The Yellow Wallpaper

Charlotte Perkins Gillman

This feminist short story condemns the tyranny of traditional patriarchal family structure by telling the story of a woman driven mad by bad interior decorating.

See a short film rendition of this story here.

We are practicing:

Mapping a Character's Development

Analyzing an Author's Argument

Describing an Author's Style

Character Development

When looking a the character of the woman, perhaps the most noticeable fact is that we do not learn the her name until the end of the story, when she has become divorced from herself, and describes herself in the third person.

We understand Jane's character from her internal monologues (see style). We are never able to see outside of her own mind, which means that we are left to infer what others think and feel about Jane and her actions. However what seems clear is that others are concerned for Jane's well-being from the very beginning.

We learn that she is bedridden with an an undetermined illness that has been diagnosed by her husband and another physician as "hysteria". She is in a vacation home with her young child (baby) who is being cared for by a nurse.

Over the course of the short story, Jane's character transforms, mentally, emotionally, and physically as she begins weak and enfeebled (mentally and emotionally as well as physically) and moves to the end of the story as an empowered and independent person, even if completely crazy.

From her internal monologues we see Jane's character transform. Initially she is weak and uncertain from her "illness" and exacerbated by her stay in a room with wallpaper she abhors. As she finds herself trapped in the room (her husband not wanting to move her) she begins to become increasingly anxious about the wallpaper, until she begins her delusions. By the end of the story she has turned herself over to her delusions to the extent that she has suffered a psychotic break and identifies herself as the woman trapped in the wallpaper. Along with this mental transformation comes her emotional transformation from feeling affection for her husband to seeing him as her antagonist she must get away from. Her final transformation in character comes physically where we see her weak and retiring to trying moving her master bed, tearing off wallpaper with her teeth, and stepping over the fainted body of her husband as she creeps around the room.

Analyzing an Author's Argument

Gillman is very direct in her articulation of her purpose for writing. She was a feminist and an activist aligning herself to several great woman of the suffrage movement of the turn of the century. When we look at argument, this "context" should inform our reading, but does not need to limit it. As always, I suggest asking questions to help us interpret. These were questions that the class came up with in our discussions.

1. Why doesn't she move herself from the room if it bothers her so? Why doesn't John move her?
2. Why is it a woman she sees in the wallpaper?
3. Why doesn't she talk to someone else? Why does she talk to herself only?
4. What do Jenny and John see happening to her?

Once we've established these questions, we want to pass them through the guards of interpretation by checking the following things. 1. How well can I answer this question with the text? 2. What will I learn with this question?

When we analyze these questions, we find that they are excellent for discerning any one of the many possible arguments for Gillman's piece (remember a piece of writin does not necessarily have only one argument).

Some of the ideas students came up with for its argument are as follows:
1. Mental illness is stigmatized and treated like a dirty secret to be hidden away.
2. Gillman is arguing that men in these traditional structures believe they know more than women (because they have the power and authority).
3. Putting Jane's illness in a box (deciding what it is and what it isn't and not being open to what it may also be) is what causes her to go crazy.
4. Jane not having her feelings acknowledged but repressed causes her to feel trapped and leads to her identifying with the woman in the wallpaper.

These ideas can be crafted into theses for an essay that interpret Gilman's argument well.

Describing an Author's Style

Most notable about Gillman's use of style is her insistence on internal monologue without third person narration. This remaining in the first person means that while we have complete access to Jane's head, we are not able to see outside of her, to other people's responses and reactions. This myopic perspective, allows us to see the reasoning of Jane's world even as she becomes more unreasonable, and mean that the "reasonable" people outside of her head are not as relatable. Similarly, we see Gillman's syntax mirror this as the writing is not in a flowing narrative but in short choppy thoughts reflecting a stream of consciousness from the character.