November 16, 2012
A Critical Analysis of Formal Elements in the Short Story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, published in 1899, is a semi-autobiographical short story depicting a young woman’s struggle with depression that is virtually untreated and her subsequent descent into madness. Although the story is centered on the protagonist’s obsessive description of the yellow wallpaper and her neurosis, the story serves a higher purpose as a testament to the feminist struggle and their efforts to break out of their domestic prison. With reference to the works of Janice Haney-Peritz’s, “Monumental Feminism and Literature’s Ancestral House: Another Look at “The Yellow Wallpaper, and Anita Duneer’s, “On the Verge of a Breakthrough: Projections of Escape from the Attic and the Thwarted Tower in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Susan Glaspell's "The Verge", I will explore the themes of female imprisonment and inequality in association to gender relations using the story’s setting, symbols and characters.
The story is framed as a journal entry written by the main protagonist. She begins by writing about the estate that her and her husband are staying at for the summer so that she can recuperate from “. . .a slight hysterical tendency. . .” (Gilman). Her husband, John, a physician, has prescribed a “rest cure” treatment, confining her to bed, forbidden to work or write. Restricted to a former nursery room with yellow wallpaper, she describes it as “. . .committing every artistic sin.” (Gilman). She detests the wallpaper but John refuses to change rooms.
As the story progresses, the protagonist grows increasingly depressed and anxious. With John’s constant observation of her, making her unable to write, her only stimulation is manifested in the intense scrutiny of the yellow wallpaper. She begins to notice a woman “. . .stooping down and creeping.” (Gilman), behind the main pattern. The wallpaper starts to dominate the protagonist’s imagination with visions of this imaginary woman “. . .trying to climb through.” (Gilman), the pattern. Convinced that this woman is trapped inside, the narrator resolves to peel the wallpaper off in order to free her. By the end, the narrator, completely insane, has transferred herself as one of the women creeping inside the wallpaper. John, seeing her creeping around the room endlessly and smudging the wallpaper, faints in the doorway and the narrator has “. . .to creep over him every time!” (Gilman).
The setting in this story mirrors the narrator’s inner emotions which in turn helps to develop the theme of female imprisonment. At first the narrator marvels at the building, romanticizing it and soon after it is portrayed to the reader that she thinks, and almost hopes, that the house is “haunted” and that there is “. . .something queer about it.” (Gilman). Janice Haney-Peritz points out that “According to the narrator, a haunted house would be the “. . .height of romantic felicity. . .” a place more promising that that which “fate” normally assigns to “mere ordinary people like John and [herself]” (115). The house stands back away from the road, “. . .quite three miles from the village.” (GIlman) and is completely isolated and restricted from society, just as the narrator is. Her emotional position is reflected in the physical set-up of the house.
Within the house, the narrator is confined to a “. . .nursery at the top of the house.” (Gilman). Gilman describes it saying that “It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.” The nursery itself is a constant and oppressive reminder of the narrator’s duty as a mother and a wife to take care...