🎥SHORT STORY: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman

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?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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

Carpe Librum!📚Seize the Book…and let the page-turning begin!

12 Comments

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12 responses to “🎥SHORT STORY: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman

  1. Hayley

    Oh, dear…I find this story to be quite sad. I believe you are correct, Sarah, when you say the poor woman in the story was afflicted with post-partum depression. It very much sounds like it. Doctors’ theories about what ailed women were even more cracked then than they are today, that is for certain. The story also reminds me of Poe’s “The Telltale Heart,” in some ways. Excellent piece!

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    • Dear Hayley,
      Yes…it is a rather sad, disturbing story. I am afraid that during the last several centuries, doctors have never understood women’s physical or mental ailments, especially those pertaining to childbirth. I know you are an ardent admirer of Jane Austen (as am I). Imagine living during the Regency period when a high percentage of women died in childbirth (including several of Austen’s sisters-in-law).

      In Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Marianne survives the actual childbirth but not the aftermath. I shudder to think of the countless men and women who were locked away through the centuries because they were considered “mad” by their doctors; most of them probably had mental conditions that can now be healed or managed with a combination of medicine, therapy – and a little kindness. Thank you for your insights, Hayley. I find it interesting that Gilman’s story reminds you of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart.😊
      Sarah

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  2. Marcus

    Sarah – great choice – it’s a brilliant story – I have read it – it draws you in so well – but…is she descending into madness or freedom? Her husband treats her like a child. It is irritating that he refers to her not only in the diminutive sense “little”, but also as “girl” and “goose”. By denying her any real stimulation, her mind has to find it in other ways. Also – “He is very careful and loving,” she writes in her journal, “and hardly lets me stir without special direction.” He does not want to acknowledge that her problems are very real, and so he silences her with actions and well chosen words (having said that, one has to be aware of the time they lived in and how society dealt with such situations at that time). The fact that he puts her in a room that was once a nursery, suggests her return to infancy on the one hand, or perhaps her premature dotage on the other. When she is upset and is reduced to tears, John sees this as irrational, and a clear sign to him that she cannot be trusted to make decisions for herself. As for the wallpaper – you can see her studying its weird and eerie design, until she sees the woman creeping behind it. This woman could, I suppose, be representative of women being victimized by male society. She has been systematically driven mad by societal norms of the day. She becomes a creeping woman. Is it a coincidence that her shoulder just fits into the groove along the wall? When the narrator observes other creeping women from her window, she asks, “I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?” Then, when she rips off the paper, locks herself into her room – this can possibly be perceived as ‘mad behaviour’ I suppose. She finally realizes that John only “pretended to be loving and kind.” The last part of the story is gripping, and I think a triumph for her, in a way.

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    • Marcus, I love your assessment of a person descending into madness due to a lack of outside stimulation. What would it be like to live in an empty room for three months with no books, writing materials, pictures, or any human contact whatsoever? In this story, of course, Marianne’s husband visits her periodically, but…notice they have no stimulating conversations. There is so much we do not know about the human brain, especially its capacity for self-preservation by “creating” alternative realities.
      Sarah

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  3. Richard

    Descent into madness, or madness itself, has been a recurrent theme in 19th and 20th century literature. Somerset Maugham’s The Lotus Eater, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, or the many stories of Edgar Allen Poe, all feature fantastic and strange characters that could be described as being mad. The narrator of the Tell Tale Heart, for example, is calculating and full of revulsion. A form of madness? Ken Kesey deals with it directly in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or at least our modern perception of being ‘nuts.’ Artists of all disciplines are sometimes described as being ‘a bit mad.’ Are those we call ‘genius’ in touching distance of madness? There are many interpretations.

    Was Raskolnikov mad in murder…or completely rational? Focused? We forgive vile acts ‘by reason of insanity,’ implying that we are all capable of being temporarily mad. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a chilling reminder that we are all susceptible under certain conditions; although, I get a distinct Victorian whiff here of locking up troublesome individuals who suffer from their ‘nerves.’ Better to shut them away than deal with the social opprobrium. Would a kind approach and touch be better? The lady in the room with the garish wallpaper is isolated, lonely, and I dare say frightened. Cut off from society, she internalises, and her mind implodes. Appalling and terrifying! It is a superbly unsettling story, as we get the sense that it could be any one of us… Let’s hope not!!!

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    • Richard, thank you for your thought-provoking assessment of The Yellow Wallpaper and madness in general. I especially like your comments on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There is such a thin line between rational and irrational behavior. Who is to say where sanity ends and madness begins?
      Sarah

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  4. Carl

    Chilling story. Amazing what can happen when left alone with your thoughts. Anybody could lose their sense of what is real and rational. Stay positive and upbeat; don’t let your mind lead you into despair.

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    • Yes, chilling, indeed! There is so much we do not know about our brains and the psychology of self-preservation. With no external stimulation for her body or mind, Marianne escapes into her own “internal” world until she cannot tell the difference between what is real and imagined. Thank you for commenting, Carl!😊

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  5. Anna

    I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve always thought that the creeping woman she imagined was her way to “get out”… The idea of letting someone alone in an empty attic isn’t the best of ideas! Instead of cheering her up, they let her wither. Probably because a woman’s mind was considered to be weak and fragile, and stimulation would only worsen her condition. And I think that you’re right, Sarah, about the postpartum depression theory. Poor soul!

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  6. Great article, Sarah! I remember the first time I read this and then, later, saw an adaption on PBS. I was very young and thoroughly creeped out, even though, as you say, there was no actual violence or gore in it. It just goes to show what an incredibly effective writer Gilman was. Even today, if I ever see a bit of peeling wallpaper somewhere, I always think of this story!

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    • Thank you Mimi. Yes…the story is rather disturbing. Even though the narrator writes her thoughts and experiences in a diary, which is normally a rather quiet and introverted pastime, her descriptions are very vivid, colorful, intense, and outright scary. She draws us into her “summer vacation,” her unsettled, lonely world, slowly and calmly. The reader may even imagine the narrator writing in her diary by a sunny window, sipping a cup of tea; yet, by the end of the story, she is creeping around the periphery of her room on all fours, climbing over her husband – because he has fainted with shock! Thank you for commenting, Mimi!😊
      Sarah

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