The Yellow Wallpaper

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"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a story about a woman’s gradual descent into insanity, after the birth of her child. The story was written in 1892 after the author herself suffered from a nervous breakdown, soon after the birth of her daughter in 1885. Gilman did spend a month in a sanitarium with the urging of her physician husband. "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a story about herself, during the timeframe of when Gilman was in the asylum.
While on vacation for the summer, the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is, at the most, depressed at the beginning of their visit to a colonial mansion. Her husband John, however, thinks there is nothing wrong with her except temporary nervous depression (pg 391) and has her confined to a bedroom upstairs. I believe John loves her very much and is trying to help her get well, but he won’t believe there is an illness unless he can read about it or see something physical with his own eyes. "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." (pg 391) During the time of this writing it was the norm that men dominated women. Women were to be seen but not heard. They were not to argue with men, so she was forced to do as he said. Her husband has forbidden her to "work" until she is well again. (pg 392) She is held prisoner in her bedroom and has nothing to do to keep her mind active except stare at the wallpaper, although she did sneak in writing in her journal when possible.
The wallpaper in her bedroom is a hideous yellow. "It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others" (pg 393) The wallpaper is symbolic of the sickness the author has by the end of the story. Yellow is often a color associated with illness. It’s been suggested that she herself was clawing at the paper during moments of insanity. But there are many times when she is sane, and sees the marks on the wallpaper, and she writes about how others who had spent time in this room tried to remove the paper as well.

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"The Yellow Wallpaper." 123HelpMe.com. 22 Jun 2018
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I believe it is all her doing.
There is a pattern on the wallpaper that is a “sprawling flamboyant pattern”. (pg 393) The author detests the pattern. She forms people out of the pattern, and she sees these people moving around, especially at night with moonlight. At first she’s not sure if she actually sees the figures move and gets out of bed to verify this. She spends hours at night contemplating whether the figures really did move or not. As the days go on she continues to see these figures at night moving around.
It appears to me that she is losing her mind and going insane, gradually, while she is on vacation. “It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight. Just this nervous weakness I suppose.” (pg 396) Because she is not allowed to do anything – she cannot even visit with family – she has nothing to do but stare at the walls and make pictures out of it. Her imagination took over and created a story out of the wallpaper. The light at night made the images real and moving, but at times that made her frightened. She knew it was just the wallpaper, yet it seemed so real. When she tells John about what she saw and suggests leaving, he tells her how she’s improving. She knows she’s getting worse there, however, and points out how nothing has changed. At this point John hugs her and says, “Bless her little heart! She shall be as sick as she pleases!” (pg 397) He believes she is only imagining this sickness and that she truly is well. At the end of the story she has gone completely mad and is crawling on the floor. She ends up thinking it was she herself behind the wallpaper.

Before discussing this story in the class I read it as I would read any story, not looking for “hidden” meanings. I also didn’t think about the time it was written. But after reading my classmates’ insight on the story, and researching the story a bit online, I went back and re-read it and understand that it is rather confusing as to where her location is. Is she truly on a vacation? Or is she actually in an asylum? It was suggested that she has postpartum depression, and after reading this story several times I do see that very well could be her illness. She had recently had a baby. “It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby!” (pg 393) When this story was written, postpartum depression was not heard of. Symptoms of PPD include a sad mood, sleep disturbance, loss of energy, thoughts of death or suicide, and feelings of rejection. The narrator experienced all of these.
The book left me really with more questions than answers. Clearly, there was no doubt that the woman was disturbed. The question is was the root of her disturbance a natural phenomenon following childbirth that was made light by the prevailing medical thinking of her time, and particularly a male-oriented form of thinking, or was a well woman put into a mental-hygiene facility, again, the root cause being the prevailing thinking of the time, and made insane because of that? I think that the author leaves this question open, as a function of the same thinking. The author was not able to state her case clearly, as she continued to be a victim of the thinking of her time. She leaves this tale of a sad portion of her life entirely up to our interpretation. Based on what we’ve been discussing in class, it seems that there really has not been one conclusion that a person can draw from this story.


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