An Analysis of THE YELLOW WALLPAPER (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)
by Joseph Suglia
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE FACTS ON FILE COMPANION TO THE AMERICAN NOVEL.
In 1887, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was committed to a sanitarium in Pennsylvania run by one Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the popularizer of a cure for female hysteria. Every female hysteric, according to Mitchell, should be placed under the watchful supervision of a (male) physician. He must oversee the strict regimentation of her body’s habits. Such vigilant monitoring is a conditio sine qua non for any physician who wishes to cure the patient of her malady. She must submit unquestioningly to the physician’s will and obey all of his prescriptions — one of which, invariably, is the injunction to do nothing. Bed rest is compulsory and should be vigorously enforced. The patient is to be placed in a state of perpetual invalidism; all forms of activity to which she is accustomed must be invalidated. Above all, she must not write.
Five years later, Gilman published the novella The Yellow Wallpaper, a slightly veiled polemic against Weir Mitchell (the physician is even mentioned explicitly in the text) and the “cure” to female depression and hysteria that he advocated. The narrative is written from the perspective of a woman who undergoes a nervous breakdown. What we are reading is her diary, which charts her gradual mental deterioration. The narrator and her husband/physician, John, have rented an ancestral house for a summer. John prescribes for the narrator a “rest cure” that is clearly indebted to the teachings of Weir Mitchell. She is prohibited from writing; she writes nonetheless, perhaps to spite him. Isolated in her room and completely inactive except for her writing, the narrator becomes transfixed by the sickeningly grotesque wallpaper that surrounds her. She projects her self into the convoluted patterns of the paper and imagines a feminine figure–not necessarily a “woman,” but rather a “shape… like a woman”–entangled in the radiating network of festooning fronds and vines. The feminine shape escapes from the wallpaper’s intricate web and is seen “creeping up and down” in the “dark grape arbors” of the courtyard. In the final scene of the work, the narrator, who has seemingly lost her mind, tears off the wallpaper and crawls and “creeps” “smoothly” across the floor and over John, who has collapsed lifelessly after seeing his wife wriggling and writhing on the ground. Since all of this is composed in the present tense, apparently she is writing as she is creeping.
Two orders of writing are figured in the novella. On the one hand, there is the language of the yellow wallpaper, which spreads its sprawling patterns, its fecundating, fungoid forms, all over the room in which the narrator is confined–this is clearly representative of the language of medicine and maleness. On the other hand, there is the ideolect of the female narrator, who frees herself by writing in defiance of her husband’s orders. Writing is here figured as a mode of activity–which, for Mitchell, is a quintessentially male practice (women who are active, according to Mitchell, ape men).
Little known in the century in which it was written, The Yellow Wallpaper was rediscovered in the late twentieth century and has become what is easily one of the most “over-interpreted” works of fiction in the last few decades. Most interpreters have pointed to the novella as a figuration of female liberation in modernist fiction. Despite its seeming simplicity, they invariably point to the text’s so-called “ambiguities” and “contradictions,” the most glaring of which is the manner in which the novella ends; most seem to believe that the novella ends complicatedly and equivocally. Does the narrator, in fact, achieve liberation? Or does she not? John, it is often said, faints to the floor, and fainting, as we are told too often and erroneously, is somehow “feminine.” Therefore, the narrator has perhaps achieved a “victory” over John. (One should also call attention to the fact that John is referred to, in the final scene, as “that man,” his proper name having been replaced by a demonstrative pronoun and a common noun.) And yet the narrator is also reduced, at the close of the novella, to the status of a worm or a snake, crawling and creeping across the floor along a self-ordained path. She certainly seems to have “precipitated” into what is usually described as “madness”–a “madness” that is attributed not to her “imaginative power and habit of story-making,” but rather to her husband’s profession. Her progressive “improve[-ment]” has resulted in a regressive deterioration. Because of this central ambiguity between “positive” and “negative” meanings, the novella seems, at once, a celebratory and affirmative “portrayal” of female liberation from a constraining, male-dominated order and an elegiac, despairing cri de coeur that proclaims the seeming impossibility of liberation from tyrannical maleness.
The notion that this is an interesting “ambiguity” or “contradiction” escapes this reader. Far richer literary works of art were produced by women a few decades after The Yellow Wallpaper was written. The writings of Daphne Du Maurier (born in 1907) and Shirley Jackson (born in 1916) are far richer, more macabre, and more complex than those of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. No one with a modicum of a scintilla of a tincture of a shred of a mote of a jot of an iota of rationality would deny that The Yellow Wallpaper has a didactic character, and, with the exception of a few trite “ambiguities,” its meanings are almost completely self-explanatory. The simplicity of the work may explain the multiplication of critical discourses that it has generated.
Dr. Joseph Suglia