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“The Yellow Wallpaper” a Story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman Essay

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Updated: Jul 22nd, 2020

Introduction

In the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the narrator’s feelings, activities, and general well-being intertwine with the imaginary patterns she sees in the yellow wallpaper in her room. The narrator and her husband travel to a castle home for a summer vacation that will also serve as recuperation for the narrator who seemingly suffers from a mental disorder that may be associated with the recent birth of her son.

She tries to convince her husband John and one of her minders Jennie, to see the patterns she notices in the wallpaper of her upstairs room, which they, of course, cannot see: the narrator has extended her mental disorder to the yellow wallpaper and the illusionary patterns she perceives on the wall are her mind’s creations. Her general descent into psychosis begins when she requests to have some things done for her that turn out to overwhelm her – for example she insists on a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia, but when she gets there she is barely in the mood and cries for no apparent reason (6).

Her bizarre fascination with the patterns on the wallpaper begins when she spends a lot of time in the room with the wallpaper at daytime, eventually having her conscious state and sense of image inextricably linked to an image of herself that she projects in the patterns on the wallpaper. Therefore, the woman that the narrator perceives in the wallpaper patterns represents her own projected image, and the woman’s acts illustrates the real, actual and physical acts of the narrator.

Description as an indicator of similarity

The descriptions that the narrator gives for the woman in the patterns portray the similarity of the projected image and the narrator’s physical state. The narrator states, “There are things that paper [wallpaper] that nobody knows but me, or ever will”. This description of the wallpaper being as intimate to her as to preclude anybody else ever finding out some details about it reflects her. The personal and intimate details of the heart, mind, and soul that only known to self are what she describes here.

She says confidently that nobody can ever find out about these details of the wallpaper because she is referring to her feelings, desires, and dreams that she would never mention to anyone else – hence the confident declaration that nobody will ever find out these details. She further states that the wallpaper image is “Always the same shape, only very numerous”, an indication of the form of her physical body’s shape which never changes. The many patterns are only a description of the different angles through which the sun’s rays project her shadows at various places during the day, and the moon’s illumination throughout the night, on the wallpaper.

Behavior and character attribute as an indicator of similarity

One of the queer behaviors that have afflicted the narrator because of her mental unsoundness is creeping. She states that the pattern on the wallpaper “Is like a woman stooping down and creeping behind that pattern” (7). Yet this description fits her because further in the text (10), the narrator states how the woman in the patterns has the peculiar behavior of stooping and creeping during the daytime, and according to her judgment it is very humiliating and unladylike for a woman to creep during the daytime.

She confesses that she cannot creep at night because her husband John would suspect something amiss the very moment she attempts to steal out of the room at night. Her revelation that she cannot stop and creep at night like she would want thus leaves her with little choice but to creep during the daytime when her husband is away in town working and her minder Jennie none the wiser insofar as her creeping acts are concerned.

She states that she sees the woman in her wallpaper through her window, and adds that the woman gets out of the window and creeps out in the trees along the road, hiding shamefully under blackberry vines whenever a carriage approaches (10). The narrator is the very woman creeping because she states that she sees the woman in the patterns on the wallpaper, yet now she can see this woman out in the fields and along the road outside the house – where there are no wallpapers or patterns. The description thus fits the narrator’s surreptitious actions, and she is the very person who creeps out of her window into the fields and back the same manner without Jennie noticing.

Further certainty that the narrator is the creeper exists in Jennie’s ‘assessment report’ to John that the narrator sleeps a lot during daytime – tired from the long walks and creeping she does at different times of the day. Additionally, she states that “…outside you have to creep on the ground” (12) and also explains that she doesn’t prefer the outdoors anymore because everything seemed green as opposed to her room where everything seemed yellow. Her confession that outside one has to creep on the ground indicates that she indeed did creep outside, and thus the woman she projects on the wallpaper is herself.

Physical attachment to the Yellow Wallpaper as evidence of similarity

The narrator spends long hours analyzing, physically enforcing and rubbing her body on the wall, leading to her inability to distinguish her self from her image on the patterns in the yellow wallpaper. She speaks of the strange color of yellow on the wallpaper and subsequently speaks of a strange ‘yellow’ smell (9). She further states that when they first arrived at the house the smell was not too powerful but after a while, the smell seemed to follow her everywhere she went, and her dislike for the smell almost led her to burn the house to get rid of that smell (9).

She also speaks of Jennie complaining about the yellow wallpaper “stained everything it touched” (9) and that Jennie found yellow smooches all over the narrator’s clothes and those of John. The obsessive nature that the narrator physically clings to the design and patterns of the yellow wallpaper to the extent of having marks of the paper all over her clothes, and having the associated smell of the wallpaper – the one the narrator describes as ‘yellow’ smell – are all indicative of the narrator’s obsession with the wallpaper.

This extreme preoccupation with the wallpaper has blurred her view and she is unable to draw the line between reality and fantasy. Therefore, though she is the woman who is doing all the activities she attributes to a woman behind the patterns on the yellow wallpaper, she is none the wiser due to her mental condition. That being so, the smell that keeps haunting her is, in fact, the smell of the leftover paint that she rubs her body and hair on every day while creeping along the walls of the room in her vain attempts to ‘analyze’ the patterns on the wall.

The Vacation House and Room with Yellow wallpaper as a Prison/jail

Tragically, the narrator viewed the entire house she was spending her vacation at, and specifically the room she was in, as a jail – one that she related to the nearing end of the vacation with her day of freedom. On the last night of the vacation, her husband is away and she refuses the company of Jennie, her unsound mind believing that she needed all the possible privacy she in her quest to free the woman trapped in the wallpaper patterns. She, therefore, begins her attempt to ‘free’ the woman in the patterns, stating, “As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her” (11).

The narrator thus engages in fantasy efforts of freeing the woman in the patterns, all the while trying to free herself, from her madness, from her confined existence, from the distance she had created between her and her baby, and from the inability of taking control of her fate. She morphs her two discordant images in a possible cure to her madness, and the narrator describes her unified effort with the woman in the patterns to get rid of the wallpaper that represented the imprisonment of women.

The narrator states, “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper” (11). This effort that the narrator explains as being carried out by two persons is, in essence, an attempt to exercise the torturous images that have plagued her mind throughout her vacation – these images being the indicators of her mental disorder. Her attempts are however futile, and despite exerting herself the whole night, she is still unable to prevent these images from appearing within her mind. She narrates that the pattern even laughed at her failure to overcome that challenge.

Freedom from the Jail – the end of mental disorder

Finally, in a vicious and determined final effort to free herself from the patterns she sees on walls, she locks herself in the room to plan and strategize. She locks the key and throws it at the backyard so that no one comes in to disturb her, and that she is not able to go out. However, the results of her acts again justify the view that the narrator’s real, physical and actual acts are the acts reflected in the by the woman she sees in the patterns.

The narrator acquires a rope supposedly to tie up the woman in the patterns so that she does not attempt to flee after she frees her – “I’ve got a rope up here that even Jennie did not find. If that woman does get out and tries to get away, I can tie her!” (12). In a twist of events, she, however, ends up tying herself with this rope. She tells a mortified John when he enters the room that she finally got out, at last, indicating that she was, in the end, successful in freeing that woman – by herself – and had ‘tied her’ so that she does not run away, but stays on to savor her long-fought victory. John faints to shock of her actions.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the analysis has shown that the woman that the narrator perceives in the wallpaper patterns is herself. Additionally, the images that the narrator saw in the patterns, the behaviors she attributed to the woman in the patterns, and the intimacy with which she acknowledges the attributes of that woman all reflect the character of the narrator as mentally disabled. Her efforts to free this woman were indeed efforts to free herself from her madness. She finally succeeds in being free from her madness – a condition the images in the patterns represented.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte. The Yellow Wallpaper. Alabama Virtual Library: Literature Resource Centre, n.d. Web.

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