SHORT STORY: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, American (1860-1935)
There are no monsters or ghosts in this story, but it is a horrifying tale nonetheless. “The Yellow Wallpaper” describes the psychological deterioration of an upper-middle-class lady–l will call her Marianne. Marianne relates her story in her secret diary. We discover she has a vivid imagination: Her doctors describe her as having a “slight hysterical tendency.”
Marianne’s physician husband, John, “practical in the extreme,” rents a summer vacation house and installs his wife in a large attic. Marianne says, “It was a nursery first and then a playroom and gymnasium,…for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the wall.” Did Gilman have Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in mind where Mr. Rochester “hides” his mad wife, Bertha Mason, in the attic at Thornfield Hall? Apparently, Marianne is not vacationing in “a colonial mansion.” It is a secluded house–perhaps an old sanitarium–rented by John to hide her “temporary nervous depression” from relatives. Marianne writes, “So I take phosphates and tonics…and air, and exercise, and I am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.” John’s opposition to “more society and stimulus” contributes to Marianne’s mental unrest, loneliness, and final deterioration. She begins her secret diary to “relieve her mind.” What does she write about?: Her husband, her illness, and her room–specifically, the yellow wallpaper.
When talking about John, Marianne says “he is very careful and loving,” but he laughs and belittles her, does not believe she is ill, and “scoffs openly” at her talk. She writes, “One expects that in marriage…I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I think it is due to this nervous condition.” While trapped in her room for long periods of time–alone with her troubled thoughts–Marianne becomes acutely aware of her environment. However, her initial preoccupation with the yellow wallpaper becomes an obsession.
“There is something strange and ghostly about the house–I can feel it. I don’t like our room a bit. The paint and paper look as if a boy’s school had used it. It is stripped off–the paper–in great patches all around the head of my bed. I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing very artistic sin. No wonder the children hate it! I should hate it myself if I should have to live in this room long.”
John calls Marianne “a blessed little goose” for allowing the wallpaper to upset her. As weeks pass, Marianne fancies she sees bulbous eyes in the wallpaper, and “a strange sort of formless figure that seems to sulk about that silly front design…. It dwells on my mind so.” She lies on her bed–which is nailed to the floor–and studies the yellow wallpaper, determined to “follow that pointless pattern to some sort of conclusion.” She admits she is lonely, cries a lot, but tries not to let her “fancies” run away with her. Then she imagines she sees a woman behind the paper pattern “stooping down and creeping about.”
Marianne becomes preoccupied with the old woman, whom she feels is trying to escape from behind the bars of the yellow wallpaper. Of course, no one sees the old woman except herself. While visiting Marianne, John’s sister, Jennie, remarks that the wallpaper stains everything and notices “yellow smooches” on Marianne’s clothes. Marianne finds a funny mark on the walls, “a streak that runs around the room…low down, near the mop board.” She wonders who did it…children perhaps?
With one week of ‘vacation’ left, Marianne decides she does not want to leave her room, for she has made a discovery; the old woman escapes from the wallpaper at night and creeps around the room…”round and round–it makes me dizzy.” She sees the woman during the day, creeping in the garden outside her window–always creeping! Soon, Marianne thinks she is the creeping woman. “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.” She must destroy the wallpaper, so it will not trap her inside. Little by little, she rips off the paper as far above her head as she can reach, “all those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and the waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision!” With two days to go, she writes in her diary, “John is beginning to notice. I don’t like the look in his eyes.” Marianne locks herself in her room. Her husband pounds on the door, but Marianne ignores his pleas.
“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…. [John finally enters the room] ‘What is the matter?’ he cried. ‘For God’s sake, what are you doing?’ I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. ‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jennie! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’ Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time.”
When I first read this story, I was shocked by the ending: How can a sane person become totally insane in three months? There are clues in Gilman’s story about Marianne’s illness. She writes about children in her secret diary, saying, “It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby!” Perhaps Marianne suffers from postpartum depression, a condition wholly misunderstood by the medical profession until the twentieth century (Gilman published her story in 1892). Charlotte Gilman suffered from severe depression herself after giving birth to her daughter Katharine. Her doctor prescribed the following treatment: “Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you at all time…. Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” Fortunately for us, Gilman did not heed all her doctor’s advice.
VIDEO CLIP: Here is one of many movie adaptations of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Brace yourself for the ending!
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Sarah M. Fredericks © 2015
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