Many intellectual artists, who are widely acclaimed for their literary work, live in a world characterized by “progressive insanity” (Gilman 20). Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one such individual. A writer during the early 20th century, Gilman suffered from bouts of deep depression, due part to her dissatisfaction with the limitations of her role as wife and mother. Her writing, particularly her famous story “The Yellow Wallpaper” reflects experiences from her personal life. In doing so, “she achieved some control over both her illness and her past” (Lane 128).
Many people still admire the fact that Gilman wrote her piece “to save people from being driven crazy;” however, perhaps she wrote the story t rescue herself from the psychological distress that she often suffered. (Gilman 20) Many people find the conclusion of “The Yellow Wallpaper” problematic because the protagonist ends up insane. Others, however, have offered an alternative reading of the story, one which posits that the protagonist’s response to her profoundly oppressive situation is perhaps the most “normal” and “healthy” response to her.
Clearly Gilman had a great deal to say about the restrictions placed on women in the early 20th century. “The Yellow Wallpaper” explores a young woman’s gradual psychological demise. In doing so, however, readers may also observe the gradual liberation of a woman. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator who is suffering from depression, takes a trip to the country for the summer, with her husband and their baby. Her husband has diagnosed his wife’s condition as merely “a temporary nervous depression” (Gilman 4) and he decides to move her to a nursery that is located at the top of the house.
She is surrounded by ugly yellow wallpaper and barred windows. Disturbed by the wallpaper, she asks her husband for another room or different wallpaper; however, he refuses. The woman becomes increasingly unhappy as she is forced t occupy a room that she despises. In this deprived environment, the pattern of the wallpaper becomes increasingly compelling. The figure of a woman begins to take shape behind the pattern of the paper. At night the pattern becomes bars, and the woman in the wallpaper is imprisoned. As her imagination worsens, she frantically rips off the paper in order to free the woman she perceives is trapped inside.
As the story reaches its conclusion the narrator locks herself in the room and when her husband finally unlocks the door, he is terrified to find her creeping around the room. “I’ve got out at last,” she tells him, “and I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back” (Gilman 19). Her husband faints and she keeps crawling over him. As you can see, the yellow wallpaper represents a different reality. It is “living paper”, aggressively alive (Treichler 191): You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are.
It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream (Gilman 12). The narrator strongly resists the wallpaper because it constantly forces its ugliness upon her mind. The paper serves as an unattractive, unresolved and complex symbol throughout the story. “The female lineage that the wallpaper represents is thick, with life, expression, and suffering (Treichler 193). The pattern of the paper serves as an agitating and distracting pattern: This paper looks to [the narrator] 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 [her] upside down. [She gets] positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are [surrounding her everywhere] (Gilman 7). Many critics find this passage as an essential theme to the story. During this scene, the lifeless wallpaper assumes the characteristics of an angry child who grows increasingly demonic.
The narrator sees petrifying images of babies in the walls and immediately thinks, not of her baby on the floor below, but of herself as a child (Lane 130). She literally cannot escape from the baby because her imagination has projected it onto the landscape of her bedroom. She is “frightened by the images of a baby, the one she has and the one she was” (Lane 130). Lifeless at one moment and human the next, the baby evokes contradictory emotions within her, both tenderness and resentment. In contrast to Gilman, we can conclude that Gilman in reality, suffered form the fears that haunt an abandoned child.
Gilman becomes a childlike figure in the story, where she becomes a baby and recreates the horrible nightmare that she had to face as an unloved child. The language and the imagery she used in her story allowed her to express fears of her own baby, memories of childhood’s blank walls, “fears of being strangled, devoured, and violent by those who pretend to love” (Lane 128). To add to the woman’s suffering, her husband has limited her artistic abilities by his prescription of complete rest. Instead of seeking comfort with her husband, she must turn to the wallpaper for escape.
John is a patronizing and a condescending man who is only concerned about having absolute control over his wife: He said I was his darling and his comfort and all he had, and that I must take care of myself for his sake, and keep well. He days no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self control and not let any silly fancies rum away with me” (Gilman 10). Though John wants to deal with his wife’s symptoms, he is both “fearful and contemptuous of her imaginative and artistic powers, largely because he fails to understand them or the view of the world they lead her to” (Shumaker 195).
He also fails to acknowledge the basis of her needs and requests, and he makes her objection to the paper seem impractical. When the woman asks her husband to take her away, he starts to manipulate her mind through deceptive details: ” You are gaining flesh and color and your appetites is better, I feel really much better abut you” (Gilman 12). When she implies that her physical condition is not the problem, he cuts her off by saying: I beg of you that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours.
It is a false and foolish fancy (Gilman 12). For all these reasons, the protagonist begins to creep and crawl within her madness. She decides to detach herself from the perceptions of others by becoming increasingly attached to the yellow wallpaper and the figure that exists behind the shadow (Hill 151). The figure acts as a source of friendship and by the end of the story the narrator tries to free it. At this point her language becomes bolder: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper” (Gilman 17).
The room is depicted as a room occupied by its former inmates, whose struggles have nearly ruined it (Treichler 191). She strives to liberate the women trapped within the walls by ripping off all the wallpaper. The ending of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is unresolved and complex. The narrator is so powerless and confused to the point where she has allowed her unconscious mind to possess her thoughts and actions: I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision!
I don’t like to look out of the windows.. there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did? (Gilman 18) As you can see, the yellow wallpaper becomes a complex representation of the narrator’s life and mind. The narrator has tried to comprehend the forces and reasons that have imprisoned her. She turns to the wallpaper for guidance and help, however, her efforts are unsuccessful. Just like the “pointless pattern”, the life of the narrator is as randomly designed (Pringle 111).
However, the narrator’s final proclamation proves to be one of triumph when she rips off the yellow wallpaper and says: “I’ve got out at lastso you can’t put me back” (Gilman 19). She has followed her own logic and her perceptions to this final scene in which madness is seen as a kind of “transcendent sanity” (Delamotte 211). The narrator’s only available reaction is to descend into madness. This response only seems natural and healthy, considering her oppressive situation. She decides to defy the social and medical codes of her time, to retain her rationality and her individuality (Hedge 107).
In doing so, the heroine of the story, had allowed herself to overcome her feeling of inferiority. Since the beginning of the story we learn that the narrator lives in a world that denies her humanity. If this is her circumstance, and the reality of her existence, perhaps an act of imagination is the only act of freedom possible. In order for the narrator to regain her individuality, she decides to use her triumph as a way to free the imprisoned woman within herself. By ripping off the paper, the narrator has taken one step towards independence. She accomplishes this by using her situation of humiliation and turning it into one of victory.
Since the narrator has no other alternative, her only rationality lies in her rebellion against the wallpaper. Even though her insanity serves as a form of defiance, a certain reality has to be addressed. The narrator still remains physically bound by a rope and locked in a room. This final vision can be understood as one of physical enslavement, not liberation (Treichler 194). Therefore, her freedom may only be fulfilled in a limited sense. She is only free the need to deceive herself and others about the true nature of her role. However, there is one question that still remains unsettled.
Will the narrator’s “supposed” individual freedom last for long? In the story her husband only faints, he does not die. Consequently, her freedom is only temporary, not permanent. What will happen to the narrator when her husband wakes up? Will he decide to place her in a mental institution or will her captivity continue at home? These questions should not diminish the narrator’s partial accomplishment of independence. It only helps us realize the consequences of the narrator’s rebellion. Therefore, the narrator’s response to her situation is remarkably courageous, considering the early 20th century’s code of womanly behavior.
Even though the story ends up a maze of ironic ambiguities, the final image in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one of triumph and defeat, insight and insanity, self-knowledge and self-loss (Delamotte 221). Thus, everything is accomplished on the basis of an equilibrium. Since things have improved during our time, sometimes we find it difficult to comprehend the choices the narrator makes. However, when one reads “The Yellow Wallpaper” the reader becomes more sympathetic to the heroine and is almost seduced into sharing her increasing psychotic point of view.