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The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Published in 1989 from Bantam Classics
(The Yellow Wallpaper was 1st published in 1892).

Setting: USA, in the late 19th century.

Read in June, 2010.
My rating:

                                                                      [spoiler alert]

This review is not exactly a ‘review’ in that sense, rather my analysis from my MA dissertation on The Yellow Wallpaper (only). I loved it; it made me sad and depressed, still I loved it. CPG was an extraordinary writer. I hope to read more of her works soon. I've mentioned the page numbers of the lines I’ve quoted/referred to. I used this same edition from Bantam so they should be the same. The reference to Conrad Shumaker’s colored belief is taken from his journal Too Terribly Good to Be Printed: Charlotte Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, which is available at JSTOR.

This story, in the simplest of words, can be stated as the journey of a young woman towards insanity with the help of her husband, the doctor. This unnamed young woman just became a mother and was suffering from post-partum depression, which in the book is described by her husband as “temporary nervous depression--a slight hysterical tendency (p. 2)”. Her imagination is termed as “false and foolish fancy (p. 12)”. Her suffering is soothed by her husband’s words such as “blessed little goose (p. 10)” who imagines too many silly fancies! So, in the first two pages she keeps questioning herself “What can one do? (p. 2)”. It seems there is indeed no one to hear her out.

The narrator, who starts out quite sane with the descriptions of the place where she is supposed to ‘rest’ and be ‘cured’, soon finds herself vacillating between all sorts of confusions and contradictions. In the end, she becomes consumed by insanity. A house-wife, she has become a resident of a colonial mansion her husband has rented thinking that, the air, the scenery and the exercise while taking rest would help cure her of her ailment of “nervous condition” (p. 2). At this point, we see this woman is fairly balanced, even if a bit depressed. She talks about the place, the house, the surrounding areas and also her uneasiness about living in this place as she mentions that “there is something queer” about this house. She talks about her daily routine and how her husband “loves/cares” for her, a fact that could be easily termed as “colored belief” (Shumaker, 1985, p. 594), as we find out later. This is ironic because we most often than not find her hesitant about her husband, she is never comfortable discussing her illness, fears, beliefs with him. He is forever contradicting her and telling her to get rid of her “foolish fancies”, or else, he warns her, would send her to Weir Mitchell (p. 8). At first she tries to suppress her fancies but it became soon clear that he has no interest in her opinions.

She talks about her baby sometimes, but she never shows any outpouring of affection for her child. At one point she says it makes her nervous to be with him (p. 5).

Gradually, she begins to focus on the wallpaper of the room although she starts with her description of the room, something she had taken instant dislike of. And then was that wallpaper, which in her opinion has committed “every artistic sin” (p. 4). She tells us the color is “repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow...” (p. 4) Then we find her studying the wallpaper whenever no one was around. It starts overwhelming her in every sense. Her husband, John, is not at home most of the time, since he has to visit his patients. The only people around are the nurse Mary and her sister-in-law come caretaker Jenny. Jenny is a female version of her brother who thinks all the writing is making her sick. (p. 7)

John (or her brother or even Weir Mitchell) has the overbearing attitude of a typical husband (or a male). He does not care much about his wife’s silly imagination and being a doctor himself, not to mention an arrogant boor, he thinks she is doing perfectly fine. It does not matter to him that she is always confined in that ugly room or that she thinks she needs more stimulation, that it might do her some permanent damage. She wants to meet relations but he will not let her. She wants to change to a different room but he sidetracks her by telling her some clap-trap about moving to the cellar if that is what she wanted. To John, his wife’s objection to the ugliness of the paper is “just a whim” (p. 5). He goes on denying every single thing that should have come to him as some sort of concern about his wife’s welfare; he never understand or simply chose to ignore them until the inevitable finally happens.
Eventually, the narrator becomes more depressed and withdrawn, which led her to her insistent inspection of the wallpaper. She says, “I cry at nothing, and I cry most of the time” (p. 8). She starts seeing various things in the patterns. Sometimes it is just some ugly pattern jeering at her, sometimes something that is “florid arabesque” (p. 12) or like a cluster of fungus. She starts following the wallpaper day and night, narrating how it looks different to her in the first ray of sunlight or in the cold moonlit night. She sees various expressions in the wallpaper, all mocking her. She tells us it makes her mad with anger and she will not rest until she finds out all about this pattern. Then one day, she starts seeing a woman (sometimes many) inside the patterns, who, it seems to her, is locked behind the bars. Those patterns hold that woman inside. The narrator gets scared and even pleads to John to take her away from that place but he, being the “husband”, sidetracks her again by showing anger.

Then we find that her writing is getting more and more troubled and unstable, mostly one-liners, which leads us to believe that she is coming closer and closer to a breakdown. Her constant fight with all those confusions and contradictions along with the depression gets the upper hand. She talks about the woman constantly, and also how she always has to stay in her room and rest all the time! But she never really rests, therefore she watches that “woman behind the bars”. The narrator admits that the woman creeps everywhere, even outside but she herself would never resort to such a measure. She would never creep outside where others could see her. She creeps on the floor inside her room and behind locked doors! And she knows she has to free “the woman behind the bars,” for which she has to destroy the wallpaper that keeps the woman barred inside.

The day they were supposed to leave the mansion, John finds his wife has locked herself inside her room. As he unlocks the door, he finds her creeping on her hands and knees, telling him, “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!” (p. 20)

John faints witnessing such horror!

Now, mine might read from a feminist POV but there weren’t any other way to explain what this woman went through. The writing was compelling, as I've already mentioned but what I found most fascinating was the whole spooky atmosphere; the way CPG connected the transformation of the wallpaper (from the narrators POV) with the woman’s own so-called ‘transformation’. Only in the end we aren’t spooked by a real ghost! 

You might be interested in the following (if you haven’t already read this of course):

Why I wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman...

It helped me a lot, along with her short biography that accompanies this edition, to understand where she stood as she wrote this short story. Not everyone will like/enjoy it though, I know that so I wouldn’t recommend it to you if you’re looking for something light and fun. This story is NOT ‘light and fun’ and not for the faint of hearts as well. A big 5 star.


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