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Submitted Literature

The Yellow Wallpaper

By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Review

The Yellow Wallpaper is a classic in both feminist literature and the burgeoning literature and madness genre. The novella is a tightly narrated tale, partly autobiographical, that examines the use of Weir Mitchell’s rest cure – and the dangers that the cure brings. The rest cure, while noble in its aims, was used for disorders deemed feminine in nature such as hysteria and relied on extreme rest, feeding up of patients, and removal of virtually all stimuli. For the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper, this enforced infantilisation and removal of any distractions gradually leads to a total mental breakdown. Commenting on both male power and the confines that women are left in – in particular, the image of the hallucinated woman desperately trying to escape her wallpaper prison – Perkins Gilman writes a classic in this narrative, of which the text speaks for itself (see below).

A number of the then-essential female behavioural characteristics - self-control, restraint, decorum - appear bizarre in 21st century society. Yet these are the very characteristics that contribute to the narrator's breakdown - breaking out is the key metaphor for the novel, not only breaking out from the confines of the rest cure in her nursery prison but from the prison of male-dictated appropriate behaviour. Notable, the narrator mentions having not long since given birth, and contemporary views on her madness may focus on notions of post-natal depression.

Of note, many of Gilman's non-fiction texts remain classics in both socialist and feminist writing.

Key Themes:

  • History of Psychiatry

Significant Quotes / Pages

3 – “But these nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing. John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him. Of course it is only nervousness. It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way! I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!”

4 –"I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try. I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me."

10 – “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. By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps my quiet by the hour.”

11 – “John is so pleased to see me improve! He laughed a little the other day, and said I seemed to be flourishing in spite of my wallpaper. I turned it off with a laugh. I had no intention of telling him it was because of the wallpaper – he would make fun of me. He might even want to take me away. I don’t want to leave now until I have found out. There is a week more, and I think that will be enough.”

11 – Damp smell – “It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house – to reach the smell. But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell.”

12 – “And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through the pattern – it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.  They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white! If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad.”

12 – “I think the woman gets out in the daytime! And I’ll tell you why – privately – I’ve seen her! It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight. I see her in the long shaded lane, creeping up and down. I see her in those dark grape arbors, creeping all around the garden. I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines. I don’t blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight! I always lock the door when I creep by daylight.”

14 – “I quite enjoy the room, now it is bare again.

How those children did tear about here!

The bedstead is fairly gnawed!

But I must get to work.

I have locked the door and thrown the key down into the front path.

I don’t want to go out, and I don’t want to have anybody come in, till John comes.

I want to astonish him.

[...] Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly and the pattern enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision!

I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.

Besides I wouldn’t do it. Of course not. I know well enough that a step like that is improper and might be misconstrued.

I don’t like to look out of the windows even – there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast.”

 

 

15 – “I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder.

‘I’ve got out at last,’ I said, ‘in spite of you and Jane. 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!”

 

Reference: Charlotte, Perkins Gilman. 1892. The Yellow Wallpaper. Dover Thrift, 1997

Reviewer

- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Thursday 30th July 2009