The Yellow Wallpaper

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The Yellow Wallpaper
1899 edition cover
Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Country United States
Language English
Subject Feminism, women's health, autobiography
Genre Short story
Publisher The New England Magazine
Publication date
1892
Pages Fifteen pages, or 6,000 words
ISBN 0-486-29857-4
OCLC 36892894
Text The Yellow Wallpaper at Wikisource

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is a 6,000-word short story by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine.[1] It is regarded as an important early work of American feminist literature, illustrating attitudes in the 19th century toward women's physical and mental health.

Presented in the first person, the story is a collection of journal entries written by a woman (Jane) whose physician husband (John) has confined her to the upstairs bedroom of a house he has rented for the summer. She is forbidden from working and has to hide her journal from him, so she can recuperate from what he calls a "temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency," a diagnosis common to women in that period.[2] The windows of the room are barred, and there is a gate across the top of the stairs, allowing her husband to control her access to the rest of the house.

The story depicts the effect of confinement on the narrator's mental health and her descent into psychosis. With nothing to stimulate her, she becomes obsessed by the pattern and color of the wallpaper. "It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper – the smell! ... The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell."[3]

In the end, she imagines there are women creeping around behind the patterns of the wallpaper and comes to believe she is one of them. She locks herself in the room, now the only place she feels safe, refusing to leave when the summer rental is up. "For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow. 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."[4]

Plot synopsis[edit]

The story details the unreliable narrator's descent into madness. Her antagonist husband, John, believes that it is in her best interests to go on a rest cure after the birth of their child. The family spends the summer at a colonial mansion that has, in the narrator's words, "something queer about it." She is confined to an upstairs room that she assumes was once a nursery. The windows are barred, the wallpaper has been torn and the floor is scratched. She comes to suspect that another woman was once confined there against her will. The reader is left unsure as to whether the damage in the room has been caused by a previous occupant or by the narrator herself. At one point, for example, she bites the wooden bedstead.

The narrator devotes many journal entries to describing the wallpaper in the room – its "yellow" smell, its "breakneck" pattern, the missing patches, and the way it leaves yellow smears on the skin and clothing of anyone who touches it. She describes how the longer one stays in the bedroom, the more the wallpaper appears to mutate, especially in the moonlight. With no stimuli other than the wallpaper, the pattern and designs become increasingly intriguing to the narrator. She soon begins to see a figure in the design and eventually comes to believe that a woman is creeping on all fours behind the pattern. Believing that she must try to free the woman in the wallpaper, she begins to strip the remaining paper off the wall.

On the last day of summer, she locks herself in her room to strip the remains of the wallpaper. When John arrives home, she refuses to unlock the door. When he returns with the key, he finds her creeping around the room, circling the walls and touching the wallpaper. She exclaims, "I've got out at last," and her husband faints as she continues to circle the room, stepping over his inert body each time she passes.

Interpretation[edit]

Gilman's interpretation[edit]

Gilman used her writing to explore the role of women in America at the time. She explored issues such as the lack of a life outside the home and the oppressive forces of the patriarchal society. Through her work Gilman paved the way for writers such as Alice Walker and Sylvia Plath.[5]

In The Yellow Wallpaper Gilman portrays the narrator's insanity as a way to protest the medical and professional oppression against women at the time. While under the impression that husbands and male doctors were acting with their best interests in mind, women were depicted as mentally weak and fragile. At the time women’s-rights advocates believed that the outbreak of women being diagnosed as mentally ill was the manifestation of their setbacks regarding the roles they were allowed to play in a male-dominated society. Women were even discouraged from writing, because their writing would ultimately create an identity, and become a form of defiance for them. Charlotte Perkins Gilman realized that writing became one of the only forms of existence for women at a time where they had very few rights.[5]

Gilman explained that the idea for the story originated in her own experience as a patient: "the real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways".[6] She had suffered years of depression, and consulted a well-known specialist physician who prescribed a "rest cure" which required her to "live as domestic a life as possible." She was forbidden to touch pen, pencil or brush and allowed only two hours of mental stimulation a day.

After three months and almost desperate, Gilman decided to contravene her diagnosis and started to work again. After realizing how close she had come to complete mental breakdown, she wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" with additions and exaggerations to illustrate her own misdiagnosis complaint. She sent a copy to Mitchell but never received a response.

She added that "The Yellow Wallpaper" was "not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked." Gilman claimed that many years later she learned that Mitchell had changed his treatment methods, but literary historian Julie Bates Dock has discredited this. Mitchell continued his methods, and as late as 1908 – sixteen years after "The Yellow Wallpaper" was published – was interested in creating entire hospitals devoted to the "rest cure" so that his treatments would be more widely accessible.[7]

Feminist interpretation[edit]

This story has been interpreted by feminist critics as a condemnation of the androcentric hegemony of the 19th-century medical profession.[8] The narrator's suggestions about her recuperation (that she should work instead of rest, engage with society instead of remaining isolated, attempt to be a mother instead of being separated entirely from her child, etc.) are dismissed out of hand using language that stereotypes her as irrational and, therefore, unqualified to offer ideas about her own condition. This interpretation draws on the concept of the "domestic sphere" that women were held in during this period.[9]

Feminist critics focus on the degree of triumph at the end of the story. While some may claim that the narrator slipped into insanity, others see the ending as a woman's assertion of freedom in a marriage in which she felt trapped.[10] The emphasis on reading and writing as gendered practices also illustrated the importance of the wallpaper. If the narrator were allowed neither to write in her journal nor to read, she would begin to "read" the wallpaper until she found the escape she was looking for. Through seeing the women in the wallpaper, the narrator realizes that she could not live her life locked up behind bars. At the end of the story, as her husband lies on the floor unconscious, she crawls over him, symbolically rising over him. This is interpreted as a victory over her husband, at the expense of her sanity.

Susan S. Lanser in her article "Feminist Criticism ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, and the Politics of Color in America" praises contemporary feminism and its role in changing the study and the interpretation of literature. The Yellow Wallpaper was one of many books that were lost because of an ideology that determined the works' content to be disturbing or offensive. Critics such as the editor of the Atlantic Monthly rejected the short story because “[he] could not forgive [himself] if [he] made others as miserable as [he] made [himself].” Lanser argues that the same argument of devastation and misery can be said about the work of Edgar Allan Poe, but his work is still printed and studied by academics. [11]

The Yellow Wallpaper provided feminists the tools on how to interpret literature in different ways. Lanser says the short story was a “ particularly congenial medium for such a re-vision...because the narrator herself engages in a form of feminist interpretation when she tries to read the paper on her wall”.[11] The narrator in the story is trying to find a single meaning in the wallpaper. At first she focuses on contradictory style of the wallpaper, it is “flamboyant” and also “dull”, “pronounced” yet also “lame” and “uncertain” (p. 13). She takes into account the patterns and tries to geometrically organize them but she is further confused. The wallpaper changes colors when it reflects light and emits a distinct odor which Jane cannot recognize (p. 25). At night the narrator is able to see a woman behind bars within the complicated design of the wallpaper. Lanser argues that Jane was able to find “a space of text on which she can locate whatever self-projection”.[11] Lanser creates a relationship between the narrator and the reader. Just like the narrator as a reader, when one comes into contact with a confusing and complicated text, one tries to find one single meaning. “How we were taught to read” as Lanser puts it, is why a reader cannot fully comprehend the text.[11] The patriarchal ideology has kept many scholars from being able to interpret and appreciate novels such as “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Thanks to feminist criticism “The Yellow Wallpaper” has become a fundamental reading in the standard curriculum. Feminists have made a great contribution to the study of literature but, according to Lanser, are falling short because “we acknowledge the participation of women writers and readers in dominant patterns of thought and social practice then perhaps our own patterns must also be deconstructed if we are to recover meanings still hidden or overlooked.[11]

Martha J. Cutter in her article "The Writer as Doctor: New Models of Medical Discourses in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Later Fiction" discusses how in many of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's works she addresses this "struggle in which a male-dominated medical establishment attempts to silence women" (Cutter 1). Gilman's works challenge the social construction of women in patriarchal medical discourse by displaying women as “silent, powerless, and passive” who refuse treatment. At the time in which her works take place, between 1840 and 1890, women were exceedingly defined as lesser than—sickly and weak. In this time period it was thought that “hysteria” (a disease stereotypically more common in women) was a result of too much education. It was understood that women who spent time in college or studying were over-stimulating their brains and consequently leading themselves into states of hysteria. In fact, many of the diseases recognized in women were seen as the result of a lack of self-control or self-rule. Different physicians argued that a physician must “assume a tone of authority” and that the idea of a “cured” woman is one who is “subdued, docile, silent, and above all subject to the will and voice of the physician” (Cutter 3). A hysterical woman is one who craves power and in order for her to be treated for her hysteria, she must submit to her physician whose role is to undermine her desires. Often women were prescribed bed rest as a form of treatment, which was meant to “tame” them and basically keep them imprisoned. Treatments such as this were a way of ridding women of rebelliousness and forcing them to conform to social roles. In her works Gilman highlights that the harm caused by these types of treatments for woman i.e. “the rest cure” has to do with the way in which her voice is silenced. Paula Treichler explains "In this story diagnosis 'is powerful and public...It is a male voice that...imposes controls on the female narrator and dictates how she is to perceive and talk about the world.' Diagnosis covertly functions to empower the male physician's voice and disempower the female patent's". The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not allowed to participate in her own treatment or diagnosis and is completely forced to succumb to everything in which her doctor and in this particular story, her husband, says. The male voice is the one in which forces controls on the female and decides how she is allowed to perceive and speak about the world around her.

Other interpretations[edit]

"The Yellow Wallpaper" sometimes is referred to as an example of Gothic literature for its treatment of madness and powerlessness.[12] Alan Ryan, for example, introduced the story by writing "quite apart from its origins [it] is one of the finest, and strongest, tales of horror ever written. It may be a ghost story. Worse yet, it may not."[13] Pioneering horror author H. P. Lovecraft writes in his 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature that “The Yellow Wall Paper rises to a classic level in subtly delineating the madness which crawls over a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined." [14]

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, in her book Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper", concludes that "the story was a cri de coeur against [Gilman's first husband, artist Charles Walter] Stetson and the traditional marriage he had demanded." Gilman was attempting to deflect blame to protect Gilman's daughter Katharine and her step-mother, Gilman's friend Grace Channing.[15]

Anglican Archbishop Peter Carnley used the story as a reference and a metaphor for the situation of women in the church in his sermon at the ordination of the first women priests in Australia on 7 March 1992 in St George's Cathedral, Perth.[16]

Sari Edelstein has argued that The Yellow Wallpaper is an allegory for Gilman's hatred of the emerging yellow journalism. Having created The Forerunner in November 1909, Gilman made it clear she wished the press to be more insightful and not rely upon exaggerated stories and flashy headlines. Gilman was often scandalised in the media and resented the sensationalism of the media. The relationship between the narrator and the wallpaper within the story parallels Gilman's relationship to the press. The narrator describes the wallpaper as having “sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin”. Edelstein argues that given Gilman’s distaste for the Yellow Press, this can also be seen as a description of tabloid newspapers of the day.[17]

In Paula A. Treichler's article "Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in 'The Yellow Wallpaper'", she places her focus on the relationship that is found in the short story between women and writing. Rather than write about the evident feminist themes which view the wallpaper as something along the lines of "...the 'pattern' which underlies sexual inequality, the external manifestation of neurasthenia, the narrator's unconscious, the narrator's situation within patriarchy," Treichler instead explains that the wallpaper can be a symbol to represent discourse and the fact that the narrator is alienated from the world in which she previously could somewhat express herself. Treichler illustrates that through this discussion of language and writing, in the story Charlotte Perkins Gilman is defying the "...sentence that the structure of patriarchal language imposes." While Treichler accepts the legitimacy of strictly feminist claims, she writes that a closer look at the text suggests that the wallpaper could be interpreted as women's language and discourse, and the woman found in the wallpaper could be the "...representation of women that becomes possible only after women obtain the right to speak." In making this claim, it suggests that the new struggle found within the text is between two forms of writing; one rather old and traditional and the other new and exciting. This is supported in the fact that John, the narrator's husband, does not like his wife to write anything, which is the reason that her journal containing the story is kept a secret and thus is known only by the narrator and reader. A look at the text shows that as the relationship between the narrator and the wallpaper grows stronger, so too does her language in her journal as she begins to increasingly write of her frustration and desperation.[18]

Media adaptations[edit]

Art[edit]

  • Painter Jonathan Sutton completed two pieces, in 1999 and 2000, respectively, referencing specific points in the story, titled The Yellow Wallpaper I: I always lock the door when I creep by daylight, and The Yellow Wallpaper II: I quite enjoy the room now it is bare again.

Audio plays[edit]

  • A version of it was performed twice on the radio program Suspense by Agnes Moorehead.
  • An audio book of "The Yellow Wallpaper" additionally was produced by Durkin Hayes and read by Win Phillips in 1997. This Radio Tales version can also be heard on Sonic Theater on XM Radio.
  • BBC Radio dramatized the story for the series Fear on Four.
  • 19 Nocturne Boulevard's Julie Hoverson performed a one-woman reading for their podcast.[citation needed]

Film[edit]

  • In 1977, Marie Ashton produced a short film adaptation through Women Make Movies.[citation needed]
  • In 1989, the novel was adapted into a film produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for Masterpiece Theatre. It was adapted by Maggie Wadey and directed by John Clive.
  • The Yellow Wallpaper (2011) directed by Logan Thomas is a re-telling of The Yellow Wallpaper and not a direct adaptation.
  • In 2014, Amandla Stenberg directed a short film based on the story [1]

Music[edit]

  • The song "Yellow Creep Around", on the Mary's Danish album Circa, was published one century after the original.

Television[edit]

  • In 1989, an episode of The Twilight Zone featured a variation on Gilman's story titled "Something in the Walls". In the episode, a woman commits herself to a mental institution, and insists on plain white walls and no patterns within her hospital room, after having seen faces in the patterns of her bedroom's yellow wallpaper, and hearing ominous voices from those faces.
  • "The Yellow Wallpaper" is referenced in Season One of American Horror Story.

Theater[edit]

  • An adaptation of the original short story was scripted and directed by Heather Newman as part of the 2003 season at Theater Schmeater in Seattle, Washington. The production starred Mary Jane Gibson as Charlotte, Stephen Loch as John, Annie Lareau as Jennie, Lisa Viertel as Mary, Erin Knight as Lucy and Jim Catechi as Dr. Weir Mitchell. This adaptation won the 2003 Seattle Times "Best of the Fringe" award. The adaptation also was produced in 2005 at Tarrant County College by Doctor Judith Gallagher, directed by Melinda Benton-Muller with Kami Rogers as Charlotte. In May 2010, Heather Newman, Melinda Benton-Muller, and Doctor Judith Gallagher spoke on a panel about this adaptation at the –American Literature Association with members of the ALA and Charlotte Perkins Gilman Society. Kami Rogers moderated the panel.
  • A one-hour, one-woman stage adaptation, written by Greg Oliver Bodine. The play received its world premiere production in NYC at Manhattan Theatre Source in March 2009 before it toured metro-area libraries and other venues, including Lycoming College in PA, where it was curated by the Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Originally co-produced by the Manhattan Theatre Source Playground Development Series and North Shore Theatre Group. Directed by DeLisa M. White and performed by Annalisa Loeffler. Published by Indie Theater Now in 2012. This adaptation was also produced in January, 2014 at the Workshop Theater in New York City. Delisa M. White and Annalisa Loeffler again directed and performed.
  • A stage adaptation was performed at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
  • An adaptation of the original short story was scripted and directed by Sarah Elaine Stewart in 2008. “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been performed at The Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton, July 2008, The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, August 2008, Midnight Matinees at the Tristan Bates Theatre, Covent Garden, December 2008. A revised version was performed at the New Wimbledon Theatre Studio, March 2009. Written and directed by Sarah Elaine Stewart, costumes by Lauren McCarthy, sound by Joseph Olney, Charlotte played by Emmeline Creswell, John played by Thomas Kirkin, the Woman in the Wallpaper played by Joanne Clarke, Jennie played by Emma-Rachel Blackman (Courtyard, Edinburgh, Bates) and Tara Quinn (Wimbledon)
  • ShadyJane Theatre Company performed their adaptation, "Her Yellow Wallpaper" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2009.
  • Then This Theatre presented "The Yellow Wallpaper," performed by Maeve Fitzgerald and directed by Aoife Spillane-Hinks, at the 2011 Dublin Fringe Festival.
  • Rummage Theatre researched, wrote and directed an hour long play called "Behind the Wallpaper", which was first performed at The Bay Theatre in 2014. The play was inspired by "The Yellow Wallpaper", but focuses on exploring Postnatal Depression and Postpartum Psychosis in the present day. They use shadow work cast behind wallpaper to represent the "Shadow Woman" which new mother, Julie, sees as part of her Psychosis. The play is touring Dorset in 2014/2015. More information here: www.rummagetheatre.co.uk.
  • A Company of Players presented a stage adaptation of the original short story, written and directed by Kristi Boulton, at the 2014 Hamilton Fringe Festival in Ontario, Canada. This production was well-received by critics and won a "Best of Fringe" award.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Stetson, Charlotte Perkins. "The Yellow Wall-paper. A Story", The New England Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 5, January 1892.
  2. ^ Gilman 1892, p. 1. See Treichler 1984, pp. 61–77.
  3. ^ Gilman 1892, p. 11.
  4. ^ Gilman 1892, p. 15.
  5. ^ a b Quawas, Rula. "A New Woman's Journey Into Insanity: Descent and Return in The Yellow Wallpaper." : Journal of the Australasian Universities Modern Language Association (2006): 35+. ProQuest Research Library. Web. Oct. 2012.
  6. ^ Thrailkill 2002, p. 528.
  7. ^ Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper", The Forerunner, October 1913.
  8. ^ Ford 1985, pp. 309–314.
  9. ^ Thomas 1997.
  10. ^ Hochman, p. 2002, pp. 89–110.
  11. ^ a b c d e Lanser, Susan (1989). "Feminist Criticism ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, and the Politics of Color in America". Feminist Studies 15 (3): 415–441. doi:10.2307/3177938. 
  12. ^ See, for example, Johnson 1989.
  13. ^ Ryan 1988, p. 56.
  14. ^ Lovecraft, H. P., Supernatural Horror in Literature, The Recluse, The Recluse Press, 1927
  15. ^ Publishers Weekly. October 4, 2010, p. 38.
  16. ^ Carnley, Peter (2001) pp. 85–92
  17. ^ Sari Edelstein, "Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Yellow Newspaper" Legacy 24, no. 1 (May 2007): 72–92.
  18. ^ Treichler. "Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in 'The Yellow Wallpaper'". 

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • EDSITEment's lesson plan Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Yellow Wall-Paper
  • The Yellow Wallpaper at Project Gutenberg.
  • Full Text of The Yellow Wallpaper, retrieved January 22, 2008.
  • The full text of "The Yellow Wallpaper" at the CUNY Library
  • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper", The Forerunner, October 1913, accessed November 15, 2009.
  • The Yellow Wallpaper, audio, CBS radio, 1948.
  • The Yellow Wallpaper at the Internet Movie Database
  • The Yellow Wallpaper A 2006 film inspired by the short story that relies on the gothic/horror interpretation.
  • Bak, John S. (1994). "Escaping the Jaundiced Eye: Foucauldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper'," Studies in Short Fiction 31.1 (Winter 1994), pp. 39–46.
  • Crewe, Jonathan (1995). "Queering 'The Yellow Wallpaper'? Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Politics of Form," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 14 (Fall 1995), pp. 273–293.
  • Cutter, Martha J. "The Writer as Doctor: New Models of Medical Discourse in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Later Fictions." Literature and Medicine 20. 2 (Fall 2001): pp. 151–182.
  • Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar, Susan (1980). The Madwoman in the Attic. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-02596-3
  • Golden, Catherine (1989). “The Writing of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ A Double Palimpsest," Studies in American Fiction, 17 (Autumn 1989), pp. 193–201.
  • Haney-Peritz, Janice. "Monumental Feminism and Literature’s Ancestral House: Another Look at ‘The Yellow Wallpaper," Women’s Studies 12 (1986): 113–128.
  • Hume, Beverly A. "Gilman’s ‘Interminable Grotesque’: The Narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper," Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Fall 1991): 477–484.
  • Johnson, Greg. “Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Studies in Short Fiction 26 (Fall 1989): 521–530.
  • King, Jeannette, and Pam Morris. “On Not Reading Between the Lines: Models of Reading in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Studies in Short Fiction 26.1 (Winter 1989): 23–32.
  • Klotz, Michael. "Two Dickens Rooms in 'The Yellow Wall-Paper'" Notes and Queries (December 2005): 490–1.
  • Knight, Denise D. “The Reincarnation of Jane: ‘Through This’ – Gilman’s Companion to ‘The Yellow Wall-paper.’” Women’s Studies 20 (1992): 287–302.
  • Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies 15 (Fall 1989): 415–437.
  • Treichler, Paula A. "Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in 'The Yellow Wallpaper'." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (1984): 61–75.
  • Weinstein, Lee. ""The Yellow Wallpaper: A Supernatural Interpretation." Studies in Weird Fiction 4(Fall 1988), 23–25.