Student Question

What critical lenses can be applied to this quote from The Yellow Wallpaper?

"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"

Quick answer:

This quotation from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella The Yellow Wallpaper epitomizes the author’s ornately descriptive writing style concerning the story’s primary object: the deteriorating yellow wallpaper in the protagonist’s bedroom. In the selected quotation, the narrator begins to reveal herself by articulating her relationship with the wallpaper. In so doing, she simultaneously endorses her husband’s opinion that she is unwell and announces herself as an eccentric with a keen artistic, if not feminine, sensibility.

Expert Answers

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

The Yellow Wallpaper by the nineteenth- and twentieth-century American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a novella (or short story) written in first-person narration. It’s a story about a young woman who is considered mentally ill. The longer Gilman’s female narrator convalesces in her attic, the more the wallpaper appears to change, as if it was something organic and alive. Without stimulation to keep the woman’s mind engaged, the yellow wallpaper patterns become increasingly intriguing. She thinks she recognizes a figure in the design, coming to believe that there’s someone slithering on all fours between the paper and the wall. Attempting to free the person in the wallpaper—representing, perhaps, her trapped alter ego—she begins, rather hysterically, scratching the remaining paper off the wall.

A dominant theme in the story is the contestable status of madness. What does it mean to see things that others do not? Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the narrator-protagonist of The Yellow Wallpaper is characterized by an “antic disposition”—a playful, fanciful, downright fantastical side. Her creative way of looking at the external world—believing in her senses to the point of madness—lands her in a kind of prison, even if it is supposed to be a comfortable one.

In the quotation, the wallpaper is a source of irritation. What is striking about the narrator’s account of her perception of the wallpaper is that her fascination is the direct result of the object’s ugliness. Its “dull” quality, its garish color, its “suicidal” lines, and its inducement of psychotic experience (known clinically as synesthesia)—all of these properties of the yellow wallpaper are factual. This woman, treated as a patient by her own husband, is perceptive to the point of mental illness. If only she could keep her thoughts to herself!

Ultimately, it’s up to the reader to decide whether or not having a vivid imagination is tantamount to madness. In most literary interpretations, the heroine’s diary is an account of a troubled person, not an unstable one. It may simply be that the woman could use a day at the beach, away from the mundane aspects of life that turn her into a daydreamer.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial