The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1899)
Tuesday’s Tale of Terror February 19, 2013
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Imagine you are confined in a yellow papered bedroom, bars on the walls, and “rings and things in the walls,” with a bed nailed down and a bedstead that is gnawed. In The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, we have an unnamed narrator (we learn her name at the end) with shifting consciousness between her inner world and the real world. This is a story of psychological horror that is quite unnerving. Although dated—and beautifully so—our character is between madness and the imaginary with a dash of obsession, and, yes, there is something else.
The narrator and her husband John, a physician, spend a summer at a grand house (she tells us “a haunted house”) in the countryside. She suffers from “nervous depression” and “excited fancies.” Because of her odd behavior, John confines her to her bedroom where she can “rest.” She keeps a secret journal and it is through this journal that the story is revealed. What occupies her mind much of the time is the “dim sub-pattern” in the yellow wallpaper. She describes it as “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.”
The symbolisms here abound. The themes are clearly feminism and repressed individual expression as John insists she stay in bed, suppress her imagination, and discontinue writing in her journal.
You will find the narrator’s minute-to-minute descriptions of her descent into madness keep you going to the very last line until her sanity or insanity is determined. The key question to ask at the end of the story is, who is really in control now? Who is free? Note John’s condition in this last scene. I love the little twist at the end, and how her mental derangement succeeds. It makes you want to say, Ha!
Read it here:
It may not surprise you to know that Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a feminist and lecturer in social reform. She wrote 186 short stories. Here’s one of her quotes that is memorable and, I think, captures the meaning of The Yellow Wallpaper.
“Here she comes, running out of prison and off the pedestal; chains off, crown off, halo off, just a live woman.”
Leave a comment if you find the ending to be less triumphant than I’ve suggested. There is much literary debate on Jane’s descent or release of her madness.
Stop by next Tuesday for another Tale of Terror.