The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) is a perplexing short-story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Consisting of only 20 pages, this rapid-read tackles a range of serious issues which are relevant even now in the 21st century! Gilman sheds light on:
- the position of women in general & also that of female writers
- post-natal depression & motherhood
I first came across the story back in my A-Level English class; it was included again on the reading syllabus for a module that I took on women’s writing in the final year of my BA English course at University. And every time that I’ve read the text since, I’ve gained a different impression of the unnamed female main character/narrator.
On first reading the story I found the female narrator to be weak and largely at the mercy of her physician husband John, who always ‘laughs at [her]’, belittles her with terms like ‘little goose’ and ‘little girl’ and confines her within a ‘colonial mansion’ for the Summer after she shows signs of mental illness. The way in which she acts the role of the subservient wife and follows all of John’s orders, made me in a sense, lose respect for her. She follows a ‘scheduled prescription’ that he has made up for her, goes to bed early and lies down ‘for an hour after each meal’ because that is what John advises, and steers clear of ‘wine and red meat’ because John says that they are bad for her health!
However on my second encounter with the short story, the narrator’s acts of rebellion took the forefront much more in my reading. I paid attention to the way in which despite being discouraged from writing by her husband, the female narrator successfully keeps a diary, believing that it will ‘relieve the press of ideas [in her mind] and rest [her]’, even though this contradicts John’s beliefs. Moreover, she slyly hides her writing from both John and his sister Jennie, who also condemns her creativity, thus allowing her to maintain a personal hobby away from the judgemental watch of her controlling husband. Her biggest act of defiance towards John, however, is seen at the end of the novel when she scrapes the yellow wallpaper from the walls and oddly begins creeping about the room, causing her ‘practical’ husband who has ‘no patience with faith and an intense horror of superstition’, to faint upon seeing this bizarre sight! Furthermore in the final few sentences she refers to him as ‘that man’, a very detached form of address towards her life partner and proceeds to routinely ‘creep over him’. The way in which she creeps over him, to me, signifies her abolition of his rule over her, as she maintains a higher position when wading over his unconscious body, which provides her with power and superiority.
The reader’s reception of the female character/narrator is only one subject in a long list of topics that can be discussed in relation to The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Despite being a story of 20 pages, it’s one of the most multifaceted works of literature that I have ever come across and I believe that it is a positive testament to the literary capabilities of female authors everywhere.