“The Yellow Wallpaper” is, on its surface, about a woman driven insane by post-partum depression and a dangerous treatment. However, an examination of the protagonist’s characterization reveals that the story is fundamentally about identity. The protagonist’s projection of an imaginary woman — which at first is merely her shadow — against the bars of the wallpaper’s pattern fragments her identity, internalizing the conflict she experiences and eventually leading to the complete breakdown of the boundaries of her identity and that of her projected shadow.
Constantly alone and forbidden to leave her bedroom, the lack of something to occupy her time causes the protagonist to become delusional. With “barred windows for little children and rings and things in the walls” the room is much like her prison (Gilman 174). Even the pattern on the wallpaper (which at first was completely random) “at night in any kind of light, twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all moonlight, becomes bars” as if she is caged (Gilman 182). Both times here she refers to aspects of her room as bars. As she begins to feel imprisoned she projects her feelings onto the wallpaper, but the idea of the room being her prison goes from figurative to more literal as the isolation deepens her need for an escape.
Not just the wallpaper, but everything about her bedroom (including those that occupy it with her) sets the stage for the protagonist’s insanity. When her husband John says: “bless her little heart; she shall be as sick as she pleases” we catch glimpses of his childlike treatment of her (Gilman 181). The use of the word “little” to describe her heart gives the image of a small body to go along with it, like that of an infant. The fact that he says she is “as sick as she pleases” reflects the way a child conjures up illnesses to escape certain chores they do not wish to do. This would make sense because he also diagnosis her with “temporary nervous depression;” which is what was said about women who suspected of trying to escape housework and sexual duties (Gilman 173). This childlike treatment of her, and his misdiagnosis, is the cause of her segregation; which is the root cause of her eventual insanity.
By the end of the story the woman behind the wallpaper is an elaborate hallucination, but in the beginning she is simply a shadow. At first this woman is simply a “formless figure sulking about behind the silly and conspicuous front design,” much like the blurred shadow that all objects possess (Gilman 178). The fact that the figure is at first “formless” suggests that there is a definite evolution of this being, since eventually she claims to clearly see a woman; describing the wall as “silly and conspicuous” hints to the pattern being something very loud and noticeable… but not threatening. This also changes by the end of the story when the wallpaper seems to plague her. Therefore, her eventual personality transition is something that seems to happen slowly as her isolation in the room takes hold of her mind.
It is only when the mental illness takes a stronger hold on her that the form takes on a distinctive shape. With the constant loneliness causing the protagonist to obsess over her surroundings, the mirage begins to contour. To confirm this she writes in her journal: “I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman” (Gilman 180). She does not seem to waiver at all in thinking that the “thing” behind the wallpaper is specifically a woman. Instead of recognizing just a human form she specifically deems it female. The reasoning for this is that the outline of the form is not only her shadow, but a projected being of what she wishes it to be. Calling this form a woman gives her an avenue of escape now that the two are of the same kind. The “dim sub pattern” is that of the bars which gives way to the illusion of her shadow, which has now become an actual person to her, being entrapped behind it. This transformation from formless shadow to hidden woman gives way for her transferal of identity.
Initially, the shadows of many things appear to her as the woman behind the paper. More specifically she claims to see her in the garden “on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines” (Gilman 186). These figures could very well be the shadows of the many things growing in the garden that she has morphed, in her mind, into the shape of the artificial woman. The fact that she imagines the woman being able to escape during the day is most likely a reflection of her own desires, as if she lives vicariously through this fanciful creature. Evidence of her jealousness is shown in the sections where she begins to mirror the woman’s actions; creeping in her room during the day (Gilman 186). The hallucination becomes a venue for her to be free of the reformatory she has been living in. Although the figure appears to be behind the wallpaper, from the outside looking in the protagonist would be the one behind the bars. The room with the yellow wallpaper is her jail cell, and night after night the woman in the paper taunts her with her freedom until she has ripped away yards and yards of it.
There is a shift, however, when her motives for the woman in the wallpaper seem to change. She writes in her journal that “she has a rope so that if the woman does get out, and tries to get away, she can tie her” (Gilman 187). This moment is when her identity is spliced; the fact that she wishes to tie the woman reveals this. Instead of wishing to free the poor woman, she now plans on capturing her; thereby proving a change is taking place since her motives have suddenly altered. This switch is confirmed when she looks outside and ponders “if they all came out of the wallpaper as she did?” (Gilman 188). Using the word “they” implies that where there was once one woman, there are now many. It’s as if in this new mind she is able to see the world differently and reveal the others like the woman in the paper. Clearly she is no longer herself. Now, in the mind of her hallucination, she begins to worry if “she shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night,” this ties back to her observation that the woman creeps about during the day but is trapped behind the bars again during the night (Gilman 188). Now that the wallpaper has been removed she has escaped and the narrator is free to retreat into the hallucination’s mind.
There is a single part of the story that reflects the breakdown of her identity all in its own, and that is when she writes: “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!” (Gilman 189). It’s not easy to catch because of her sister-in-law Jennie, perhaps this is on purpose, but we have never heard the name Jane before. In the entire story the narrator is giving her personal account of what’s going on so we never hear her name, until the very end when this excerpt appears. Jane is the narrator, and therefore the only logical explanation would be that the person speaking now is the hallucination; which of course is also Jane. It would seem they have switched places where the woman behind the wallpaper has become Jane’s new frame of mind, and the old imprisoned Jane is now on the outside looking in.
One might assume that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is simply about a woman driven insane by post-partum depression and constant isolation, but it is so much more than that. It is the illusion of the protagonist’s shadow against the bars of the wallpaper’s pattern that drives her to complete insanity; and eventually into believing she and the so called women in the wallpaper have traded places. This story is beautifully disturbing in the sense that the content is revolving around something so sinister, and yet the writing and plot are so intriguing. It has a lot to say about the treatment of women in late 1800’s, and just how far the human mind before it snaps.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Seagull Reader. 2nd.2. Joseph Kelly. New York : W W Norton & Co Inc, 2008. Print.
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Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Significance of First-Person Narration in “The Yellow Wallpaper"The central character in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper" narrates her own life; however, the reader never learns her name. Gilman has cleverly taken the reader into the inner-most realms of a woman’s mind and experiences, yet the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper" remains anonymous, a reflection of her status in society. Narration, of course, is an important element of any story or novel, and as readers, we are always evaluating whether the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper" is credible and reliable. The narrator of “The Yellow Wall-Paper" appears credible as the story opens, but as her mental state deteriorates, does her narrative follow suit? As you read this story, consider the role that narration plays in the development of the plot and the theme. How might the story of “The Yellow Wallpaper" have been different, for instance, if it had been told by the woman’s husband? Other important questions include: Why is it important that the woman narrator have the agency and the voice to tell her own story? What effects does this particular choice of narration have on establishing a connection with the reader and eliciting certain emotional responses.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: “The Yellow Wall-Paper" as a Feminist Story
“The Yellow Wall-Paper" was written in 1892, and is often referred to as a feminist short story. Given that the woman in the story goes mad because her role in society is limited and her ability to express herself creatively is constricted, can the reader assume that the author is making a feminist statement? This topic could take at least two different approaches. You could either situate the story within a larger sociohistorical context (i.e.: What was happening in 1892 that made this particular story so relevant and resonant, and why does it remain so important today?), or you could take the story only on its own terms: What does Gilman seem to say about “the female condition" in general by writing about the life of this one woman and her descent into madness in “The Yellow Wall Paper"?Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Relationship Between Creativity and Madness in “The Yellow Wallpaper"
It is often said that artists and writers are touched by a bit of madness, but might this story make the argument that madness springs from the inability to be expressive and creative? For this essay on “The Yellow Wallpaper", consider the development of the mental disorder that increasingly consumes the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and identify her symptoms and their possible causes. Look for textual evidence in the narrator’s description of her own condition. What differences do you observe in her opening insights and those which can be gleaned from the conclusion? Can you make a case that the narrator decompensated in “The Yellow Wallpaper" because she could not find a creative outlet?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4 Victorian Gender Roles in “The Yellow Wallpaper"
While the female narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper" gains the most critical attention in essays on “The Yellow Wall-Paper," what is the reader to make of the narrator’s husband, John? He is a physician who recognizes his wife’s compromised state, but he does not seem to realize just how severe her condition is, nor does he have an adequate way of treating it. Instead, he insists that country air will restore her senses and that isolation from others will give her room to breathe and think. The textual evidence from “The Yellow Wallpaper" suggests that John is a caring husband and that he does have positive intentions for his wife; however, he is bound by traditional gender roles. Look to the text for examples of John’s positive intentions, and find ways to support the argument that despite his best intentions, the fact that he was constricted to a particular gender role limited his ability to truly prevent his wife from slipping into insanity.
Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: The Symbol of the Yellow Wallpaper
The story is titled “The Yellow Wall-Paper," and indeed, the dreadful wallpaper that the narrator comes to hate so much is a significant symbol in the story. The yellow wallpaper can represent many ideas and conditions, among them, the sense of entrapment, the notion of creativity gone astray, and a distraction that becomes an obsession. Examine the references to the yellow wallpaper and notice how they become more frequent and how they develop over the course of the story. Why is the wallpaper an adequate symbol to represent the woman’s confinement and her emotional condition?
This list of important quotations from “The Yellow Wallpaper” will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “The Yellow Wall paper” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics for “The Yellow Wallpaper” above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned. All quotes from “The Yellow Wallpaper” contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of “The Yellow Wallpaper” they are referring to.
“John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind–) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster." (74)
“So I take phosphates and phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good." (74-75)
“I never saw a worse [wall]paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye…, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves…they suddenly commit suicide…." (76)
“It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work." (77)
“I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy store." (78)
“It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight. Just this nervous weakness I suppose." (80)
“There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will." (81)
“It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so." (81)
“I really have discovered something at last….Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind [the wallpaper], and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over." (85)
“I have found out another funny thing, but I shan’t tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much." (86)
Reference: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wall-Paper." In Great Short Stories by American Women. pp. 73-88. Candace Ward, ed. New York: Dover, 1996.