Can people really climb out of wallpaper? Charlotte Perkins Gilman gives the impression that the narrator does in her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The narrator and her husband (a doctor) vacation in a colonial mansion in order to rid the wife of her depression and anxiety. They bring along the husband’s sister to care for their young son. After going through many psychological conflicts, the wife finally overcomes her fears and anxieties. In the story, the yellow wallpaper and the colonial mansion help build a gloomy and cowardly ambiance. Contrast between the paper and the “haunted” house depict the narrator’s weakness and anxiety. However, various settings, the husband, and the wallpaper eventually help the narrator to conquer her fears by stripping away layers of societal expectations.
With the estate remaining empty for so long and the cheapness of it, the house gives way to mystery and haunting. The narrator states, “I would say a haunted house” which reflects her concerns in life (513). The “haunted” house indicates a conflict within herself that she cannot control. She also questions, “Else, why would it be let so cheaply?” (513). She illustrates a sense of uneasiness being in a strange home; by questioning the price, she suggests that the house is unappealing to others and has an apprehension to it.
Provoking negativity on her outlook of life, the “yellow wallpaper” as she says is, “pronounced enough to constantly irritate . . . they suddenly commit suicide” (514). The narrator influences and agitates easily. She demonstrates how the wallpaper drives her mad and promotes her depressing self-esteem. Although the narrator’s husband believes that the house is therapeutic, she perceives it as smothering. She said her husband “meant to repaper the room, but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fantasies” (515). The yellow wallpaper intensifies the narrator’s diminutive feelings of self-worth and her pessimistic temptations. She considers herself as a burden because she has such nervous tendencies. Since the narrator is unable to provide care to her own son, a small child, her sister in law tends to him, which only increases her nervousness and negative feelings of confidence. The doctor does not even allow his wife to perform any of her wifely duties and forces her to nap, or so they think.
The doctor’s “watchful eye” produces a discouraging effect on her. She mentions, “John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy . . . a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fantasies” (515). While leaving her feeling defenseless and feebler, John does not realize the negative power he has over his wife. In his eyes, he is helping her to overcome her depression and nervousness by discouraging her to write; actually, he is making her feel vulnerable because he is controlling what encompasses her life.
Strangely, the growing irritation of the wallpaper causes the wife to turn into a deranged woman. When she “gives way” to her fantasies and her writing, she becomes unbalanced. She says, “. . . I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design,” which portrays how she sees herself (516). By being formless, she depicts how she is not of importance. With her husband watching her every move, seeing herself as formless only adds to her insecurity.
Slowly, her state of mind becomes growingly unstable as her depression becomes deeper. She states, that she is “getting dreadfully fretful and querulous. I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time” (517). John sees her crying as a sign of weakness instead of as a relinquishment of torment. She has held anguish inside for so long that she explodes over anything. Why does her husband not see this? Is it because a man does not understand the emotional aspects of a woman, or is it simply in the 1800’s, women were thought of as being frail and inferior? Whatever the case may be, she is reaching out to whoever will help her find her lucidity again.
The figure reappearing behind the yellow wallpaper contributes to her realization that she is the one trying to free herself. As her husband is sleeping, she watches the paper until it makes her feel creepy. She whispers, “The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out. I . . . went to feel and see if the paper did move . . . “(518). Climbing back into bed, she awakens John. He then asks, “What is it little girl?” adding further demeaning to her (518). As she explains, “I really was not gaining here, and that I wished he would take me away” she is trying to relay to John that although he is a doctor, she is not progressing and she knows what is best for her (519).
Eventually, the yellow wallpaper gives her purpose in life; since confined to her room to rest, she makes it her soul purpose to study the paper in search of its meaning. She exclaims, “I really have discovered something at last,” seeing that she is the woman trapped within the “wallpaper” (521). Although she says the woman is, “. . . trying to climb through,” she is unable to because the yellow wallpaper is strangling (521). The wife uses strangling to demonstrate suffocation herself because she is unable to make her own decisions. John makes her feel smothered because she is too feeble-minded in his eyes. She also says, “If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad” (521). Eradication of the heads allows her to release the strong inner person and grow. Only then is she able to detach herself from her flaws and strip off that revolting shell that surrounds her. When she “peeled off all the paper” she could reach, she announces her freedom (523). “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” (524)! The strong, liberated woman from within finally emerges and stands her ground. “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did” she asks (524)? According to societal norms in the 1800’s, women should not behave in that manner to their husbands. Charlotte Perkins Gilman illustrates how women can emerge into thriving, independent people by believing in themselves and overpowering social constraints. When people look within themselves and see their true worth, they are able to climb through that wall.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 9th ed. Eds. Alison Booth, et al. New York: Norton, 2006. 513-524.