The Yellow Wallpaper


Gilman's interpretation

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.[7]

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. Gilman realized that writing became one of the only forms of existence for women at a time where they had very few rights.[7]

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".[8] 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 was 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 – 16 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.[9]

Feminist interpretation

This story has been interpreted by feminist critics as a condemnation of the androcentric hegemony of the 19th-century medical profession.[10] 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.[11]

Feminist critics focus on the degree of triumph at the end of the story. While some claim the narrator slipped into insanity, others see the ending as a woman's assertion of freedom in a marriage in which she felt trapped.[12] 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. [13]

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".[13] 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" while 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".[13] 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.[13] 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.[13]

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 patient'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

"The Yellow Wallpaper" sometimes is referred to as an example of Gothic literature for its treatment of madness and powerlessness.[14] 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."[15] Pioneering horror author H. P. Lovecraft writes in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) 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." [16]

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.[17]

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.[18]

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.[19]

In Paula A. Treichler's article "Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in 'The Yellow Wallpaper'", she places her focus on the relationship portrayed in the short story between women and writing. Rather than write about the 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 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.[20]

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