Gothic, and others—demands a considerable proficiency in literary study; only the student who comprehends the web of critics and arguments cited will extract this section's scholarly richness.

There are features of this volume that will appeal to all students regardless of their experience level: a comprehensive introduction that provides an excellent overview, a chronology, and a selected bibliography to which students may turn for additional assistance. A subject index would have helped. Perhaps one strength of this work (and apparently of the entire series as well) that should not be disregarded in a review is its affordable price: at $10 for a substantial 280-page paperback, very few students will complain. If the intent of the editors, then, might indeed have been to diversify, rather than to specify, the audience to which this volume might appeal, their objective has been accomplished.

Janet Beer (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Beer, Janet. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ on Film: Dramatising Mental Illness.” In Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction, pp. 197-213. London: MacMillan, 1997.

[In the following essay, Beer discusses the 1992 motion picture adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation.]

In 1988 a ninety-minute adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was made for BBC television; filming took place in the autumn of that year and it was ready for broadcasting in January 1989 although it was not actually shown until January 1992. The project had been initiated by the producer, Sarah Curtis, who invited the dramatist, Maggie Wadey, to write the screenplay.1 Whilst the adaptation was almost entirely the work of Maggie Wadey a number of decisions about the way in which the text would be approached and also how to shoot and edit the film were made collaboratively between dramatist, producer and the director, John Clive.

I became interested in the idea of writing about the film version of the story when working on this book because it seemed to offer an example of the multiplicity of the type of engagement which it is possible to have with “The Yellow Wallpaper” and one which, although creative, actually parallels the enormous critical endeavour to read, interpret and contextualise the story which has taken place over the past 20 years. Wadey's screenplay, whilst not an academic exercise, is the same kind of expansive undertaking as the critical endeavour: picking up, emphasising and developing themes, tropes and structural devices in order to build the story into a substantial drama which reverberates with wider signification. Through reading in detail, exploiting every figurative and referential opportunity, Wadey turns the interior monologue of a woman descending into madness into a drama which makes explicit both the private and public conditions of existence for the woman who desires something beyond marriage and motherhood. It tells the story which lies behind every other tale or theory constructed by Gilman; “The Yellow Wallpaper” enacts the degradation and decline of the female of the species, from physical and mental health to dependance and incapacity. The story of the post-partum breakdown told here is the driving force behind Gilman's analogues, behind her manipulation of the generic, behind her writing life, and the dramatisation of that story seems to me to carry Gilman's purpose to inform and enlighten the widest possible audience to a beautiful, logical climax.

The film of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is noteworthy for a number of reasons, not least of which is in its extension of the usual audience for Gilman's work. Perhaps the most striking thing about the conversion of the printed text into the screen version is in the dramatic explication of the social conditions which lead to the psychological breakdown of the woman who is the centre of consciousness in the original text. This broadening of the picture is not achieved at the expense of diluting Gilman's original intensity of setting; all the action, until the very end when we see John giving a speech in London, takes place in and around the house. The ‘ancestral halls’,2 hired for the express purposes of effecting a cure, are, in the film, even more obviously a monolithic trope for the domestic confinement of women, and the whole apparatus which ensures the social control of women is on display within the confines of the individual household. Wadey here effectively dramatises not only mental illness but the context for mental illness, demonstrating, in a manner absolutely consonant with the author's declared purpose in writing the tale, that the conditions which lead to what Gilman describes in her autobiography as ‘… painful mental sensation, shame, fear, remorse, a blind oppressive confusion, utter weakness, a steady brainache that filled the conscious mind with crowding images of distress. … Absolute incapacity. Absolute misery.’3 are socially remediable.

One of the earliest decisions taken by Wadey and Curtis together was to underplay the potential for interpretation as a gothic text which “The Yellow Wallpaper” undoubtedly offers. They both felt that to exploit the gothic elements in the text in a filmed version of the story would have the effect of reducing its power as a disturbing and moving portrait of the mental breakdown of an intelligent, promising young woman. Whilst Wadey's 1986 dramatisation of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey overstates and sends up the gothic elements in the novel in order to mirror Austen's ridicule of the reading public's taste for the lurid and fantastic, such overstatement also makes the serious point that the constraints upon young women entering polite society at the time—as regards their manners, appearance and even their companions—were kept in place by fear of trespass, of transgression of social codes, codes which they often did not fully understand. Such fear expresses their true position of powerlessness in a situation where reputation could be made or broken by rumour, where social invisibility could signify disgrace or failure and the consequences of any breach of social decorum could carry a penalty of exclusion as damaging as literal incarceration. So whilst the scenes of mock-gothic terror in the dramatisation of Northanger Abbey ironise the melodramatic imagination of the heroine they also point to the very real limits of her worldly knowledge and the extent to which her trust could and would be abused.

Elements of gothic resonate throughout the text of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the effect thus achieved has been extensively discussed4 in critical responses to the story and Gilman's two other overtly gothic fictions, “The Giant Wistaria”5 and “The Rocking Chair”,6 both of which can be considered more straightforwardly as ghost stories than “The Yellow Wallpaper”. The decision to omit from the dramatic text and the film style of “The Yellow Wallpaper” any suggestion of supernatural intervention and, indeed, to exclude from the visual text any ambiguity as to the origins or cause of the mental breakdown, means that the drama focuses unremittingly on the social circumstances of the woman driven to madness. The breakdown is psychic but the context for and circumstances of the descent into madness are physically demonstrable in the conditions of the everyday life of the woman concerned.

Another early decision by the dramatist was to name the protagonist Charlotte, the transparency of the autobiographical reference in the story—and in all Gilman's pronouncements upon its reason for being—making the identification between the protagonist and Gilman herself an enabling factor in the grounding of the text in the social, and particularly the medical, culture of the time. The majority of the research undertaken by the dramatist was, in fact, into the treatment of mental illness in the late 19th century. In particular Wadey found Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-19807 invaluable for both its discussion of the treatments most commonly used on women with severe depression or mental breakdown and the ideology which informed the development and use of such therapeutic regimes.

To avoid the dangers of cross-referencing or the over-academicising of the dramatic text Maggie Wadey's preliminary research put the piece into its cultural context but did not look extensively at the writer's life and other works. As a working method Wadey generally prefers to look at secondary texts once her first draft has been written thus generating the dramatic impetus from the story alone rather than allowing references to other works to influence the adaptation. The symbolism, the motifs and dramatic structure of the film thus evolve from Wadey's sense of the metaphoric richness of “The Yellow Wallpaper” in aesthetic if not cultural isolation and whilst Gilman scholars can see patterns of imagery, figurative language and themes which recur throughout the whole body of Gilman's fiction and non-fiction in the film, the dramatist has actually achieved this command of Gilman's tropes and lexis through an intense concentration upon the story and its interaction with the social and medical conventions of the time. Whilst this speaks of the richness of this individual text and the insightfulness of the dramatist it is also a reminder that the language of health and illness which features in so dominant a manner in “The Yellow Wallpaper” reverberates unremittingly throughout the whole body of her published work; Gilman never ceased to express herself through configurations of the social health.

The dramatic version of the text thus incorporates all sorts of thematic patterns—both ideological and autobiographical—from Gilman's lifelong work which speak to those who know the extent and purpose of Gilman's achievement as a writer whilst not detracting from the impetus of the straightforward narrative which enacts the descent into madness. The film incorporates Gilman's use of the limited point of view in the story where the reader knows as much as the narrator, but it also provides scenes where Charlotte is not present either as point of view or participant and these, without exception, provide reinforcement of the themes which dominate in both the visual and printed text, most powerful of which is the hard fact of the gender divide. Issues which endlessly absorb Gilman in her writing: the features of women's lives which confine and restrict them unnecessarily, like the manner of their dress and hairstyle, the limitation of their forms of exercise and virtual exclusion from education here take shape as the dramatic structure of “The Yellow Wallpaper”. The whole drama is predicated on the consequences that arise from the differentiation between men and women's relationships with the world outside the home, in Gilman's view the most crippling amongst the myriad of handicaps that women had to contend with in their adult lives.

An event threatened in the story and enacted in the screenplay, which can, additionally, be seen as paradigmatic of the manner in which Wadey expands the drama beyond the limits of the original text, depicts the doctor called in by Charlotte's husband to give a second opinion delivering moral as well as medical advice to his patient:

Let me repeat what I told you two months ago: I cannot answer for your good health, physical or mental, unless you undertake to lay aside your writing. Your child, your husband, your home, cannot be laid aside and the energy of the human body is finite.

(He Now Proceeds to Examine Charlotte's Eyes, Pulling the Lower Lid Down with His Thumb)

What nature expends in one direction she must economise on in another. The young woman who makes too much intellectual effort risks decline into a delicate, ailing woman whose future—allow me? (He Opens Her Gown)—is more or less suffering. A lesson I should not like to see experience teach you, Charlotte.

I see your dressmaker has already begun to help you conceal your loss of weight. You must put on flesh, my dear. Surely I can appeal to your vanity if nothing else?

(He Closes Her Gown Again)

But there's nothing gravely wrong with you—we may reassure poor John on that point!

(He Lightly Touches One of Her Earrings with His Fingertips)

Charming earrings, my dear.

(pp. 125-6)8

Contained within the doctor's pronouncements about the recovery and maintenance of good health are allusions to matters which Gilman considered instrumental in the oppression of women and which are also discussed as significant by Elaine Showalter in the management of female mental illness at the end of the 19th century. With regard to women's capacity for intellectual work Showalter cites manifold pronouncements by male doctors on the limited capacity which women have for study and the deleterious effects which scholarship would have upon their reproductive capacity.9 In her autobiography Gilman repeats the advice she was given by Silas Weir Mitchell, her physician, ‘“Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your baby with you all the time. Lie down for an hour after each meal. Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.”’.10 In the dramatisation Wadey actually paraphrases Henry Maudsley, the Victorian psychiatrist, when Dr Stark invokes the order of the natural world as authority for the physical and cerebral inferiority of women. The example of the natural world, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman constantly tells us, is often used as proof by those eager to establish the lesser status of the female and the selective nature of the evidence thus offered is critiqued throughout her writing by direct reference and also by her own decision to make use of equally selective references to species where the female is dominant.11

On the subject of dress and adornment Showalter discusses Maudsley's abjuring of his fellow practitioners to be vigilant in the detection of those women who would seek to conceal their emaciation: ‘“Those in whom the organs are wasted invoke the dressmaker's aid in order to gain the appearance of them; they are not satisfied unless they wear the show of perfect womanhood.”’.12 Gilman herself returned again and again throughout her fiction and non-fiction to the exaggeration of the sex characteristics of the woman in the fashionable clothing of her day, here in Women and Economics: ‘In garments whose main purpose is unmistakably to announce her sex; with a tendency to ornament which marks exuberance of sex-energy, with a body so modified to sex as to be grievously deprived of its natural activities; with a manner and behavior wholly attuned to sex-advantage, and frequently disadvantageous to any human gain; with a field of action most rigidly confined to sex-relations; with her over-charged sensibility, her prominent modesty, her “eternal femininity”,—the female of genus homo is undeniably over-sexed.’13 When dressing for the occasion of the visit of her mother-in-law—another dramatic expansion of a passing reference in Gilman's text; ‘John thought it might do me good to see a little company, so we just had mother and Nellie and the children down for a week.’14—Charlotte talks to Jennie about how ‘indecent’ (p. 106) a thing the bustle is, calling her and John ‘hypocrites’ (p. 107) for dressing her up in clothes designed to accentuate the woman's sexual parts in order to be exhibited as a well woman to the visitors.

Wadey further substantiates the matters raised in the doctor's pronouncements upon the causes of Charlotte's continuing ill health with a conversation between her husband and his fellow practitioner, where they discuss therapies used with mentally ill women specifically designed to appeal to their vanity. All the while they are discussing such treatments Jennie is singing at the piano, demonstrating yet another of the accomplishments that makes her the perfect wife-in-waiting. She is, however, ignored completely by the men absorbed in the detail of a professional practice which objectifies women and makes the sex-relation merely a constituent of the pathology of female mental illness. In writing a larger role in the drama for Jennie, Wadey does not lose the sense that there is a complicity between John and his sister to restrain Charlotte but she does develop the portrait of Jennie to a point where the treatment meted out to her by her brother and Dr Stark—who she is clearly hoping to impress with her womanly skills—provides dramatic reinforcement for Charlotte's claims that she is never listened to, that her opinions and achievements are ignored and her life is one that is deemed irrelevant to the business of high professional endeavour reserved for the male of the species.

Jennie, in both the original—‘She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession.’15—and the adaptation, is John's accomplice in enforcing the rest cure. The part played by Jennie and the brief but horrifying appearance of John's mother provide substance for another of Gilman's perennial arguments, that women are complicit in perpetuating the system which keeps them subordinate. However, the inclusion in the film of additional goals for both John and Jennie, alters the balance of the drama, again extending the support for attributing Charlotte's breakdown to the social organisation rather than an individual predisposition to ‘nervousness’ or any other euphemism. John and Jennie and the narrator all share the same ambition in Gilman's text, the restoration to health of the central protagonist, although, they differ, of course, on the best method of achieving this end. In addition to the effecting of Charlotte's recovery in the film John and Jennie are given individual, professional ambitions—housekeeping here being designated as the only ‘profession’ ever considered by Jennie—John, to make an impressive debut at the Royal Society and his sister to practise being a wife and attract Dr Stark. The end of the dramatic version thus shows the woman driven mad in isolation but extends the sense of failure and disillusionment beyond the individual to the concomitant disappointment of Jennie and John's personal and professional ambitions; Jennie fails to attract a suitable man and John fails cataclysmically in his attempt to cure Charlotte. The drama therefore makes it more obvious that the whole of society is implicated in the psychological disorder of the individual; that it is a sick society in Gilman's terms, which wastes the talents and aspirations of all its members by making the task of limiting and confining one half of the population a compulsory part of the duties which must be performed by all in preservation of the status quo.

The difference between the youthful aspirations of the young Charlotte and the reality of her life as a married woman are figured forth in the visual text through dialogue, where she talks to Jennie, her husband's sister, about the ambitions she had to manage her own magazine and adds: ‘But of course what happened when I grew up was, I met John. A doctor! It made my ideas seem very trivial.’ (p. 43); when she asks Jennie what her own ambitions for her adult life were; and in a series of conversations with her husband which position his professional importance against the failure of all her ambitions. The repeated motif in the film of John's departure for work being signalled by the closing of a large gate and his walking away down the lane from the house also reinforces the separation between the woman's sphere, the house, where Charlotte is confined, and the masculine world of external endeavour and freedom. The fact that women's lives are controlled by men is plain enough in Gilman's text where John is both husband and doctor, two awesomely powerful authority figures in one, but in the dramatic text one of the most sinister and indiscriminately damaging features of this control is made much more explicit through the presentation of sexual relations between John and Charlotte.

Ann J. Lane, in her biography of Gilman, talks about the smell which the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” identifies as emanating from the paper itself: ‘It is, she says, “the most enduring odor I ever met,” and perhaps it is, even if Gilman did not recognize it, the dreaded smell of sex, a sensual smell, excretion of the night’.16 The fear of sex which Lane recognises in Gilman's writing: ‘I wake up in the night and find it hanging over me.’17 is made explicit in the dramatic text in a number of forms. When talking to Jennie Charlotte expresses directly one of the reasons why she would want to avoid sexual relations: ‘He is such a sweet baby, but—it still makes me so nervous to be with him. I—I worry in case there should be another one, and then—’ (p. 75), a fear which Jennie ignores. The distress which is evident in Charlotte's explanation to John of her reasons for needing to leave the house is interpreted by him in the exigencies of his own need, to be a cry for physical attention not the intellectual stimulation she is pleading for:

And you know, when I'm away from you, it's such a joy to know exactly what you're doing. At one o'clock I can imagine you lying here in bed.

(He Turns Back to Charlotte)

At three, I know that James has come in to play with you. What a charming picture that is! At six I can imagine you dressing for dinner.

(He Slips the Sleeve of Her Dress Down from Her Shoulder which He Kisses)

But how much better it is to be here beside you. How adorable you look this evening! Dearest Lotta!

(Charlotte Throws an Arm Up Over Her Eyes to Hide Her Tears)

Don't hide! You needn't be ashamed with me. There are times I wish to God I could cry as easily as you do. Tears one moment, smiles the next. So give me a smile, won't you? Please, my sweet. That's better.

(p. 99)

Wadey makes plain the connection between Charlotte's helpless despair and John's desire through both dialogue and action. The timetable of her day, the control which he exerts over her every movement in his absence, another infantilisation to add to the confining of her within the nursery and forbidding of certain activities, is shown to be an intrinsic part of the way in which he eroticises her. As he visualises her in the process of following the schedule he has prescribed so he feels his power; the place in which he confines her is the place where, as he says, ‘I've been looking forward to being alone with you again. In our nursery. Like another world.’ (p. 54). The pressing nature of his attentions in the film, making love to her on the nailed down bed in a furtive manner—not undressing or expecting any response but mere compliance—communicates a powerful sense of the claustrophobia, powerlessness and physical distress felt by her. The scene where John makes love to Charlotte does not celebrate or sensationalise sex, it is painful and oppressive, providing further evidence of a social order in which only one sex is allowed full expression of its desires, whether sexual or professional. When Charlotte reacts to the final articulation of the spiteful insincerity of John's mother: ‘You do John credit, my dear.’ (p. 119) by choking and fainting, tearing at her clothes, she is making the only effective protest she can against her many constrictions.

Whilst Charlotte is chastised for thinking and for talking about her ‘feelings’ (p. 121) the conversation between the two doctors as they look at photographs of women being treated for mental breakdown is unashamed in its subjectivity, male subjectivity being acceptable as a basis for judgement:

Initially she was diagnosed as melancholic, but she's tormented with a sense of guilt and punishes herself with fasting. She's become very weak, her menstrual periods have stopped, she hallucinates occasionally and sometimes talks of suicide. There's something intensely feminine and appealing about her, don't you think?

(p. 135)

The pictures which the men handle in the film are some of those which Showalter uses in The Female Malady to illustrate her instructive discussion of Jean-Martin Charcot's use of photographs in the treatment of hysteria at the Salpêtrière clinic in Paris in the late 19th century. As Showalter says: ‘Charcot's hospital became an environment in which female hysteria was perpetually presented, represented and reproduced … photographs … were given subtitles that suggested Charcot's interpretation of hysteria as linked to female sexuality, despite his disclaimers “amorous supplication”, “ecstasy”, “eroticism”. This interpretation of hysterical gestures as sexual was reinforced by Charcot's efforts to pinpoint areas of the body that might induce convulsions when pressed. The ovarian region, he concluded, was a particularly sensitive hysterogenic zone’.18 The right to interpret both woman and illness is thus reserved for the practitioner; the woman becomes the supplicant and the doctor the arbitrator of meaning beyond the doctor-patient relationship. The division of the organisation of the treatment of hysteria into antagonistic parts, that is, into doctor and patient, artist and subject, master and subordinate, man and woman, is represented in Gilman's text and Wadey's screenplay in both structural and thematic terms. The intimate link between the breakdown of the narrator's health and the birth of her child, between the sexual act and the prostration and weakness of the woman and between medical intervention and her enduring state of helplessness is borne in upon Charlotte in every aspect of her life as it reinforces her status as decorative, subordinate, intellectually inferior and, most shamefully in the eyes of the outside world, a failure as a mother.

Above all else the dramatisation makes plain what is intimated in every line of Gilman's writing, that the essentialist argument that keeps women in their place as subordinate to men has its foundation in an authority which constantly breaches the distinction between the objective and subjective and which flaunts that subjectivity as a means of oppression: ‘Charming earrings, my dear.’ The way in which John as husband and as doctor communicates with Charlotte in the adaptation is consonant with his tone in the original text and, as both lover and professional, one minute intimate and the next distant, occupier of private space and enacter of public opinions, he expresses the all-embracing nature of the authority which is brought to bear on the woman in the home. The central principle of development in the story is the descent into madness but what determines the course of that development is the treatment the protagonist receives. The narrative, both textual and visual, follows the transformation of woman into child then a creature beyond reason, and it is the therapeutic regime, at once intimate, in Gilman's words: ‘“Bless her little heart!” said he with a big hug, “she shall be as sick as she pleases!”’19 and distant: ‘John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.’20 that finally impresses the truth of her powerlessness and therefore lack of personhood upon the narrator. Charlotte's last coherent speech in the film concerns the realisation of her failure as a professional, or at least as a member of an identifiable group:

The strange thing about it is—when I started out, I thought I was joining a community, a brotherhood of writers, living and dead. But I found I was always alone. I seem to have drifted further and further away into a world of my own, and strangest of all, the more it's become my own, the less control I have over it. The more I talk to myself the less I understand what's being said.

(p. 139)

In being treated as sick—infantilised, subjected to the linguistic and ideological impositions of the masculine world—she has lost her sense of relatedness, becoming first an isolate and finally nothing. The treatment she receives annihilates her, in becoming a wife she takes on subject status, in becoming a mother she is expected to focus even more narrowly on one thing, even to become that thing, a baby—‘I'm getting dreadfully fretful and querulous. I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time.’21—and in becoming ill she becomes nothing but a failure. As Showalter says: ‘Mental breakdown, then, would come when women defied their “nature”, attempted to compete with men instead of serving them, or sought alternatives or even additions to their maternal functions.’;22 it is the essentialist argument which divides and rules without mercy.

Wadey's introduction of the writing and delivery of John's speech to the Royal Society as another means by which the dramatic action is propelled is a further substantiation of the dialectic which reigns throughout the drama between public and private, home and work and men and women. The gender divide fuels the action and it is expressed in every scene and motif, reaching a climax as the film cuts between the final stages of Charlotte's madness and John's delivery of the speech to his fellow physicians. As John descends to the auditorium, Charlotte wrenches out the nails which hold the bed to the floor; as he opens his lecture notes before an audience, she clears surfaces, moves furniture and overturns the wardrobe; as John holds forth on the beneficial effects of recreation in reducing instances of ill health amongst the poor, turning the pages of his lecture, so Charlotte rips the paper from the walls. The camera registers the attentiveness of John's audience as he delivers his speech whilst the camera in Charlotte's bedroom is positioned so that it looks at her from inside the newly bare wall. As she crawls, demented, around the room in pursuit of a single idea, he receives the congratulations of his peers for the effective expression of his many ideas and theories.

The visual contextualisation of Charlotte's breakdown in the midst of John's professional debut as a public speaker foregrounds the difference between public and private texts as well as lives. John's prominent position in the medical establishment enacts a straightforward contrast between his place in the outside world and Charlotte's obvious isolation from anyone who cares about the stuff of the imagination or the writer's craft. As he becomes more public so she is forced into greater seclusion and internality, as she says in her lament for the loss of her sense of ‘community’. The sequence of scenes which show Charlotte writing in her forbidden notebook culminates in her being viewed from outside the bedroom window; the window frames the shot and the visual image is of the writer behind bars, imprisoned for practising her art. A number of exchanges between John and Charlotte in the dramatisation make plain their epistemological divergence, Wadey setting up a dialectic between scientific and poetic truth, between imagination and fact and between varieties of textual authority.

The dramatisation also makes more obvious the difference between private and public texts. Charlotte's notebook, kept in a concealed pocket and written in secret, is a covert text; the schedule which says at what time she must do everything during the course of the day is a public, prescribed text. As her writing in the notebook is curtailed by Dr Stark's discovery of her ‘secret vice’ (p. 18) and she is also forbidden access to the library, so the only text she has to read and to inscribe herself upon is the wallpaper, the only replacement for her notebook to which she can gain access. As the doctor makes a physical examination of Charlotte, so he discovers her hidden pocket; in marriage the location of her hidden pocket by her husband is the cause of her past and present misery and the continued scrutiny of all her private places the surest sign of its continuance. As Dr Stark leaves her she sits beside the wallpaper, scrutinising it for its hidden pockets of meaning; it becomes the text she has both to decipher and to get behind, to study and to find her own meaning or hiding place within.

As Annette Kolodny says in her essay, ‘A Map for Rereading: or Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts’: ‘the narrator progressively gives up the attempt to record her reality and instead begins to read it—as symbolically adumbrated in her compulsion to discover a consistent and coherent pattern amid “the sprawling outlines” of the wallpaper's apparently “pointless pattern”.’23 Once the realisation dawns upon her that her only resource is the wallpaper then she accedes to the opportunity it seems to offer for complexity rather than the simple truth of childish punishment and reward offered by John's cure. She has been placed in the nursery for the purpose of effecting that cure; John has offered it as semiotically one-dimensional, the uncomplicated baby-place in which to grow stronger, to mature and face one's proper responsibilities. She makes her own semiotic landscape out of the nursery, however, by converting the wallpaper into a complex and multifaceted text which speaks of the nether side of the process of childbirth and baby-rearing. Its smell is its essence; it smells not only of sex but of custom and practice—‘the subtlest, most enduring odor I ever met’.24 It registers the disgust of the woman at her own adult smell as well as the processes which, in spite of her intellectual capacities, her body is capable of, as the wallpaper gives birth to her and others like her: ‘I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did’.25

Ann J. Lane talks about the nightmarish version of parturition in the figurative language of the story's climax: ‘She is both child and mother. She is the child in the mother. Frantically she peels off the paper and sees “all those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths”, imagery which brings to mind dead babies’.26 The blank white page of girlhood, the clean page of her notebook, are made sordid and stale by the adult business of sex and procreation. Hymen, the Greek God of marriage, wears a saffron robe; the hymen is broken and all that purity of body and of intention is made state, dirty and decadent. Prior to the appearance in the film of the crawling woman in yellow, Wadey has Charlotte look with envy and admiration at the figure of a girl, usually dressed in white, on a bicycle, riding on the grass behind the house. Identified in the dramatisation as ‘the gardener's daughter’, she appears and reappears to us as we look out from the house from Charlotte's point of view. That she exists on a literal as well as metaphorical level in the dramatisation is made plain when Jennie answers Charlotte's query as to why she has disappeared with ‘No! She's quite the young lady now. No more bicycle riding.’ (p. 130); as the youthful freedom, energy and ambition she symbolises is relinquished so she is consigned to the constraints of being ‘quite the young lady’. Her penultimate appearance is, in the words of Wadey's stage directions: ‘The girl on her bicycle crosses left to right, balancing on the saddle on one hand—very cheeky.’ (p. 61) as an acrobat, making concrete the dramatist's sense of the closure of female youthful daring and physical potential whilst forging a connection with Gilman's own declaration in her autobiography, ‘With right early training I could easily have been an acrobat, having good nervous coordination, strength, courage, and excellent balancing power’.27 The last appearance of the girl, however, shows her, once again in white, riding the bicycle down a long slope into an area of darkness beyond.

Like the girl on the bicycle and her replacement, the crawling woman, there are a number of motifs in the film all of which make literal the gender divide. We see the opening and closing of the garden gate each time John leaves for work, he calls for the ‘boy’ in order to part from him, throwing him into the air as the ritualised and limited contact that the father has with his child is demonstrated. Such repetitions establish and support a dialectic structure between male and female lives, but they also reinforce the divide between female health and illness and girlhood and maturity. As Charlotte retreats into herself so the wallpaper takes on a life of its own, hissing and creaking; as the camera tracks around the room it becomes plain that Charlotte is following the line of her own mark or ‘smooch’ (p. 173) upon it. The house, provided in order to restore her to health, keep her in enforced seclusion—in other words to reinforce, by its isolation, the limits of her world—is the place wherein the ceaseless round of the domestic routines of the family house are enacted. As Jennie sorts towels, folds linen, chooses material, orders the meals, and administers the therapeutic regime in John's absence, so the over-mighty weight of the household presses in upon Charlotte. In her one illicit visit to the library she strokes and smells the volumes on the shelves, she takes some to her room and lies on her bed surrounded by a surfeit of the printed page as she opens books and architectural plans. She dips into a variety of different texts with the camera above her, emphasising the totality of her absorption in her reading as she lies, perfectly still, until her sense of being watched, spied on, returns and she looks suspiciously at the wallpaper.

At an early point in the dramatic version of “The Yellow Wallpaper” Charlotte responds to John's recital of her daily schedule by asking the question ‘Is silence consent?’ (p. 27). The film makes evident the silence which greets Charlotte when she tries to talk about her writing, her feelings, her imagination, her ambitions, sex, clothes, leaving the house or anything other than meals, rest and recovery but also shows her own decline into silence as she uses fewer and fewer words, alone and turning ever inward, secretive about the last of her ambitions, to find the time and space to strip the bedroom of its hidden meaning. Charlotte Perkins Gilman felt herself to be isolated from the thinkers and doers of the world as a young wife; as a mature woman she was convinced that if the seclusion of the domestic life of women could be broken then that would achieve dramatic social improvements which would bring benefit to every member of society: man, woman and child. The film of “The Yellow Wallpaper” enacts the drama of isolation, re-telling the story of the individual woman driven by the whole-cultural imperatives which would make her one-dimensional into becoming so, a creature ultimately confined to that most one-dimensional of planes, a wall. As the camera moves behind the wall so the stark horror of the point of view from behind the paper is revealed. The film of “The Yellow Wallpaper” does not replace the original story, it is yet another renewal of the tale which Gilman wrote, after all, with the express intention that it should ‘save people from being driven crazy’.28


  1. I am very grateful to Maggie Wadey for her help; without her assistance it would not have been possible to write this account of “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

  2. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins The Yellow Wallpaper, 1872 (London: Virago Press, 1973), p. 9.

  3. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, pp. 90-1.

  4. See especially Juliann E. Fleenor, ‘The Gothic Prism: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Gothic Stories and Her Autobiography’, pp. 139-158 in Erskine, Thomas L. and Connie L. Richards (eds.) Charlotte Perkins Gilman: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993).

  5. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins ‘The Giant Wistaria’, first published in New England Magazine, No. 4 (June 1891), pp. 480-5.

  6. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins ‘The Rocking Chair’, first published in Worthington's Illustrated, I (May 1893), pp. 453-9.

  7. Showalter, Elaine The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago Press, 1985).

  8. All page references in the text are to the screenplay of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Maggie Wadey.

  9. The Female Malady, p. 126.

  10. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, p. 96.

  11. For example, in the first chapter of Women and Economics, 1898, reprinted. Carl N. Degler (New York, Harper Torchbooks, 1966), Gilman argues that ‘We are the only animal species in which the female depends upon the male for food, the only animal species in which the sex-relation is also an economic relation.’ (p. 4) and goes on to discuss a variety of other species.

  12. The Female Malady, p. 125; the quotation is taken from Maudsley's Responsibility in Mental Disease (2nd edn. London: Kegan Paul, 1874), p. 40.

  13. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins Women and Economics, pp. 53-4.

  14. The Yellow Wallpaper, p. 18.

  15. The Yellow Wallpaper, pp. 17-8.

  16. Lane, Ann J. To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York, Meridian, 1991), p. 129.

  17. The Yellow Wallpaper, p. 29.

  18. The Female Malady, p. 150.

  19. The Yellow Wallpaper, p. 24.

  20. The Yellow Wallpaper, p. 18.

  21. The Yellow Wallpaper, p. 19.

  22. The Female Malady, p. 123.

  23. Golden, Catherine (ed.) The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (New York: The Feminist Press, 1992), p. 156.

  24. The Yellow Wallpaper, p. 29.

  25. The Yellow Wallpaper, p. 35.

  26. To Herland and Beyond, p. 127.

  27. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, p. 64.

  28. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins ‘Why I Wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”’ The Forerunner, 1913, reprinted in The Captive Imagination, pp. 51-2.

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Berthoff, Warner American Trajectories: Authors and Readings 1790-1970 (University Park: Penn State Press, 1994).

Brodhead, Richard Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Cranny-Francis, Anne Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (London: Polity Press, 1990).

de Crèvecoeur, J. Hector St John Travels in Pennsylvania and New York, 1801.

Dock, Julie Bates with Daphne Ryan Allen, Jennifer Palais and Kristen Traug. ‘“But One Expects That”: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the Shifting Light of Scholarship’, PMLA, Vol. 111, 1, January 1996, pp. 52-65.

Elliott, Emory (ed.) The Columbia History of the American Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).

Erskine, Thomas L. & Connie L. Richards (eds.) Charlotte Perkins Gilman: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993).

Freeman, Mary Wilkins Pembroke, 1894 (New Haven: College and University Press, 1971).

Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins The Winning Lady and Others (New York, Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1909).

Fusco, Richard Maupassant and the American Short Story: The Influence of Form at the Turn of the Century (University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994).

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins Women and Economics, 1898, reprinted. Carl N. Degler (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966).

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture (New York: Charlton Co., 1911).

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers, 1923 (New York: Hyperion reprint, 1976).

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1935 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).

Golden, Catherine (ed.) The Captive Imagination: A Casebook onThe Yellow Wallpaper’ (New York: The Feminist Press, 1992).

Hill, Mary A. A Journey From Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman 1897-1900 (London: Associated University Presses, 1995).

Hill, Mary A. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980).

Hill, Mary A. The Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1900 (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1995).

JanMohamed, Abdul R. ‘The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature’, Critical Enquiry, Vol. 12, (1) Autumn 1985, pp. 59-87.

Jewett, Sarah Orne The Country of the Pointed Firs (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1896).

Kaplan, Amy The Social Construction of American Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

Kessler, Carol Farley Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia with Selected Writings (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995).

Knight, Denise D. (ed.) The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 2 Volumes, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994).

Knight, Denise D. (ed.) ‘The Yellow Wallpaperand Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (London: Associated University Presses, 1994).

Kundera, Milan The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. tr. Aaron Asher (London: Faber and Faber, 1996).

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Showalter, Elaine The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980, 1985 (London: Virago Press, 1987).

Showalter, Elaine Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle, 1990 (London: Bloomsbury, 1991).

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Shulman, Robert (ed.) ‘The Yellow Wallpaperand Other Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Solomon, Barbara H. Herland and Selected Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: Penguin Books Signet Classic, 1992).

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Todorov, Tzvetan The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975).

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Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “‘Fecundate! Discriminate!’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Theologizing of Maternity.” In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer, edited by Jill Rudd and Val Gough, pp. 200-16. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Gilbert and Gubar discuss “The Yellow Wallpaper” in terms of feminist discourse on issues of maternity and childrearing.]

“Not all the long, loud struggle for ‘women's rights,’ not the varied voices of the ‘feminist movement,’ and, most particularly, not the behavior of ‘emancipated women,’ have given us any clear idea of the power and purpose of the mother sex.” So, somewhat surprisingly, mused Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the theological treatise His Religion and Hers (1923) that she produced late in her career as one of her generation's foremost speakers for just the feminist movement from which she appeared to be distancing herself here. Why would an emancipated woman who had spent a lifetime struggling for women's rights and sex equality abjure her own goals in favor of a quasi-Victorian celebration of maternity? In particular, how could such a statement come from a woman who had dramatically (and notoriously) relinquished her own maternal role to the friend who became her former husband's second wife? We argue here that although, with its uncharacteristic theological focus, His Religion and Hers looks like a rather eccentric text in the context of Gilman's overall career as lecturer on social issues, polemicist, and fiction writer, its ambiguities reflect a curious rift that runs through much of this writer's work and thought.

On the one hand, His Religion and Hers draws on the “gynecocentric” theories of Lester Ward, the “father of American sociology,” to offer an ecstatic celebration of maternity as the primary human model for loving kindness while also subversively glorifying woman's evolutionary primacy in her role as mother. As Gilman sees the world in this work, woman was biologically as well as morally the First, not the Second, Sex. On the other hand, the theologizing rhetoric of His Religion and Hers frequently involves a notable misreading of Ward's ideas which itself camouflages beneath a sentimentalized vision of maternity a hostility to motherhood along with a view of mothering as a form of hostility. Indeed, the way in which Gilman conceives woman as the First Sex attributes a unique eugenic centrality to mothers that not only undermines the feminist movement's ideal of sex equality but even degenerates into precisely the racism that marks much Social Darwinist thinking about racial betterment. For all these reasons, a consideration of this book's ambivalent politics illuminates the contradictory strains of revolution and regression in the uses to which the concept of the maternal has been put by contemporary feminists as well as their precursors in Gilman's era.

“It was a man, so human as to be above sex-pride,” enthused Gilman, “so great as to see the advantage of the world above the privileges of sex,” who produced what was next “to the theory of evolution itself … the most important single precept in the history of thought” (57). She was commending Lester F. Ward, who himself recalled with considerable pleasure the occasion on which he first formulated his “Gynecocentric Theory” of the “Phylogenetic Forces” that shape all creatures. At the “Fourteenth Dinner” of Washington D.C.'s “Six O'Clock Club” on 26 April 1888, remembered Ward, he was asked to speak on sex equality to a group of feminist luminaries, including “Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton … and a number of others equally well known” (297). Outlining his “view that the female sex is primary and the male secondary in the organic scheme, that originally and normally all things center, as it were, about the female,” Ward claimed that “the theory, so far as I have ever heard, is wholly my own, no one else having proposed or even defended it, scarcely anyone accepting it, and no one certainly coveting it” (Pure Sociology, 296-297).

But of course the notion of female primacy was hardly original with Ward. Rooted in the Romantic movement's valorization of the organic and of nature's “wise passiveness,” sanctifyings of the maternal had appeared in the writings of European thinkers from the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (who hymned the praises of “the Mothers”) to the Swiss jurist J. J. Bachofen (who hypothesized the originatory power of a Matriarchate). Much closer to home, however, Ward would very likely have encountered the protofeminist eugenics asserted by Walt Whitman in what was entitled “Poem of Women” when it was first published in 1856 and later called “Unfolded Out of the Folds”:

Unfolded out of the folds of the woman man comes unfolded, and is always to come unfolded,

Unfolded only out of the superbest woman of the earth is to come the superbest man of the earth …

A man is a great thing upon the earth and through eternity, but every jot of the greatness of man is unfolded out of woman;

First the man is shaped in the woman, he can then be shaped in himself.

If Ward didn't associate his notions of “gynecocracy” with Whitman's vatic tribute to the originatory powers of women, Gilman herself might have. On extended lecture tours in the 1890s she carried only two books in her trunk: Olive Schreiner's Dreams and Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and as late as 1933 she declared that “Whitman and Ward are our two greatest Americans” (Scharnhorst, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 41, 48). Certainly, when Gilman theologized the maternal in His Religion and Hers, she seemed to combine Ward's sociological conviction that, as far as evolution is concerned, “all things center … about the female” with the prophetic cadences of Whitman's assertion that “every jot of the greatness of man is unfolded out of the woman.” In the process, she produced an analytic critique of patriarchal religions as well as a call for a female-centered spirituality that adumbrates the speculations of such contemporary feminists as Rosemary Radford Ruether and Mary Daly.

To begin with, in examining patriarchal religions, Gilman defined “His” traditional modes of faith—whether Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, or Moslem—as egotistical, elitist, misogynist, and most of all death-centered. Egotistical: for Gilman, the ideal of a personal afterlife or heaven reflects a materialistic, solipsistic, and short-sighted wish for individual gratification that should be supplanted by a desire to better not the existence of the individual but the future of the race. Elitist: according to Gilman, religious ideas of renunciation, providence, predestination, and obedience retard or inhibit intelligent inquiry while perpetuating unjust caste systems. Misogynist: in Gilman's view, orthodox injunctions about women's duty of submission to men as well as “blaming women for the sin and trouble of the world” (43) occur in all the major religions, which have “accepted and perpetuated man's original mistake in making a private servant of the mother of the race” (217).

But as this last formulation indicates, Gilman's most pointed contrast between “His” and “Her” forms of faith balances a charge that patriarchal religions are death-oriented with a summons for birth-directed maternal creeds. Man-the-hunter has stressed “the principle of struggle, conflict, competition,” activities that merely generate problematic economic inequalities (271), whereas Woman-the-mother would promulgate “the principle of growth, of culture, of applying service and nourishment in order to produce improvement” (271). Agreeing with Ward that “the female is superior; she, more than the male, is the race type” (8), Gilman sounds like Whitman when she proclaims, “It is the mother who is rising, whose deep, sweet current of uplifting love is to pour forward into service” (277). If the characteristic male activities of hunting and fighting yielded religions based on a “strange death-complex” (35), women's role as nurturers would redirect spirituality onto life and growth:

To the death-based religion the main question is, “What is going to happen to me after I am dead”—a posthumous egotism.

To the birth-based religion the main question is, “What must be done for the child who is born?”—an immediate altruism.


According to Gilman, the concept of divinity would itself undergo a transformation in a female-centered religion: “From [woman's] great function, birth, with its long period of prevision, its climactic expression in bringing forth the child, its years of unselfish service with rich results, she would have apprehended God in a widely different view from that of man—as a power promoting endless growth” (247). Banished would be the transcendent, patriarchal ruler of Jewish and Christian supplicants, and in his place would be an indwelling deity, whose imminence in human culture and whose political beneficence would strikingly resemble the attributes of the divine that are currently propounded by liberation theologists like Paul Tillich. For Gilman, then, “Seeing God as within us, to be expressed, instead of above us, to be worshipped, is enough to change heaven and earth in our minds, and gradually to bring heaven on earth by our actions” (292)

Like Elizabeth Cady Stanton in The Woman's Bible (1895) and Matilda Joslyn Gage in Women, Church and State (1893), Gilman protested against religions that had been used to lend God's sanction to the subjugation of women. Yet, simultaneously drawing upon Whitman and Ward, her theology of the maternal in His Religion and Hers also reflects a more general nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century reassessment of the feminine and in particular of the womb. Among male thinkers, of course, Whitman was the most powerful literary figure to reconceive the mother, but besides working in a tradition formulated by Bachofen (who noted in 1859 that “the phallic god” merely “stands as a son to feminine matter”) he spoke for a range of other theorists, from Henry Adams (who somewhat nervously asserted that “the proper study of mankind is woman” because she represents “creative energy, the life force”) to Robert Graves, who devoted an entire book and much poetry to musings on The White Goddess. Among contemporaries of Gilman, though, such ideas of maternal primacy were enunciated with special force not only by Lester Ward but also by the popular essayist (and perfect Whitmanite) Edward Carpenter and the sexologist Havelock Ellis.

At the same time, from Emily Dickinson to Mary Baker Eddy, Isadora Duncan, and H. D., Gilman's female precursors and descendants brooded on the sacred mysteries of female procreativity as modes of divine creation and models for human creativity. In “Sweet Mountains—Ye tell Me no lie” (1863), Dickinson lifted her eyes unto the Berkshires in a pantheistic and quasi-feminist celebration of earth goddesses, praying “My Strong Madonnas—Cherish still— / The Wayward Nun—beneath the Hill— / Whose service—is to You—,” while in “Demeter” (1921) H. D. assumed the voice of the maternal deity to proclaim to her worshippers that they should “keep me foremost, / keep me before you, after you, with you,” and in a canceled passage from her prose work The Gift (composed 1941-1943) she insisted that “beneath every temple to Zeus … there was found on excavation … some primitive temple to the early Goddess … Maia, mama, Mutter, mut, mamalie, mimmie, Madre, Mary, mother.” Similarly, in Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures (1886) Eddy, who founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, and whose acolytes were to devote a perpetual shrine entitled “Mother's Room” to her memory, preached the gospel of “Our Father-Mother God, all-harmonious” (16), and in My Life (1927) Duncan wondered whether “in all the universe there is but one Great Cry containing Sorrow, Joy, Ecstasy, Agony, the Mother Cry of Creation?”

As if fictionalizing Dickinson's, H. D.'s, Eddy's, and Duncan's paeans to procreativity, Gilman's utopian Herland elaborates on her statement in Women and Economics: “Maternal energy is the force through which have come into the world both love and industry” (126). Divorced from heterosexuality, the private family, and economic dependence, a fully liberated maternal feeling flows through the Amazonian society of Gilman's parthenogenic women, “out in a strong, wide current, unbroken through the generations … including every child in all the land” (95). Awestruck, the male explorers who come under the sway of this culture's serene “overmothers” are converted to what they call “loving up,” a phrase that evokes the “stirring” within theme of “some ancient dim prehistoric consciousness … like—coming home to mother” (142).

In Herland, too, an erotics of maternity complements the same reverential replacement of God the father with “Maternal Pantheism” that marks His Religion and Hers. Passion is not a prelude to motherhood but equal to motherhood, Gilman shows, explaining that “before a child comes, there is a period of utter exaltation [when] the whole being is uplifted and filled with a concentrated desire” (70). Similarly, the divine and all that is divine is “Mother Earth, bearing fruit. All that [the inhabitants of Herland] ate was fruit of motherhood, from seed or egg or their product. By motherhood they were born and by motherhood they lived—life was, to them, just the long cycle of motherhood” (59).

A number of Gilman's stories and sketches appear at least superficially to supplement Herland's utopian vision of a liberated maternity, on the one hand, with a model of political activism based on a kind of surrogate or societal mothering totally in the control of women themselves and, on the other hand, with often satiric assaults on ways in which the sacred powers of maternity have been deformed by patriarchal structures. In celebrating maternity, for example, “When I Was a Witch” and “The Unnatural Mother” portray communal nurturance as the highest form of female heroism. Because she is maternally solicitous of others' nutritional well-being, for example, the central character of “When I Was a Witch” is angered by people responsible for bad food in the markets and hopes the “crowd that profit by this vicious business” will be gassed by their own awful products, while the protagonist of “The Unnatural Mother” is, ironically enough, castigated by her neighbors for putting other people's interests before concern for her own daughter and thereby saving an entire town from flooding: “She neglected her own to look after other folks' [children]” (65).

Focusing on what Julia Kristeva has called the “abjection” of the mother associated with the sexual division of labor enforced by a masculinist economy, “The Widow's Might,” “Making a Change,” and, most famously, “The Yellow Wallpaper” dramatize the sufferings endured by mothers whose helpless dependency on their husbands turns child-bearing or child-rearing into a living hell. In these works, the very processes of motherhood that Gilman elsewhere sees as potentially divine become infernal parodies of maternity that deplete, destroy, or infantilize women. The widow of the first tale, for example, is shown to have sacrificed thirty years of her life to a bad marriage and three ungrateful children, so she seems fully justified in her final decision to exchange the trivial “mite” her offspring want to give her for the might of an inheritance she has already earned by her own subversive labors. Scrutinizing the ill effects of maternal subjugation from a different perspective, “Making a Change” introduces a young mother whose renunciation of a musical career and confinement in the nursery cause her such misery that her child's crying leads her to attempt suicide: tellingly, she is saved by an understanding mother-in-law who professionalizes child care by opening a “Baby Garden” where, as in Herland, infants receive the specialized care and mothers the respite for self-development to which both are entitled. And finally, of course, “The Yellow Wallpaper” diagnoses the debilitating infantilization of its nameless protagonist as a symptom not only of the rest cure that destroyed Gilman's own first marriage and almost annihilated her sanity but also of the far more general social disease called patriarchy, an illness of the body politic that subordinates the sacred female principle to perverse family values promulgated by the male will to power.

Curiously, however, although all these texts register Gilman's revulsion against a maternity deformed by patriarchal imperatives, a more generalized horror of the maternal spills over to complicate this polemicist's overt didacticism. On closer examination, for instance, the five stories that we have just discussed yield less politically correct (albeit more inchoate) visions of mothers, motherhood, and maternity. Indeed, a most unmaternal hostility even to helpless creatures permeates several of these pieces. Operating out of what she herself confesses is “a state of simmering rage,” the apparently benevolent social reformer who narrates “When I Was a Witch” (21) rescues cats and dogs from a miserable urban life by killing them all off and only practices successful magic when it is “black,” that is, destructive. Tellingly, even when she seeks to deliver her fellow citizens from bad foodstuffs, she nauseates the wicked rather than nourishing the innocent. So, too, rather than expressing selfless love and grief, the heroine of “The Widow's Might” delights in denunciations of her family's exploitation and triumphs by secretly (and, as it might seem, selfishly) amassing her own wealth.

In a different but comparably confusing mode, several other sketches portray mothers who instinctively, almost viscerally, reject their children. The eponymous “Unnatural Mother,” for one, certainly seems to show an antimaternal rather than a maternal reflex when she rapidly and automatically acts to save her town rather than her own child. As for the suicidal young musician of “Making a Change,” Gilman's unusually vivid description of the auditory discomfort associated with infant care almost seems to justify this sensitive listener's impulse to self-destruction: “The grating wail [of the baby] fell like a lash—burned in like fire. … To any mother a child's cry is painful; to a musical mother it is torment” (66-67).

But if even such comparatively sprightly tales as “When I Was a Witch” and “Making a Change” incorporate unmotherly and antimaternal messages of hostility, the far more intense and classic “Yellow Wallpaper” [“The Yellow Wallpaper”] encodes what, coming from the author of Herland, may well seem like a shocking fear and loathing of maternity in both its plot and (perhaps especially) its props. For the last few decades, to be sure, this text has been repeatedly interpreted by feminist critics in the light of its author's own assertion that she “wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” with its embellishments and additions,” to explain why she “cast the noted [Weir Mitchell's] advice to the winds” in order to go on to a healthy, productive life as wife, mother, writer, lecturer, and feminist. Yet if one reads the text unencumbered by presuppositions about Gilman's intentions, it becomes fairly clear almost at once that this story's premise has less to do with rest cures than with the physicality, the materiality, of maternity.

Indeed, if—as D. H. Lawrence once recommended—we trust the tale and not the teller, the work's hypothesis is that having a baby can drive a woman crazy, since, radically enough, the physical splitting of a woman into mother-and-baby might induce a virtual schizophrenic split in the female psyche. Equally horrifying, or so “The Yellow Wallpaper” suggests, child-bearing can breed just the animality, irrationally, and self-absorption exhibited by the tale's narrator rather than the spirituality, rationality, and benevolence commended in Herland as well as His Religion and Hers. Creeping by night like a cat (“most women don't creep by daylight”), gnawing her bedstead like a dog, the maddened speaker of this chilling work praises her already absent infant with remarkable disregard as merely a “dear baby” while apologizing that “I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous” (Reader, 7). As for the infamous “nursery” in which the demented mother (who is Gilman's best-known fictional character) has been isolated and confined, it might be worth considering that this space—often seen as an ancestral attic for lunatics—is quite literally a nursery analogous to the nursing female body itself.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, first published a few years after Gilman penned “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the founder of psychoanalysis expounded among other patterns of the “dreamwork” a mode of “displacement” and reversal that might be said to mark the props and properties of the nursing body qua nursery in which the narrator of this story finds herself. Bed, chains, windows, walls, and especially wallpaper—all, here, through a process by which the body's inside becomes its outside and vice versa—might be said uncannily to represent just the fearfully repellent inferiority of which the pregnant—child-bearing—nursing woman becomes conscious as she comes to terms with the bodily signs of her own maternity. Thus, in Gilman's tale what is going on inside the maternal body is almost theatrically symbolized through what merely seems to be happening outside that body.

Clearly the yellow wallpaper itself is the narrative's most pertinent prop in this regard. Though this mysterious, skinlike stuff has often been interpreted as a projection of the narrator's rage (the phantom female figure behind it shakes bars to get out of patriarchal imprisonment) or as a sign of the woman's entrapment in archaic scripts (the puzzling design mocks all her efforts to understand its purpose and ultimately sentences her to madness), we would like to argue that the vexing paper can be understood in a number of different ways once we abandon Gilman's self-justifying rationalizations about the story along with some of our own political presuppositions. For example, if we read the tale as a fantasy about the literal sensations of fear and loathing that the experience of maternity induced in one woman, the ghastly yellowness of the paper, usually (and of course not wrongly) associated by contemporary theorists with patriarchal pollution, with the dire contamination of ancestral scripts, obviously expresses not just the central character's self-disgust, with its smell and color objectifying her horror at the physicality of her own body, but also the terrifyingly imminent and immanent walls of the womb itself, scarred with blood and biology. Scraping away at it, ripping it off, Gilman's protagonist might be thought to be tearing away at her own flesh in self-revulsion, almost as if trying to enact the miscarriage that would have saved her from her present fate.

Worse, it may well be that the baby who appears to play no part in the work's explicit plot finds his way into the weirdly physiological wallpaper that so repels the narrator. For after all, the pattern of the paper itself, with its “two bulbous eyes star[ing] at you upside down” (7), evokes something like a fetus, and “it turns a back somersault” (12) like the baby within the womb. Also, rather like an embryo, this “formless sort of figure that seems to skulk” evidently “sticketh closer than a brother” (8), “sticketh,” indeed, as close as a child within a woman's body. Like the parts of an intrauterine or aborted fetus, “all those strangled heads and bulbous eyes” resemble “waddling fungus growths” (18). And at times the hideously repeated figure in the paper seems, unnervingly enough, to want to be born by breaking through some sort of birth canal: “many heads” try to “climb through” the pattern but “it strangles so … and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!” (15). Yet elsewhere, and at the same time, the ghastly thing vaguely suggests a demonic toddler: besides “waddling up and down” (9), it is “almost intact” and “makes [the narrator] tired to follow it” (10) because “it creeps so slowly” (11).

In this reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” then, the mysterious rope with which the speaker eventually proposes to tie up what has been seen as her mad double becomes a severed umbilical cord that still, horrifyingly, shackles her to a diabolic infant, threatening to strangle not just mother and child but also the very concept of maternity in which both are enclosed. At the same time, however, through another one of the paradoxical and dream-like reversals that mark Gilman's perpetually resonant tale, the rope also dissolves into an umbilical cord with which the narrator clamps herself into a womb-room out of which she refuses to be borne: “I am securely fastened now by my well-hidden rope,” she gloats near the conclusion of the story, boasting, “you don't get me out in the road there!” Refusing entrance into the symbolic road, or birth-canal, where women (and babies) creep toward adult sexuality, she throws away the key that would allow her husband admission into this now immaculately intact womb/room where she may fear he would once again impregnate her in the “great” and “heavy bedstead.”

Why did a feminist writer ostensibly dedicated to the sanctification of motherhood so demonize the processes of conception, child-bearing, nursing, and child-caring? What are the personal and cultural psychodynamics through which maternity is elevated to a paradisal ethical principle in His Religion and Hers while rejected as an infernal (even sulphurous) and degrading biological event in “The Yellow Wallpaper”? In meditating on these issues, it may be useful to begin by noting that, different as they are in their representations of motherhood, both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and His Religion and Hers (along with many of Gilman's other writings) obsessively return to this author's troubled experiences with both her own mother and her own motherhood.

As her mother's daughter, Charlotte Perkins believed throughout her life that her mother had inflicted great emotional harm by withholding physical affection. In order to prepare her child for a loveless world, Gilman recalled in her autobiography, Mary Perkins “would not let me caress her, and would not caress me, unless I was asleep.” As her daughter's mother, Gilman was wracked with guilt by her own need to separate herself from the child, first through short intervals of travel and work but later (when Katharine was nine years old) by sending the girl across the country to live with her father and his second wife. In the harsh remembrances of Katharine Beecher Stetson Chamberlain herself, Charlotte Perkins was either “lying around in the hammock … enjoying nervous prostration” or “always scurrying,” “too tired or too distracted” to provide proper care (Hill, ed., Making of a Radical Feminist, 233).

Interestingly, when we juxtapose “The Yellow Wallpaper” with His Religion and Hers so as to read the later text against the grain, as it were, it becomes plain that much of Gilman's maternal theology is compensatory. Perhaps because all the processes associated with conception, birth, and nursing were unusually disturbing to her, she was impelled to convert her own anxiety at maternity into a gospel of motherhood. Yet the vehemence of the theological rhetoric through which Gilman preached female superiority betrays a number of tensions that undermine a feminism otherwise usually sensible and rational.

Perhaps most obviously, Gilman's hymns to maternal nurturance are so excessive as to evoke the retrograde sexual ideologies associated with the Victorian Angel in the House: her encomium to woman's “great function, birth, with its long period of prevision, its climactic expression in bringing forth the child, its years of unselfish service with rich results” (247) recalls both Coventry Patmore's selfless heroine and Virginia Woolf's sardonic revision of that character. At the same time, her eugenic equation of maternity with racial improvement may explain her similarly Victorian-sounding claim that “self-expression is an essentially masculine attribute” (75). Indeed, her notion of female superiority as “the race type,” compared to male inferiority as “the sex type” (62), leads Gilman to stereotype all men as “over-sexed males” (64) while likening human aesthetic self-expression to the courtship behavior and characteristics of lower species—for instance, the colorful plumage of male birds. Cautioning women that “normal sex, in the female, is a means to motherhood,” this famous feminist seems to be saying, in a curious revision of Queen Victoria's notorious admonition, that on her wedding night every bride should close her eyes and think of the race. Certainly Gilman insists that although monogamy is in itself an insufficient antidote to the promiscuity natural to (all, inevitably oversexed) males, it should be practiced along with abstinence: “a natural monogamy does not imply continuous sex use” (84), she warned.

It is not surprising, then, that Gilman was puritanically scandalized by Sigmund Freud, whose “morbid philosophy,” she fulminated, “assumes sex [i.e., the erotic] to be the mainspring of life,” an idea she finds “so revolting to a healthy mind as to cause nausea” (165). Although she sardonically conceded that it might be “natural” if “the male, originated for sex use, should overestimate the importance of his raison d'être” (166), her vision of the human female as responsible for the elevation of the race through evolution meant, in her view, that women must angelically save men from their preoccupation with a sex urge that constitutes “a hindrance and a detriment to human progress” (167).

At the same time, such an emphasis on woman's destined role as Angel in the House of Evolution may help explain Gilman's otherwise mysterious efforts to distance herself from the very women's movement she herself had helped to launch and promote. Because this founding feminist came to feel that women's “essential purpose is to reproduce and to improve the race” (236), she found herself significantly alienated from—even repelled by—the New Woman of her age. In fact, her dislike of the female Flaming Youth she encountered in the early twenties takes a subtle homophobic turn in one passage that deserves to be quoted at some length:

These poor little slouchy creatures, painting their cheeks and powdering their noses … adopting male vices, and so unutterably traitorous to the essential glory of their own sex as willingly to forego motherhood in order to share the barren pleasures of the other—are these the women from whose influence we are to expect a higher religion?

Most certainly they are not. But these are not Women. These are really worthy of that absurd title with which men have tried to discredit the progressive women of our times—“the third sex.”


Slouchy and powdered, these “creatures” so shocking to Gilman are obviously flappers, whose blatant displays of “barren” sexuality appear at least as nauseating as the procreative female body depicted in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” And her phrase “the third sex,” probably meant to echo common caricatures of suffragists as insufficiently feminine manhaters or grotesquely masculinized battleaxes, may also derive from Edward Carpenter's investigations of what he called “the intermediate [or third] sex” in several books Gilman claimed to admire—Love's Coming of Age (1896) and Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk (1914). But while Carpenter praises such individuals as “remarkable” character types in whom there is a harmonious balance of feminine and masculine qualities, Gilman castigates them as “abnormal” and “ridiculous.” At the same time, condemning the birth control movement as providing “a free ticket for selfish and fruitless indulgence” (285), she even goes so far as to defend the double standard, finding it “quite right” that “misbehavior is … more condemned in women” because “in all that affects the health and happiness of the race the mother is the most important factor” (285). The mother-centered social changes she envisions, she avers, are “deeper” and “more important, than any mere feminist imagines” (238; emphasis added).

But besides weakening her earlier commitment to the women's movement, Gilman's aversion to female physicality and her repudiation of the erotic actually led her to misread precisely the “gynecocentric” theories of Lester Ward that she claimed to be promulgating in His Religion and Hers. For Ward's contrast between the race-type female and the sex-type male shares little with Gilman's. In fact, arguing in Pure Sociology that “life begins as female” (313) and “the male is … a mere afterthought of nature” (314), Ward characterizes masculine “appetition” with delight rather than distaste:

throughout all nature we find the male always active and eager seeking the female and exerting his utmost powers to infuse into her the new hereditary Anlagen. … This intense interest in his work is the natura naturans, the voice of nature speaking through him and commanding him, in season and out of season, always and under all circumstances, to do his duty, and never on any pretext to allow an opportunity to escape to infuse into the old hereditary trunk of his species the new life that is in him.


Unlike Gilman, this author evidently revels in a voice of nature that tells the male to “fecundate!” by following his “appetitive interest” while admonishing the female to “discriminate!” by selecting the partner with the highest value for the race.

If Gilman's misreading of Ward's views on the masculine urge to “fecundate!” was disturbingly censorious, however, her skewed interpretation of his attitude toward the feminine responsibility to “discriminate!” was more problematic still. Though he has long been considered a leading exponent of Social Darwinism as well as eugenics, both of which tended to be politically conservative and racially retrograde, Ward dedicated his career to combating what he called the “gospel of inaction” he associated with William Graham Sumner's laissez-faire version of the doctrine of natural selection (Scott, Ward, 115). In addition, he vigorously critiqued ideologies of white superiority, claiming that “blacks under as favorable circumstances as whites would develop a civilization of as high an order as any in Europe” (121).

As if generalizing from Ward's Darwinian notion of genetic choice or discrimination to a species of political and social discrimination, however, Gilman essentialized and biologized race in His Religion and Hers and elsewhere, conflating physical evolution with moral improvement in often sinister or ludicrous ways. Her notion that “far-seeing Japanese women might determine to raise the standard of height, or patriotic French women determine to raise the standard of fertility, or wise American women unite with the slogan, ‘No more morons!’” (86) certainly seems laughable. But the “negative eugenics” (69) of Herlanders aren't so funny. Here the “lowest types” of girls (including those with sexual drives) are “bred out” (82) of the species.

Even more distressing are the immodest proposals Gilman put forward in an essay entitled “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem” (1908), where this grand-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe seriously suggested the establishment of a labor corps into which all “negroes … who are not self-supporting, who are degenerating into an increasing percentage of social burdens” (179), would be conscripted. Although she herself insisted that her “proposed organization is not enslavement, but enlistment,” her enthusiasm for uniforms, titles, “construction trains,” and “model farms” has an unnervingly protofascistic edge. And a comparably disquieting rhetoric marks a xenophobic article entitled “Is America Too Hospitable?” (1923). Here, cautioning against America's open door policy—“If you put into a melting pot promiscuous shovelfuls of anything that comes handy you … may break the pot” (290)—Gilman concedes that “it is physically possible for all races to interbreed,” but argues, chauvinistically, that “the wisest of both races prefer the pure stock” (291).

How might Gilman's misreading of, and misadventures with, the maternal illuminate the ambiguities that mark contemporary feminism's discourse on this mat(t)er so central to the very definition of femininity? Was the utopianist of Herland seduced and betrayed into uncharacteristic grandiosity, even arrogance, by deceptive myths of maternal power precisely because the abjection of motherhood to the species filled her with such dread that she could not bear to contemplate the materiality of its meaning? Might the nuances of her intellectual case history imply that when we in the current women's movement similarly idealize maternity we are doing so because we shudder to look upon what the poet Sharon Olds identifies as the process through which every mother has “lain down and sweated and shaken / and passed blood and feces and water and / slowly alone in the center of a circle [she has] passed the new person out”?

If we follow this line of thought, such diverse recent constructions of the maternal as those offered by Nancy Chodorow, Luce Irigaray, Carol Gilligan, and indeed Julia Kristeva can be read as redemptive fantasies that evade or repress the inexorable factuality of the flesh, the anxiety of maternity that still, inevitably, persists. Chodorow envisions a magical bond between mothers and daughters that bequeaths special sensitivities to women. Irigaray metaphorizes the mysteries of milk, nipples, tongue, and lips. Gilligan extols the nurturant and pacific skills women imbibe at the mother's breast. Despite meditations on the abjection of the mother, even Kristeva succumbs to the lure of maternal jouissance.

Like their famous “forerunner,” all these thinkers struggle with the materiality of maternity through a spiritualizing rhetoric that echoes her paeans to what the Nigerian novelist Buchi Emechetta more wryly calls “the joys of motherhood.” But the author of The Home and Women and Economics sought to be even more practical than many of our theorizing contemporaries about the material conditions of motherhood as a social institution. Indeed, Gilman's dream of “Baby Gardens” where infants bloom like tulips, tended by expert horticulturists and visited from time to time by happily independent biological mothers, pragmatically seeks to devise an institutional bridge between the horror that deforms “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the ecstasy that glamorizes Herland.

Yet, of course, the vocabulary of gardening—in particular the lexicon of uprooting, pruning, and cutting back that complements concepts of planting and blossoming in the allegory of the “baby garden”—has dark connotations which return us once again to the powers of horror. The American poet Linda Pastan's “Notes from the Delivery Room” makes this point perhaps most succinctly:

Babies should grow in fields:
common as beets or turnips
they should be picked and held
root end up, soil spilling
from between their toes—
and how much easier it would be later,
returning them to earth.


Works by Gilman

The majority of Gilman's published and unpublished papers may be found in the collection held by the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“About Dramatic Rights in ‘Three Women’ and ‘Something to Vote For.’” Forerunner 2 (1911): 179.

“Among Our Foreign Residents.” Forerunner 7 (1916): 145-146.

“An Anchor to Windward.” In The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ed. Denise D. Knight, 866-867.

“Beginners.” Folder 165. Charlotte Perkins Gilman Collection. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Benigna Machiavelli. Forerunner 5 (1914). Rpt. New York: Bonanza, 1994.

“The Best for the Poorest.” Forerunner 7 (1916): 260-262.

“Birth Control, Religion, and the Unfit.” Nation 134 (1932): 108-109.

“Child Labor and the Schools.” Independent 64 (1908): 1135-1139.

Concerning Children. Boston: Small, 1900. London: Watts, 1907.

The Crux. New York: Charlton, 1911.

“Divorce and Birth Control.” Outlook 125 (1928): 130-151.

“Does a Man Support His Wife?” Pamphlet. (Rpt. from Forerunner.) Folder 250. Charlotte Perkins Gilman Collection. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Domestic Economy.” 1904. Rpt. in Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader, ed. Larry Ceplair, 157-168.

The Dress of Women. Serialized in Forerunner (1915).

“Egoism, Altruism and Socialism.” American Fabian 4 (1898): 1-2.

“Encouraging Miss Miller.” Forerunner 6 (1915).

“The Ethics of Wage Earning.” Before 1900. Folder 254. Charlotte Perkins Gilman Collection, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“The Ethics of Woman's Work.” Unpublished lecture dated 31 January 1894. Folder 171. Charlotte Perkins Gilman Collection, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Feminism and Social Progress.” In Problems of Civilization, ed. Baker Brownell, 29-32. New York: Van Nostrand, 1929.

“Feminism or Polygamy?” Forerunner 5 (1914): 260-261.

“Free Speech.” Forerunner 5 (1914): 146.

“The Girl in the Pink Hat.” 1916. Rpt. in The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, ed. Ann J. Lane, 39-46.

Herland. 1915. Introduction by Ann J. Lane. New York: Pantheon, 1979. London: Women's Press, 1979.

“His Mother.” 1916. Rpt. in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ed. Denise D. Knight, 73-80. Newark: Delaware Press, 1994.

His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers. New York: Century, 1923. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion, 1976.

The Home: Its Work and Influence. 1903. New York: McClure, 1910. New York: Source Book Press, 1970.

“Humanness.” Forerunner (1913): 52-53.

Human Work. New York: McClure, Phillips and Company, 1904.

“Ideals of Child Culture: A Talk.” In Child Study for Mothers and Teachers, ed. Margaret Sanger, 93-101. Philadelphia: Booklovers Library, 1901.

“If I Were a Man.” 1914. Rpt. in The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, ed. Ann J. Lane, 32-38.

In This Our World. Oakland: McCombs and Vaughn, 1893. Rpt. Boston: Small, Maynard and Company, 1899; also New York: Arno, 1974.

“Is America Too Hospitable?” Forum 70 (1923): 1983-1989. Rpt. in Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader, ed. Larry Ceplair, 288-295.

“Kitchen-Mindedness.” Forerunner 1 (1910): 7-11.

“The Labor Movement.” 1892. Rpt. in Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader, ed. Larry Ceplair, 62-74.

The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1935. New York: Arno, 1972; Harper, 1975. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

“Mag—Marjorie.” Serialized in Forerunner 3 (1912).

“Making a Change.” 1911. In The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, ed. Ann J. Lane, 66-74.

The Man-Made World, or Our Androcentric Culture. New York: Charlton, 1911. New York: Source Book Press, 1970.

“Mind Cleaning.” Forerunner 3 (1912): 5-6.

Moving the Mountain. New York: Charlton, 1911.

“The New Generation of Women.” Current History 18 (1923): 731-737.

“The New Motherhood.” Forerunner 1 (1910): 17-18.

“The New Mothers of a New World.” Forerunner 4 (1913): 145-149.

“The Oldest Profession in the World.” Forerunner 4 (1913): 63-64.

“Our Brains and What Ails Them.” Forerunner 3 (1912): 22-26, 49-54, 77-82, 104-109, 133-139, 161-167, 189-195, 215-221, 245-251, 273-279, 301-307, 328-334.

“Our Place Today.” 1891. Unpublished lecture. Charlotte Perkins Gilman Collection. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Parasitism and Civilized Vice.” In Woman's Coming of Age: A Symposium, ed. Samuel D. Schmalhausen and V. F. Calverton, 110-126. New York: Liveright, 1931.

“The Passing of the Home in Great American Cities.” Heresies 3:3 (1981): 53-55.

“Passing of Matrimony.” Harper's Bazaar (June 1906): 496.

“Prisons, Convicts, and Women Voters.” Forerunner 4 (1913): 92.

“Progress through Birth Control.” North American Review 224 (1927): 622-629.

“Sex and Race Progress.” In Sex in Civilization, ed. V. F. Calverton and Samuel D. Schmalhausen, 109-126. New York: Macaulay, 1929.

“She Who Is To Come.” In In This Our World: Poems, 143. 3rd ed. Boston: Small, 1899.

“A Small God and a Large Goddess.” Forerunner 1 (1909): 1-4.

Social Ethics. Serialized in Forerunner (1914).

“Socialist Psychology.” Unpublished article or lecture, 5 March 1933. Rpt. in Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader, ed. Larry Ceplair, 302-312.

“Something to Vote For.” Forerunner 2 (1911): 143-153. Rpt. in On to Victory: Propaganda Plays of the Woman Suffrage Movement, ed. Bettina Friedl. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.

“The Spirit of the Movement.” Vote 14 (1911): 140-141.

“A Suggestion on the Negro Problem.” American Journal of Sociology 14 (1908): 78-85. Rpt. in Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader, ed. Larry Ceplair, 176-183.

“Teaching the Mothers.” Forerunner 3 (1912): 73-75.

Three Women. Floor plan. Ellen Terry Memorial Museum, Tenterden, Kent, UK.

Three Women. Play programme fragment. Ellen Terry Memorial Museum, Tenterden, Kent, UK.

Three Women. Prompt copy. Ellen Terry Memorial Museum, Tenterden, Kent, UK.

Three Women. Props list. Ellen Terry Memorial Museum, Tenterden, Kent, UK.

“Three Women.” Success 11 (August 1908): 490-491, 522-526.

“Three Women: A One-Act Play.” Forerunner 2 (1911): 115-123, 134.

“Toward Monogamy.” Rpt. in Our Changing Morality: A Symposium, ed. Freda Kirchwey, 53-68. New York: Boni, 1924.

“Two Storks.” Forerunner 1 (1910): 12.

Unpunished: A Mystery. 1929. Ed. and with an afterword by Denise D. Knight and Catherine Golden. New York: Feminist, 1997.

“The Vintage.” Forerunner 7 (1916): 253-257. Rpt. in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” ed. Denise D. Knight, 104-111.

What Diantha Did. New York: Charlton, 1910.

“What May We Expect of Eugenics?” Physical Culture 31 (1914): 219-222.

“What Our Children Might Have.” Century 110 (1925): 706-711.

“Where Are All the Pre-War Radicals?” Survey 55 (1926): 564.

“Who Owns the Children?” Unpublished lecture, 1891. Box XIII, Folder 165. Charlotte Perkins Gilman Collection, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Why Women Do Not Reform Their Dress.” Woman's Journal (October 1886): 338.

“The Widow's Might.” 1911. Rpt. in The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, ed. Ann J. Lane, 98-106.

“With Her in Ourland.” Serialized in Forerunner 7 (1916).

Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Boston: Small, 1898. Ed. and introd. Carl N. Degler. New York: Harper, 1966.

“The Yellow Wallpaper.” 1892. Rpt. as The Yellow Wallpaper. New York: Feminist Press, 1973. Rpt. in The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, ed. Ann J. Lane, 3-20.

Other Works

Carpenter, Edward. Love's Coming of Age: A Series of Papers on the Relations of the Sexes. New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1911.

Eddy, Mary Baker. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Boston: Trustees under the Will of Mary Baker G. Eddy, 1922.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Gilligan, Carol, and Lyn Mikel Brown. Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girl's Development. New York: Ballantine, 1992.

Hill, Mary A. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

———, ed. Endure: The Diaries of Charles Walter Stetson. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

———, ed. A Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Lewisberg: Bucknell University Press, 1995.

Irigaray, Luce. “Women, the Sacred and Money.” In Psychoanalytic Criticism: A Reader, ed. Sue Vice, 182-193. London: Polity, 1996.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

———. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1985.

———. “Making Her Fame: Charlotte Perkins Gilman in California.” California History 64 (1985): 192-201.

Scott, Clifford H. Lester Frank Ward. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Ward, Lester. Dynamic Sociology or, Applied Social Science, as Based upon Statistical Sociology and the Less Complex Sciences. Vols. 1 and 2. New York: Appleton, 1883, 1907.

———. “Our Better Halves.” Forum 6 (November 1888): 266-275.

———. Pure Sociology: A Treatise on the Origin and Spontaneous Development of Society. 1903. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1916.

Ann Heilmann (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Heilmann, Ann. “Overwriting Decadence: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Oscar Wilde, and the Feminization of Art in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Catherine J. Golden and Joanna Schneider Zangrando, pp. 175-88. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Heilmann asserts that Gilman challenged the dominant nineteenth-century patriarchal discourse on high art by transforming her own ideas about art and politics into the narrative of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” thereby mapping “the transition from male aestheticism to a new female aesthetic.”]

When William Dean Howells approached Charlotte Perkins Gilman about the inclusion of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” [“The Yellow Wallpaper”] in his Great American Short Stories, she told him that it “was no more ‘literature’ than [her] other stuff, being definitely written ‘with a purpose,’” adding that “[i]n [her] judgment it [was] a pretty poor thing to write … without a purpose.”1 Gilman's purpose in writing “The Yellow Wall-Paper” has been variously linked to a radical attack on the institutions of marriage and motherhood; to an indictment of patriarchal medicine and science; to a celebration of the subversiveness of the hysteric; to an interrogation of the relationship between the personal and the political, the autobiographical and the historical; and lastly, to a cultural critique of the literal as well as literary and linguistic, the material and the symbolic, problems faced by the woman who wants to survive as an artist in a male-dominated society.2

With “The Yellow Wall-Paper” today regarded as an almost unparalleled literary masterpiece which provides a brilliant exposition of the conditions of women's lives under patriarchy, the dichotomy between “literature” and “purpose,” or “art” and “politics,” which Gilman foregrounded in her comment to Howells, is not usually perceived as a problem. Neither was this dichotomy borne out by Gilman's life: after studying art at the Rhode Island School of Design, she earned her living as an art teacher and a decorative artist, painting flowers so perfectly that, as she tells us in her autobiography, if she had “give[n] [her]self to it” she could have made a name for herself (Living 46-47). Her first book, In This Our World (1893), was a collection of poems, the cover of which she devised herself, modeling it on Dreams (1890) by Olive Schreiner, another eminent turn-of-the-century feminist whose work combined art and politics (Living 168). In 1898, the year of her breakthrough as a feminist philosopher and author of Women and Economics, she saw herself “[a]s poet—as author—as orator”—the poet coming first, and the term author, like that of prophet or visionary, incorporating both aspects, the artist and the political reformer. Even forty years later, at the age of seventy, after completing her mystery novel, Unpunished, she was still planning for new work which should form part of “Art, Service, Education, Religion.”3 Writing as a form of art was clearly important to her, although this art was always bound up with “service”—but here she had a famous role model: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1857), an epic novel-poem about a successful woman artist, a book Gilman read and reread in the early years of her marriage to Walter Stetson, ends on the message that “Art's a service,” in other words, that art is a political project for reforming the world as well as an aesthetic and philosophical endeavour.4

Even while considering herself a writer, and implying that she could have been a notable artist, had she only wanted to, throughout her life, Gilman qualified her artistic achievements by insisting that what she had done was “perfect of its kind, but not ‘art’”; that she was devoted to “literature and lecturing,” but that her writing was “not, in the artistic sense, ‘literature’” (Living 46, 248; Diaries 2: 846). Why this preoccupation with the dichotomy between art and purpose, and what significance does it have for my reading of “The Yellow Wall-Paper?” Conrad Shumaker and Sheryl Meyering have interpreted Gilman's disavowal of her artistic self as a strategy common to women writers who sought to defuse the threat they posed by emphasizing their own insignificance5; however, this would be strangely at odds with the rest of her work, which so manifestly sets out to challenge patriarchal values and hierarchies. Another explanation might be found in the maternal interdiction of “brain-building” (day-dreaming), which may have caused the thirteen-year-old girl to believe that purely pleasurable (aesthetic) imaginative activity was selfish and immoral (not “work”), initiating a life-long habit of checking her creative impulses if they were not directed toward a specific “purpose” (Living 23-24). However, in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” such a narrow view of art is exposed as dangerous: it is, after all, John's prohibition of writing, his utter incomprehension of his wife's need for constructive creative expression, and his injunction to her not to “give way” to her “false and foolish” “fancies,”6 which propel the narrator on a journey to self-disintegration and madness.

While Gilman knew herself to be an artist in terms of her own feminist reconceptualization of art, I want to argue that she self-consciously distanced herself from the contemporary conception of “high” art because she associated with it specific movements and a specific gender, in other words, “masculine” art and an “androcentric” perspective—the antithesis of everything she and her art stood for. The beginning and end of her career saw her writing pitted against fin-de-siècle decadence and twentieth-century “high” modernism, predominantly or exclusively male-oriented movements whose most central aspects—“Art for Art's Sake,” privileging style and formal experimentation over content—clashed with her notion of “purposeful” art and explicitly political literature. “When Mrs. Gilman says, ‘I am not an artist,’” an early twentieth-century critic noted, “she is rebuking strictly esthetic expectations. … The whole effect of her work … is of … a seer's intentness, a prophet's passion to say … she is making a case, she is translating a vision.”7

If “The Yellow Wall-Paper” was written to teach Silas Weir Mitchell and, by implication, other wielders of patriarchal authority, “the error of [their] ways” (Living 121), Gilman also responded to the dominant artistic discourse of her time by “translating her vision” of political art. In the context of the 1890s, the color and strange floral pattern of the wallpaper literally and literarily take on a specific cultural meaning. Why yellow? As Mary Jacobus and Susan Lanser have noted, yellow, the “color of sickness,” would at that time have been associated with racial fears of national invasion (the “Yellow Peril”) and with social fears of the invasion of privacy (the sensationalist “Yellow Press”).8 Most significantly, of course, it stood for the aesthetic and decadent movement. Morris's fashionable designs in which, as Heather Kirk Thomas points out in her contribution to this collection, yellow featured significantly, Van Gogh's sunflowers, Whistler's blue-and-yellow room, the French yellowback novel, The Yellow Book, and indeed, the Yellow Nineties. Above all, the color yellow evokes the image of Oscar Wilde, self-styled “Professor of Aesthetics,” carrying sunflowers and a yellow silk handkerchief in lieu of aestheticism to the America of the 1880s, and responding to hostile newspaper reports by quipping, “If you survive yellow journalism, you need not be afraid of yellow fever”; Wilde who put a novel bound in yellow, mistakenly thought to be The Yellow Book, under his arm when he was arrested and whose A Woman of No Importance (1893) features a young American woman with a purpose, teaching the higher morality to decadent English aristocrats in a “Yellow Drawing-room.”9

Wilde's poems “In the Gold Room: A Harmony” (1882), “Symphony in Yellow” (1889), “Remorse (A Study in Saffron)” (1889) and “La Dame Jaune” (undated) established yellow as the color of decadence, conjuring up an atmosphere where the erotic connoted decay and the rotting “flowers of evil” (falling hair in “Remorse” and “In the Gold Room,” falling clothes in “La Dame Jaune,” falling leaves in “Symphony in Yellow”) (Wilde, Complete Works 862, 872-73; Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 196). Decadent eroticism was similarly visualized in painting, for instance in Albert Moore's “Yellow Marguerites” (ca. 1880), which encoded female “solitary vice” by depicting a languid young woman reclining on a sofa against a background of flowery yellow wallpaper.10 Sexual perversion was made explicit in The Yellow Room, an anonymous sado-masochistic text published a year before “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” in which the title room is the site of the heroine's flagellation by her uncle.11

By turning the two signifiers of aestheticism (the color yellow and the flower tapestry made so famous by William Morris) into the central metaphor of her story on women's sociocultural oppression, Gilman was visualizing her emerging feminist opposition to the “pointless pattern” of male thought and cultural production (31), juxtaposing these with a woman-centered politics and perspective, the central female consciousness of her text. Judging by a lecture she gave in 1894, “Art for Art's Sake” was, as she noted in her diary, bound to have “evil results” (Diaries 2: 583).12 Like so many feminists of the time, in particular the British New Woman writers, Gilman constructed decadence not as subversion, but merely as a different expression of patriarchy. If, on a symbolic level, the yellow wallpaper denotes the phallocentric structures of science and the patriarchal family, it quite literally reflects contemporary male art and also, as Kirk Thomas illustrates in her essay, male consumer culture. Doctor, husband, artist, and interior decorator combine to enclose the female narrator in a prison of maleness, a “delirium tremens” of masculine frenzy, its “sprawling outlines run[ning] off in great slanting waves of optic horror” (31, emphasis in original), and pressing on the narrator “like a bad dream” (34). “Our androcentric culture,” Gilman was to write two decades later in The Man-Made World (1911), “is … a masculine culture in excess, and therefore undesirable.”13 In “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” she suggested that this “excess of degeneracy,” as Kirk Thomas calls it, was not only “undesirable,” but also a health hazard.

In what sense does the biographical context throw further light on Gilman's critique of aestheticism? No record exists of any meeting between her and Wilde, but there is enough evidence to suggest that their paths crossed indirectly. In 1882, when Wilde toured America for a year, Gilman was twenty-two and teaching art and designing advertising cards in Providence. She might have heard about Wilde from her uncle Henry Ward Beecher, whom Wilde visited in July 1882. Wilde lectured in Rhode Island on three separate occasions, on 25 or 26 September in Gilman's home town. She neither attended nor made a note of Wilde in her diary, but she could hardly have avoided reports of the occasion in the local press and subsequent local gossip. As Wilde's lectures were transcribed almost verbatim by the newspapers, she would have had a good idea of what they were about. One can only speculate about the impact the media debate on Wilde had in terms of shaping her views on art and aestheticism. The Woman's Journal, for instance, which one year later accepted Gilman's poem “In Duty Bound” (1884), carried a heated diatribe against him on 4 February 1882 (Diaries 1: 240; Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 174-75, 180-83). On the other hand, the poet Joacquin Miller, who was to become a friend some ten years later, was a passionate Wilde advocate, writing fiery open letters in his defense.14 Since Wilde was in the habit of visiting art galleries and art schools of the cities in which he delivered lectures, he might have stopped at the Rhode Island School of Design or at the Providence Art Club (Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 175-76, 182). In any case, he did not conceal his disdain for “young ladies painting moonlights upon dinner plates and sunsets on soup plates”; “[t]here is one thing much worse than bad art,” he said in his lecture on “The Decorative Arts,” “and that is no art”—an attitude that would certainly have made Gilman feel ill at ease with her own flower painting, which, we remember, was “perfect of its kind,” but (in the light of Wilde's comments?) “not ‘art’” (Living 84; Wilde, Complete Works 932).

Richard Ellmann notes that, notwithstanding his bad press, Wilde's “opinion was constantly sought in connection with plans for new art schools and galleries, and young artists looked up to him … as a god” (Oscar Wilde 182); surely Gilman and Stetson must have discussed Wilde and aestheticism. It is possible that Gilman bowed to Stetson's “superior” judgment, at least outwardly, as she says she did in her autobiography: “Do it as you choose,” she told him when they were furnishing their marital home, “I have no tastes and no desires. I shall like whatever you do” (Living 85).15 Perhaps it was in this spirit that she dressed in yellow for an art reception of Stetson's in 1884, shortly before their wedding; her diary note of 4 March reads:

[D]ress for Walters [sic] reception. Carrie's black silk, white Spanish tie, ruching, & lace in sleeves, yellow ribbon, yellow beads, gold comb, amber bracelet; yellow breast on bonnet, yellow flowers. Many people there, all seemed pleased.

(Diaries 1: 262)

Two years later, after starting her course of reading on women, she was sufficiently confident to express divergent views on art; one wonders whether her disapproval of some of Stetson's paintings had anything to do with aestheticism. On one occasion she “criticize[d] his pictures, one so harshly from a moral point of view that he smashe[d] and burn[t] it” (Diaries 1: 349). By the time she wrote “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” she had established her artistic independence publicly, as a writer and also, as Kirk Thomas notes, as an interior decorator. If this independence took the form of anti-aestheticism, it was rooted in her personal experience, inextricably connected as it was with her sense of immurement in an artistic marriage which obstructed her (artistic) development.

Sensitive to the public prohibition of homosexuality despite her own love for two women, Gilman may have reacted negatively to Oscar Wilde's spectacular over-performance of a deviance she appears to have shared.16 As Mary Hill notes (Charlotte Perkins Gilman 225), her sense of transgression—she had felt “queer” and “unfeminine,” almost a “morbid, strange cold sort of monster” during her friendship with Martha Luther—indicates that she had “partially accepted the derogatory socially imposed attitudes towards [same-sex] love.” Wilde's stance also alienated male homosexuals like Henry James who, after calling on him in Washington, concluded that “‘Hosscar’ Wilde is a fatuous fool, tenth-rate cad” and an “unclean beast” (Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 171). With its “repellent, almost revolting,” “lurid” and “smouldering unclean” color (26), associated, as the contemporary critic Holbrook Jackson wrote, “with all that was … queer in art and life,”17 the wallpaper anticipates the discourse of the Wilde trial in 1895. Its unaccountably “inharmonious” (29) and unsavory aspects also recall the language of Robert Louis Stevenson's “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886), a story which, as Elaine Showalter has argued, encodes homosexuality. Both texts play on the word “queer,” a word whose homosexual connotations were established in slang around the turn of the century.18 On the very first page, Gilman's narrator informs us that “there is something queer” about the house (24), and in Stevenson's story one of the characters remarks in the first chapter that “the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask.” Hyde and the wallpaper cause a similar feeling of nausea in the people exposed to them, and in each case this disgust defies any attempt at rational definition or explanation: the wallpaper has an “inexplicable look” and entirely indeterminable pattern (35, 31), and Stevenson's Utterson finds that he cannot give utterance to the unspeakable: “There is something more,” he says, “if I could find a name for it.”19 Just as the wallpaper hides “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure” behind its sub-pattern which, though “subdued” in the daytime, “is all the time trying to climb through” in the moonlight (30, 34, 38), Dr. Jekyll's house conceals a back street door from which Hyde emerges at night in pursuit of forbidden pleasure. The fact that Gilman read “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in January 1890, shortly before she wrote “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” is significant in that it suggests that she deliberately drew on, and represented in her text, the “queer” register of contemporary male art.20

If the wallpaper denotes both aestheticism and sexual deviance, and therefore by implication Oscar Wilde, whose “extreme aesthetic[ism]” was “almost a euphemism” for homosexuality even in 1882 (Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 80), then Gilman “produce[d] [her] own etiology of the queer” when she “came out” as a feminist.21 Using her story to pit her growing sense of a sociopolitical mission against what she would have perceived as decadent immorality, she contrasted a male politics of pleasure with the feminist agenda of “serious” social reform, implying that masculinized, androcentric culture would, and must, be transformed by the feminizing influence of the female artist. Combining the personal with the political, Gilman drew on her autobiographical knowledge of what it meant to be an artist's wife and medical patient to create a nameless narrator who stood for everywoman, at least in the white middle-class sphere.

With his notorious kneebreeches, lilies, dark velvet outfit, and “queer” sexuality, Wilde may not have been “dull enough to confuse the eye in following” (26), but his “defiance of law” (34) was certainly “pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study,” and like Gilman's wallpaper, his bons mots, witty repartees, and aphorisms were calculated to “plunge off at outrageous angels [and] destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (26). While Wilde, in his 1882 lecture on “The Decorative Arts,” warned his American audience that nonaesthetic wallpaper would “lead a boy brought up under its influence to a career of crime” (Complete Works 934), Gilman argued ten years later that decadent wallpaper drove women mad. “Today more than ever the artist and a love of the beautiful are needed to temper and counteract the sordid materialism of the age,” Wilde pronounced in “The House Beautiful” (1882), the second of his three American lectures; “the artist comes forward as a priest and prophet of nature to protest, and even to work against the prostitution of … what is lofty and noble in humanity” (Complete Works 925). Gilman, too, saw herself as a priest and prophet, engaged in uplifting humanity: “My business was to find out what ailed society, and how most easily and naturally to improve it,” she wrote in her autobiography, “I [was] here to serve the world. As a perceiver and transmitter of truth and love” (Living 182; Diaries 2: 849).

The overriding value Wilde attached to “beauty,” Gilman placed on “truth.” In her eyes, aestheticism did not reflect human existence “truthfully.” Masculine art, she argued in The Man-Made World, was useless to society because it was based upon the premise of exclusionary practices. In a “properly developed” community, which furthered the artistic spirit in all its members irrespective of class or gender, we should enjoy “the pleasure of applied art in the making and using of everything we have.” What was on offer in androcentric culture was “applied art at a very low level, small joy either for the maker or the user. Pure art, a fine-spun specialty, a process carried on by an elect few, who openly despise the unappreciative many” (Man-Made World 77-78). Just as Gilman juxtaposed “purpose” and “literature” in her comment to William Dean Howells, so she contrasted “applied art” and “pure art” in The Man-Made World, coming down firmly on the side of the former and condemning the latter as unnatural, artificial, and even antisocial. “It is sometimes said that our art is opposed to good morals,” Wilde admitted in “The House Beautiful,” but he took pains to emphasize that “on the contrary, it fosters morality” (Complete Works 925); to Gilman, on the other hand, the inevitable outcome of masculine cultural elitism was “a natural art wrested to unnatural ends, a noble art degraded to ignoble ends” (Man-Made World 81).

What were the parameters of this “noble art” Gilman saw degraded by the exclusion of women, and how did this affect her conception of “The Yellow Wall-Paper”? In “The House Beautiful,” Wilde offered guidelines for creating the perfect aesthetic ambience: “in decorating a room,” he urged, “one keynote of color should predominate.” Whistler's painting, “Symphony in White,” was proof of the fact that much could be achieved by restricting oneself to one single color. The true aesthetic mind avoided bright colors, choosing “toned or secondary,” even “sombre” tones to set off the ceiling and walls against the ornaments and furniture. To enliven these more “gloomy colours,” Wilde suggested selecting “joyous [wall]paper … full of flowers and pleasing designs,” but warned against hanging “[t]wo pictures … side by side—they will either kill one another, or else commit artistic suicide”—this is of course precisely what the “lame uncertain curves” of the not so joyous flowers do on Gilman's wallpaper (26). To impress on his audience “what a great effect might be realised with a little and simple colour,” Wilde gave a detailed description of Whistler's blue-and-yellow room:

The walls are distempered in blue, the ceiling is a light and warm yellow; the floor is laid with a richly painted matting in light yellow, with a light line or leaf here and there of blue. The woodwork is all cane-yellow, and the shelves are filled with blue and white china; the curtains of white serge have a yellow border tastefully worked in, and hang in careless but graceful folds. When the breakfast-table is laid in this apartment, with its light cloth and its dainty blue and white china, with a cluster of red and yellow chrysanthemums in an old Nankin vase in the centre, it is a charming room, catching all the warm light and taking on of all surrounding beauty, and giving to the guest a sense of joyousness, comfort, and rest.

(Complete Works 916-17, 922)

No doubt this room, significantly also one singled out for providing “rest,” sounds incomparably more habitable and peaceful to the mind than Gilman's nursery. In fact, Wilde stressed the importance of congruence and symmetry, advising against compiling a “collection of a great many things individually pretty but which do not combine to make a harmonious whole” (Complete Works 915). In principle Gilman shared Wilde's notion of beauty; in The Man-Made World she declared the highest form of art, that is, “human” (as opposed to sex-specific) art, to be characterized by “regularity, symmetry, repetition, and alteration” (75)—the very opposite, that is, of her wallpaper, which, as she notes in her story, is “not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry” (31). The point that Gilman makes is that “human” art and, therefore, true beauty and aesthetic expression are not possible in an androcentric culture; as long as women are oppressed, Whistler's vision of peaceful symmetry must inevitably turn into the nightmare of the nursery.

Taken by itself, or in conjunction with different furnishings and in a more positive context, the wallpaper would not be as “horrid” as it must appear to the narrator (32). What makes the nursery so disturbing is the violent clash between the wallpaper's pretense to aestheticism and the room's function as a prison. If, as Kirk Thomas points out, Gilman's metaphor of the “yellow room,” encoding male artistic taste but also the callousness of an oppressive husband, was prefigured in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (1881), it takes on even more alarming dimensions in her story. The “rings and things in the wall” (26), the nursery's sound-proof location at the top of the paradigmatically patriarchal “colonial mansion” (24), separated from the rest of the house with gates, the bars on the windows, the narrator pinned to a “great heavy bed” which “looks as if it had been through the wars,” nailed to a floor “scratched and gouged and splintered” (30, 31), the strange, smelly, yellow stains all over her and her husband's clothes—the sister-in-law who “wished we should be more careful” (35)—and the “ravages” of the torn and “torturing” wallpaper which “slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you” (29, 34), and which reduces her to crawling; all of this hints at sexual assault. How could harmony or peace of mind be conceivable against a background of abuse? How could a male movement lay claim to creating beautiful and enduring art while all the time witnessing and choosing to ignore, the lives women had to endure? “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!” the narrator writes, as if the “two bulbous eyes” of the male artist both watched and created the conditions for the subjection and disintegration of female identity (29, emphasis in original). What Gilman suggests, then, is that in patriarchy, art produced by the ruling sex (and class) serves to establish and consolidate the dominant power structures.

A society which suffers from an “excess of masculinity” and a concomitant “lack of femininity,” Gilman argues in The Man-Made World (78), produces art that is defined by three features, which, conflating sex and gender, she sees as generic male characteristics: “desire, combat, [and] self-expression.” These traits are written into the wallpaper. “I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before,” the narrator tells us (29). In her futile attempt to define the pattern, she discovers that, while “each breadth stands alone,” all breadths “connect diagonally … and … horizontally”; they seem to move toward “a common centre” but then “rush off in headlong plunges” (31). Read in terms of human society, this clash between centripetal and centrifugal presents us with an image of “isolated” combatants each competing for individual expression, unable to avoid interlinking and criss-crossing with others at times, but who, instead of cooperating (converging on a common objective), are continually in conflict. As a result, both the wallpaper and the society represented by it radiate antagonism, evoking the hatred of those subjected to its influence, women and children: “No wonder the children hated it!” (26). In addition, the wallpaper reflects an aggressive and frenzied sexual desire, an army of fetid “toadstool[s] in joints … budding and sprouting in endless convolutions” (34), steadily closing in on the narrator, whose only means of escape is through projecting her fear on to the sub-pattern, with the first sighting of the woman behind bars directly following this description of an ominous, terrifying, imperialist masculinity.

If male art has such dire consequences, what potential for change does Gilman see, and what solutions does she offer? “The true artist transcends his sex, or her sex,” she argues in The Man-Made World (79); “Art is Human.” But to achieve the conditions in which human art can be produced, art must first be feminized. Literature and fiction in particular need the feminizing influence of women artists because so far they have “not given any true picture of woman's life, very little of human life, and a disproportioned section of man's life.” (102) Male writers, she claims, have in the main concentrated on two scripts, each foregrounding predatory masculinity: “the Story of Adventure, and the Love Story” (94). Neither has “touch[ed] on human processes, social processes” (95), in other words, shown a commitment to creating works of art that, while representing human psychology and social interaction truthfully, “lifted, taught, inspired [and] enlightened” the reader (123). To counteract this masculine influence, Gilman outlines the parameters of female and “feminine” fiction. This fiction is concerned with the real-life experiences of women, examining the problems and conflicts they have to contend with, and also exploring the great potential of female-to-female, and human, interaction and cooperation:

The humanizing of woman … opens five distinctly fresh fields of fiction: First, the position of the young woman who is called upon to give up her “career”—her humanness—for marriage, and who objects to it. Second, the middle-aged woman who at last discovers that her discontent is social starvation—that it is not more love that she wants, but more business in life: Third, the inter-relation of women with women—a thing we could never write about before because we never had it before: … Fourth, the interaction between mothers and children; this not the eternal “mother and child,” wherein the child is always a baby, but the long drama of personal relationship; the love and hope, the patience and power, the lasting joy and triumph, the slow eating disappointment which must never be owned to a living soul—… Fifth, the new attitude of the full-grown woman, who faces the demands of love with the high standards of conscious motherhood.

(Man-Made World 104-5)

In “The Yellow Wall-Paper” Gilman turned her attention to the first of these new themes, describing with clinical precision and an acute psychological insight sharpened by her autobiographical experience what happens to the inner life of a young woman who, stifled by marriage and motherhood, is denied individual and professional growth. Gilman's story also addresses the other “feminizing” themes, but because she wanted to make a point about the sheer destructiveness of depriving women of careers and, therefore, of a human existence, they are developed in a negative sense. For instance, if we read between the lines of the narrator's story, we catch glimpses of Jennie, John's sister, the “perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper” who “hopes for no better profession” (30). Surely one of the tragedies of the text is the unexplored possibility of sisterhood, the failure of the two women to interrelate and thus to counteract the impact of the patriarchal alliance between husband, brother, and doctor. In a later short story with the same theme, “Making a Change” (1911), the older domestic and younger artistic woman get together behind the husband's back with the mother-in-law recovering her youth and sense of purpose when she turns infant-care into a lucrative business, opening a baby-park on the roof of their apartment block, while the wife resumes her career as a piano teacher, the housekeeping and cooking being taken over by a well-paid professional. What starts as a variant on “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (in her desperation the wife tries to gas herself) ends with domestic peace and happiness, aided by the substantial addition to the family economy.22

What Gilman suggests, then, is that woman-to-woman friendship is even more vitally important than a constructive female-to-male relationship; if Jennie identified with, and supported, her sister-in-law instead of acting as her jailer, the narrator would not have to seek for an imaginary “sister” in the mirror of the wallpaper. Instead of giving metaphorical birth to her Other self, a self that escapes out into the open road while she remains behind, tied to her umbilical cord (39, 41), she would, with Jennie's help, be able to set herself free in physical and material terms, too. As it is, she finds relief and some degree of mental liberty by crawling into the recesses of her mind, but even if, as she tells her husband, he can never “put [her] back” (42), she is, for the moment at least, a “captive imagination.”

While the narrator herself remains suspended between absolute psychological freedom and physical confinement to a room in the “ancestral halls” of patriarchy (24), death (of her former self: the “Jane” she names on the last page) and rebirth (into a state unnamed and undefined by any man), the process of writing about the ripping of the wallpaper constitutes a metaphorical “overwriting” of the male patterns inscribed into the text: marriage, medicine, and art. Placed in the cultural context of the Yellow Nineties, the journey Gilman takes the reader on is thus one that leads from male aestheticism to the vision of a feminized future. As yet the Other self of the artist that the narrator has released is creeping, but she is creeping out in the open; she is moving fast, and has replaced the yellow of decadence and decay with the green color of life (41).

It is at this point that Gilman's story could be seen to move from the male-defined texts of patriarchy to a female artistic tradition. In Olive Schreiner's “Three Dreams in a Desert,” an allegory highly prized by Gilman, a woman reaches the banks of a river which divides her from the land of Freedom. Before she can cross over, she must take off all her (patriarchally inscribed) clothes except one (Truth), and she also has to abandon her dream of Love (a male baby who bites her breast when she lays him on the ground). Not only does she feel “utterly alone,” but it is also unlikely that she will succeed in reaching the other side. All she can hope for is to “make a track to the water's edge” with her body, over which thousands of women, the sound of whose feet she can hear in the far distance, can walk into a new life.23 In Gilman's story and Schreiner's allegory alike, the female protagonist must shed male coverings (wallpaper and clothes) and sacrifice herself to release other women into freedom (Gilman's creeping and Schreiner's marching women).

In a short memoir, Gilman's friend Harriet Howe describes the impact Gilman, and through her Schreiner's allegory, had on her:

[Mrs. Stetson] introduced me to [a] precious book, …“Three Dreams in a Desert,” … And if I had been exulted before, over the poetry; here was vital truth, aspiration, reality for the whole human race, in so perfect a setting that no work of human hands could excel it. I cried incredulously, “And this book is in the world, and still the women are asleep? Then what use is it to try further, for this cannot be surpassed.” In a reverent tone she answered me, in the very words of the book, “We make a path to the water's edge.” And I wept, unashamed, while she walked away a little distance, I think to conceal her own eyes, but I am not sure. From that hour I was dedicated to the work of lifting humanity by awakening women to a knowledge of their power and their responsibility. It was a consecration.24

As the “art which gives humanity consciousness,” Gilman wrote in The Man-Made World (93), literature was “the most powerful and necessary,” “the most vital” of the arts. In “The Yellow Wall-Paper” she made “a track to the water's edge” of “human” art by mapping the transition from male aestheticism to a new female aesthetic.


  1. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography, introduction by Ann J. Lane (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 121.

  2. For an overview of readings see Elaine Hedges, “‘Out at Last’? ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ after Two Decades of Feminist Criticism,” in Catherine Golden, ed., The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper (New York: The Feminist Press, 1992), 319-33.

  3. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, [from] “Thoughts and Figgerings,” 18 January 1898 and 11 August 1930, in The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ed. Denise D. Knight, 2 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994), 2: 847, 854.

  4. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (London: Women's Press, 1982), bk. 9, 1. 915.

  5. Sheryl L. Meyering, “Introduction” to Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988), 2-10; Conrad Shumaker, “‘Too Terribly Good to Be Printed’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” ibid., 65-74.

  6. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), in Golden, Captive Imagination, 18, 34. Subsequent citations refer to this edition.

  7. Alexander Black, “The Woman Who Saw It First” (1923), in Joanne B. Karpinski, ed., Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), 64.

  8. Jacobus, “An Unnecessary Maze of Sign-Reading,” Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism (London: Methuen, 1986), 234; Susan S. Lanser, “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America,” in Thomas L. Erskine and Connie L. Richards, eds. “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 225-56.

  9. For references on Wilde see William Gaunt, The Aesthetic Adventure (London: Cape, 1945), 105; Martin Fido, Oscar Wilde (Leicester: Galley Press, 1988), 41; Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London: Penguin, 1987), 166, 168, 170; H. Montgomery Hyde, Oscar Wilde (London: Mandarin, 1990), 510; Fraser Harrison, “Introduction” to The Yellow Book: An Anthology (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1982), 10-11; Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance (1893), in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (London: Harper Collins, 1996), 477.

  10. Bram Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 75.

  11. Anon., The New Epicurean and The Yellow Room (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1996), 69-127.

  12. As the lecture falls in the early stages of Gilman's career, it is likely that there was a written transcript; however, no such title appears in the 1894 file of Gilman's papers held by the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe College, Harvard University. I am obliged to Ellen M. Shea for checking the records.

  13. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World or, Our Androcentric Culture (New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1971), 22.

  14. Mary A. Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), 210-26.

  15. As Kirk Thomas points out, Gilman's diary entries present a different picture.

  16. Gilman acknowledged her same-sex love for Martha Luther and Adeline Knapp in her autobiography (Living 78, 133) and was worried about the threat of public exposure after her relationship with Knapp collapsed; see Ann J. Lane, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: Meridian, 1991), 166-67.

  17. Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties (1913), cited in Stephanie Forward, “Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Yellow Wallpaper,English Review 7 (February 1997): 35.

  18. Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (London: Bloomington, 1991), 105-26.

  19. Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde With Other Fables (London: Longman's, 1914), 10, 23 (emphasis in original).

  20. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” was written probably in July 1890 (Diaries 2: 417, 905). I am obliged to Gary Scharnhorst for the information that Gilman read “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” on 20 January 1890 (Second International Charlotte Perkins Gilman Conference, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, 26-28 June 1997).

  21. Jonathan Crewe, “Queering The Yellow Wallpaper? Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Politics of Form,” Tulsa Studies in Short Fiction 14 (1995): 282.

  22. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Making a Change” (1911), in The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Stories, ed. Robert Shulman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 182-90.

  23. Olive Schreiner, “Three Dreams in a Desert,” Dreams (London: Unwin, 1890), 81; reprint in Ann Heilmann, ed. The Late-Victorian Marriage Question: A Collection of Key New Woman Texts (London: Routledge/Thoemmes, 1998), vol. 4.

  24. Harriet Howe, “Charlotte Perkins Gilman—As I Knew Her” (1936), in Karpinski, Critical Essays, 75-76.

Select Bibliography

By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Benigna Machiavelli. Serialized in Forerunner 5 (1914). Reprint, Santa Barbara: Bandanna Books, 1993.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader. Edited with an introduction by Ann J. Lane, New York: Pantheon, 1990.

Concerning Children. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1900.

The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 2 vols. Edited with an introduction by Denise D. Knight, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Forerunner. Vols. 1-7 (1909-16). Reprint, with an introduction by Madeleine B. Stern, New York: Greenwood, 1968.

Herland. Serialized in Forerunner 6 (1915). Reprint, with an introduction by Ann J. Lane, New York: Pantheon, 1979.

His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers. New York and London: Century Co., 1923. Reprint, London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1924. Reprint Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1976.

The Home: Its Work and Influence. New York: McClure, Philips & Co., 1903. Reprint, New York: Source Book Press, 1970.

In This Our World. Oakland: McCombs & Vaughn, 1893, 3d. ed. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1898. Reprint, New York: Arno, 1974.

“Kitchen-Mindedness.” Forerunner 1 (February 1910): 7-11.

The Later Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Edited with an introduction by Denise D. Knight, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography. Foreword by Zona Gale. New York: Appleton-Century, 1935. Reprint, with an introduction by Ann J. Lane, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

The Man-Made World or, Our Androcentric Culture. Serialized in Forerunner 1 (1909-10). Reprint, New York: Charlton Co., 1911.

“Mind Cleaning.” Forerunner 3 (January 1912): 5-6.

“Moving the Mountain.” Serialized in Forerunner 2 (1911). Reprint, New York: Charlton Co., 1911.

“The New Motherhood.” Forerunner 1 (December 1910): 17-18.

“The New Mothers of a New World.” Forerunner 4 (June 1913): 145-49.

Unpunished. Edited with an afterword by Catherine J. Golden and Denise D. Knight. New York: The Feminist Press, 1997.

What Diantha Did. Serialized in Forerunner 1 (1909-10). Reprint, New York: Charlton Co., 1910.

With Her in Ourland. Serialized in Forerunner 7 (1914).

Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1898. Reprint, edited with introduction by Carl N. Degler, New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

“The Yellow Wall-Paper.” New England Magazine (January 1892): 647-56. Reprint, with an afterword by Elaine R. Hedges, Old Westbury: The Feminist Press, 1973. Revised ed. 1996.

The Yellow Wallpaper. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1899.

“The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Edited with an introduction by Denise D. Knight. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.

Secondary Readings

Ceplair, Larry, ed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Golden, Catherine, ed. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper.” New York: The Feminist Press, 1992.

Hill, Mary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Emergence of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

———. The Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1900. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1995.

Karpinski, Joanne, ed. Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. (Includes critical essays by Catherine Golden, Elaine Hedges, Mary Hill, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Joanne Karpinski, and Gary Scharnhorst.)

Kessler, Carol Farley. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia, with Selected Writings. Syracuse: University of Syracuse Press, 1995.

Knight, Denise D. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997.

Kolmerten, Carol A. “Texts and Contexts: American Women Envision Utopia, 1890-1920.” In Utopians and Science Fiction by Women, edited by Jane A. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Lane, Ann J. To “Herland” and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

Lanser, Susan. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies 15, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 415-41.

Meyering, Sheryl L., ed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1989.

Robinson, Lillian S. “Killing Patriarchy: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the Murder Mystery, and Post-Feminist Propaganda.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 10, no. 2 (Fall 1991): 273-85.

Rudd, Jill and Val Gough, eds. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999. Forthcoming.

———. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Very Different Story. Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 1998.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

Heather Kirk Thomas (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Thomas, Heather Kirk. “‘[A] Kind of Debased Romanesque with Delirium Tremens’: Late-Victorian Wall Coverings and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Catherine J. Golden and Joanna Schneider Zangrando, pp. 189-206. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Thomas discusses the motif of the wallpaper in “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a feminist critique of popular ideas regarding gender in relation to the textile arts and domestic space. ]

I would like to suggest a rereading of “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), one that utilizes the medium of wallpaper in a markedly dissimilar manner from how scholars have traditionally interpreted this enigmatic signifier. Gilman, as we know, had a keen sense of irony regarding domestic matters and throughout her literary career displayed a penchant for subverting her culture's conventional advice to women. As Shelley Fisher Fishkin asserts, “One of Gilman's most fruitful strategies as a journalist involved revising and reclaiming familiar subjects in daringly new and unfamiliar ways.”1 For nineteenth-century upper- and middle-class women, wallpaper was a familiar subject. Indeed, illustrations accompanying wallpaper advertisements typically depict a solicitous male merchandiser serving an attractive and stylishly dressed female customer. Scholarly studies documenting the manufacture and marketing of nineteenth-century English and American wallpapers indicate, however, that the 1870s and 1880s marked a “major change in taste.”2 The brightly colored floral and scenic wall coverings favored in the first half of the century fell out of fashion following the publication of Charles Locke Eastlake's wildly successful decorating book, Hints on Household Taste (1868; American edition, 1872).3 Eastlake's popular Gothic Revival décors in turn created a consequent demand for wallpapers designed by William Morris (1834-96), the most prominent spokesman for the English Arts and Crafts Movement.4 “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” I would argue, not only authentically delineates Morris's fashionable gilded olive, monochromatic yellow, and khaki Craftsman designs but also confronts wallpaper on other significant levels: (1) as a potential mental health hazard for women, children, and convalescents in restricted environments; (2) as an engineering medium in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries for inscribing gender in domestic spaces, a decorating strategy plausibly derived from fin-de-siècle ambivalence about home, family, and the advent of the New Woman; and (3) as evidence of the male take over and sequential androgynization of the decorative arts market, an aesthetic transformation that upset the female consumer's marketplace and domestic empowerment.

William Morris never visited America, but in late August 1896, when Gilman traveled to England for the International Socialist and Labor Congress, she met him one month before his death.5 Fiona MacCarthy's biography of Morris contends that as a furniture and decorative arts designer, craftsman, artisan, poet, and utopian reformer, he was even more famous in the United States than in England, “a personal hero” to many Americans.6 Thus, anyone interested in Morris's wallpaper patterns might have easily learned from contemporary journalists' accounts that his wife's name was Jane Burden Morris and their daughter's, Jane Alice Morris, although she was always called “Jenny.” It appears to be more than coincidence that Gilman incorporates two female characters with the names Jane and Jennie in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” a narrative that explicitly depicts the psychological hazard of a Morris-style wallpaper pattern upon a depressed and forcibly housebound female convalescent.7

Gilman would have been attentive to new directions in the decorative arts, to designers like Eastlake and Morris, as she demonstrated an early love of and talent for art. By her mid-teens, as she recounts in her 1935 autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she earned pocket money for her watercolors of flowers and for painting advertising cards for Kendall's Soap Company. Her autobiography modestly asserts she was “a skilled craftsman,” not an “artist”; nonetheless Gilman always loved color and “beautiful things”:8

My passion for beauty dates far back; in picture books the one or two that were really beautiful; in the colors of the worsted mother used, loving some and hating others; in bits of silk and ribbon, buttons—children used to collect strings of buttons in those days; I keenly recall my delight in specially beautiful things. There was a little cloak of purple velvet, deep pansy-purple, made over from something of mother's, that enraptured my soul.

(Living 17-18)

In her late teens in 1878-79, Gilman enrolled in Providence's newly opened Rhode Island School of Design, completing two years' of study in 1880 (Scharnhorst 3). The design school's explicit objectives were to train “artisans in drawing, painting, modeling, and designing so that they may successfully apply the principles of art to the requirements of trade and manufacture”; to educate instructors; and to advance “public art education by the collection and exhibition of works of art and by lectures and by other means of instruction in the fine arts.” Evidently, “the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 served as a catalyst for this endeavor,” as it did for other design schools of the period, and commencing in 1879, the Rhode Island School of Design “held annual exhibitions of student work.”9 In 1883, Carol Kessler observes, one of Gilman's watercolors was chosen for a “juried exhibit” at the school.10 Thus Gilman's studies included design instruction as well as studio classes, and she briefly entertained “some ambition to work as a political cartoonist,” although a need to earn a satisfactory living might have been her chief motivation.11 Nonetheless, it is interesting to ascertain that the stated mission of American industrial art schools launched during the 1880s to 1900 was “to offer training in the ‘applied arts’ to amateurs as well as to professional or commercial designers.”12 In commingling an aesthetic education with practical manufacturing and production skills, these schools paralleled the rise of large corporate design firms, such as Morris and Co., in merchandising art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In fact, Morris was only one of the successful industrial Arts and Crafts figures who benefited. Other male artists and craftsmen whose influential design and manufacturing firms came to dominate the American interior design market included Louis Comfort Tiffany, Walter Crane, Henry Hobson Richardson, Gustave and Christian Herter, Gustav Stickley, and Frank Lloyd Wright.13

After completing at the Rhode Island School of Design what Gilman later termed her “art school experience,” she taught drawing in a private school and subsequently gave private art lessons for more than a decade (Living 47). Perhaps her love of art influenced her decision in 1884 to marry painter Charles Walter Stetson. Her diary maintains that she admired her husband's aesthetic taste in all things, but as Mary A. Hill notes, when the Stetsons decorated their first apartment, the bride did not hesitate to offer her own opinions about “rugs and wallpaper, ordering fixtures and ‘lovely curtain stuffs.’”14The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman mentions that Gilman continued painting floral watercolors previous to and following her daughter Katharine's birth in 1885, a birth that plunged Gilman into her well-documented postpartum depression (95). When she left her husband in 1888, she and Katharine spent time in Pasadena, California, during which time Gilman immersed herself in painting, lecturing, gardening, and writing, completing in 1890 approximately “thirty-three short articles, and twenty-three poems” (Living 111), and a number of short stories, including “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” More significant to my argument, she was invited to serve as interior decorator for the new Pasadena Opera House, a major decorating commission. Thus during the same interval that she wrote “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” her autobiography chronicles that she was selecting textiles, “seat-coverings, curtains, etc.,” for the Opera House (Living 112).

Throughout her career Gilman championed tasteful interior design as well as pleasant, functional, and healthy domestic spaces, most markedly in Women and Economics (1898), The Home: its Work and Influence (1903), and Herland (1915), in addition to editorials in the Forerunner and sardonic stories like “The Cottagette” (1910) and “Making a Change” (1911). Clearly feminist, these works also attack the era's decorating excesses. Gilman's concerns about slavish imitation in fashion and the decorative arts, moreover, were echoed by literary figures like Edith Wharton. Published five years after “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Wharton's first book The Decoration of Houses (1897), a decorating manual co-written with Ogden Codman, Jr., was an immediate best seller, notwithstanding its attack on Victorian society's pretentious, dysfunctional, and overdecorated rooms crammed, as Wharton put it in her autobiography, “with curtains, lambrequins, jardinières of artificial plants, wobbly velvet-covered tables littered with silver gew-gaws, and festoons of lace on mantelpieces and dressing-tables.”15 Jackson Lears's cultural history of American advertising, Fables of Abundance, contends that 1890s popular women's magazines similarly condemned “the bric-a-brac habit,” a term Gilman also banters about in Women and Economics.16

In the 1870s and 1880s, Charles Eastlake's Gothic Revival style papers, superciliously discussed and colorfully illustrated in Hints on Household Taste, as well as Morris and Co.'s Arts and Crafts patterns were the rage. Subsuming Eastlake's Gothic vaults, arches, and geometric repeats by imbricating a serpentine, or arabesque design, Morris and Co.'s papers anticipate Art Nouveau's “undulating line” (Hapgood 93). In the opinion of art historian Marilyn Hapgood, Morris's designs constitute mysterious, “‘complex’ texts” that respond to nature on one level but on another level provoke the viewer's “imagination, even fantasy.” His studied chimerical effects—imposing “a primary pattern” upon “a secondary pattern”—ensure that “the eye does not see everything in the pattern at once” (Hapgood 65-66). In the early 1870s, Morris and Co. Craftsman style papers were available in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York (Hoskins 148), but following Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition, where millions of visitors viewed the latest trends in wall coverings, these English patterns were widely copied. In 1884 the New York magazine Carpentry and Building boasted that “[t]here was a time when if one wanted a good paper for his wall he must pay the enormous prices asked by William Morris and Co. of London. Now he can find quite as good designs as Morris ever made by looking over the stock of any first-class American papers at not more than one-third the price” (quoted in Lynn 384).

It is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who lived and practiced his rest cure for neurasthenia in Philadelphia, might have attended the 1876 Centennial Fair and observed the latest Morris fashions in wallpaper design. By the time he treated Charlotte Stetson in April 1887, as Ann Lane remarks, Mitchell “had an international reputation” and “an enormously affluent medical practice. He was adored by hundreds of women patients who traveled from all over the world to undergo his treatment.”17 Wealthy women might well expect a society doctor, research scientist, and successful novelist to decorate his residence and offices in the latest style. Apparently, literary lion William Dean Howells, who tried to help Gilman place the manuscript of “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” was a Morris and Co. customer.18 In 1873 Howells wrote to Henry James, “We have done some aesthetic wall-papering, thanks to Wm. Morris whose wall-papers are so much better than his poems.” Still, Howells's admiration for Morris's wallpaper was short-lived. In reviewing a new Morris poetry collection in 1875, Howells compared the volume to “a modern house … hung with Mr. Morris' own admirable wall-papers; it is all very pretty indeed; charming; but … it is so well aware of its quaintness, that on the whole, one would rather not live in it.”19

The narrator in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” claims to know the underlying aesthetic principles governing interior design: “I knew a little of the principle of design,” she modestly divulges, “and I know this thing [the wallpaper] was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of.20 Her statement also replicates in nearly exact language a passage from the editor's preface to the Sixth American Edition of Eastlake's Hints on Household Taste (1878), which evaluates as an aesthetic barometer “[t]he opinion of one who has studied the essential principles of beauty, such as harmony, balance of parts, symmetry, and radiation.”21 Be that as it may, the narrator's caveat—“that I ever heard of”—implies that she has probably decorated her own home, discussed wallpaper selection with merchants, or read about wall covering styles in women's magazines or decorating books, perhaps even in Eastlake's famous volume. Although she is an affluent doctor's wife, the industrial revolution and increasingly sophisticated machinery and printing techniques during the Gilded Age brought paper wall coverings within financial reach of many households, and Morris's androgynous Craftsman styles, touted on the women's page and in magazine advertising, in short course influenced evolving popular tastes. I use the term “androgynous” because Morris's Gothic Revival-influenced arabesques meld masculine angles and feminine curves, unlike the stereotypically feminine florals or landscape murals hung in early nineteenth-century homes.

Clarence Cook's decorating manual, What Shall We Do With Our Walls?, published in 1880 in New York, applauds “the courage it would take to own that one liked an old-fashioned landscape-paper in a hallway or in a dining room” when those designs marked an antiquated, passé taste (quoted in Lynn 227). When Gilman's narrator arrives at the rented estate, she, nonetheless, self-confidently declares her preference for the “pretty old-fashioned” (26) first-floor bedroom's feminine, flowery chintz. Yet despite her preference, her physician-husband installs her in a horrid attic room she dislikes on sight. Gilman's caustic description of the wallpaper's “particularly irritating … sub-pattern” (648) clearly parodies and simultaneously reviews the era's adulation of Morris's serpentine designs. The narrator condescendingly lampoons the wallpaper's “bloated curves and flourishes—a kind of ‘debased Romanesque’ with delirium tremens—[which] go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity” (31). The term “Romanesque”—an architectural style developed before 1100 in Italy and western Europe between the Roman and Gothic styles and subsequently characterized in building construction by arches and vaults—was associated in late-nineteenth-century wall covering and textile design with profuse or arabesque ornamentation. The narrator's accompanying terms of derision for the Romanesque pattern—she calls it a “debased” facsimile of “delirium tremens”—intensify its ethos of degeneracy. Gilman's artistically precise delineation of the wallpaper seems a clever strategy conceived to ensure that her contemporary reader would imaginatively associate Morris's popular arabesque designs with the attic bedroom's sinuous pattern, bilious color, and nightmarish aquarium effect, which the narrator describes in one light as “great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase” (31) and in another, as “a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus” or “a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions” (34).

Elaine Hedges has suggested that Gilman felt “trapped by the role assigned the wife within the conventional nineteenth-century marriage.”22 Exposed day after day to the wallpaper's eye-popping repetitions, the story's narrator likewise gradually becomes convinced not only that her husband has entrapped her in the attic but also that the wallpaper contains other trapped women whom she must rescue. A common dilemma in hanging boldly repetitive and large-scaled patterns, Hapgood contends, is that “the wallpaper viewer is in an enclosed space. If a wallpaper repeat is too insistent, the viewer may feel trapped” (10). Thus in a Gothic story in the “madwoman in the attic” literary tradition, to borrow Gilbert and Gubar's phrase, Gilman adroitly multiplies the operative irony in reproducing one of Morris's Pre-Raphaelite, Gothic Revival-inspired wallpapers to reinforce the narrative's medieval aura of female entrapment. A concomitant, if undiscernible, contextual irony is that Morris, who designed at least “forty-one wallpapers and five ceiling papers” for other people's homes, only “rarely” hung wallpaper in his own.23

Although the narrator dislikes the wallpaper's convoluted pattern, its saffron color also makes her queasy: “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” (37). Ann Heilmann's essay in this collection, “Overwriting Decadence: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Oscar Wilde and the Feminization of Art in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,”” establishes that the color yellow was widely associated at the turn-of-the-century with the Aesthetic Movement and its most flamboyant literary celebrity, the out-of-the-closet homosexual, Oscar Wilde, and moreover that Gilman acutely utilized this color-charged subtext of decadence in her story. Walter Kidney further maintains that aestheticism's sway “was to change American architecture, particularly the architecture of the home, dramatically.”24 The aesthetic movement's adoption of Eastern objects as domestic accessories and its craze for Orientalism in the decorative arts affected wallpaper patterns as well. The most highly desired colors for Gothic Revival wallpapers were tone-on-tone, and monochromatic combinations of cream, khaki, and shades of yellow, often overlaid with gold in imitation of Japanese leather stenciled papers, were exceptionally popular. According to Catherine Lynn's encyclopedic study, Wallpaper in America, Charles Eastlake's preference for “very light drab or green (not emerald)” perhaps accounted in the 1880s for “the predominance of olive shades in commercially produced wallpapers” accented with “metallic gold” (429). But consumers also associated William Morris with the late-nineteenth-century rage for greenish-yellow tones in home decoration, so much so that in 1882 he published a staunch denial that he favored the color. In Making the Best of It (1882), Morris cautioned customers never to “fall into the trap of a dingy bilious looking yellow-green, a colour to which I have special and personal hatred, because (if you will excuse my mentioning personal matters) I have been supposed to have somewhat brought it into vogue. I assure you I am not really responsible for it” (quoted in Wilhide 94). In making this statement, he plausibly wished to disassociate himself from Wilde and other “deviant” artists who wore and were currently associated with the signifying color yellow. An additional nuance of what Gilman's narrator calls the wallpaper's “smouldering unclean yellow” (26) appears in Eastlake's decorating manual Hints on Household Taste; in an intriguing footnote to his discussion of “[v]ery light drab or green (not emerald), and silver-gray” tinted wallpapers, he warns readers that olive drab or greenish wallpapers often contain perilous arsenic levels:

We cannot allow the word “green” to pass in this connection without a word of caution. Not all, but many green wall-papers owe their tint to the arsenite of copper, and on this account are poisonous. Numerous and well-attested cases of their deleterious effects are given in the Third Annual Report of the State Board of Health of Massachusetts, pp. 33-57, January, 1872. … The writer of the Report, Dr. T. W. Draper, states that “the cases of poisoning by this means constitute a mass of evidence which cannot well be refuted.”—ED.


Whether Gilman's narrator absorbed or ingested hazardous levels of arsenic from the wallpaper or, more likely, its distasteful design and color affronted her postpartum despondency, the bed chamber's yellow sinuosities encapsulate one of Gilman's chronic concerns—that women and children entrapped in domestic spaces, in comparison to men who work elsewhere, require extraordinarily satisfying personal environments. In recent research funded by the Xerox Corporation, Ellen Hoadley, a professor of business and management, substantiates that even 1990s social scientists know relatively little about the effects of color and its role in human information processing.25 Nonetheless, the color yellow—a commonplace androgynous choice in today's infant apparel and nursery furnishings—might not assuage universal tastes. In chapter 37 of Henry James's 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer Osmond's Roman palazzo features a “yellow room” decorated by her husband, Gilbert Osmond, conceivably literature's most nefarious interior designer. Isabel avoids the room whenever possible; her stepdaughter, Pansy, and Pansy's suitor, Ned Rosier, both consider the locale “ugly” and “cold.” Nonetheless, Pansy feels compelled to defend the room's yellow-upholstered walls and French Empire furnishings: “It's papa's taste,” she loyally upholds, “he has so much.”26

Further complicating Gilman's story, the narrator, herself a new mother, speculates at several points whether the attic bedroom had formerly been a nursery. But special wallpaper patterns for nurseries came into vogue in the Gilded Age during the 1870s, particularly among the wealthy. “The needs of children were not a preoccupation of society before the last half of the nineteenth century,” Hapgood maintains, and previously “nursery papers were virtually unknown” (246). When Samuel and Olivia Clemens built their Hartford mansion in 1874, she chose a fashionable children's pattern for the nursery called “Miss Mouse at Home,” created by English artist, Walter Crane, a reproduction of which hangs in the Clemens nursery today (Hapgood 237). William Morris's more diminutive patterns—“Daisy” or “Willow Boughs,” for example—were sometimes hung in children's rooms, but juvenile book illustrators like Crane, Kate Greenaway, Ralph Caldecott, Beatrix Potter, and others later designed or sold their designs for nursery papers.27 Thus when the narrator questions if her attic bedroom was once a nursery, it is arguable; since she claims some knowledge of the decorative arts, her statement is meant sardonically, and any fashionable woman of her class would recognize it was never decorated for children. If the narrator disguises her misgivings in her secret writings about the room's former use, it offers further evidence that she does not trust her husband, John, and suspects he misrepresented the rented mansion's history when he told her initially that “the place has been empty for years” (25). She evidently has grounds to be skeptical when the attic of the rented residence sports a stylish, if shabby, Morris or Morris-inspired wallpaper pattern, yet the first-floor bedroom remains un-renovated from its out-of-date floral chintz. Gilman might even have expected an au courant reader to detect this decorating subtlety. Be that as it may, the narrator's acquaintance with interior design might inevitably lead her to the chilling conclusion that the attic had been decorated within the past decade for another purpose, perhaps to house her husband's or another doctor's female patients.

In Women and Economics Gilman attests that “[t]o be surrounded by beautiful things has much influence upon the human creature” (66). By the turn of the century, according to Rae Beth Gordon, “scientific inquiry” had established “the link between interior decoration and morbid pathology.”28 Typical of turn-of-the-century reformers concerned with sanitation, Edith Wharton in her 1897 decorating manual, The Decoration of Houses, called wallpaper “objectionable on sanitary grounds” and “inferior as a wall-decoration,” pronouncing it “well for the future of house-decoration when medical science declared itself against the use of wall-papers.”29 In “The Yellow Wall-Paper” the attic room's crawling women, barred windows, and odoriferous yellow wallpaper collaboratively symbolize the physiological and emotional womb-to-tomb domestic restriction of nineteenth-century women; Gilman also believed that the “isolation of a private nursery” injured children (Lane 259). Her story anticipates an early twentieth-century decorating manual's cautionary note to mothers that some wallpaper patterns are unsuitable for children or invalids: “The secret worlds in the wallpaper can be very entertaining for the sick-a-bed but they can be maddening when they haunt the rooms day after day” (quoted in Ackerman 123). The story's narrator is consoled that her own “baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy this nursery with the horrid wallpaper. … Why, I wouldn't have a child of mine, an impressionable little thing, live in such a room for worlds” (32). Forty years earlier, Eastlake's decorating manual also validated calm and healthful sleeping environments. “A room intended for repose ought to contain nothing which can fatigue the eye by complexity,” he advised. “How many an unfortunate invalid has lain helpless on his bed, condemned to puzzle out the pattern of the hangings over his head, or stare at a wall which he feels instinctively obliged to map out into grass-plots, gravel-paths, and summer-houses, like an involuntary landscape gardener!” (Hints 211). Most readers will notice the uncanny resemblance between Eastlake's description of “an unfortunate invalid,” who, in imagining in the wallpaper “grass-plots, gravel-paths, and summer-houses,” assumes the role of “an involuntary landscape gardener” and Gilman's narrator, who, comparably, surveys from her barred windows a landscape arranged in “hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people” (25).

Gilman additionally treats domestic environments in Women and Economics, arguing that “[t]he progressive individuation of human beings requires a personal home, one room at least for each person” (258). In “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and despite the narrator's illness, her physician-husband refuses to occupy separate quarters and allow her some privacy. He also denies his wife the distinctly feminine first-floor bedroom she prefers. Initially he promises to repaper the attic, then refuses because, as he reasons, “after the wall-paper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on” (28). On the one hand, John's illogical rationalization substantiates that he sees his spouse as a consummate consumer; on the other hand, it reveals that he sees himself as the man of the house, a forceful, if tender, fiscal comptroller. Gilman parodied gender-specific economic roles throughout her career, perhaps most comically in the story “If I Were a Man.”30 Still, although the narrator's attic bedroom and its furnishings suggest in aesthetic terms a “boys' school” (26), she is not allowed to move downstairs to the pretty floral room she prefers. Apparently the attic room's color and serpentine pattern appeal more to her husband, another implication that Morris's androgynous patterns complement male sensibilities more than female.

Helen Damon-Moore's study of nineteenth-century periodicals and gender, Magazines for the Millions, notes that in the 1890s The Ladies' Home Journal's advice to married couples with “troubled” domestic lives was increasingly to involve the husbands in domestic matters. While the Journal continued advocating traditional domestic roles for women, it encouraged men to “spend more time at home” and “be more attentive to their wives and children.” The problem with championing “masculine domesticity,” Damon-Moore contends, is that while men were advised to spend more quality time at home, women were urged not to leave home except as consumers.31 But “[i]n the early 1890s,” William Leach notes in Land of Desire, “most buyers in the U.S. fashion business, as in merchandising generally, were men.”32 Anticipating that 1890s business and professional men might be persuaded to carve out more time for home and domestic matters, male manufacturers of wallpaper and related decorative products quickly responded to masculine tastes. Furthermore, when the public began to think of interior designs as a “profession,” typically men entered, and then dominated, the decorative arts market and related retail merchandising.

Wealthy businessmen, in particular, were attracted as new consumers to interior design during the Gilded Age. According to an American furniture historian, “The business of interior decorating was fostered by the nouveaux riches”—industrial and railroad magnates like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, and J. Pierpont Morgan, for example—yet, among their wives, Frances Tracy Morgan, J. Pierpont's wife, evidently furnished “[t]he only specific documentation of a wife who assumed the decorating responsibility” for her New York City mansion (Freling-huysen 81, 86). For the majority of the financial titans who constructed Gilded Age villas, “both finishing and furnishing of the interior were left to an interior decoration firm” (Platt 17). These self-made men typically selected the architect, then collaborated with a decorating firm to oversee the residence's furnishings and decor. As a result, Sarah Burns contends, “the buyer, who is usually a keen business man, not unnaturally says, ‘I must have value for my money.’” When the values and standards of male commerce infiltrated the art market, there was a resultant “shift to surface values, intrinsically identified with commercialism” (59, 62). As wealthy male patrons and the male-headed design firms they hired appropriated the interior design marketplace, they effectively “colonized” female domestic space, and women lost ground. In this sense, Burns remarks, the notion of separate spheres was “very much a one-way affair. Women invaded male territory at the peril of becoming unnatural, unsexed, repellent, barren, and offensive. Men, by contrast, could travel freely into the female preserve, appropriating what they found there and adding it to their ‘natural’ endowments to achieve the complete and perfect, most highly evolved form of genius” (Burns 168). Juliet Kinchin establishes that earlier in the nineteenth century, bedrooms and drawing rooms were considered feminine spaces, decorated and furnished in light colors and styles, but by the turn of the century there was a “blurring of the boundaries, a trend towards greater integration between the sexes. The hall and library, for example, were now increasingly furnished as family ‘living rooms,’ and more open planning was leading to greater continuity between adjacent interiors.”33 Male business considerations and workplace stress were newly and thoughtfully weighed in interior decoration. In the opinion of one 1890s male architect and designer, for example, surface design and pattern were more likely to present a soothing backdrop than framed art work to “the tired man of business returning to his suburban home in the evening,” since “it can hardly be supposed that he will be in a position to make the special mental effort involved in inspecting his pictures.”34

If, as Ann Heilmann argues, Oscar Wilde's deviant sexuality was synonymous in 1880s America with the English aesthetes, then American corporate design firms run by creative but solid businessmen and catering to the tastes of heterosexual male consumers with a demonstrated Yankee work ethic might obliterate the decadent taint from marketing art for profit. With the 1890s proliferation of the Newport, Rhode Island, mansions, Wendell Garrett claims, “The age of the architect-decorator had arrived.”35 The gradual effacement of the narrator in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” within her de-feminized androgynous environment—a literal absorption among and identification with the wallpaper's camouflaged women—recalls Martha Banta's ironic statement in Imaging Women that when women lose control over their environments, they sometimes “do best by learning to blend with the scene.”36 Yet, if the rage for Eastlake and Morris's androgynous designs in home furnishings pervasively masculinized formerly feminine spaces, it did nothing to free women from traditional domestic and marital duties, Gilman's story imparts, nor to ease their entry into the public sphere. In Women and Economics she protests that

freedom of expression has been more restricted in women than the freedom of impression, if that be possible. Something of the world she lived in she has seen from her barred windows. Some air has come through the purdah's folds, some knowledge has filtered to her eager ears from the talk of men. Desdemona learned somewhat of Othello. Had she known more, she might have lived longer.


“The nineteenth century,” Wilhide observes, “saw an increasing separation of activities in the home, with different rooms being assigned to different uses in a manner that would have been unthought of a century previously” (41). If, on the one hand, the Victorian “cult of the child” was responsible for creating unique wallpapers for nurseries—in effect, as Leach argues, for “abstracting” children as “individual consumers out of the family”37—and, on the other hand, wealthy businessmen's agendas transformed the interior design market, the affordability of mechanically reproduced wallpapers created an innovative means with which to inscribe gender or otherwise territorialize domestic space. A circa 1899-1902 English wallpaper intended for a gentleman's study or bed chamber, for example, reprints battle scenes from the Boer War pirated from the pages of the Illustrated London News, and an 1889 pattern, no doubt slated for a young man's library, depicts a disheveled sprawl of “popular books” with discernible text and illustrations (Hoskins 170, 178). Suitable for a bachelor's flat, a 1902 wallpaper features an eye-boggling repeat of the disembodied heads of hundreds of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson's elaborately coiffed “Gibson Girls” (Hapgood 93). And the national post-World War I rhetoric to displace women from jobs traditionally held by men and return them to their homes not surprisingly marked a sudden demand for colorful kitchen wallpapers (Ackerman 236).

If the late-nineteenth-century's increasing inclination to masculinize, androgynize, or infantalize interiors displaced women's domestic empowerment, that trend continues today. A review of Arlie Russell Hochschild's recent book The Time Bind emphasizes that women's “increased presence” in the workplace “has led to a mild feminization of work, with more emphasis placed on cooperation and support, but also to a pronounced masculinization of home.”38 Gilman, a trained artist with an auxiliary platform for domestic reform, understood that pleasant, feminine oases within the home could create for women, at least symbolically, what Virginia Woolf advocated: “a room of one's own.” In contrast, the ornamental demarcation of residential interiors as male- or children-only spaces illustrates a documentable erosion of female territory within woman's traditional sphere. In this sense Gilman's wallpaper “codes” function in the story to critique her era's increasing exercise of the decorative arts in domestic spaces spatially to define, and consequently further to confine, women's lives. In the tradition of Susan S. Lanser's suggestive essay “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America,” which investigates Gilman's story in light of late-nineteenth-century constructs of and prejudices against yellow-skinned people, contextualizing “The Yellow Wall-Paper” [“The Yellow Wallpaper”] from the perspective of the turn-of-the-century decorative arts and design market enhances our understanding of evolving economic, social, familial, and sexual roles.39 A comprehension of late-nineteenth-century society's new proclivity to inscribe, indeed to prescribe gender or otherwise territorialize private space vis-à-vis home decoration, exposes an additional layer of Gilman's palimpsestic text.

Ultimately, whatever Gilman's contemporary readers knew of or might agree upon matters of postpartum depression, masculine domesticity, androgynous home decoration, or female consumerism in a patriarchal market economy, they doubtless shared a common conclusion about the sanity of Gilman's first-person narrator. In January 1892 when “The Yellow Wall-Paper” first appeared in New England Magazine, three pen-and-ink illustrations accompanied the story (27, 36, 41).40 Two show no wallpaper at all on the attic bedroom's walls. The third demands a keen eye to detect a faint serpentine pattern on the shadowed wall behind the housemaid, Jennie, who in protectively shielding the wallpaper from the narrator's eyes also cannily obscures it from the reader's.41 More recently, a 1977 cinematic adaptation of Gilman's story features a pale yellow striped paper with a benign floral repeat in the narrator's bedroom, while the paperback cover of the 1996 revised second Feminist Press edition of The Yellow Wall-Paper utilizes a similarly innocuous pale yellow floral with intermittent stripes.42 In selecting conservative designs and pleasing tones to represent the wallpaper in Gilman's story, both the twentieth-century cinematic adaptation and the newly revised textual edition, analogous to the original 1892 illustrations, antithetically underscore the narrator's mental illness and her weakness in surrendering herself to the paper's power. Alternatively, in realistically portraying the narrator's paranoia that her ugly, unhealthy surroundings constitute a malignant influence upon her sanity, Gilman accents the woman's strength. Although “The Yellow Wall-Paper” offers many readings and addresses countless material concerns, it can be profitably read as both a parody of and cautionary tale against the era's veneration of mercantile artists like William Morris, whose Arts and Crafts designs understandably attracted wealthy male patrons and sparked the genesis of other prestigious, male-headed interior design firms but also transformed “feminine” rooms within the domestic sphere and eroded women's authority in the home and marketplace.

Most readers are shocked at the conclusion of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” to discover that the narrator has control of, indeed, has always controlled the key to her attic room. She was essentially free at any time to walk out the door and down the stairs, to stroll in the garden and savor the fresh air. This terminating plot twist seems designed as a symbolic shock treatment to Gilman's female contemporaries, admonishing them to grow up, stop blaming men for their troubles, and take responsibility for their own lives. Unlike the story's narrator, Gilman quit Dr. S. Weir Mitchell's treatment of her own volition and subsequently spent her literary career advocating changes to make domestic space less injurious to women's and children's mental and physical health. Her reiterative call for efficient kitchen layout, for windows freed of heavy draperies to admit air and light, and for congenial spaces suitable for reading, conversation, and musical endeavors represents not only a feminist statement but an outcry against her era's egregious decorating excesses. If Gilman's more radical ideas like communal kitchens and child care centers were ahead of their time, her concerns about slavish imitation in women's fashions and the decorative arts were not. An inveterate cultural observer, Gilman cast a disparaging eye at the nineteenth-century “Art for Art's Sake” decorative arts movement, an aesthetic renaissance which metamorphosed into a business enterprise targeted at and merchandised for wealthy Gilded Age businessmen and their wives. Overall, as Elaine Hedges observes, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” illuminates ways in which “women as a group must still contend with male power in medicine, marriage, and indeed most, if not all, of culture.”43 Paralleling the narrator's aggressive assault on the wallpaper, the story attacks the tyranny of the patriarchal marketplace; at the same time, it cautions readers to resist the allure of fashion, advertising, and the superficially chic. If the century's “New Women” are to partake in a sophisticated market economy increasingly directed at regulating and transforming the home, Gilman forewarns, they are obligated to become informed, outspoken, and, above all, influential consumers.


  1. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “‘Making a Change’: Strategies of Subversion in Gilman's Journalism and Short Fiction,” Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ed. Joanne B. Karpinski (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), 237.

  2. Catherine Lynn, Wallpaper in America: From the Seventeenth Century to World War I (New York: Norton, 1980), 367. For wallpaper history, see also Marilyn Oliver Hapgood, Wallpaper and the Artist: From Dürer to Warhol (New York: Abbeville Press, 1992); Lesley Hoskins, ed., The Papered Wall: History, Pattern, Technique (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994); Jean Hamilton and Charles C. Oman, Wallpapers: An International History and Illustrated Survey from the Victoria and Albert Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1982); Brenda Greysmith, Wallpaper (New York: Macmillan, 1976); E. A. Entwisle, Wallpapers of the Victorian Era (Brighton, England: Dolphin Press, 1964); and Phyllis Ackerman, Wallpaper: Its History, Design and Use (New York: Tudor, 1923).

  3. Charles L. Eastlake, Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1872; ed. Charles C. Perkins, 6th ed., Boston: James R. Osgood, 1878).

  4. Morris, educated at Exeter College and later articled to architect G. E. Street, was heavily influenced in the late 1840s and 1850s by artist and writer Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a coterie that rejected regnant conventionality in the arts and called for a return to the simplicity and natural devotion inherent in Italian painting Pre-Raphael. Pre-Raphaelite poetry demonstrates sensuousness, metrical experimentation, intricate symbolism, and a partiality for the medieval and supernatural. Morris's most effective narrative poetry appeared in The Defence of Guenevere (1858); his passion for Gothic architecture and medievally inspired home furnishings led in 1861 to the establishment of Morris, Marshall, Faulkener and Co., manufacturer of handcrafted furniture, textiles, tapestries, stained glass, and wallpaper. Edward Bourne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, D. G. Rossetti, and other Pre-Raphaelite artists also participated in the firm.

  5. See Gary Scharnhorst, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Boston: Twayne, 1985), 49, and Denise D. Knight, ed., The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 2 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994), 2: 636.

  6. Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (London: Faber & Faber, 1994), 604.

  7. See MacCarthy, William Morris, for additional information about the lives of Jane and Jenny Morris. Another circumstantial irony: Jenny Morris (1861-1935) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) were born about six months apart, and both died in the same year. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” refers in the next-to-the-last paragraph to a character named “Jane” (42), a name most critics attribute to the narrator; for the character “Jennie,” see endnote 41.

  8. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1935; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1972), 46, 47.

  9. Biographical entry on Helen Metcalf (1831-1895), founder of the Rhode Island School of Design, in Doreen Bolder Burke, et al., In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Rizzoli, 1986), 453-54, discusses the school's curriculum and goals. See also John S. Gilkeson, Jr., Middle-Class Providence, 1820-1940 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 88, who discusses the founding of Rhode Island School of Design “by women whose interest in the decorative arts had been piqued by the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia,” and John R. Frazier, A History of Rhode Island School of Design (Providence: Rhode Island School of Design, 1961).

  10. Carol Farley Kessler, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia with Selected Writings (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 19.

  11. Polly Wynn Allen, Building Domestic Liberty: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Architectural Feminism (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 34.

  12. David Howard Dickason, The Daring Young Men: The Story of the American Pre-Raphaelites (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1953), 164.

  13. On prominent American arts and crafts firms which designed for domestic spaces, see exhibition catalogue, The Quest for Unity: American Art Between World's Fairs, 1876-1893 (Chicago: Detroit Institute of Arts and Rohner Printing Co., 1983); Sarah Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996); Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, “Patronage and the Artistic Interior,” Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994); and Frederick Platt, America's Gilded Age: Its Architecture and Decoration (South Brunswick, NJ, and New York: A. S. Barnes, 1976).

  14. Quoted in Mary A. Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), 118.

  15. Edith Wharton's lampoon appears in her autobiography, A Backward Glance (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1934), 106.

  16. Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 381; Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women As a Factory in Social Evolution (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1898; 5th ed., Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1911), 257.

  17. Ann J. Lane, To “Herland” and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: Random House, 1990), 113.

  18. See Julie Bates Dock, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wall-paper” and the History of Its Publication and Reception (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 11-16, for facts and myths associated with the publication of Gilman's short story. In October 1890, Howells sent Gilman's short story to Horace Elisha Scudder, then editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who rejected it as “too terribly good to be printed,” 11.

  19. Quoted in Catherine Lynn, “Surface Ornament: Wallpapers, Carpets, Textiles, and Embroidery,” In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement, ed. Doreen Bolder Burke, et al. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Rizzoli, 1986), 69-72. Lynn reports that at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, Jeffrey and Company served as agents for William Morris, 69; she also catalogues American merchandisers for Morris papers during the 1870s-1880s, all firms owned and managed by men, 106n32.

  20. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” ed. Catherine Golden (New York: The Feminist Press, 1992), 31, emphasis added. All quotations are from this edition and henceforth appear parenthetically in the text.

  21. The passage from editor Charles C. Perkins's preface to Eastlake's Hints on Household Taste reads as follows: “The opinion of one who has studied the essential principles of beauty, such as harmony, balance of parts, symmetry, and radiation, and thus acquired the knowledge necessary to enable him to separate the good from the bad, or in other words the fit from the unfit (for this is the determining-point in selection), ought to be of the same weight upon matters of taste as that of any man upon subjects which he has taken pains to master. But, unfortunately, it is not,” viii.

  22. Elaine B. Hedges, ed., afterword to “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, rev. ed. (New York: Feminist Press, 1996), 45.

  23. Elizabeth Wilhide, William Morris: Decor and Design (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1991), 71, 98.

  24. Walter C. Kidney, The Architecture of Choice: Eclecticism in America, 1880-1930 (New York: George Braziller, 1974), 5.

  25. Ellen Hoadley, “Investigating the Effects of Color,” Communications of the ACM 33 (February 1990): 120-25, 139.

  26. Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, ed. Leon Edel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963), 305-6.

  27. Hapgood notes that “Crane's rivals in the nursery were Kate Greenaway and Ralph Caldecott” (239), although the latter two sold their illustrations to manufacturers rather than designed wallpapers (240, 243). By the twentieth century, Cecil Aldin, John Hassall, Beatrix Potter, and Mabel Lucie Attwell, who drew the cherubs in Charles Kingsley's book, Water Babies, likewise “had been translated into wallpaper” (Hamilton and Oman 67).

  28. Rae Beth Gordon, “Interior Decoration in Poe and Gilman,” LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 3 (1991): 93.

  29. Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr., The Decoration of Houses (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1897; New York: Norton, 1978), 44.

  30. In Gilman's “If I Were a Man,” a married woman dresses up as a man and rides the train into the city with her husband's associates. During the trip she “learned and learned” that males equated purchasing power with enterprise, entrepreneurialism, and pecuniary exchange, whereas in men's eyes women were thoughtless consumers. The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader: “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Other Fiction, ed. Ann J. Lane (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 36.

  31. Helen Damon-Moore, Magazines for the Millions: Gender and Commerce in the “Ladies Home Journal” and the “Saturday Evening Post” (Albany: State University of New York, 1994), 98.

  32. William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Pantheon, 1993), 95.

  33. Juliet Kinchin, “Interiors: Nineteenth-Century Essays on the ‘Masculine’ and the ‘Feminine’ Room,” The Gendered Object, ed. Pat Kirkham (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996), 23, 25.

  34. Architect Baillie Scott, quoted in Nicholas Cooper, The Opulent Eye: Late Victorian and Edwardian Taste in Interior Design (New York: Whitney Library and Watson-Guptill Publications, 1977), 12.

  35. Wendell D. Garrett, et al., The Arts in America: The Nineteenth Century (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969), 377.

  36. Martha Banta, Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 232. See Banta's discussion of nineteenth-century camouflage techniques in art and literature (Wharton's The Age of Innocence and The Custom of the Country, Chopin's The Awakening, and Dreiser's Sister Carrie, for example) for representations of women who variously stand out from or are absorbed into their cultural backgrounds, 232-38. See also Thorstein Veblen's classic treatment of “conspicuous consumption” and women as chattel in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).

  37. Leach, Land of Desire, 38, who furthermore notes that with the rise of the mega-department store during the 1880s, “children's departments with carnival atmospheres (especially toy departments) began to appear in retail stores, symptomatic of an emerging child world, quite separate from the adult world, that had never existed before in the United States,” 72.

  38. Review of Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1997), by Nicholas Lemann, “Honey, I'm Not Home,” The New York Times Book Review (11 May 1997), 8. Hochschild also wrote The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (New York: Viking, 1989), a startling comparison of gender equity in the home and workplace as illustrated in two-career families.

  39. Susan S. Lanser, “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America,” Feminist Studies 15 (Fall 1989): 415-41.

  40. Golden, The Captive Imagination, identifies the illustrator as “Jo. H. Hatfield,” 4-5. The illustrations are also included in the 1992 ´Feminist Press edition of Gilman's story.

  41. Literary critics have disagreed upon the identity of Jennie as variously the narrator's sister-in-law or the housekeeper. An endnote to Elaine Hedges's “Afterword” in the recent Feminist Press edition, however, identifies Jennie as “the housekeeper,” a “guardian/imprisoner for the heroine,” “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” 62n19.

  42. Marie Ashton, dir. and screenplay, The Yellow Wallpaper (New York: Women Make Movies, 1978); Elaine Hedges edited the 1996 revised Feminist Press edition of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and wrote the afterword, 37-59.

  43. Elaine R. Hedges, untitled bibliographic essay on “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction, ed. Denise D. Knight (New York: Twayne, 1997), 152.

Select Bibliography

By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Benigna Machiavelli. Serialized in Forerunner 5 (1914). Reprint, Santa Barbara: Bandanna Books, 1993.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader. Edited with an introduction by Ann J. Lane, New York: Pantheon, 1990.

Concerning Children. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1900.

The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 2 vols. Edited with an introduction by Denise D. Knight, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Forerunner. Vols. 1-7 (1909-16). Reprint, with an introduction by Madeleine B. Stern, New York: Greenwood, 1968.

Herland. Serialized in Forerunner 6 (1915). Reprint, with an introduction by Ann J. Lane, New York: Pantheon, 1979.

His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers. New York and London: Century Co., 1923. Reprint, London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1924. Reprint Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1976.

The Home: Its Work and Influence. New York: McClure, Philips & Co., 1903. Reprint, New York: Source Book Press, 1970.

In This Our World. Oakland: McCombs & Vaughn, 1893, 3d. ed. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1898. Reprint, New York: Arno, 1974.

“Kitchen-Mindedness.” Forerunner 1 (February 1910): 7-11.

The Later Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Edited with an introduction by Denise D. Knight, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography. Foreword by Zona Gale. New York: Appleton-Century, 1935. Reprint, with an introduction by Ann J. Lane, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

The Man-Made World or, Our Androcentric Culture. Serialized in Forerunner 1 (1909-10). Reprint, New York: Charlton Co., 1911.

“Mind Cleaning.” Forerunner 3 (January 1912): 5-6.

“Moving the Mountain.” Serialized in Forerunner 2 (1911). Reprint, New York: Charlton Co., 1911.

“The New Motherhood.” Forerunner 1 (December 1910): 17-18.

“The New Mothers of a New World.” Forerunner 4 (June 1913): 145-49.

Unpunished. Edited with an afterword by Catherine J. Golden and Denise D. Knight. New York: The Feminist Press, 1997.

What Diantha Did. Serialized in Forerunner 1 (1909-10). Reprint, New York: Charlton Co., 1910.

With Her in Ourland. Serialized in Forerunner 7 (1914).

Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1898. Reprint, edited with introduction by Carl N. Degler, New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

“The Yellow Wall-Paper.” New England Magazine (January 1892): 647-56. Reprint, with an afterword by Elaine R. Hedges, Old Westbury: The Feminist Press, 1973. Revised ed. 1996.

The Yellow Wallpaper. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1899.

“The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Edited with an introduction by Denise D. Knight. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.

Secondary Readings

Ceplair, Larry, ed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Golden, Catherine, ed. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper.” New York: The Feminist Press, 1992.

Hill, Mary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Emergence of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

———. The Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1900. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1995.

Karpinski, Joanne, ed. Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. (Includes critical essays by Catherine Golden, Elaine Hedges, Mary Hill, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Joanne Karpinski, and Gary Scharnhorst.)

Kessler, Carol Farley. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia, with Selected Writings. Syracuse: University of Syracuse Press, 1995.

Knight, Denise D. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997.

Kolmerten, Carol A. “Texts and Contexts: American Women Envision Utopia, 1890-1920.” In Utopians and Science Fiction by Women, edited by Jane A. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Lane, Ann J. To “Herland” and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

Lanser, Susan. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies 15, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 415-41.

Meyering, Sheryl L., ed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1989.

Robinson, Lillian S. “Killing Patriarchy: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the Murder Mystery, and Post-Feminist Propaganda.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 10, no. 2 (Fall 1991): 273-85.

Rudd, Jill and Val Gough, eds. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999. Forthcoming.

———. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Very Different Story. Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 1998.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

Todd McGowan (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: McGowan, Todd. “Dispossessing the Self: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and the Renunciation of Property.” In The Feminine ‘No!’: Psychoanalysis and the New Canon, pp. 31-46. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, McGowan observes that recent historicist readings of “The Yellow Wallpaper” provide key insights into the relationship between female subjectivity and the ownership of private property.]

Fredric Jameson begins The Political Unconscious with the mantra, “Always historicize!,” calling this an “absolute” and “even ‘transhistorical’ imperative” of radical thought.1 Historicizing, in Jameson's vision, is attractive because it gives us access to trauma; it facilitates a traumatic encounter with the contingency of the present, thereby freeing us from the present's awful weight. It does this by revealing that the present doesn't owe its hegemony to transcendental necessity but to concrete historical determinants, determinants that might have been—and might sometime be—different. In short, historicizing offsets the power of the status quo. Insofar as it does this, who among the progressively minded could be against it? In the years since the publication of The Political Unconscious in 1981, however, another kind of historicizing has emerged: a vision of the social order without discontinuity, a regime of power without points of failure. Whereas Jameson's historicizing helped to free us from the power of the status quo and opened us to the possibility of trauma, the “new” version condemns us to the prison-house of historical continuity and closes us off to trauma. For it, there is no breaking out of the trap that history lays for us; its history is history without fissure. And a history without fissure is a history without the possibility of trauma.

Recently, criticism of “The Yellow Wall-paper” has taken up the imperative of this kind of historicizing, a historicizing that makes clear that where early feminist critics once saw a traumatic disruption of the social order, we should now see the power of the social order itself.2 A criticism that cannot grasp the possibility of the social order's failure cannot, clearly, see the feminine “No!”—itself a traumatic suspension of that order. Today, in the epoch of this historicism, the trauma of “The Yellow Wall-paper” has receded. Perhaps it is Walter Benn Michaels who inaugurated this approach to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story, when he stated, “if ‘The Yellow Wall-paper’ is for me an exemplary text, it is not because it criticizes or endorses the culture of consumption but precisely because, in a rigorous, not to say obsessive, way, it exemplifies that culture.”3 Michaels, however, was only the beginning.

Julie Bates Dock provides a more recent instance of this historicizing, when she rejects the idea that “The Yellow Wall-paper” had an “oppositional” status within the culture. Dock asks rhetorically, “Why do critics need oppositional myth-frames in literary history to legitimize the study of a remarkable piece of writing? What is gained by identifying “The Yellow Wall-paper” as a hitherto victimized piece of literature?”4 Though Dock rightly points out that critics have exaggerated the degree of the story's unpopularity, she ends up downplaying the story's radicality (and the fact that it was largely ignored by publishers, critics, and readers by fifty years). Here, opposition, a moment of trauma for the social order, is consigned to the category of mythology—what Dock calls “oppositional myth-frames.”5 In this vision of the social order, gaps in that order are not really gaps, but simply another aspect of social relations of power. This vision can explain everything, everything except the emergence of new subjects within the social or the emergence of the social itself, what Joan Copjec in Read My Desire calls society's “generative principle, which cannot appear among these relations.”6 Just as the vision of a closed social order does not permit anything to leave this order, neither does it permit anything to enter. Without the idea (and the possibility) of a moment in which the incompleteness of the social structure becomes evident, we can explain neither how society itself begins nor how it integrates new subjects.7

This failure, however, should not lead us to reject out of hand recent historicist readings of “The Yellow Wall-paper” and to return nostalgically to the early feminist readings that celebrated the story as, in the words of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “the story that all literary women would tell if they could speak their ‘speechless woe.’”8 The historicist readings have provided three key insights, revealing the limitations of interpretations such as that of Gilbert and Gubar. First, Dock has shown us that early readers of the story did not “misread” the feminist theme of the story. As she points out, contrary to the claims of many feminist critics of the story, “evidence indicates that [reviewers] saw Gilman's feminist message” and understood it.9 What Dock's research tells us is that it is not simply the feminism of “The Yellow Wall-paper” that troubled readers and kept the story in obscurity for decades, but something else. Thus, Dock tells us to look beyond just the confrontation with feminism itself for the traumatic effect of this story. Second, Dock, Susan Lanser, and others have shown how feminist critics of the story have been influenced by biography—both that of Gilman and themselves—in interpreting the story. This biographical influence has produced readings that see the story as a battle of (male and female) discourses, enabling critics to extract from the story a model for feminist writing and reading.10 Third, historicist readings have also revealed the connection between private property and the narrator's subjectivity in the story. According to Michaels, “The story of “The Yellow Wall-paper” is a story of the origin of property and, by the same token, of the origin of the self.”11 It is the great achievement of Michaels to have discovered this link between property and self, but his great failure as well, because he insists on reducing self to property. What “The Yellow Wall-paper” makes clear—and this is what historicism misses—is that finding one's self is not a process of acquisition, but one of loss. The narrator finds her self, in other words, only as it loses its status as property. The self that she discovers, because it is not property, cannot be reduced to discourse, even a feminist discourse. Rather than being a battle between two kinds of discourse or a battle to own one's self, “The Yellow Wall-paper” is a story about the emergence of a subject beyond discourse and property, at the point at which both discourse and property fail, and it is this aspect of the story that has made it troubling to its readers.

The importance of property is present from the first line of the story: “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.”12 The narrator goes on to describe this ancestral hall as “a colonial mansion, a hereditary estate,” which her and John have leased “cheaply” (29). This focus on property in the opening of the story not only establishes its centrality in the struggle for identity that ensues, but also suggests a particular relation to property in which John and the narrator exist. Because they are “mere ordinary people,” they don't own the property, but are just tenants. And they occupy the property only because the natural order of things has been upset. Something supernatural has occurred—the narrator suspects it is a “haunted house” (29)—and the couple is able to live there only because its “natural” owners have abandoned the place. Thus, Gilman begins the story by stressing that the couple is in an unusual and alienated situation in their role as occupants of the property. They are not the “natural” residents; they have not inherited the property. In fact, the narrator writes that “There was some legal trouble, I believe, something about heirs and coheirs” (30). Their relationship to property is not at all proper; a gap exists between them and it. Whereas an aristocratic couple would have a “natural” relationship to the property—there would be no gap between them and it, and in a sense, the property would be a part of them—John and the narrator have an alienated, or bourgeois, relationship to it.13 (All of the narrator's terms for referring to the property have aristocratic connotations—“ancestral hall,” “colonial mansion,” “hereditary estate”—suggesting further her and John's alienated relationship to it.)

Just as the couple's relationship to their house is alienated, the narrator's relationship to her self is haunted by a non-coincidence: she does not properly possess her self because it is alienated in—or, more precisely, beneath—the yellow wall-paper. In other words, at the beginning of the story the yellow wall-paper possesses the narrator's self; her self is reified in property (in the yellow wall-paper), which means that it has the status of a thing. This state of reification, which affects the identity of both characters, has its roots in the logic of capitalism and the predominance of private property. Reification creates an alienated identity, an identity that is out of joint. As Marx famously says in Capital, in the process of reification, “a definite social relation between men […] assumes […] the fantastic form of a relation between things.”14 Reification also affects the self's relationship to itself as well: one's identity acquires the character of a thing that is to be possessed. But the narrator, as the story opens, doesn't possess her self properly (just as the couple doesn't properly possess the house it occupies). This is the source of her “problem,” because reification, if it is to be successful ideologically, must function unobtrusively, unbeknownst to its subjects (or, in short, it must convince people that they really are people, not just things). The narrator's “illness”—what necessitated this “rest cure” in the first place—is thus a sign that with her the operations of ideology aren't functioning smoothly.15 The story establishes two alternatives for the narrator: she may, following the advice and example of John, attempt to possess her self properly, or she may, following her desire, attempt to break from this property-logic.

John preaches proper self-possession: overcome reification simply by making its processes once again inconspicuous. He is the perfect capitalist subject, because he tries to live the coincidence between property and identity, always preaching (and trying to exhibit) proper ownership of the self. The status of this ownership, however, is much more tenuous than John lets on. His sense of proper self-ownership—as does everyone's—depends upon repressing the impossibility of complete ownership, that there is always a part of the self that escapes one's control. John is even, on one level, aware of this, which is why he insists that the narrator abandon her desire and model herself on him. The narrator's efforts threaten to destabilize John's own self-ownership, thus making evident its problematic status, even in someone as seemingly self-assured as John. Because he recognizes the danger, John must insist unrelentingly on proper self-possession. In this sense, John's occupation is integral to the role he plays in the story: as a doctor, he works to constitute his subject—the narrator, in this case—as an object of the rationalizing gaze, within a discourse of rationality. We can see Foucault's clinician in John. John's treatment of the narrator exemplifies the way in which, as Foucault says in The Birth of the Clinic, “clinical experience” attempts to effect an “opening up of the concrete individual […] to the language of rationality, that major event in the relationship of man to himself and of language to things.”16 John's prescription for the narrator is for her to become like him: exhibit self-control, become the rational bourgeois subject, develop a strong and healthy ego. The narrator records this: “He says no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me” (35). The narrator's only problem, in John's eyes, is that she refuses to possess her self properly.

In advocating proper self-possession, John preaches the fundamental tenets of American ego psychology: a strong, autonomous ego and adaptation to the social order. Buying into this psychology is, as John makes clear, a good investment. The payoff is clear: one obtains a valuable self about which one can feel upbeat. It requires only a simple choice, the choice of submission to the law—that is, adaptation—over one's desire. Because it demands submission to the law, the acquisition of a valuable self necessitates the sacrifice of desire. Thus, in presenting this alternative to the narrator, John inadvertently reveals a truth not of ego psychology, but of psychoanalysis. As Lacan points out in “Kant with Sade,” “the law and repressed desire are one and the same thing.”17 If the narrator takes up John's investment advice and chooses adaptation, she must give up her desire. This is a price, however, that the narrator isn't quite sure she's ready to pay.

Thus, we might see the battle for the narrator's psyche that ensues as a struggle between ego psychology and Lacanian psychoanalysis, between the path of adaptation and the path of desire.18 The narrator's increasing awareness of John's malevolence indicates her movement toward the path of desire. Even near the beginning of the story, the narrator sees that John—and his insistence on self-control—might be “one reason I do not get well faster” (29). As she continues toward her desire, the narrator's suspicion about the truth of his concern becomes more concrete. At the outset she feels that “he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more” (30). Near the end of the story, however, she is able to articulate fully her doubts about John:

He asked me all sorts of questions, too, and pretended to be very loving and kind.

As if I couldn't see through him!


What the narrator sees is simply the underside of rational self-control. This control serves only to mask an absence of freedom, a complete acquiescence to the superego's law (a law that comes, of course, from the social, the big Other). The narrator reveals John's prescription for the subject—and the demand of self-control it makes on its adherents—to be both tyrannical (it despotically governs both the self and others) and impotent (it confines one to a symbol position and thus renders agency impossible).

John's ego psychology and corresponding philosophy of identity, which view self—and wife—as property, mirror the fundamental logic of capital: both are grounded on an idea of ownership which is constantly seeking to take possession of new things. After stating that she sees through John, the narrator makes a statement that should give us pause. She guesses at the source of John's behavior: “Still, I don't wonder he acts so, sleeping under this paper for three months” (40). She sees John in the same situation that she's in: the yellow wall-paper affects both of them. Here, the narrator reiterates the connection that informs the entire story—that between property and identity. Despite his rationality and self-control, John's identity, just like the narrator's, has been subjected to the processes of reification. The only difference is that in his case the guise of self-control has deceived him and allowed him to continue to believe in the autonomy of his ego. The narrator puts this difference in her own terms: “It only interests me, but I feel sure John and Jennie are secretly affected by it” (40). The narrator's “illness”—that is, her ability to feel reification as a crisis, rather than as a tolerable state of affairs—separates her from her husband and his sister Jennie; John and Jennie are content to live as things, without bothering to notice.19 They are content with reified existence precisely because they are convinced that they are really human and not just things. The narrator's radicality consists not in her being less subject to reification than John, but more so. Unlike John and Jennie, she is not plagued by the illusion that she is, deep down inside, truly human. She sees herself as a thing—as a figure in the wallpaper—and is a constant threat to reveal John and Jennie as things as well.

In fact, John's treatment of the narrator reveals that all along he has—consciously or not—been aware that the narrator's desire, if followed far enough, would reveal the way in which his rationalism has, in actuality, only a tenuous hold on his identity. Thus, John refuses to allow the narrator to reflect on herself, convincing her that “the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad” (30). In a sense, John's warning here is correct: if the narrator follows the path of desire, it would be the “worst thing” for him. John grasps that if the narrator follows the path of desire, she would take him along with her, rendering his fantasmatic self-possession completely untenable. In his discussion of Antigone and Creon in the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan points out that because Antigone follows her desire to the zone that one of Lacan's students christens “the zone between-two-deaths”—the zone of freedom—she automatically takes Creon there as well: “The hero bears his partner into that zone along with him. At the end of Antigone Creon henceforth speaks loudly and clearly of himself as someone who is dead among the living, and this is because he has literally lost all other goods as a result of the affair. As a consequence of the tragic act, the hero frees his adversary too.”20 If the narrator frees her self, she frees John, against his will, as well (and the fact that John faints when the narrator does finally free her self indicates that this is the case). John's warning to the narrator is thus an attempt to save himself from the horror of his own freedom. The narrator, however, in her acquiescence to this warning (or order), doesn't give up her desire; she simply makes an ostensible change in object. She writes, “So I will let it alone and talk about the house” (30). As it turns out, the house is, as the rest of the story illustrates, more the narrator's self than she is, and probing the mystery of the house is not an abandonment of her desire, but an intensification of it.21 Thus, by prompting the narrator to give up thinking about herself, John actually pushes her further down the path of desire, the path that, ironically, he is trying to block.

What follows from this turn toward the house is the narrator's attempt—which occupies the rest of the story—to free her self from its reified state, to break its connection to property. The narrator's refusal to name herself indicates her desire for a subjectivity that is not her property, that is not merely a position within the symbolic order. The narrator's reflection on the house and the wall-paper is her attempt to complete this break, to follow the path of desire. In a discussion of the narrator's relation to her own subjectivity, Georgia Johnston argues that “Through the narrator, [Gilman] shows how the woman creates herself as text. Through her body and her authorship, the woman becomes the subject, instead of the patient.”22 If this were true, then the thesis of Walter Benn Michaels—that “The Yellow Wall-paper” is “an endorsement of consumer capitalism”—would surely be correct. This way of viewing subjectivity—as textual “subject position”—misses the nature of the narrator's attempt to constitute her own subjectivity: she does not seek a positive subjectivity, but wants to dispossess herself, to become a subject without any positive content.23 It is a path on which the texts of one's subject position are systematically exposed and stripped away, in order to reveal the way in which one's subject position—a positive marker of identity within the symbolic order—is a prison.

The narrator's initial descriptions of her room show it also to be prisonlike: barred windows, a bed nailed to the floor, and walls covered with a “horrid” yellow wall-paper. The room also forces her into the role of a child; it served as a nursery for the previous occupants of the house. And during the narrator's stay in the room, John begins to treat her more and more like a child: “‘What is it, little girl?’ he said. ‘Don't go walking about like that—you'll get cold’” (36). Both John and the room, as ideological forces, attempt to infantilize and imprison the narrator, but it is the wall-paper that has the greatest effect on her. Her disgust with the wall-paper begins with her first description: “I never saw a worse paper in my life” (31). The paper is “repellent, almost revolting” (31). The color, the pattern, and the condition of the wall-paper all repulse the narrator, but what most disturbs her is its human quality. She notices “a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down” (32). The wall-paper, for the narrator, is not simply a dead letter, but something capable of expression. Further, she claims, “I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have!” (32). The wall-paper is, in a word, uncanny—or, as Marx puts it, “a mysterious thing.”24 Marx explains that, to understand this mystery,

we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.25

The fetishism of commodities humanizes things. When the narrator sees human life in the wall-paper—and in “inanimate things” in general—she displays her awareness of a process that John endures unknowingly. The narrator's awareness of the humanity of things corresponds to her awareness of her own status as a thing. These are the processes she sees in the wall-paper, and it is in her relationship to the wall-paper that we can find the key to the story: her struggle against reified identity.

To understand the narrator's relationship to the wall-paper, we must understand the nature of the wall-paper itself: the yellow wall-paper has all the qualities of the symbolic order. The symbolic order is characterized by its patriarchal and discursive structure. Readers of the story have noticed both of these aspects: Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar see in the wall-paper “the oppressive structures of the society”; Janice Haney-Peritz sees in it “man's prescriptive discourse about a woman”; and even Catherine Golden, who sees liberatory possibilities in wall-paper, sees it discursively, as a “palimpsest” through which “the narrator comes to express herself.”26 Not only is the structure of the wall-paper both patriarchal and discursive, but its color also indicates this connection to the symbolic order. The symbolic order, too, is yellow, rather than, say, green, because everything submitted to it is necessarily petrified. As Lacan points out, “the symbol manifests itself first of all as the murder of the thing.”27 Or, as Joan Copjec puts it, no “form of life [has] ever been found to survive within the dead structures of language.”28 Presence within the symbolic order is a Real absence, the presence of absence in the symbol. The “revolting” yellow of the wall-paper is likewise the yellowing of death, which is why it repulses the narrator at first: “The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight” (31).29 Though it requires the present absence of both—like the symbolic order—the wall-paper brings people and things in relation with each other. The wall-paper is a layer of mediation—literally, paper (a text) on the wall (property). It mediates and makes possible the relationship between the subject and property. It is the site of reification, the site at which people and property are linked, the site at which relations between people have the character of relations between things and things have a human quality. Though reification affects everyone, everyone does not respond to it in the same way. The narrator's relationship to reification differentiates the narrator from the other characters in the story. It is a peculiarity of the narrator's psyche, at once her “illness” and her genius, that she sees the human presence in the wall-paper and other things of the room, that, unlike the “normal” characters in the story, she sees that, in a society constructed around capital, things have more humanity than human beings do.

This ability to see what Marx calls the “mystical character” of things is, according to the narrator, an ability that she has had since she was a child. When she sees the humanity of the wall-paper, she says,

I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store.


In the midst of her description of the human qualities lurking within the wall-paper, the narrator has recourse to a childhood experience, in which inanimate things—things created by human labor—have the characteristics of human beings (she remembers, for instance, a chair that was a “strong friend” to her [32]). These past relationships to humanized things are, in fact, the only childhood memories that the narrator relates. Her only childhood memories are of her relationship to things, which had the character of a relationship between people. Even in childhood, even in her deepest memories, there was no time prior to her seeing things with human qualities—no “human” past that has been lost.30 The narrator does not romanticize her own childhood by positing it as a time of essential selfhood, a time of unalienated unity. Though she seeks subjectivity, this narrator is no essentialist. For the narrator (as her reflection on her childhood makes clear), things, and the relations between them, provide the model for relations between people; the relationship between things does not represent a fall from some primordial human relationship.

The narrator attempts, through her meditation on the wall-paper, to extricate her self—the “human presence”—from it.31 She sees something human trapped within it: “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” (33). What she sees in the wall-paper is the “ghost in the machine,” the leftover of humanity existing only as a specter in a reified world. The narrator can see this specter because the wall-paper—and the symbolic order—is not whole, but incomplete, split. Certain junctures—“places where it isn't faded and where the sun is just so”—make possible an insight into the human form that is hidden in the wall-paper. Furthermore, the patterns of the wall-paper “destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (31), contradictions that indicate that the wall-paper does not have a smooth and even surface. The narrator sees the human presence precisely because the symbolic order is not smooth, not a closed loop. Instead, it gives rise to doubt, to speculation about the possibility that its hiding something. Once again, we can see the clear link between the wall-paper and the symbolic order. Both cannot but offer us the illusion that they are hiding something real, something truly meaningful. As Joan Copjec points out, “Since signifiers are not transparent, they cannot demonstrate that they are not hiding something behind what they say—they cannot prove that they do not lie. Language can only present itself to the subject as a veil that cuts off from view a reality that is other than what we are allowed to see.”32 Language, in other words, can never say that it's not hiding anything—that it's telling the truth—because such a statement always seems to be hiding another, deeper truth, even when it isn't. It deceives insofar as it pretends to deceive, which is precisely what the wall-paper does to the narrator. The wall-paper is a lure, which is why it attracts the narrator's desire. The wall-paper convinces her that there is a substantial human presence within it, but as she comes closer to this presence, the narrator comes to recognize that it's not all that substantial, which gives her second thoughts. At first, however, the recognition of the human presence triggers the narrator's desire. In a moment of almost complete reversal, she says, “I'm getting really fond of the room in spite of the wall-paper. Perhaps because of the Wall-paper” (34, Gilman's emphasis). She changes her attitude toward the wall-paper because she begins to see in it the object of her desire.33

After days of attention to the wall-paper, the figure(s) contained within the pattern becomes clearer: “Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day” (35). This increasing clarity, however, horrifies the narrator, prompting her once again to think about leaving the house. She states, “And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don't like it a bit. I wonder—I begin to think—I wish John would take me away from here” (35). Clearly, the narrator no longer desires to discover the secret of the wall-paper, but it is less clear what occasions this dramatic change in attitude. When the form behind the wall-paper becomes more evident, its possibility of its emergence becomes more traumatic. Following the path of desire is not an easy road, because it weakens our sense of symbolic support.34 As she begins to free her self from the wall-paper, the narrator begins to feel the weight of this break. The idea that the woman behind the pattern will escape now becomes threatening: “The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out” (36). The narrator, as Lacan would say, begins to “give ground relative to her desire,” to try to escape the trauma of her desire. Though it is a prison, reified identity within the symbolic network of the Other is also a respite, providing a structural support for identity that allows one to not see the emptiness of subjectivity. As she sees the human form in the wall-paper more clearly, it becomes apparent that it is not the figure of her “true self,” her “human spirit,” but a senseless, traumatic form. On closer inspection, the imaginary lure—an object that would make her whole again—gives way to a figure of the Real, a terrifying form stripped of positive symbolic content. The narrator, in short, begins to see her self in its Real dimension, and she doesn't like what she sees.

The narrator sets out on the path of her desire expecting one thing—reconciliation, completion, freedom—and what she gets is something else altogether. If the narrator had known what was really lurking for her in the wall-paper, she would never have embarked upon her desire in the first place. But the wall-paper seduced her with the imaginary lure of a substantial self, of weightless freedom. Though she initially sought out a comforting identity in the wall-paper, the narrator soon discovers a traumatic one. In this sense, we can again see how close the narrator's experience is to that of psychoanalysis. With psychoanalysis—as with the wall-paper—the analysand never gets what she initially bargains for. The analyst doesn't provide what the analysand demands—relief from trauma—but rather facilitates a more thorough encounter with trauma. As Bruce Fink points out, “In therapy the therapist sidesteps the patient's demands, frustrates them, and ultimately tries to direct the patient to something he or she never asked for.”35 A subject comes to analysis, for instance, to solve marital problems, and ends up discovering that the marriage is itself the problem. We come to analysis for relief from trauma, but analysis forces us to take up the trauma as our own. The encounter with the wall-paper puts the narrator in exactly the same position. When she gets close to the traumatic emergence of her identity, the narrator has second thoughts, which is not to say she lacks courage. She gets further than most of us do. But it is not so easy for the narrator to give up on becoming subject, because she doesn't call the shots. She begs John for permission to leave the house, but he refuses—forcing the narrator back to the wall-paper.

On more than one occasion in the story, it is John's refusal to renovate or to leave the house that triggers the narrator's continually deeper attention to the wall-paper. These refusals are driven by what John considers to be economic exigencies. After the narrator's initial plea to change the wall-paper, John responds, “Really, dear, I don't care to renovate the house just for a three months' rental” (32). And later, when the narrator first begins to discern the form of the woman behind the wall-paper, John says, “our lease will be up in three weeks, and I can't see how to leave before” (36). In both cases, economic factors—and John's patriarchal authority that invokes them—force, or make possible, the narrator's following the path of her desire. In other words, it is the law itself that helps to push desire along. The power of John to compel the narrator to remain in a situation that constantly horrifies her—the power of patriarchy itself—is simultaneously the impetus for her attempt to free her self from the wall-paper. Because of her situation in this socius, the narrator has fewer opportunities to flee her desire. The horror of the rest-cure—the ostensible theme of the story, according to Gilman herself—is also the source of its potential as an engine for desire: it bars the path to the banalities of what Heidegger calls “everyday-ness,” which often serve as pretexts for flights away from one's desire. The horror of the rest-cure ironically creates the possibility of the narrator's break from reified identity.36 John's refusals of the narrator's requests for relief, the manifestations of both patriarchy and the culture of capital, make possible the very thing they are attempting to prevent—the emergence of the narrator's desire.

The fact that John's obstinacy and frugality sustains the narrator on the path of desire also reveals the contingent nature of this project. Had John been a bit more sensitive and agreed to leave the house, the narrator would have been denied the decisive break from him and his world that she makes at the end of the story. Her feminine “No!,” her rejection of symbolic identity, is, in other words, something that is (at least in part) forced on her by her situation. This makes clear just how far the feminine “No!” is from Sartrean freedom. For Sartre, of course, we are condemned to freedom, unable to get away from it. As the story makes clear, the narrator has not freely decided to continue her struggle against reified identity. Her “choice” is, strictly speaking, not free: if it was up to her, she would have already given up, but the situation forces her to continue. Nevertheless, the narrator's “No!” does effectively free her from reified identity, despite the fact that it stems ultimately from a series of contingent factors. The “No!” itself, in other words, is not hers, in the sense of being her own “free” decision.

After John refuses to permit their early departure, the narrator realizes that the pattern of the wall-paper, at night, “becomes bars” (37), and she sees the woman behind them clearly for the first time. This occasions another change in attitude; the narrator no longer wants to flee the room: “Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be” (38). She once again takes up her desire, as she describes the stultifying effects of the symbolic order on the self imprisoned within it:

And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.

They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!


Like ideology, the wall-paper imprisons the human subject, and this imprisoning produces multiple subject positions—“I think that is why it has so many heads”—points at which the subject is forced into a particular ideological role or symbolic identity. The narrator realizes that this explains why she had alternately seen “a great many women behind, and sometimes only one” (39). When she grasps that there is a self imprisoned beneath the wall-paper and that she “gets out in the daytime” (39), the narrator decides to tear away the wall-paper and free this self entirely.

Life outside of the wall-paper, however, is not exactly human. When one is outside of the imprisoning effects of the symbolic order, one is also outside of its constitutive effects, which means that beyond the wall-paper the woman has no symbolic network of support for her identity. Thus, the woman must move about like a shadow, like the living dead—“creeping”—because when she moves beyond the wall-paper she moves beyond the world of meaning. And because the act of creeping is the move of a subject without any positive content, the person who creeps can never be fully captured by the gaze:

I often wonder if I could see her out of all the windows at once.

But, turn as fast as I can, I can only see out of one at a time.

And though I always see her, she may be able to creep faster than I can turn!

(40, Gilman's emphasis)

To creep is to abandon the wall-paper, to abandon the world of symbolic meaning, and at this point the narrator wants to wholly take up creeping, which is why she is attempting to strip the wall-paper off completely. Once outside of the wall-paper, the subject becomes an empty subject, having severed the tie to property. The move outside the wall-paper is the final culmination of the narrator's “No!”—her refusal of the satisfactions of symbolic identity.

At the end of the story, the narrator finally succeeds in freeing her self from the wall-paper. Outside of the wall-paper, we can only imagine what the narrator looks like from the effect that she has on John: confronted with a Real presence, he faints. In the narrator's last statement, directed toward John, she makes clear where she has gone. She tells him, “I've got out at last […] in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!” (40). The narrator here dissociates herself from her own name—her designation within the symbolic network, the mark of her ideological interpellation.37 The name and the symbolic mandate that it entails is precisely what the narrator has moved beyond, if only momentarily. Annette Kolodny has called the narrator's final move, not wholly inaccurately, a “liberation into madness.”38 The point is, however, that any break from a symbolic identity always has a “mad” dimension, in which one achieves a symbolic death. In Enjoy Your Symptom!, Slavoj Žižek discusses this escape, which he terms the “act”: “every act worthy of this name is ‘mad’ in the sense of radical unaccountability: by means of it, I put at stake everything, including myself, my symbolic identity; the act is therefore always a ‘crime,’ a ‘transgression,’ namely of the limit of the symbolic community to which I belong.”39 The narrator's escape from ideology is an act of madness—and in this sense Kolodny is correct—because through it she abandons the symbolic network of support that had sustained her identity. However, unlike the psychotic, the narrator begins from the standpoint of symbolic identity and then goes beyond it. The psychotic rejects symbolic identity a priori; the narrator dies to it, and in this sense the term “madness” is misleading when applied to her.

The narrator commits herself to creeping, to a living death, which is something quite different from real death. In fact, the narrator rejects actual suicide as a means of escape after realizing that it would leave her within the symbolic network:

I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.

Besides I wouldn't do it. Of course not. I know well enough that a step like that is improper and might be misconstrued.


This rejection of suicide does not indicate a last-second eruption of conformism on the part of the narrator, an indication of the narrator's concern for propriety (or for her self as property). As an “improper” gesture, actual suicide is the reverse side of propriety, and as such, it can be integrated into a proper world of signification. It can be made sense of—or, rather, “misconstrued.” The narrator, however, aims beyond the world of construing and misconstruing, through a repudiation of even the constitutive dimension of ideology, that which secures meaning. Her break at the end of the story is, for this reason, nonsensical. Actual suicide remains something done for the Other—it sends a message to the Other, whether one leaves a note or not—whereas the narrator's symbolic suicide, her escape from the wall-paper, gives up the support of the Other altogether. It thus indicates that she has followed her desire to the point at which it becomes pure drive.

This is the point at which Gilman ends her story, the point at which the narrator completely breaks from her symbolic identity, where even her own name—Jane—is someone else. And because the story ends at this point, we have no way of knowing what the final result will be, or whether she will live out her life with John in a changed relationship, or whether John will move out of the picture altogether. In one sense, whatever happens next is unimportant, which is why Gilman stopped the story when she did (and all attempts to extrapolate an ending beyond the ending, and judge the story based on this, constitute refusals to embrace the radicality of Gilman's own ending).40 The narrator has renounced the network supporting her symbolic identity, and in doing so, she has committed herself to an encounter with the trauma of an empty identity. This emptiness, however, is visible only when we are able to abandon the historicist vision of the social as a closed loop. Only when we see the failure of the social to constitute itself completely can we also see the narrator's achievement of emptiness—and in this way attempt to rediscover the trauma of this story, a trauma that once manifested itself in a fifty-year-long repression.


  1. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 9.

  2. For some of the recent historicist readings of the story, see Walter Benn Michaels, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); Susan Lanser, “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wall-paper,’ and the Politics of Color in America,” Feminist Studies 15 (1989): 415-441; Janice Haney-Peritz, “Monumental Feminism and Literature's Ancestral House: Another Look at ‘The Yellow Wall-paper,’” Women's Studies 12 (1986): 113-128; Mary Jacobus, “An Unnecessary Maze of Sign-Reading,” in Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 229-248; Julie Bates Dock, et al., “‘But One Expects That’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ‘The Yellow Wall-paper’ and the Shifting Light of Scholarship,” PMLA 111 (1996): 52-65; and Wai-Chee Dimock, “Feminism, New Historicism, and the Reader,” American Literature 63 (1991): 601-622. Wai-Chee Dimock seems at first an exception to the other historicist readings, in that she professes her desire to synthesize the historicist reading and the earlier feminist readings. She argues that “I want to challenge not only their supposed disagreement but also their presumed distinction, to show that the discrete entity imputed to each in fact impoverishes both” (Dimock, “Feminism, New Historicism, and the Reader,” 602). First, Dimock, qua New Historicist, traces the link between “The Yellow Wall-paper” and the culture of professionalism and discusses the power relations implicit in this connection; then, Dimock, qua feminist, notes “a nonidentity between the ideal reader invoked by the story and the actual women reading it,” which creates a “dialectical agency,” because “professionalism and feminism might be said to be in contact only through the mediated space of a temporal lag” (Dimock, 613, 614). This conception of agency, however, is entirely conformist. The task of the feminist reader becomes one of only “catching up” to the professionalism of the ideal reader, from whom she is distanced by a “temporal lag.” Thus, Dimock's synthesis—as syntheses tend to do—strips one side (feminism) of its overriding principle—oppositionality.

  3. Michaels, The Gold Standard, 27, his emphasis.

  4. Dock, “The Legend of ‘The Yellow Wall-paper,’” 60.

  5. The primary effect of Dock's essay—and the gesture in this direction has become increasingly common—is to say: “we have wrongly thought ‘The Yellow Wall-paper’ to be something that ideology could not contain and had to exclude or repress, but now we can see that it has been included all along, without our being conscious of it.” This consignment of the outside to the status of the mythological, however, fails to see its own performative dimension. In his book on Marx, Jacques Derrida notices a similar thing in all the statements circulating today about the death of Marxism. These statements are exorcisms, according to Derrida, and “effective exorcism pretends to declare the death only in order to put to death. As a coroner might do, it certifies the death but here it is in order to inflict it. This is a familiar tactic. The constative form tends to reassure. The certification is effective. It wants to be and it must be in effect. It is effectively a matter of a performative” (Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf [New York: Routledge, 1994], 48, his emphasis). The “purely constative” statement—opposition is mythological—works performatively to bring about mythologizing of opposition that it has declared to be already the state of things. This parallel between statements about the mythology of opposition and the death of Marxism is perhaps not fortuitous. Should we not see the former as the resignation of the Left in the face of the latter?

  6. Joan Copjec, Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994), 9.

  7. For Lacan, this is precisely the limit of the symbolic order: its inability to explain creation and individuation. He describes this limit in his Seminar III: “There is nevertheless one thing that evades the symbolic tapestry, it's procreation in its essential root—that one being is born from another. In the symbolic order procreation is covered by the order instituted by this succession between beings. But nothing in the symbolic explains the fact of their individuation, the fact that beings come from beings. The entire symbolism declares that creatures don't engender creatures, that a creature is unthinkable without a fundamental creation. In the symbolic nothing explains creation” (Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III: The Psychoses, 1955-1956, trans. Russell Grigg [New York: Norton, 1993], 179).

  8. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 89, their emphasis.

  9. Dock, “The Legend of ‘The Yellow Wall-paper,’” 60.

  10. Paula Treichler, for instance, sees the wall-paper as “a metaphor for women's discourse” through which the narrator attempts to escape John's prescriptive discourse (his “sentence”) (Paula Treichler, “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wall-paper,’” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 3 [1984]: 61-77). Judith Fetterley calls it “a war between texts” (Judith Fetterley, “Reading about Reading: ‘A Jury of Her Peers,’ ‘The Murderers in the Rue Morgue,’ and ‘The Yellow Wall-paper,’ in Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, eds. Elizabeth Flynn and Patrocinio Schweikart [Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986], 163). For other views of the story as a conflict of discourses, see, among others, Gilbert and Gubar; Georgia Johnston, “Exploring Lack and Absence in the Body/Text: Charlotte Perkins Gilman Prewriting Irigaray,” Women's Studies 21 (1992): 75-86; and Catherine Golden, “The Writing of ‘The Yellow Wall-paper’: A Double Palimpsest,” Studies in American Fiction 17 (1989): 193-201.

  11. Michaels, The Gold Standard, 4. Given Michaels's stress on the parallel between the development of capitalism and of the individual subject, it should come as no surprise that the predominant American Marxist, Fredric Jameson, would find much to admire in Michaels's project, despite its wholly anti-Marxist bent and explicit refusal to interrogate the culture it analyzes—“the project of interrogation makes no sense” (Michaels, 27). Though Jameson does attack Michaels on this point, his enthusiasm is not dampened: “Few recent works of American criticism display the interpretive brilliance and intellectual energy of Walter Benn Michaels's The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism” (Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991], 181).

  12. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-paper,” in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wall-paper” and the History of Its Publication and Reception: A Critical Edition and Documentary Casebook, ed. Julie Bates Dock (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 29. Though there are a large number of editions of “The Yellow Wall-paper” that are widely available, I will cite Dock's edition because it is the first (and only) critical edition of the story available. Subsequent references to this edition will be cited parenthetically.

  13. In one sense, the “naturalness” of the aristocratic relationship to the land exists only retroactively, after it has been lost. That is, it exists in the mythology of those who live in a world of universalized private property. In another sense, however, there is a concrete difference in the attitude toward property between the precapitalist and the capitalist worlds. Robert Heilbroner illustrates this difference with his colorful example of the precapitalist attitude: “Although land was salable under certain conditions (with many strings attached), it was generally not for sale. A medieval nobleman in good standing would no more have thought of selling his land than the governor of Connecticut would think of selling a few counties to the governor of Rhode Island” (Robert Heilbroner, The Wordly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992], 28, his emphasis).

  14. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 165.

  15. The narrator nicely demonstrates the radical kernel of hysterical neurosis, which consists in a refusal to be satisfied with the ideological comforts that satisfy the “normal” subject. As Breuer points out in defending the hysteric against the common charge of “degeneracy” or “weak-mindedness,” the hysteric becomes ill simply because she cannot tolerate the “monotonous life and boredom” that normal subjects endure daily without incident (Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria, trans. James Strachey [New York: Basic Books, 1955], 242).

  16. Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage, 1973), xiv. John S. Bak interprets John's treatment of the narrator in light of Foucault's ideas on surveillance developed in Discipline and Punish. According to Bak, the narrator's room is “not unlike that described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1975), patterned after Jeremy Bentham's eighteenth-century Panopticon” (John S. Bak, “Escaping the Jaundiced Eye: Foucauldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ‘The Yellow Wall-paper,’” Studies in Short Fiction 31 [1994]: 40). In imprisoning the narrator in this room that resembles a Panopticon, John functions like a “penal officer” (Bak, “Escaping the Jaundiced Eye,” 42), perpetuating a constant state of surveillance on the narrator. Though Bak doesn't say as much, the fundamental importance of this connection between the prison and medicine is clear: both work to constitute the individual as a subject (on the model of self-possession) through subjection to a gaze.

  17. Jacques Lacan, “Kant with Sade,” trans. James B. Swenson Jr., October 51 (1989): 68.

  18. In this way, Gilman's story makes clear the connections between American ego psychology and the logic of capitalism. The project of strengthening the ego is directly homologous to increasing the worth of one's commodities. The status of the ego is that of a commodity—a thing to be owned—which is why the entirety of Lacanian psychoanalysis is directed against the ego, toward the achievement of a subject without an ego. As he says in his Seminar II, “There is never a subject without an ego, a fully realised subject, but that in fact is what one must aim to obtain from the subject in analysis” (Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli [New York: Norton, 1991], 246). This is why in acting against John's prescription for self-control and trying to free her self from the wall-paper, the narrator enacts a project akin to Lacanian psychoanalysis.

  19. Though both John and Jennie become interested in what is beneath the wall-paper after the narrator has begun to strip it away, this interest is merely an expression of what Heidegger terms “curiosity,” which is why the narrator so jealously keeps them out of the room. For Heidegger, curiosity, like that exhibited by John and Jennie, “seeks novelty only in order to leap from it anew to another novelty […] curiosity is characterized by a specific way of not tarrying alongside what is closest. Consequently it does not seek the leisure of tarrying observantly, but rather seeks restlessness and the excitement of continual novelty and changing encounters. In not tarrying, curiosity is concerned with the possibility of distraction” (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1962], 216, his emphasis). John and Jennie seek out the woman behind the wall-paper because it is a novelty, a new source of distraction. The narrator, on the other hand, seeks out this woman (her self) because she wants to avoid distraction, to “tarry alongside what is closest”—hence her need to keep John and Jennie outside of the room.

  20. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, trans. Dennis Porter (New York: Norton, 1992), 320.

  21. The ability of the narrator to turn her attention from her self to the house and then to the wall-paper indicates desire's indifference to its object. What matters is not the object but the path of desire itself.

  22. Johnston, “Exploring Lack,” 79.

  23. Ibid. Because one's subject position, as Johnston conceives it here, is textual—the narrator writes herself into it—it fails to transcend the symbolic order, and hence indicates an abandonment of desire. In addition, because it is wholly symbolic, a textual subject position can't be the site of agency that hopes to challenge the symbolic order.

  24. Marx, Capital, 77.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Gilbert and Gubar, 90; Haney-Peritz, 116; Golden, 193. Janice Haney-Peritz also points out the similarity between the yellow wall-paper and the symbolic order. However, she sees the narrator's “identification” with the woman in the wall-paper as an indication that “the register of the narrator's reading and writing begins to shift from the symbolic to the imaginary” (Haney-Peritz, 118). Following from this shift, the narrator's final break from the wall-paper at the end of the story becomes a complete regression into the imaginary and, as is consonant with the imaginary realm, indicative of an attitude of aggression toward the other (John). By focusing on the symbolic-imaginary axis rather than the real-symbolic axis, Haney-Peritz mistakes a Real break from the symbolic order for an imaginary regression. This is clear in the narrator's attitude toward John after her break from the wall-paper: rather than acting aggressively toward him (as Haney-Peritz suggests), the narrator creeps over him as if he weren't there. In the imaginary, where every other is either a rival or a site of identification, this indifference to the other is unthinkable.

  27. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 104.

  28. Copjec, Read My Desire, 225.

  29. For an alternative reading of the yellowness of the wall-paper, see Lanser, 425-436. As Lanser and Mary Jacobus both point out, criticism has almost completely ignored the significance of the adjective in the title of the story.

  30. Because Gilman's story inverts the causal relationship within the concept of reification, it effectively bypasses Louis Althusser's critique of the concept as “humanist.” For Althusser's sustained critique of humanist Marxism, see Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Verso, 1969).

  31. The term “meditation,” with all its Cartesian resonances, is the most appropriate term for what the narrator attempts in this story. Though she is no rationalist, she assumes, like Descartes, in her attitude toward the wall-paper, that “some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me” (Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. John Cottingham [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986], 15). Her project of peeling back the layers of wall-paper represents a modern variation on the Cartesian theme of “radical doubt.”

  32. Copjec, Read My Desire, 54, her emphasis.

  33. The fact that the narrator sees the object of her desire in the yellow wall-paper—“her relentless pursuit of a single meaning on the wall” (Lanser, 420)—is, for Susan Lanser, the indication of a reductive interpretive strategy (which has been reproduced by feminists reading the story). Lanser argues that the wall-paper is an “unreadable text” (Lanser, 420) and “immensely complicated” (Lanser, 421), in which the narrator finds a single meaning—what she desires. Lanser offers us, in effect, a version of the Derridean critique of Hegel: Gilman and Hegel sublate difference, reducing the contradictions and complexities of a rich text into a single story, the story of the subject. Lanser's critique of Gilman misses the mark, however, in its suggestion that what the narrator finds beneath the wall-paper is something substantial. What the narrator finds is a self, but a self bereft of predicates, an empty, unsubstantial self. Discovering the emptiness of one's self, in this sense, amounts to a confession of the failure of the attempt to discover meaning, rather than the triumph of a single meaning over the complexity of the text (which is exactly what occurs in Hegel as well).

  34. The vacillations of the narrator demonstrate the ambiguous relation of the subject to her desire. As Lacan points out in the Ethics seminar, the subject “does not have a simple and unambiguous relationship to his wish. He rejects it, he censures it, he doesn't want it. Here we encounter the essential dimension of desire—it is always desire in the second degree, desire of desire” (Lacan, Seminar VII, 14). The key for the narrator is her ability to desire her desire, rather than to desire to retreat from it.

  35. Bruce Fink, A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 9. Because the analyst never gives the analysand what she bargains for, Fink argues, psychoanalysis can't be reduced to the provider/client contractual arrangement—I give you this in exchange for that—on which so much therapy is modeled today. Psychoanalysis thwarts the contractual model, insofar as it never gives us what we go into it expecting. This is an important way in which it is antithetical to the logic of capital and exchange.

  36. The narrator is in a similar position to the slave in Hegel's master/slave dialectic. Because the slave experiences “absolute fear,” a fear that individualizes, she, unlike the master (who knows no fear and whose consciousness is utterly dependent on the slave), attains “independent self-consciousness” (G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977], 119).

  37. Jeanette King and Pam Morris see the narrator's position at the end of the story as ‘the finality of the ideological process” (Jeannette King and Pam Morris, “On Not Reading Between the Lines: Models of Reading in ‘The Yellow Wall-paper,’” Studies in Short Fiction 26 [1989]: 31). For them, this final act represents the narrator's defeat: “When the woman behind the paper ‘gets out,’ […] this is an image not of liberation but of the victory of the social ideal” because this woman is the narrator's “conforming self—the creation of social convention” (King and Morris, 31). Such a reading leaves two questions: If the escape from the wall-paper is the triumph of the narrator's “conforming self,” why does John faint? And, why, after she escapes from the wall-paper, does the narrator—for the first time in the story—speak of her own name as if it belonged to someone else, a clear sign that she has moved beyond its symbolic mandate?

  38. Annette Kolodny, “A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,” New Literary History 11 (1980): 459.

  39. Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (New York: Routledge, 1992), 44, his emphasis.

  40. For a thorough summary of the many critical positions on the ending of the story, see Elaine R. Hedges, “‘Out at Last’? ‘The Yellow Wall-paper’ after Two Decades of Feminist Criticism,” in Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ed. Joanne B. Karpinski (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), 222-233.

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