What is a one-sentence summary for "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman?

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In summary, the story is a highly ironic tale that takes us inside the mind and emotions of a woman suffering from mental illness – an illness paradoxically caused by attempts to restore her mental health.

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A good one-sentence summary of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story might read as follows:

The Yellow Wallpaper ” is a highly ironic story that takes us inside the mind and emotions of a woman suffering a slow mental breakdown – a breakdown paradoxically caused by attempts to restore...

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her mental health.”

No summary, however, can do real justice to the rich complexity of Gilman’s tale itself, a tale brimming with irony from start to finish.  Among the numerous examples of irony the story reveals are the following:

  • The narrator refers to herself in the first sentence as an “ordinary” person, but it soon becomes clear that she is hardly ordinary in any way.
  • The narrator declares that there is “something queer” about the house in which she is now living – a description more applicable to herself than to the house.
  • John, the narrator’s husband, has “an intense horror of superstition,” but he will soon find himself trying to cope with an increasingly superstitious wife.
  • John apparently doesn’t believe that his wife is really sick, but of course by the end of the story her mental sickness will become undeniable.
  • Both the narrator’s husband and her brother are physicians, but neither is able to cure her of her true illness, which is mental rather than physical and which becomes worse the more they belittle her condition or try to cure it by superficial means.
  • The narrator takes drugs prescribed to her by her husband and brother, but she is forbidden to “work” – the one treatment that might actually have been effective.
  • John urges his wife not to think about her condition, thereby leading to her obsess about it in secret.
  • By declaring that she will cease talking about herself and will instead talk about the house, the narrator introduces the topic that will eventually drive her completely crazy.
  • The narrator acknowledges John’s genuine concern for her, but it is precisely the nature of that concern that leads to her growing mental illness:

He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction. I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.

  • The narrator inhabits a nursery, but her symbolic treatment as a child only makes her mental condition worse than it already was.
  • The room the narrator inhabits was once associated with youth, with health, with freedom, and with vitality, but now it seems as much a prison as anything:

It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.

  • The wallpaper in the room is in deteriorating condition, as will also soon be true of the narrator’s mind.  Indeed, her obsession with the wallpaper will be one reason for her own mental deterioration.
  • Although John hates to have the narrator “write a word,” she sees writing as her only outlet and relief.
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Write an analysis of "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman explores and critiques women's subordination in patriarchal society. She focuses on her time period's ill-advised treatment of women's nervous disorders. In the story, the unnamed first-person protagonist suffers from postpartum depression after the birth of a child. The treatment insisted upon by her husband—based on the rest cures popularized by a real physician, Weir Mitchell—drives the protagonist into insanity rather than curing her.

The story illustrates how voiceless women often were in late nineteenth and early twentieth century society. When the narrator tries to express to her husband her acute needs for physical and mental stimulation, she is infantilized and ignored. She hasn't been allowed to value her own opinions enough to assert herself adequately, so she retreats into insanity.

The first-person narrative works effectively to convey the woman's claustrophobia and increased desperation to escape. The yellow wallpaper, with its bulbous swirls, becomes a symbol of the narrator's entrapment and descent into a madness. Eventually, the narrator begins to see an animal crawling around in the wallpaper and pulls strips of the paper off the wall to set it free. These images of animals and wallpaper stripping reflect the narrator's dehumanization and her attempts to liberate herself from a prison.

The story is famous as a scathing indictment of men not giving women a voice in determining their own needs.

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Discuss the characters in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Published in 1891, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman introduces the idea of post-partum depression. Although Gilman did not put a name to this illness, today’s physicians and psychiatrist do acknowledge this disease.  In 1903, the author wrote an explanation for why she wrote this story:

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia--and beyond. I went to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. He prescribed complete bed rest and isolation.

Other than the unnamed narrator, the character most important to the protagonist is her husband John.   Central to the story, John controls the narrator, John relates to his wife through his interpretation of the narrator’s illness; furthermore, he appears to love his wife, providing constant positive feedback.

In the beginning, the reader feels that John places in wife in a situation which leads to her loss of control. As the story progresses, it is obvious that John simply cannot see what is happening to his wife.  He is gone much of the time, and he actually believes that his regimen works with his wife. Ultimately, John treats her as a patient rather than his wife. 

Consequently, his treatment for his wife comes from the acknowledged cure for depression at this time.

  • Constant bed rest
  • Isolation
  • No disturbances

John often threatened his wife with going back into a sanitarium to recuperate. Because he was a busy doctor, John tended to leave the woman alone which added to her distress.

John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell. I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time.Of course I don't when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone.

The unnamed narrator suffers from depression after the birth of her baby.  Succeeding in fooling her husband, the isolation and continued absence of the outside world leaves the woman only with her imagination. 

In time, her imagination begins to take over her entire being. Nothing is right for the narrator.  As the depression deepens, the woman’s senses begin to drive her to distraction. The smells, the sounds, the wallpaper—the intensity of the sensory world around begins to overtake her sanity. To further add to her horror, the narrator believes another woman lives within the wallpaper.

…she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard But nobody could climb through  that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.

Eventually, the narrator’s reality is the wallpaper, separating her from daily life.  Further and further into this fantasy and frustration, she beings to gnaw on the furniture.  The “woman” in the wallpaper symbolizes the narrator’s situation. In finding herself, she has shredded herself.

The rest cure apparently does not work. The final scene portrays John as so shocked by the complete loss of sanity by his wife that he faints.  Where has he been when this disturbing interaction was happening with the wallpaper, the woman, and the furniture?  No longer is the wife suffering from depression; now is it madness
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