“The Yellow Wall-Paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman

Cover of "The Yellow Wallpaper and Other ...
Available on Amazon and at you local bookstore. (Cover via Amazon)

An unsettling story, to say the least. I decided to read this story because of how often I’ve heard of it. I was particularly intrigued because I was told that the narrator is highly unreliable and unstable and such narrators always pique my interest. Of course, my constant misgiving regarding the classics made me assume that it would be a boring read but I resolved to plow through it no matter what. I wanted to know what happens.

I read “The Yellow Wall-Paper” in the Penguin Classics copy of Gillman’s selected writing. It includes an introduction written by Denise D. Knight, professor of English at SUNY Cortland. I’m glad I read the introduction before reading the story because it provided some perspective. Usually, I skip introductions because they tend to give the story away and take all the fun out of puzzling it out for myself. But in this case—where the story is a tad confusing and might be hard to digest if you haven’t the patience for such a narrative—it’s good to read the introduction and get some information on the author’s background and what moved her to write such an unsettling tale.

I like Gillman. I like to assume that anyone who considers herself a feminist would like her too. I think of myself as a semi-feminist. Gillman advocated for equality in the household. She didn’t believe that the woman’s sole purpose should be that of wife and mother. A woman could be more than that or none of them, if she chose. Basically, a woman should have the free will to choose who she wants to be and how she wants to be identified. Gillman believed that society’s insistence on gender roles—man as provider and protector; woman as nurturer and domesticated—limits humanity’s ability. I wonder what she would say of the world now. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is drawn from her own experience. She suffered from depression in her 20s after giving birth to a daughter and was prescribed bed rest, basically she was told not to do anything but lie around all day. Of course, this didn’t help her depression but made her worse. It wasn’t until she stopped with such treatments that she became better.

Quick summary:

“The Yellow Wall-Paper” is a short story about an unnamed narrator who suffers from depression and is prescribed bed rest by her physician husband and is driven mad because of it. The narrator, who is a mother (like Gillman), moves to an ancestral hall for the summer with her husband. She likes the house because it seems haunted—she has a fanciful mind—but hates the wallpaper that plasters the walls of her bedroom. She becomes fixated on the wallpaper the longer she stays at the mansion doing nothing but stealing moments to secretly write in her journal until she soon begins to see the woman behind the paper’s pattern. When she unravels the pattern, she frees the woman and shocks her husband.

My reaction:

I enjoyed the story immensely. It is froth with meaning. On the surface, it’s a story about a woman that goes crazy. We don’t know who she is or why this happens. Her condition worsens when she becomes paranoid and sees illusions in the wallpaper of her bedroom. Her loving husband, who cares for her immensely to the point of being controlling, is in denial about her mental decline. In this case, the story ends with the husband fainting from the sight of his deranged wife probably due to the shock of seeing the physical manifestation of his wife’s mental deterioration. Taking this story at face value makes a satisfactory read because it’s haunting. It appeals to the same emotions as horror films and psychological thrillers.

However, one can interpret what is presented in the story and try to unravel the author’s message. Since Gillman felt strongly about women’s place in society, I believe all parts of this story are intentionally placed to connote a certain meaning. It is obvious that the narrator wants to be free, both physically and mentally but especially mentally. Her bedroom is a physical portrayal of the bars placed on her mind. Although her bedroom was once a child’s playroom, it is hard for the reader to imagine it as such what with the bars placed on the windows, the nailed-down bed, and the “rings and things in the walls.” That sounds like a prison to me.

The woman trapped in the pattern.
The woman trapped in the pattern.

She is barred mentally because of the amount of control her loving husband exerts over her. He decides what she should or shouldn’t do. And he decides whether or not she is sick. Throughout most of the story, he refuses to admit that his wife may be ill. He does not listen to her and often laughs at her whenever she gives her opinions. Her only refuge, at first, was the moments she steals to write, which her husband tells her not to do. Writing is her first act of defiance; although, even when she does so her husband’s control often barges in, preventing her from completing her original thoughts.

Her inability to express herself drives her insane and being locked in the yellow wall-papered room all day, not doing a thing, causes her to project her reality onto it. She begins to see herself behind the bars of the wall-paper’s pattern. And she works to free herself. She succeeds in doing so and her husband breaks into the room at the moment she mentally escapes him. Why he faints? I’m still trying to puzzle that out. It could be from shock, as stated above, because he realizes that his wife is mad but I think it’s more than that. I think the power dynamic in their relationship shifted when the lady escapes the pattern since she “creeps over him.” She no longer has to heed what he says, or submit to his control. She no longer has to hide her opinions and emotions. In effect, she no longer has to be a wall-paper in the relationship—seen and not heard. I think the husband is rendered powerless by this change and thus faints. His power was in his ability to control and make the decisions but that’s no longer needed since the narrator is now supposedly free.

There’s no definite ending to this story so make of it what you will. Gillman left the conclusion in the hands (or mind) of the reader. The narrator’s purpose is to be free but whether or not she is depends on the reader’s interpretation. One thing I think is definite is that she is mad as hell…or maybe all of that signifies something else. Who knows? I think she’s crazy. The strain of remaining silent and compliant drove her mad and it is the madness that frees her.

I love how Gillman wrote this story because it is open to varied interpretations depending on what the reader chooses to see. The husband is both kind and loving and controlling. The narrator, both logical and illogical. I must admit, at first I didn’t believe the narrator to be mad. I didn’t until close to the end. Which is why writing in the first person works well for this story. First-person narrators are always unreliable but also endearing, well, most of them are. It’s easy for the reader to be swayed by the first-person narrator’s opinions and sympathize with her. It’s not that this narrator doesn’t believe she is off. It’s that her husband’s control over her is so strong that she believes as he does and therefore does not own the facts that reveal her declining mentality until late in the story.

Her decline is revealed gradually, beginning with the people she sees on the sidewalks outside her window, which later turn out to be numerous crawling women who possibly escaped the wall-paper, like her. Then there are the small mentions that are dropped every now and then but fairly repeated throughout—like the gnawed bedstead, the scratching in the wall, and the groove in the wall as well, which she blames on the children who previously occupied the room. Those must have been some rambunctious kids. But then close to the end she admits to biting a piece of the bedstead in anger. I think this happens often hence the gnawing look of it. And that groove in the wall was probably made by her when she creeps around the room, which she does only in daylight and with the door locked. And then there are the extreme ideas that pops into her head—burning the house to locate the smell of the wall-paper and jumping out of the window because she’s angry— that she barely prevents herself from committing. Why? Because her intentions will be misconstrued; not because they are dangerous.

Overall, a great read and worthy of its classic status. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is short and can be done in a few minutes. And it’s perfect for a mild horror/psychological thriller venture. It is not boring in least and Gillman is quite funny. I highly recommend it and have already suggested it to many friends. Can’t wait to sample her other works.


10 thoughts on ““The Yellow Wall-Paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman

  1. What a brilliant review! Another blogger recently recommended this book to me and now I will certainly be reading it. I always get drawn to these kind of unusual, dark stories. The human mind can be a fascinating place, and the themes in this book sound interesting.


    1. Thank you! And I agree, the human mind is fascinating. It’s interesting how it adjusts to cope with our reality, or what we want our reality to be.


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