The point of view adopted by the author Charlotte Perkins Gilman in The Yellow Wallpaper is first-person. The narrator is a new mother, living temporarily in a house of unaccustomed lavishness.
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She and her family come there to help her recuperate from a mysterious ailment, perhaps postpartum depression. This ailment seems to be both mental and physical because she gets so tired. She disagrees with her husband’s and brother’s handling of her health. Since she is nearly entirely hallucinatory by the story’s end, the reader starts to suspect the accuracy of her narrative.
However, her perception of her feelings is quite lucid. Thus, she is both reliable and unreliable as a narrator. The point of view of someone undergoing mental breakdown is ambiguous and forces the reader to question the facts while acknowledging her probable accuracy and insights about herself.
The Theme of Loneliness in The Yellow Wallpaper
The reader meets the narrator while she speculates about the house that her husband has rented. She demonstrates an active, inquiring mind as she wonders why the rent was so cheap (Gilman). She would like to believe that there is something otherworldly about the house and grounds, but she accepts that there was some sort of estate difficulty, which she readily accedes, “spoils my ghostliness” (Gilman).
This willingness to relinquish her fanciful interpretation shows that she has a vivid imagination, but retains her good sense. Thus, at least at the outset, she is entirely able to distinguish fact from fiction.
She retains her sense of “something strange about the house” (Gilman), showing that she has a mind of her own. Indeed, much is strange about her situation. She is being shut away from people, including her baby, in a room with barred windows, “rings and things” set into the wall, a nailed-down bed, and a “gate at the head of the stairs,” all suggesting mental asylum.
Furthermore, whoever was immured in her room was so distraught that they tore off the wallpaper, and even did so when, the reader infers, confined to the bed or shackled to the wall (Gilman). Thus, her perception is partially valid. These initial impressions show her to be acute, if naïve, observer, and in touch with reality.
As she lives for days and weeks in this room, her objections to her treatment increase, but she is still mainly in touch with reality. However, her observations of her surroundings begin, increasingly, to conflict with others’. John insists that the people she sees out the window do not exist (Gilman).
She is beginning to personify the wallpaper in her musings. She compares this to her childhood, imaginings that her nursery furnishings came alive. She remembers the “kindly wink” from her bureau knobs (Gilman). The narrator also begins to hide her activities, for example, her writing, from her family, especially her sister-in-law.
She distinguishes herself, as an aspiring writer, from Jane, who aspires only to housekeeping. (Gilman). Thus, while the reader begins to question her perceptions because they are drifting away from reality, she remains insightful about her relations with those around her, and about herself. Her characterization of John’s sister is acute, and she is accurate in her observation of her tendency to “cry at nothing and cry most of the time” (Gilman).
After the Fourth of July holiday, her obsession with the wallpaper begins to signal her retreat away from the concrete world, and her increasing unreliability as a reporter of fact. She says of the wallpaper, “It dwells on my mind so,” and recounts how she visually follows the pattern by the hour (Gilman).
However, she continues to be alert to her condition of mind, recounting how she tries to convince John that she should visit, but despairing that “I was crying before I finished,” and cannot “think straight” (Gilman). As she begins to see a woman’s figure in the wallpaper, it seems as though she is trying to broach the topic of her near-hallucinations with her husband. She agrees that she is, “Better in body, perhaps, -“(Gilman).
The reader can infer that she would have said that her mind was deteriorating, but her solicitous husband stops her with a look (Gilman). Shortly thereafter, she says, “I always lock the door when I creep by daylight” (Gilman) but does not connect this consciously with what Jennie calls “yellow smooches” on her clothes (Gilman).
Thus, while interacting unconsciously with the hallucinated female behind the wallpaper and experiencing an apparent olfactory hallucination (Gilman), she also comments with clarity on her mental state. As her condition deteriorates, and she begins to strip the wallpaper to release the imaginary woman, her hallucinations take over. However, she still retains her observant eye for the behavior of others, for example, commenting on the “professional questions” John asks Jennie about her (Gilman).
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To nearly the end, she is lucid about people’s roles in her life. She fully acknowledges that she is the one doing the creeping only at the very last, finally identifying herself with the woman behind the wallpaper, “out in this great room” (Gilman). It is only when her husband faints in shock that she calls him the anonymous “that man,” not ‘John.’ She now seems fully disconnected from her former reality.
By using a strict first-person point of view, Gilman keeps us guessing until the very end. The author uses this to make sure that the reader continues to believe the truth of the narrator’s emotional state, as she sees it herself, while the tangible facts of her life disintegrate. The narrator may become mad, by the world’s standards, but she is always on target about what she feels.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Print.