The Plot

In this story we can speak of a unified plot because a clear sequence of
beginning, middle and end is established.

In the beginning we get information about where she and her husband will
spend the summer , about who is involved in the story and also about why
she is in this summer estate.

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The middle part, which makes out most of the story, is a description of
what she is doing all day , of the wallpaper and of the gradual turning
insane.

The end of the story is rather clear – the protagonist finally turns
insane.

Another thing we can find is a chronological order of events. There is no
use of flashbacks, and only to some extent can we talk of foreshadowing (it
is clear that the protagonist must turn insane).

Tension is created gradually throughout the story, the suspense in the
story appeals to our curiosity. We want to know what happens next. The
reason for this suspense is that the main character needs some time to
finally figure out what she sees behind the wallpaper pattern. With her
firm will to find out what she sees, the reader has the feeling that he
must stay with her until she knows what it is. There are two quotes that
underline that very well. “… and I determine for the thousandth time
that I will follow that pattern to some sort of a conclusion.” (Gilman,
Wallpaper 291) “I don’t want to leave now until I have found it out.”
(Gilman, Wallpaper 296)
Concerning the end of the story there are two ways to see it: either as an
open ending or not. In the end when she frees herself we don’t get a real
solution of the conflict, even though she mentions that in the end she
freed herself. But did she really free herself? Or was it maybe just her
imagination? It might be that for herself it was satisfaction enough to
free the woman in the wallpaper. But we also don’t get to know what happens
to her later on. Is she taken into a mental home or is she sent to Dr.

Mitchell in fall? That’ s why we could say that the story has an open
ending.

On the other hand the protagonist freed herself from the dominant
relationship between her and the husband by turning insane. She has
achieved independence from him, but she also freed herself to some extent
from the society. Looking at the story from that point of view, the
protagonist solved her conflict and therefore we could say that the
conclusion of The Yellow Wallpaper ends the conflict and we do not have an
open ending.


The Setting
The story takes place in an old nursery room on the second floor of a
colonial mansion. The reader easily gets the impression that the
protagonist was treated like a child since it was the husband who chose the
former nursery to be her room but also because her condition was not taken
seriously. This attitude is also conveyed in the way John talks to his
wife. e.g. ” ‘What is it, little girl ?’ he said. ‘Don’t go walking about
like that – you’ll get cold.'” (Gilman, Wallpaper 293)
In the case of this story the social setting, the cultural environment and
the ‘spirit of the age’ play an important role as well. The story is set5
in the late 1800’s, a time when a woman had to face hard repression by men.

It was a time when men still made all the decisions for their wives, when
men knew what was good for women.


Point of View
The Yellow Wallpaper is presented by a first person narrator who is also
the protagonist of the story. One effect of the protagonist-narrator is
that he is much more limited in his mobility and in the range of variety of
his sources. The perspective of a protagonist-narrator tends to be that of
a fixed centre (Rotter 187-88).

Another interesting question is whether the narrator is reliable or not. An
unreliable narrator represents himself not as fully understanding the plot
and the reader is not expected to take everything the narrator says at its
face value (Rotter 188)
In the case of our narrator we can say that there’s a development as far as
the reliability is concerned. In the beginning of the story there are only
little hints that we cannot trust what we are told by the protagonist. But
in the course of the story she becomes more and more unreliable, due to the
fact that she gradually turns insane.


The diary
In the story we can find several hints that this narrative is part of a
diary.


“I would not say this to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper
and a great relief to my mind.” (Gilman, Wallpaper, 286)
“But I can write when she is out, and see her a long way off from these
windows.” (Gilman, Wallpaper, 290)
“I don’t know why I should write this.” (Gilman, Wallpaper, 292)
Usually a diary is a very intimate piece of work whose contents are not
intended to be read by anyone else but oneself, sometimes though the
narrator may be addressing an imaginary audience. In a diary the author is
concerned with himself, writing things he wants to hide from other people
or he is not able to convey otherwise. A diary must also be distinguished
from the journal which on a formal level is similar but mainly deals with
the recording of events and is often intended for posterity. The diary form
is also important in our story because is it is something very typical for
women, a lot of young girls often start keeping diary entries and a lot of
women keep that habit for their whole life. It is maybe typical for women
because women often feel the need to talk about their problems and the
diary is a way to deal with problems immediately, when there is nobody to
talk to or nobody who understands you, keeping a diary can bring relief. In
a diary you can also write down ideas, thoughts or feelings nobody else is
supposed to know. You can be very personal and you can be sure that no one
will judge what you write. That is exactly why this form was chosen for The
Yellow Wallpaper.

While reading it, it becomes clear that the protagonist has nobody who
listens to her and understands her. Writing is the only way for her to deal
with her troubles and fears and to overcome her emotions and feelings. Had
she been allowed to write, this would have probably eased her depression
since writing gave her great relief. “I think sometimes if I were only well
enough to write a little it would relief the press of ideas and rest me.”
(Gilman, Wallpaper 288) “I would not say this to a living soul, but this is
dead paper and a great relief to my mind.” (Gilman, Wallpaper)
During her cure there is nothing else to do than to look at the pattern of
the wallpaper in the room and when she starts to see a woman in it she, of
course, wants to share her observations with somebody else, but she knows
that nobody would listen to her and, moreover, believe her. Therefore
-secretly- she writes down her observations. This becomes very clear in two
passages, “There comes John and I must put this away, – he hates to have me
write a word.” (Gilman, Wallpaper 288) and “There comes John’s sister such
a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me
writing. (Gilman, Wallpaper 290) This brings the reader very close to the
protagonist. Reading this story gives you the feeling as if you were
reading something secret, something very personal, something not even her
husband is supposed to know, but you as the reader are allowed to.

According to diaries there is also an autobiographical link. Charlotte
Perkins Gilman got her first diary at the age of 15 as a Christmas present.

She was very excited about it and writing daily entries became very
important to her. This continued over much of the next 25 years. The
beginnings of her entries were typical for a teenager: remarks about her
love life , about the quarrels with her brother and struggles with her
mother and her ambivalent feelings toward her father. In the pages of
Charlotte’s teen diaries are me bedded also subtle allusions to the work
ethic which was already beginning to form and which would influence her
future years. Charlotte Perkins Gilman began to keep a journal in 1879,
which gave her unrestricted space for making entries. But also a shift away
from the juvenile nature of the diaries, as she began to grow –
intellectually, socially, artistically. (Knight, Diaries 1-6, xi-xviii).

The personal diary form in The Yellow Wallpaper made it possible for Gilman
to express very personal feelings and thoughts, and even to explicitly
criticise Dr. Weir Mitchell in an uncommittal and yet authentical way
through the eyes of a fictional character. Through the diary form it is
also not necessary to stick to the rules of cohesion and coherence ,
because when writing for oneself one is not obliged to make oneself
absolutely clear by explaining, providing background information, following
a logical pattern of reasoning etc.


Characters
In The Yellow Wallpaper the protagonist is the narrator herself. We know
that our main character is a woman, but we actually never get to know her
name . Only the final passage gives us a hint that her name may be Jane. It
seems as if she merges with the woman in the wallpaper. There is also some
development in the character. In the beginning, we are informed that she is
suffering from depression and that the “rest cure” is applied to her, but
within the course of the story, she gradually turns insane. She is a round
character, because we know that she’s not only a woman that suffers from
depression and turns insane, but she is also a devoted woman who wants to
gain freedom and liberty for herself. In the end she gained freedom and
liberty, but for a very high price – she traded it for her sanity.

Another important character is her husband, John. He’s so important because
he’s more or less responsible for the situation she is in. He is a
physician, a loving husband and he believes that all he does for his wife
is the best for her. What we know about him is established by the narrator
and we have to trust her. We have to trust her description, her judgement
which actually becomes rather difficult, because, as we know, she turns
insane, and can you really trust someone that is insane?
Language
Concerning the language we can make the observation that in the beginning
our main character refers to her husband always as John. But especially in
the last paragraphs there are passages where this isn’t the case anymore,
there it seems as if a third person is talking about her husband. “It is no
use, young man, you can’t open it!” (Gilman, Wallpaper 299)
Or in the last sentence when she says, “Now why should that man have
fainted?” (Gilman, Wallpaper 300) This gives the reader the feeling as if
she tries to distance herself from her husband.


Historical Background
In the time when the story was written, or generally, before the twentieth
century, men assigned and defined women’s roles. Mostly the middle class
women were affected, but generally we can say that all women suffered by
men determining women’s behaviour. Men perpetrated an ideological prison
that subjected and silenced women. This ideology is called the ‘Cult of
True Womanhood’ and it legitimised the victimization of women. The ‘Cult of
Domesticity’ and the ‘Cult of Purity’ were the central tenets of the Cult
of Womanhood’. Labouring under the seeming benevolence of the ‘Cult of
Domesticity’, women were incarcerated in the home or private sphere, a
servant tending to the needs of the family. Furthermore, the ‘Cult of
Purity’ obliges women to remain virtuous and pure even in marriage, with
their comportment continuing to be one of modesty. Religious piety and
submission were beliefs that were more peripheral components of the
ideology of ‘True Womanhood’. These were the ways that men used to insure
the passivity and docility of women. Religion would pacify any vulnerable
and dependence on the patriarchal head (Welter 373 – 377)
The medical profession’s godlike attitude in The Yellow Wallpaper
demonstrates this arrogance. The rest cure that Dr. Weir Mitchell
prescribed reflects men’s disparaging attitudes. The rest cure called for
complete rest, coerced feeding and isolation. Mitchell, a neurosurgeon
specialising in women’s nervous ailments, expounded upon his belief for
women’s nervous condition when he said, American woman is, to speak
plainly, too often physically unfit for her duties as woman, and is perhaps
of all civilised females the least qualified to undertake those weightier
tasks which tax so heavily the nervous system of man. She is not fairly up
to what nature asks from her as a wife and mother. How will she sustain
herself under the pressure of those yet more exacting duties which nowadays
she is eager to share with the man (Mitchell 141)
Women were cast as emotional servants whose lives were dedicated to the
welfare of home and family in the preservation of social stability (Papke
10). Gilman, in The Yellow Wallpaper, depicted the struggle to throw off
the constraints of patriarchal society in order to be able to write.

In the time period in which Gilman lived, “The ideal woman was not only
assigned a social role that locked her into her home, but she was also
expected to like it, to be cheerful and gay, smiling and good humoured”
(Lane, To Herland 109). The women who refused this role and chose a life of
self-statement and freedom from the social constraints suffered ridicule
and punishment from their peers. This is not unlike the repercussions that
Gilman experienced throughout her lifetime from expressing her need for
independence from the private sphere that she had been relegated to.

Through her creation The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman wrote an autobiography or
her emotional and psychological feelings of rejections from society as a
freethinking woman. This work is a reaction to the lack of free agency that
women had in the late 1800’s and their inability to have a career and a
family; the pressures of these restrictions resulted in her involvement in
Dr. S. Weir Mitchell’s rest cure (Lane, To Herland 107-9)
The Rest Cure
A central aspect in The Yellow Wallpaper is the so-called rest cure. The
reason why I want to go into more detail here is because this was a
treatment especially for women who suffered from nervous breakdown or
depression. Usually it lasted for six to eight weeks and the focus was on
nutrition and revitalisation of the body.

It included four components:
1. extended and total bed rest (the patient was forbidden to sew,
converse, move herself in and out of bed, read, write and in the more
extreme cases, even to feed herself.

2. Isolation from family and familiar surroundings
3. a carefully controlled diet (overfeeding, especially with created, on
the assumption that increased body volume created new energy)
4. massage and often the use of electricity for ‘muscular excitation’
(Lane, To Herland 116)
Dr. S. Weir Mitchell was a Philadelphia neurologist who specialised in rest
cures for “female hysteria”. After suffering from severe postpartum
depression and nervous prostration, Gilman travelled to Philadelphia to
seek Mitchell’s help. The women he treated were basically taught an extreme
version of how to be domestic and submissive according to society outside
of the sanatorium. This treatment would be considered cruel and unusual
punishment to anyone today but then it was supposed to be the best care you
could get. After a month of treatment, Gilman was sent home with the
instructions to “live as domestic as possible”, to “have but two hours of
intellectual life a day” and “never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as
I lived”. (Gilman, Forerunner 106) for a woman of Gilman’s intellect and
stamina this was an impossible feat to accomplish. She says in her diary,
“I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so
near the border lines of utter mental ruin that I could see over.” (Gilman,
Forerunner 106)
There is no doubt about the fact that Gilman disliked Dr. Mitchell. She
even found him to be hostile presence. Her personal revenge rested on
naming the unacceptable neurologist in The Yellow Wallpaper, for the sake
of killing his reputation (Mitterhauser 24)
Autobiographical aspects
Much of what is reported about Charlotte Perkins Gilman is about her
troubled and loveless relationships: with her mother, her father and her
daughter. These relationships are central to the life of Gilman yet only
peripherally related to the incident that sparked one of the greatest
pieces of feminist literature ever written (Lane, Introduction xvi). To be
able to relate to Gilman’s situation and appreciate The Yellow Wallpaper
for how it exemplifies women’s lives is difficult in this age where women
have more freedom than ever before. Gilman’s original intention in writing
the story was to gain personal satisfaction from the knowledge that Dr. S.

Weir Mitchell might, after reading the story, change his treatment. But
more importantly, Gilman says in her article in the Forerunner, “It was not
intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being crazy, and it
worked” (Gilman, Forerunner 107).

Gilman experiences the same suppression as the female character in The
Yellow Wallpaper in terms of her not being allowed to write or talk to her
friends while she was ill. As mentioned earlier, Gilman’s writing deal
primarily with the suppression of women. During her childhood, Gilman
experienced many restrictions imposed by her mother but also the absence of
her father while growing up, and the disappointment with not having the
freedom to grow as a person while married, had a tremendous influence on
hoer writings. The Yellow Wallpaper closely parallels Gilman’s life
experiences. In short, Gilman wrote what she knew and what she experienced.

The Yellow Wallpaper is a testament to Gilman’s own life experience and
reading it there is a feeling of the tough decisions she made in her life
and the impact those decisions had on her emotionally and mentally. Never
again did Gilman write anything with such a personal attachment as this
story had (Lane, To Herland 126-127).

With The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman tried to heal old wounds and anxieties
and underlined her decisions to trade security for freedom of thought and
deed. A great influence in that regard was definitely her marriage with
Charles Walter Stetson. Her marriage with Stetson was not a nightmare but
simply something she should have never consented to. Gilman saw neither
herself as a victim nor her husband as a villain or the cause of her
disastrous marriage. The only unsettling issue in their relationship was
Gilman’s lack of talent for close, personal commitment and patience for her
family’s needs. But her intellectual life and public engagement opened up
to her a new sense of achievement, which no family life could match
(Mitterhauser 121).

Of course Gilman tried to make this marriage work. In her attempt to do so,
she started to consider it necessary to copy women’s passivity and
compliance. She grew childlike and submissive, but the new burdensome
personality led to self-hate.

In The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman tried to retrace this conditioned female
tendency to return to an infant state in marriage and she would try to
demonstrate the humiliating aspect of it. To some respect this attitude is
also revealed in the setting of the story. The narrator is confined to an
old nursery room on the second floor of a colonial mansion.


Interpretation
In The Yellow Wallpaper, for short the dominant relationship between an
oppressive husband and his submissive wife pushes her from depression into
insanity. Throughout the story there are examples of this dominant-
submissive relationship. Of course that is our perception of their
relationship with our experiences and our background nowadays. Back then,
in the late 1800’s such a relationship was normal. She is virtually
imprisoned in her bedroom, supposedly to allow her to rest and recover her
health. She is forbidden to work, not even supposed to write. Moreover, she
has also no say in the location or the dcor of the room she has to stay
in.

“… and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.”
(Gilman, Wallpaper 287)
“There comes John, and I must put this away,- he hates to have me write a
word.” /Gilman, Wallpaper 288)
“I don’t like the room a bit. I wanted one downstairs … but John would
not hear of it.” (Gilman, Wallpaper 287)
Probably in large part because of her oppression, she continues to decline.

It seems that her husband is oblivious to her declining condition, since he
never admits she has a real problem. Not only does he fail to get her help,
but by keeping her virtually a prisoner in a room with nauseating wallpaper
and very little to occupy her mind, left alone without any kind of mental
stimulation, he almost forces her to dwell on her problem.

Perhaps if she had been allowed to come and go and do as she pleased, her
depression might have lifted. “I think sometimes that if I were only well
enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.”
(Gilman, Wallpaper 289) It also seems that just being able to tell someone
how she really felt would have eased her depression, but John will not hear
of it. The lack of an outlet caused her depression to worsen. The only way
the narrator could find solace was in her imagination, seeing a woman in
the wallpaper pattern, seeing people out in the garden and wanting to
write. But all the people around her try to repress this behaviour,
ultimately driving the female instead of helping her. The males in the
story as well as in Gilman’s life see removing all intellectual and
emotional stimulation as a cure to the female’s illness.

Probably because of his oppressive behaviour, she wants to drive her
husband away. As her breakdown approaches, she actually locks him out of
the room. “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 have come
in, till John comes. I want to astonish him” (Gilman, Wallpaper 299) I see
no other reason for this other than to force him to see he was wrong, and
since she knew, he could not tolerate hysteria, to drive him away.


The double in the story
In Gilman’s story the double has no human existence. In the course of the
story the “double” gains an identity of its own in its attempt to involve
the heroin in its elusive existence. Therefore, the nameless phantom in The
Yellow Wallpaper must not only be seen as the mad woman’s double but also
as the biographical equivalent of Gilman herself. With this double and the
protagonist, Gilman was able to re-enacts feeling of fragmentation.

In the beginning, her occupation with the wallpaper is a positive
distraction. The socially starved patient gradually believes to notice a
woman behind the sub-pattern of the yellow wallpaper. The woman, she
observes, appears to be in a similar uncomfortable, sulking waiting
position which she obviously wants to change all the same by escape, a
surreal effect which immediately attaches itself to the artist’s
overstrained mind and which mobilizes her energy (Mitterhauser 51-52).

The heroine makes no attempt to see the similarity between her and the
phantom. Both are incarcerated as soon as they enter the rest-cure room,
and both hate it. Yet, only the double permits herself to rebel. “The faint
figure behind seems to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get
out.” (Gilman, Wallpaper 293) In other words, the narrator, in a sense, saw
herself reflected in the shape and pattern of this woman/ these women
struggling to get out and be free. But still, somehow she he aligns herself
with the woman. In the story she mentions that she often sees the woman
creeping outside.

“I see her in that long shaded lane, creeping up and down. I see her in
those dark grape arbores, creeping all around the garden. … 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 at daylight. I can’t do
it at night, for I know John would suspect something at once (Gilman,
Wallpaper297)
This shows the narrator seeing herself in the woman and when she sees the
woman creeping outside she sees herself. What the woman in the wallpaper
does, namely “Creeping”, can be related to the narrator’s writing. In her
writing she sees the only way to escape from the situation she is in.

At some point, the double behind the pattern becomes a fully developed
silent identity. It multiplies itself and reclaims the garden in front of
the hall in a feverishly creeping search of space. The climax and ultimate
existential crisis is reached when the double and the patient merge into
one person possession identity of the creeping, freedom-seeking double
(Mitterhauser 53)
The narrator not only fought the struggle of her male dominance of a
society but also of herself. She triumphs over her husband but also frees
herself. But back to the woman she sees behind the pattern of the
wallpaper. Sometimes the narrator not only sees one woman in the wallpaper
but many women. “Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind,
…” (Gilman, Wallpaper 297)
She also at some point of the story, believes that the pattern moves
because the woman behind shakes it. The narrator associates this pattern
also with bars, bars that are usually in front of prison windows. This
picture of a prison exists to some extent in this story. The room is almost
a prison for her and she is pretty close to being a prisoner. Of course she
wanted to escape this prison she was in and the women in the wallpaper
symbolise also her attempt to break free by shaking these bars. But she was
not only ‘imprisoned’ in this room but to some extent definitely in her
marriage and all the other social conventions of that time.

The bars can also be associated with the society back then and the women
behind the bars are women like Gilman trying to break free and be strong
and independent. But society and men are keeping these women down and
strangle them. It was hard for them to leave these traditional conventions
of the time. “They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and
turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!” (Gilman, Wallpaper
297)
But by pulling of the paper she managed to escape and break free. Not only
did she free the woman inside her that longed to be free and strong but
also the woman in the wallpaper. But she has traded her sanity for her
independence and her freedom.


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