a short story by charlotte perkins gilman about a woman who goes insane staring at wallpaper. well, there's a bit more to it than that. it's really sort of a critique of psychiatric practices at the time (late 1800s). the protagonist is undergoing "treatment" for some sort of "melancholia," which largely consists of doing away with anything creative or intellectual and going back to being a dutiful wife.

instead of getting better, the woman ends up hallucinating wildly and believing her husband, sister-in-law, and even the wallpaper in her room are all out to get her. she becomes terrified of being "trapped" in the wallpaper, which seems sort of an allegory for being trapped by society in a stereotypically feminine role. women weren't supposed to think, and inevitably if they felt even the teensiest bit of emotional imbalance it was automatically blamed on mind-stimulating activity-- rather than on their frustration with their less-than-stellar ranking in the world.

gilman wrote this story because she went through a similar experience; in 1887, suffering from neurasthenia, she was told 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." for three months she gave it a go, "and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over." when she decided to ignore the doctor's advice, she bounced back like a badass yo-yo.

i am an ostrich.

the yellow wallpaper is meant as a warning based on personal experience. "It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy," she explained in a 1913 issue of The Forerunner.

this is one of the creepiest things i've ever read, and i highly recommend it. the subsequent film is also excellent and captures the mood quite well; i've never been so freaked out by the sight of a woman crawling on the ground.
CST Approved

From Project Gutenberg:

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

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity--but that would be asking too much of fate!

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. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.

John is a physician, and PERHAPS--(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)--PERHAPS that is one reason I do not get well faster.

You see he does not believe I am sick!

And what can one do?

If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression--a slight hysterical tendency--what is one to do?

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

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?

I did write for a while in spite of them; but it DOES exhaust me a good deal--having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.

I sometimes fancy that my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus--but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.

So I will let it alone and talk about the house.

The most beautiful place! It is quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people.

There is a DELICIOUS garden! I never saw such a garden--large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them.

There were greenhouses, too, but they are all broken now.

There was some legal trouble, I believe, something about the heirs and coheirs; anyhow, the place has been empty for years.

That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid, but I don't care--there is something strange about the house--I can feel it.

I even said so to John one moonlight evening, but he said what I felt was a DRAUGHT, and shut the window.

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

But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself--before him, at least, and that makes me very tired.

I don't like our room a bit. I wanted one downstairs that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings! but John would not hear of it.

He said there was only one window and not room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another.

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.

He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get. "Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear," said he, "and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time." So we took the nursery at the top of the house.

It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. 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 paint and paper look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off--the paper--in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.

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. The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.

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.

We have been here two weeks, and I haven't felt like writing before, since that first day.

I am sitting by the window now, up in this atrocious nursery, and there is nothing to hinder my writing as much as I please, save lack of strength.

John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious.

I am glad my case is not serious!

But these nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing.

John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no REASON to suffer, and that satisfies him.

Of course it is only nervousness. It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way!

I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!

Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able,--to dress and entertain, and other things.

It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby!

And yet I CANNOT be with him, it makes me so nervous.

I suppose John never was nervous in his life. He laughs at me so about this wall-paper!

At first he meant to repaper the room, but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies.

He said that 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.

"You know the place is doing you good," he said, "and really, dear, I don't care to renovate the house just for a three months' rental."

"Then do let us go downstairs," I said, "there are such pretty rooms there."

Then 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.

But he is right enough about the beds and windows and things.

It is an airy and comfortable room as any one need wish, and, of course, I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim.

I'm really getting quite fond of the big room, all but that horrid paper.

Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deepshaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees.

Out of another I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf belonging to the estate. There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house. I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but 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.

I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.

But I find I get pretty tired when I try.

It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work. When I get really well, John says we will ask Cousin Henry and Julia down for a long visit; but he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now.

I wish I could get well faster.

But I must not think about that. 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. There is one place where two breadths didn't match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other.

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.

I remember what a kindly wink the knobs of our big, old bureau used to have, and there was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend.

I used to feel that if any of the other things looked too fierce I could always hop into that chair and be safe.

The furniture in this room is no worse than inharmonious, however, for we had to bring it all from downstairs. I suppose when this was used as a playroom they had to take the nursery things out, and no wonder! I never saw such ravages as the children have made here.

The wall-paper, as I said before, is torn off in spots, and it sticketh closer than a brother--they must have had perseverance as well as hatred.

Then the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there, and this great heavy bed which is all we found in the room, looks as if it had been through the wars.

But I don't mind it a bit--only the paper.

There comes John's sister. Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing.

She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!

But I can write when she is out, and see her a long way off from these windows.

There is one that commands the road, a lovely shaded winding road, and one that just looks off over the country. A lovely country, too, full of great elms and velvet meadows.

This wall-paper 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.

There's sister on the stairs!

Well, the Fourth of July is over! The people are gone and I am tired out. 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.

Of course I didn't do a thing. Jennie sees to everything now.

But it tired me all the same.

John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.

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!

Besides, it is such an undertaking to go so far.

I don't feel as if it was worth while to turn my hand over for anything, and I'm getting dreadfully fretful and querulous.

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.

And I am alone a good deal just now. John is kept in town very often by serious cases, and Jennie is good and lets me alone when I want her to.

So I walk a little in the garden or down that lovely lane, sit on the porch under the roses, and lie down up here a good deal.

I'm getting really fond of the room in spite of the wall-paper. Perhaps BECAUSE of the wall-paper.

It dwells in my mind so!

I lie here on this great immovable bed--it is nailed down, I believe--and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we'll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I WILL follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.

I know a little of the principle of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of.

It is repeated, of course, by the breadths, but not otherwise.

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.

But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase.

The whole thing goes horizontally, too, at least it seems so, and I exhaust myself in trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction.

They have used a horizontal breadth for a frieze, and that adds wonderfully to the confusion.

There is one end of the room where it is almost intact, and there, when the crosslights fade and the low sun shines directly upon it, I can almost fancy radiation after all,--the interminable grotesques seem to form around a common centre and rush off in headlong plunges of equal distraction.

It makes me tired to follow it. 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.

Half the time now I am awfully lazy, and lie down ever so much.

John says I musn't lose my strength, and has me take cod liver oil and lots of tonics and things, to say nothing of ale and wine and rare meat.

Dear John! He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia.

But he said I wasn't able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished.

It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight. Just this nervous weakness I suppose.

And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head.

He said I was his darling and his comfort and all he had, and that I must take care of myself for his sake, and keep well.

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.

There's one comfort, the baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy this nursery with the horrid wall-paper.

If we had not used it, that blessed child would have! What a fortunate escape! Why, I wouldn't have a child of mine, an impressionable little thing, live in such a room for worlds.

I never thought of it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all, I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see.

Of course I never mention it to them any more--I am too wise,--but I keep watch of it all the same.

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.

Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day.

It is always the same shape, only very numerous.

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!

It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.

But I tried it last night.

It was moonlight. The moon shines in all around just as the sun does.

I hate to see it sometimes, it creeps so slowly, and always comes in by one window or another.

John was asleep and I hated to waken him, so I kept still and watched the moonlight on that undulating wall-paper till I felt creepy.

The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.

I got up softly and went to feel and see if the paper DID move, and when I came back John was awake.

"What is it, little girl?" he said. "Don't go walking about like that--you'll get cold."

I though it was a good time to talk, so I told him that I really was not gaining here, and that I wished he would take me away.

"Why darling!" said he, "our lease will be up in three weeks, and I can't see how to leave before.

"The repairs are not done at home, and 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. You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better, I feel really much easier about you."

"I don't weigh a bit more," said I, "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!"

"Bless her little heart!" said he with a big hug, "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!"

"And you won't go away?" I asked gloomily.

"Why, how can I, dear? It is only three weeks more and then we will take a nice little trip of a few days while Jennie is getting the house ready. Really dear you are better!"

"Better in body perhaps--" I began, and stopped short, for he sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word.

"My darling," said he, "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 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?"

So of course I said no more on that score, and we went to sleep before long. He thought I was asleep first, but I wasn't, and lay there for hours trying to decide whether that front pattern and the back pattern really did move together or separately.

On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.

The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.

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.

The outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus. If you can imagine a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions--why, that is something like it.

That is, sometimes!

There is one marked peculiarity about this paper, a thing nobody seems to notice but myself,and that is that it changes as the light changes.

When the sun shoots in through the east window--I always watch for that first long, straight ray--it changes so quickly that I never can quite believe it.

That is why I watch it always.

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, candle light, 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.

I didn't realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman.

By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour.

I lie down ever so much now. John says it is good for me, and to sleep all I can.

Indeed he started the habit by making me lie down for an hour after each meal.

It is a very bad habit I am convinced, for you see I don't sleep.

And that cultivates deceit, for I don't tell them I'm awake--O no!

The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John.

He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look.

It strikes me occasionally, just as a scientific hypothesis,--that perhaps it is the paper!

I have watched John when he did not know I was looking, and come into the room suddenly on the most innocent excuses, and I've caught him several times LOOKING AT THE PAPER! And Jennie too. I caught Jennie with her hand on it once.

She didn't know I was in the room, and when I asked her in a quiet, a very quiet voice, with the most restrained manner possible, what she was doing with the paper--she turned around as if she had been caught stealing, and looked quite angry--asked me why I should frighten her so!

Then she said that the paper stained everything it touched, that she had found yellow smooches on all my clothes and John's, and she wished we would be more careful!

Did not that sound innocent? But I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself!

Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be. 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.

John is so pleased to see me improve! He laughed a little the other day, and said I seemed to be flourishing in spite of my wall-paper.

I turned it off with a laugh. I had no intention of telling him it was BECAUSE of the wall-paper--he would make fun of me. He might even want to take me away.

I don't want to leave now until I have found it out. There is a week more, and I think that will be enough.

I'm feeling ever so much better! I don't sleep much at night, for it is so interesting to watch developments; but I sleep a good deal in the daytime.

In the daytime it is tiresome and perplexing.

There are always new shoots on the fungus, and new shades of yellow all over it. I cannot keep count of them, though I have tried conscientiously.

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.

But there is something else about that paper--the smell! I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad. Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here.

It creeps all over the house.

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.

Even when I go to ride, if I turn my head suddenly and surprise it--there is that smell!

Such a peculiar odor, too! I have spent hours in trying to analyze it, to find what it smelled like.

It is not bad--at first, and very gentle, but quite the subtlest, most enduring odor I ever met.

In this damp weather it is awful, I wake up in the night and find it hanging over me.

It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house--to reach the smell.

But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the COLOR of the paper! A yellow smell.

There is a very funny mark on this wall, low down, near the mopboard. A streak that runs round the room. It goes behind every piece of furniture, except the bed, a long, straight, even SMOOCH, as if it had been rubbed over and over.

I wonder how it was done and who did it, and what they did it for. Round and round and round--round and round and round--it makes me dizzy!

I really have discovered something at last.

Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out.

The front pattern DOES move--and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!

Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.

Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.

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!

If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad.

I think that woman gets out in the daytime!

And I'll tell you why--privately--I've seen her!

I can see her out of every one of my windows!

It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight.

I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines.

I don't blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight!

I always lock the door when I creep by daylight. I can't do it at night, for I know John would suspect something at once.

And John is so queer now, that I don't want to irritate him. I wish he would take another room! Besides, I don't want anybody to get that woman out at night but myself.

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!

I have watched her sometimes away off in the open country, creeping as fast as a cloud shadow in a high wind.

If only that top pattern could be gotten off from the under one! I mean to try it, little by little.

I have found out another funny thing, but I shan't tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much.

There are only two more days to get this paper off, and I believe John is beginning to notice. I don't like the look in his eyes.

And I heard him ask Jennie a lot of professional questions about me. She had a very good report to give.

She said I slept a good deal in the daytime.

John knows I don't sleep very well at night, for all I'm so quiet!

He asked me all sorts of questions, too, and pretended to be very loving and kind.

As if I couldn't see through him!

Still, I don't wonder he acts so, sleeping under this paper for three months.

It only interests me, but I feel sure John and Jennie are secretly affected by it.

The Yellow Wallpaper - Part 2

An Essay on The Yellow Wallpaper

During the middle to late 1800s, an industrial wave swept through the country sending men out into the world to work in factories and offices. Although lower class females joined their men in work, middle to upper class females sometimes became prisoners of their homes. Not only did society expect the women to be the caretakers of the home, society also expected them to do it with pleasant smiles on their faces. The stifled ambitions and imaginations of these women often caused mental problems based on unfulfilled needs and the guilt of wanting something more. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Charlotte Perkins Gilman depicts a woman driven to madness by the pervading attitude of society represented by her husband and the yellow wallpaper in her room.

The main character is unnamed for the duration of the short story. The reader can only identify her through her husband’s name. Her namelessness accentuates her subservient position and submissive nature. It also creates the possibility of her as a representation of every woman, especially since society dictates that women first take their fathers’ then their husbands’ surnames. This woman defines herself through her writing, which is also her work. She is a creative and artistic person. This puts her in direct contrast with her husband, John. "John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures." John is a physician. Where his wife is an artist, he is a man of science. His inability to relate to his wife and his general disregard for her thoughts will adversely affect her recovery.

The main character, at the beginning, has a "temporary nervous depression." She has just recently had a child and is very possibly experiencing post-partem depression. Although she feels unwell, her husband and brother, also a doctor, deny her illness. "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?" By communicating all that information to the woman’s friends and family, John has begun to isolate his wife. In contradiction to their denial of illness, they treat her as if she is sick. John prescribes a rest cure, but the woman does not have faith in her husband’s advice. "Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change would do me good." However, no one considers her ideas because they think she is flighty but also because she is female.

In addition to creating a rift between his wife and possible sympathizers, John isolates his wife in a rented estate three miles from a village. "It is quite alone, standing well back from the road…" He controls her environment, diet, and medication. He forbids her from working, and John’s sister comes to take care of the housework and baby. She is no comrade for the main character. Jennie, John’s sister, is an extension of John and society’s view of propriety. "She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession." The narrator is truly alone, both in physical location and in empathy.

John also forbids his wife from her writing, but she disobeys him in this one thing. Writing is her only outlet, and it is the only aspect of her life that remains hers. "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!" Although she obeys her husband outwardly in everything else, she is able to express heretical thoughts through her writing. "John is a physician, and perhaps – (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind.) – perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster." Even though she has an outlet, she must hide her writing from her husband and sister-in-law. This furtive behavior tires her. "I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal – having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition." Because they make it so difficult for her, she is slowly losing her ease of expression. John seems to care about his wife through his efforts to care for her, but he is more interested in changing his wife to think and behave more as he does. He believes that her imagination and creativity are childish traits. "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." Again, John speaks in contradiction. He has all the control, yet tries to convince her that it is completely in her hands. John does not allow her to distrust him, so she turns that distrust inward. He says to her, "…but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know." John creates in his wife a feeling of self-effacement. He also belittles her by using such endearments as "little girl" and "silly little goose."

In her solitude, the main character focuses on her immediate surroundings. There is little else for her to do. She is confined to a room which previous owners had used as a nursery, playroom, and gymnasium. The room is airy, yet the bars on the windows further emphasize her mental and emotional imprisonment. The main feature of her bedroom is the yellow wallpaper, which slowly infests the woman’s thoughts.

The yellow paper surrounds her, and she initially finds it quite horrible. "The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in other. … I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long." It stifles her, as does her husband and the pervading society. It is just as inescapable. John ignores her discomfort with the wallpaper and chalks it up as one of her fancies. As her isolation continues, the yellow wallpaper becomes her primary focus. From her perspective, the paper is constantly changing. Although it still disgusts her, she finds it riveting. "The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing. You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well under way in following it, it turns a back-somersault and there you are." The paper is everywhere in that room. The smell travels all around the house. "I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs." The yellow dye stains everything. All these aspects of the yellow paper have permeated the mind of the main character. Like society’s mainstream view, the paper has made it indelible mark. After following the paper’s various patterns and inconsistencies in a variety of lighting, she believes that there is a moving woman underneath the paper. It is the narrator herself, caught under the stifling opinions of society.

As soon as the main character decides to tear the paper off the wall, she begins to distrust her husband. "He asked me all sorts of questions too, and pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn’t see through him." She wants the woman under the paper for herself. She wants to be under her own control. After the paper is torn off the wall, she and the woman behind the paper become one. She creeps around the room, but as her own person. "‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘ in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back.’" It is not a clean victory. Society’s viewpoints had already insidiously corrupted her mind. Therefore, renouncing those mainstream mores came at the expense of her sanity.

Just as the yellow paper smothers the woman, John smothers his wife. This account shows how society’s ways can make it easy to crush a human spirit. Gilman, herself, regained her sanity through a steady form of work and by renouncing her ties to the doctor. Not only did she deliberately disobey the doctor’s advice, but she also divorced her husband. By breaking the tie to those whom had her trapped, Gilman pulls off society’s stronghold as her character pulled the paper from the wall. Gilman had not only warned other women of her time period, but she has left evidence of how society can put a fortress against people and force them, literally, out of their minds.

Charlotte Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper portrays a woman dealing not only with her mental instability, but with her domineering husband and her role as a woman in the late 1800's. It is likely that at the start of the story the woman is merely depressed and anxious, wanting to do something more with her life than be a wife and mother; the mere act of her writing would lead the reader to believe so. It is her inability to communicate this need to John, his constant reminders to her of her 'illness', and her treatment while in the summer house that lead to her eventual breakdown.

The room that John chooses for his wife is symbolic and telling of attitudes of men toward women of the period. Although his wife would rather have a room downstairs looking out onto the piazza, with roses festooned about the window, he assigns her the nursery. This room is reminiscent of a mental ward, taking up nearly an entire floor of the house, with bars on the windows and heavy immovable furniture.

The room is also appointed with wallpaper that intrudes on the serenity of Gilman's main character. Her obsession with the wallpaper could be interpreted as her obsession with personal freedom. Unlike Edna Pontillier in Chopin's The Awakening this woman does not have the luxury of autonomy. Edna could do as she pleased while her husband kept a safe distance away. John's intrusion into his wife's life is complete. He chooses her room, her diet and medication, he separates her from her home, family and child. He exercises the kind of control that most husbands of the period could over their wives. So then, this woman's preoccupation with her freedom, as it is being slowly eroded, manifests itself in her obsession with the wallpaper of her prison-like room.

When she first sees the wallpaper it is merely annoying, but as it is studied it gains new depth. It grows to be fascinating and nonsensical, she begins to decern a pattern and see heads strangled within the complex tendrils of its design. Finally, she sees a figure trapped behind the paper, as trapped as she is in this room and in her marriage.

The wallpaper then symbolizes the confining nature of her life, and those who try to keep her there. Because she is powerless to make any changes in her own life, she begins to identify with the woman trapped behind the wallpaper, and tries to help this woman gain her freedom. At some point during this struggle she loses herself to her fantasy, and announces to the reader that she is the woman who was trapped.

The story obviously tells of a woman driven to insanity by societal expectations and constraints, but a far more interesting interpretation comes about when viewing her acts of madness as a struggle to free herself of these bonds. Writing her journal without regard to her husband's wishes is an act of rebellion, as is ripping the paper from the wall. As she flouts her husband's authority to greater and greater degrees, she is portrayed as being less and less connected to reality.

In the final scene, she is creeping over the floor, along the strip of wall where she removed the paper, "freeing" herself. In order to complete her journey, she crawls over her fainted husband. Showing the reader that she is victorious in her desire for independence, in her desire to be free.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," is a disturbing expose of the harmful effects of the 'rest cures' prescribed for women suffering from 'hysteria-' a euphemism for any female ailment not understood by the male establishment of doctors. Gilman herself was the victim of such a treatment, which recommended that she "Live as domestic a life as possible," and to restrict herself to "but two hours' intellectual life a day… never [ touching] pen, brush or pencil as long as [she lived.]" In short, to voluntarily immerse herself in a stifling social role that institutionalizes the oppression of women. Luckily, Gilman rebelled against the treatment before she suffered mental breakdown- unlike the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper," who grows progressively less sane as she realizes how trapped she is. Gilman uses the "repellent, almost revolting" wallpaper in the narrator's cell-like room to symbolize her gradually increasing awareness of the forces that keep her in a subservient role. The narrator's changing perception of her environment, especially her hallucinatory visions of a "sub-pattern" in the wallpaper, provide a window into her unconscious mind and reveal the magnitude of women's subjugated state.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator's surroundings symbolize the societal forces that emphasize a 'Cult of Domesticity' and confine women in the home. The narrator, suffering from "hysteria," is kept in the "nursery" on the top floor of a large colonial mansion, "forbidden" to engage in any stimulating activity. Despite the narrator's insistence that the room is "comfortable," it more closely resembles a cell in a sanitarium than a nursery, with "rings and things on the walls… [a] heavy bedstead… barred windows… [a] gate at the head of the stairs… [and] the floor… scratched and gouged and splintered." This prison represents the oppression of women in society, fashioned both by the outside forces of the male establishment and by womankind's own blind acceptance of their fate. The wallpaper, so abhorrent to the narrator, becomes a way for her to express her repressed hatred of confinement. Throughout the story, she attempts to cover up her anger, especially at her husband, John, the very physician who has recommended this treatment. Although she admits, "I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes," she quickly writes, "I think it is due to this nervous condition." By personifying both the medical establishment and the institution of marriage in the subtly antagonistic character of John, Gilman expresses her disapproval of both. John ignores all of his wife's pleas for activity, and condescendingly treats her like a foolish little girl. "John laughs at me, of course," writes the narrator, "but one expects that in a marriage." Her acceptance of such treatment is an example of the self-denying submission that many women voluntarily practice.

The evolution of the wallpaper and its sub-pattern as the narrator becomes more aware of her imprisonment-and more insane-give the story a psychological aspect. Since the narrator is unwilling, and perhaps incapable, of consciously acknowledging her captivity, her hallucinations bring her sub-conscious to manifest itself in her reality. The narrator first sees "a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about" within the wallpaper's convolutions. "It is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern," she writes, "I don't like it a bit. I wonder- I begin to think- I wish John would take me away from here!" The imagined woman, like the narrator, is trapped- a similarity she seems about to grasp but which she rejects as her conscious mind regains control.

Just as the sub-pattern reveals her subconscious, the cycle of day and night symbolizes the conflict between her conscious and subconscious. It is during the night that the figure manifests itself most strongly, creeping around the room. "On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind," the narrator writes. During the daytime, when reality is most firmly in control, the pattern still grates. At night, however, things become more clear- "At night, in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, [the pattern] becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be. …By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still." Oddly enough, the narrator's condition begins to improve- and she says that it is "because of the wallpaper." She certainly seems invigorated by the intellectual stimulation the wallpaper brings her, but she is obviously much less sane. "I don't sleep much at night," she writes, "for it is so interesting to watch developments [in the wallpaper]; but I sleep a good deal in the daytime." Her unconscious is gaining more and more influence and control over her, manifesting itself more strongly in reality, in the form of a peculiar smell. "[The smell] used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house-to reach the smell." Like her acceptance of the wallpaper, her acceptance of the smell reveals that a tenuous connection with reality has become the norm for her.

The sub-pattern continues to become more animated, with the woman in it "trying to climb through." The woman's struggle can be interpreted both as a symbol of women's battle to escape from the gilded cages they have been confined to, and as an attempt by this woman to enter the psychological fortress that the narrator has constructed for herself. "I think that woman gets out in the daytime!" exclaims the narrator- apparently her conscious defenses of denial have failed. Now, she seems openly disgusted with John, writing, "He asked me all sorts of questions, ...and pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn't see through him!" Now she attempts to free the woman at night, tearing the wallpaper from the walls. Her actions seem to symbolize the forseen birth of a more active feminist movement that openly attempts to destroy the societal forces that have oppressed women.

Finally, the narrator becomes the trapped woman in the sub-pattern, believing that she has escaped from the wallpaper. She creeps about the perimeter of the room with her shoulder rubbing a "long smooch" into the remaining wallpaper. John comes to the door, which the narrator has locked, finally opening it. Ironically, he faints when he sees her insane behavior, despite beliefs that man is the stronger sex. The narrator cries, "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." Jane, who has not been introduced in the story, could be the narrator herself, in which case her escape is from both John-the male-dominated societal structure, and herself-the voluntarily submissive woman. Now she "creeps over [John] every time" she makes her way around the room, moving over him in domination. The narrator's removal from reality, in which women are oppressed, seems to be a victory over herself and a symbol of the maturation of the feminist movement into a powerful and self-aware force. This is a bittersweet triumph, however, since she has fallen into insanity. By using psychological symbols that give insight into the narrator's unconscious, Gilman has accentuated the damage that oppression does to women, and made change seem much more essential.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a brilliant 1892 story that presents the first-person chronicle of a woman in a stifling marriage driven mad by spirit-crushing, enforced boredom and her horrified obsession with the floridly ugly wallpaper in the bedroom of the country manor her husband has rented for the summer. The story works as both a feminist critique of the societal suppression of women in the 19th century and as a gothic horror tale; one could read it even as a type of haunted house story (and viewed as all three, it is an excellent piece to compare and contrast with Henry James’ 1898 novel The Turn of the Screw.)

While there’s a great deal in this tale to examine, one of the aspects of the story that struck me was Gilman’s symbolic use of paper.

On the one hand, there’s the paper that the narrator writes upon: “this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind”. The paper in her notebook might be dead, but her thoughts are alive, and her physician husband frowns upon her writing those thoughts down as a violation of the strict rest she is supposed to endure as part of the “cure” for the nervous depression he has diagnosed her with. She must hide her writing from her husband and his sister Jane, whom he has enlisted to keep house.

Why does she see the notebook paper she writes upon as “dead”? Because it’s whitely blank. It’s completely passive, lacks any innate imaginative qualities and bends completely to the will of whomever seeks to use it … just like the perfect Victorian housewife. The narrator’s intellect and imagination are seen as defects in her world, and initially she tries to use her writing as a way of getting those aspects of herself out of her system. But she realizes that if she purges those parts of herself, she will be just as dead as the paper she writes upon.

Conversely, she sees the hideous wallpaper that surrounds her in her room as not just a stylized representation of flora but an actual living creature. She first tries to make sense of its weird, conflicting, confounding patterns – much as she’s trying to make sense of the complex, illogical rules and double-standards of the patriarchal world she’s trapped in. Then she starts to see malign eyes moving inside the pattern. As her madness progresses, she starts to see the image of a lurking woman trapped inside the pattern, and the narrator becomes obsessed with getting her out.

At the climax of the story, the narrator has become convinced that she herself was the woman trapped inside the wallpaper all along and she glories in having freed herself as she crawls on her hands and knees around the perimeter of the room, an insane orbit that some other woman travelled before her, leaving a streak for her to follow: “But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way.”

Gilman’s careful, layered use of the two kinds of paper as symbol and metaphor is truly impressive and masterful.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is one of the most analyzed short works of the weird. When I put out a collection of early pulp ghost and atmospheric horror stories, I included this tale. 

Historically, women were treated much differently than men when it came to mental health. Women could get confined to a psychiatric hospital for years under things like "overly emotional" or "hysteria". The latter was apparently caused by a dysfunction of the uterus.

If one looks at a timeline of word usage, words based on "hyster" peaked around the 1900's, so this story fit in well with the thinking of the psychoanalytic community. John, a doctor, feels his wife is suffering from hysteria and needs to be kept under a strict lack of stimulus. Because she is kept sedated mentally, her brain begins to fill in the missing pieces of living. She begins to enjoy looking and tracing the wallpaper with her eyes, and it becomes her favorite "because of the wallpaper".

Eventually the dark feelings she holds inside begin to manifest themselves. "There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me". Things begin to creep out and become clearer. My take on this is that she has another personality but it wasn't well documented at the time. In the end the alternate personality overpowers and becomes the poor victim.

Iron Noder 2017

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