Intro to Literature I
Dr. Roger Easson
1 June 2004
Insanity is a phenomenon not often written about in literature. However, there is a piece of fiction written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which brings to life the disease of insanity. She is best known for her 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Like the main character, Gilman underwent a type of rest treatment after suffering from bouts of severe depression following the birth of her daughter. This type of “rest cure” was popularized by the well known physician S. Weir Mitchell. The story is the tale of a woman who goes mad after being prescribed a “rest cure” to relieve her of her desire to write. Coincidently, this is after the birth of her child as well. “The Yellow Wallpaper” actually chronicles the process of going insane. One of the qualities which makes the story so good is the fact the author knows very much about this process due to her own experiences. Oddly, the main character is unnamed, and this is perhaps because the experience she is undergoing robs her of her identity. She is alone in a yellow, wallpapered nursery with barred windows and is treated like the an inmate and a child. She is denied her writing which gives her peace and meaning in her life, as well as companionship which could distract her from her preoccupation with her surroundings. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman gives much attention to several types of female oppression in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through detailed visual imagery, strong personification, and an overwhelming amount of metaphoric expressions.
Through detailed visual imagery, Gilman gives us an extremely vivid mental picture of the main characters surroundings. Having a solid image of these surroundings helps readers better understand what the woman in the story is going through. It is through her eyes that we see the house, the grounds, the room, and of course the yellow wallpaper. The house, with all its metaphoric value, plays a great role in this story. Traditionally, when a house is used in fiction as a setting, it is a sacred place. It is an image of the universe from top to bottom, because it can represent heaven, earth, and hell depending on the story. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilmans detailed description of the house begins outside of it. “The most beautiful place! It is quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village…for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate houses for the gardeners and people” (Gilman 329). With this small passage, we get a good sense from the narrator of how large the estate is. In her description of the outside, the narrator makes a reference to “gates.” This is an important symbol in the story because it represents a place of great significance, as is the case in most fiction. We see another gate when the author describes her room. These gates outside the house and her room are both locked, and this symbolizes being trapped which is what our main character is, as well as women of Gilmans time. The visual imagery of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is strongest during Gilmans descriptions of the color and pattern of the wallpaper. Right away the color is dull, lurid, and sickly. She uses several passages to describe how inconsistent the nature of the wallpaper is. According to the narrator, it moves and changes; sometimes it has a pattern and sometimes it does not. Unfortunately, it has no definite color or pattern. Through this imagery, Gilman conveys the message of the irrational and unjust treatment of women by men in her time.
In addition to visual imagery, the author portrays the confusion of the narrator, caused by the wallpaper, through very strong personification. Throughout the story the narrator writes passages about the wallpaper which she cannot plainly describe. As the story progresses we begin to notice that as she tries to become more detailed she actually becomes more insane. At first, she tries to figure the paper out through its visual appearance, however she slowly digresses and begins to feel as though the paper is taunting her. This is how the author personifies the yellow wallpaper. “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had…There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down…Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd unblinking eyes are everywhere…I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before” (Gilman 331). The author brings the wallpaper to life in the mind of the narrator and we slowly start to see her beginning to battle the wallpaper as if it were a person. “You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well under way in following, it turns a back?somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you” (Gilman 334). In a sense, the narrator is engaged in a battle of wits with the wallpaper. She is convinced that the wallpaper is hiding something, and she is determined to find out what it is. The wallpaper also characterizes the narrators oppression, and it symbolizes her deteriorating mental state. The design of the paper looks like bars to the narrator, and once again we see a symbol of being trapped. In the story, this concept is personified when the narrator convinces herself there is the figure of a woman trapped inside the wallpaper. “The front pattern does move?and no wonder!The woman behind shakes it…she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over” (Gilman 336). The narrator becomes infatuated with helping this woman so she starts tearing down the paper in an effort to “free” her. However, as the paper is torn down, so is the narrators mental state.
With all metaphoric expressions, there are different interpretations. In Gilmans story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” there are numerous metaphoric themes and images. For example, because of the time period in which Gilman wrote this story, it is argued by some that the entire story is a metaphor illustrating the oppressive nature of men towards women during that time. This argument is largely supported, because the story is in fact a reflection of Gilmans own experience. Another one of the metaphoric examples of this argument is the female figure the narrator sees within the wallpaper. The woman hiding behind the paper comes to represent not only the trapped soul of the narrator, but she also represents the abused souls of women in Gilman s society. Of course, this is only true if we consider the wallpaper itself as being representative of male domination over women. On a different scale, other metaphoric themes are seen through the use of colors. The color yellow, for example, is the dominate color of the wallpaper. Commonly, yellow represents light or intellect, however it can also be construed as a warning. In medical terms (applicable to this story), a yellow flag means quarantine, and the narrator is definitely quarantined as we plainly see. Other examples are lightness and darkness. As we read the story, we can see that the action changes as day turns to night and vice versa. During the day, most things are calm as the narrator sleeps. “By daylight she (the woman in the paper) is subdued, quiet…It keeps me quiet by the hour” (Gilman 335). The lightness represents goodness in most cases, however in this story, it represents the narrators temporary return to order. On the other hand, when night falls, the action changes dramatically. Night is typically associated with obscurity and mystery, which is what our narrator is experiencing. As is symbolic with darkness, a kind of chaos arrives. “Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out…As soon as it was dark, that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern” (Gilman 337). Also, darkness is largely associated with captivity, which is again what our narrator is experiencing. In this story, a readers logical interpretation of all these metaphoric themes is what helps make the story powerful.
Upon reading Gilmans story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” we should see, through her extraordinary use of visual imagery, personification, and metaphoric theme, that the oppression towards women in Gilmans time was very apparent. Our narrator is seemingly doomed from the beginning, because she is left alone in a visually unsettling room with nothing to keep her company accept her thoughts. Obviously, this is not a good thing for someone who is suffering from a “nervous disorder”, like our narrator. Sadly, she never has a choice in the matter, and this was the case for almost all woman of the late nineteenth century. Women of that time had no say in anything. Perhaps this is why the narrator was never named in the story. Many times an unnamed character is representative of all of a certain gender, race, or religion. Gilman does in deed represent women of her time, and since the story was written upon reflection of her own experience, the preceding statement is definitely true. Through her own experience, Gilman is able to convey the images and ideas within “The Yellow Wallpaper” very effectively. Her writing gives us a true feeling of what it is like to go from somewhat normal to clinically insane.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper” Literature, Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama.Ed. Robert DiYanni. New York: McGraw?Hill, 2004.