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This short story from 1891 is narrated by a woman whose doctor husband has decided that she’s suffering from “a slight hysterical tendency.” Sounds fun already, right? Following this diagnosis, the narrator finds herself confined to one of the rooms in the ancestral manse where she and her hubby are spending the summer. This is supposed to help her get better, because that’s what medical science was like in 1891.
Plus, her husband has the brilliant idea of forbidding her from any “strenuous” mental activity like writing, due to his belief that her “imaginative power and habit of story-making” are likely to aggravate her nerves. Now that’s bedside manner. And this is despite the narrator’s own belief that she would benefit from “congenial work, with excitement and change.” Who’s in the right? Well, going by the results of this “rest cure,” we suspect that being cooped up with only her mind for company isn’t exactly the best remedy—despite being “what the doctor ordered.”
The fact that the narrator’s room used to be a nursery hardly seems coincidental: her husband even refers to her as a “little girl” (how annoying would that be?), and the nursery—complete with barred windows—pretty obviously signifies entrapment and infantilization. The place seems more like a cell than a place of recovery.
So despite her husband’s orders, the narrator writes of her fascination with the room’s wallpaper and a strange figure that she imagines moving around in its pattern. The narrator also interprets the pattern as bars, suggesting that the figure is a prisoner like herself. This connection gets stronger as the story goes on, with identity becoming blurred (we no longer know who “I” signifies) and the narrator coming to see herself as this figure. Ironically, her “recuperation” ends with her having a complete meltdown. So much for a little R & R.
The woman in the wallpaper therefore seems to be a figment of the narrator’s mind, and this highlights one of the story’s main themes. Imagine what it would be like to feel as though your whole personality is being stifled or walled in—wallpapered in, in this case. Well, that’s what’s happening here, and it’s this that brings about the screwy imagery in this story.
We also need to grasp the story’s historical and social context: the Victorian era was a time of strict ideas about “proper” roles for men and women, the most obvious being the association of women with the household and qualities of modesty and self-denial. On top of this, women often felt (or were made to feel) nervous about attempting careers as writers, and hysteria, as a sort of manifestation of nervousness, was seen as a female disease and usually associated with some guilt-tripping about women going outside their traditional roles.
There’s way more historical stuff that we could go into here, but, suffice to say, women sometimes got a raw deal. In the story, the narrator’s isolation and anxiety about writing tap into these issues, with Gilman employing some memorable imagery that invites a semiotic approach: