The Yellow Wallpaper
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The first line of “The Yellow Wallpaper” does double duty, introducing both the setting of the story – a home for someone else’s ancestors – and the story’s narrator: “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral homes for the summer” (3).
We know that the narrator is 1) a woman (because she is married to a man, and this is 1890), 2) probably middle class (“mere ordinary people”), and 3) has a husband named John. All of this is actually pretty aggressively anonymous: the narrator has no name and is married to a guy who might as well have no name, since “John” doesn’t really give us any clues about who he is or where he might be from.
The fact that these three traits – her gender, her class, and her marriage – all make it into the first sentence (while her name doesn’t) suggests that these general characteristics may be more important to the unfolding of the plot than her actual identity or personal history (about which we learn very little).
Why are these traits so important? Because they provide the context central conflicts that drive the story. The narrator is a woman of sensitive temperament, and she is also a writer. She has been ill, and her illness has placed her in a weak position in relation to domineering John. As her husband and as her physician (a situation we think the American Medical Association would find problematic), John makes all of the narrator’s decisions for her, which really irritates her:
If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do? (3)
So, “one’s own husband” is badmouthing the narrator to her friends and refusing to take her seriously. That might have us crawling up the walls, too.
And what about class? Well, our Jane Doe apparently is of a social position that means she doesn’t have to work. She may be middle class enough that staying at an ancestral home is a new thing for her, but she’s still definitely on the upper end of the social spectrum. Maybe this lack of labor would be lucky for her if she was allowed to do anything else, but her illness has restricted her activities pretty much entirely.
John has prescribed absolute rest – he won’t even let her look after her baby. And while his intentions may be good, he’s driving the narrator nuts from boredom. How do we know this? She tells us so within the first page: “I did write for a while in spite of [John telling me not too]; but it does exhaust me a good deal – having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.” (3-4) The writing that she actively enjoys has been forbidden, so she has to do it in secret, leaving her tired and wrung out.
There’s a binary between John (professional man) and our narrator (unemployed woman); there’s also one between our narrator (lady of leisure) and her sister-in-law, Jennie (who takes care of the housework and the baby). Jennie may not have much power in the household, but she does have one thing that the narrator envies: an occupation.
There comes John's sister. Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing.
She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick! (8)
Jennie’s housekeeping gives her an authority over the narrator (who is, after all, doing zilch for anyone) that makes the narrator feel self-conscious and suspicious of Jennie's motives. As the story goes on, the narrator grows to resent John and Jennie more and more. With nothing to do but brood over how she has been wronged – and how incredibly ugly her wallpaper is – the narrator’s paranoia has a field day.
Something else we can’t help but notice in these previous passages: neither John nor Jennie thinks much of the activity of writing. They identify it as another symptom of the narrator’s nervousness, her emotionality. But the narrator rebels against them without much fanfare right from the beginning, simply by stealing time to write “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
The narrator’s mental health hinges not only on whether she has work to do, but what kind of work it is. She wants to write and isn’t allowed, something that “does exhaust her a good deal” (3). The subtle undermining of her confidence as a writer doesn’t exactly help to repair the damaged relationships she shares with her husband and her sister-in-law, sending her further into a frenzy of paranoia that leads to her mounting obsession with the design of the paper on her bedroom wall.
So – Just What Is Wrong With Her?
Well, “The Yellow Wallpaper” remains as ambiguous and unclear about the narrator’s illness as it does about her identity, so it’s tough to say what, exactly, is wrong with her. Still, we know mental illness is going to be an issue right from the first page because, once again, the narrator lets us know explicitly:
You see [John, the narrator’s husband] does not believe I am sick! And what can one do? […]
So I take phosphates or phosphites – whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well again.
Personally, I disagree with [John and her physician brother’s] ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do? (3)
We can get a lot about the character from this passage: first, she’s pretty alienated from her own treatment (“phosphates or phosphites – whichever it is”? In our experience, anyone who really believes in the medicine she's taking isn’t going to forget what it’s called). Also, the antagonism between the narrator and pretty much everyone around her becomes apparent when she’s all, “Personally, I disagree!”
Second, the narrator feels ill, but her ailment doesn’t manifest physically. This is definitely an ongoing tension (as though their marriage needed more baggage) between the narrator and her physician husband, who “scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (3).
Whenever the narrator tells John that she feels worse and worse, all he replies is that her body is getting better and better (though, why it was weak in the first place, we don’t know. Perhaps her baby had a difficult birth?). He refuses to acknowledge that her mind could be sick even though her body is healthy.
We know from the outset that the narrator resents her husband’s treatment and continues to feel unsettled even as she recovers physically. So, she’s not starting the story in a great place mentally; the yellow wallpaper isn’t so ugly that it can drive totally sane people out of their minds. But – our narrator isn't totally sane.
The story does a great job of suggesting the claustrophobic conditions that make her condition worse: note that the bed in her terrible attic room is nailed down, underlining how trapped the narrator is. She’s not allowed to do anything that might “upset” her – in other words, that might give her release for her emotions: she’s not allowed to write, she’s not allowed to work, and she’s not allowed to travel. (Is anyone else reminded of Nurse Ratched’s treatments in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? And look how that turned out.)
The only thing that the narrator has left to do is to speculate about the ugly, irregular wallpaper of the attic room. As she loses stability, the wallpaper’s importance to her as the one puzzle she has to occupy herself with becomes greater and greater.
In fact, as she grows more certain that she gets the wallpaper as no one else does, the people she knows become correspondingly less understandable. Without any outlet beyond the wallpaper, the narrator’s anger builds, leading her to increasingly paranoid speculations about John and Jennie: “The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John. He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look” (13).
As she slowly aligns herself with the wallpaper and distances herself from John and Jennie, the narrator starts to recognize another woman creeping behind the pattern of the paper – and it’s then that everything really hits the fan. For more on the creeping woman and the narrator’s final breakdown, see the Woman in the Wallpaper "Character Analysis."
A Society Lady
So, let’s talk for a second about this building obsession that drives our narrator to “get to work” (17) peeling away at the walls imprisoning a woman she sees behind the yellow wallpaper’s maddening pattern. There is a moment, right at the end there, when the narrator slips into the persona of this creeping paper woman:
I don't like to look out of the windows even – 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?
But I am securely fastened now by my well-hidden rope – you don't get me out in the road there!
I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!
It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please! (18)
Do you notice anything weird about this passage (besides – the obvious)? The narrator now believes that she is a woman recently freed from behind the bars of an ugly wallpaper pattern. But she’s still talking (despite the exclamation points) like a well-bred society lady. Where’s the cursing? How is she still making any kind of sense?
In a lot of ways, “The Yellow Wallpaper” reads like a real Gothic novel – oppressive husband, unfair social restrictions, a crazy lady – but the narrator, even in the depths of her breakdown, still writes like Edith Wharton.
Compare this to, say, that famous madwoman in the attic, Bertha in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, whose insanity makes her unable to speak. The narrator of this story, by contrast, is not only still totally verbally skilled, but remember – she’s writing about her own breakdown. It’s like the narrator has been so indoctrinated by social codes of the day that, even in the midst of a complete mental collapse, she still remembers to keep her journal and to be polite, both to herself and to poor, fainting John.
There’s a logical progression to this story that doesn’t surrender to the total mental breakdown of its heroine. This tips us off that “The Yellow Wallpaper,” again, may be less interested in the particulars of its protagonist’s mental state and more interested in protesting larger social issues like unjust treatment of the mentally ill and of women.
A Narrator We Can Believe In?
It may not seem like an obvious choice to end our character analysis by asking whether the person in question is, in fact, a character, but in the case of the nameless narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper" it’s worth thinking about. Because the narrator isn’t just a character, she’s also a plot device: for all of her apparent passivity, she really dominates the story, carefully sculpting not only what we know about her, but also what we think of her.
Lots of novels (check out Shmoop on Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby for examples) use the limited perspective of one marginal character to narrate (and make sense of) the (usually more exciting) people around him. It’s a two for one deal. Not only do we, the readers, see the crazy shenanigans of a charismatic central character, like Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab or The Great Gatsby’s Jay Gatsby, but we also get one peripheral character (Ishmael in Moby Dick, Nick in Gatsby) telling us what he thinks of said shenanigans.
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” though, offers pretty much no outside perspective on the actions of the story’s heroine. It’s like – if Bob Costas, instead of sitting at NBC commenting on, say, gymnast Shawn Johnson’s performance at a competition, suddenly decided to put on a red leotard and jump on the balance beam himself. And after balancing his heart out, he wouldn’t stop there, oh no! Then he’d move to the judge’s bench and decide his own scores. Like imaginary Gymnast Bob, the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” isn’t just the story’s main actor; she also provides all the background information and analysis made available to the reader.
Consolidating the narrator and the central character into one person is a really high-stakes way to tell a story. Why? Well, to return to Gymnast Bob, would you trust the opinion of someone who evaluated his own performance, without anyone to support his claims? The rewards are just as great as the risks, though: we tend to believe first person narrators (because, after all, we have nothing to go on but what they give us), and they have a lot of power over the reader’s interpretation of events.
Let’s take a look at some quotes from the narrator about her husband John to see the subtle way she shapes the reader’s feelings about the people in her life.
- John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in a marriage. (3)
- I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad. (4)
- Dear John! He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia.
But he said I wasn’t able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished. (10)
The narrator’s powerlessness, emotional distress, and pleas to John that she needs to get away – all of these make us sympathize with her, as does her effort to convince herself (and the reader) that she still loves the man in spite of his treatment of her. (“Dear John”? Come on.) John comes across as a big ol’ jerk for not believing his wife when she tells him she’s still feeling bad.
And that’s the genius of the narration of “The Yellow Wallpaper”: it seems natural, even inevitable, that we believe John’s a horrible person, but who’s telling us so? His discontented, desperately unhappy wife. And we’re not saying you shouldn’t believe her – John seems like an utter tool – but we do want to point out that it is also strategic, in a story challenging contemporary mental health treatment, to make the ailing narrator a total victim and the husband/doctor kind of a monster.The Narrator Timeline