30 Stories, Day 28: The Yellow Wallpaper

With thanks to ratherthanwriting for suggesting this story!

The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.

Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day.
It is always the same shape, only very numerous.
And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder–I begin to think–I wish John would take me away from here!

Synopsis

A woman and her husband have rented an old manor for the summer so that the woman may spend it in convalescence. She has been experiencing what John—her husband, who is a physician—calls “temporary nervous depression”. The woman believes her problem goes deeper than this, and is some more advanced mental illness, but her husband does not believe her (a practical man, he does not believe in faith, superstition, or anything that cannot be shown with hard evidence) and denies any such claims. Instead, the physician assures his wife that her condition is nothing more than a slight hysterical tendency and tells her not to think of it, for to think of it is to encourage it.

The woman’s account (it is she that writes to us—writing as a way of catharsis) obediently finds another subject: the house. She talks of its beauty, of its charming rooms and gardens, of the bedroom John has chosen for them: a loft that used to be a nursery and gymnasium, for there are bars on the windows for children and various rings in the walls.

It is this room that contains the most repulsive and captivating yellow wall paper she has ever seen.

We learn much through our narrator’s writings: that her husband fusses over her; encourages her to take tonics and treatments and get plenty of fresh air and exercise; discourages her from writing because of the way it makes her think on her condition. Our narrator, of course, disagrees; she finds the writing helpful, but since her husband gets so bothered about it she only writes when he (and his sister, Jennie, who is left at the house during the day to watch her) isn’t looking.

The yellow wall paper starts to bother her. She asks John whether they mightn’t change rooms, but he dissuades her. There is something about that pattern…

Gradually our narrator begins to see things in it: uncertain curves that “plunge and commit suicide”; a loll in the pattern like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes; the separation of layers, or a sub-pattern which one can only see in certain lights.

This separation develops more pronouncedly at night, by the moonlight. The narrator begins to see that there really are two patterns present. They fascinate and confuse and dizzy her, and she lies wide awake trying to make sense of them.

Her condition worsens, or at least she suspects that John thinks as much: she has asked more than once that they leave the place, or that her cousins might stay with them for a visit. She is lonely, and though she thinks the company of others would help her he (and his opinion is that of a physician) does not. Jennie and the nanny don’t let her do anything around the house; she is to rest, and get air, and exercise. But our narrator’s condition weighs heavily upon her: when she is alone she often cries. She is too tired to do anything—even writing is a great effort—and she sleeps during the day, and lies awake, consumed by the intricacies of the yellow wall paper at night. But she is careful not to show neither how greatly her condition drags her down nor the ferocity of the grip the paper has on her. If she hasn’t recovered by the end of the summer, John has said, he may have no choice but to send her to an institution.

The wallpaper reveals more of its secrets: the under-layer becomes a woman, stooping and creeping. When she lies awake watching it in the moonlight one night our narrator begins to see the woman stirring, and stirring against the outer pattern.

The narrator pleads with her husband that they might leave but he, not understanding her sense of urgency (nor indeed the nature of her condition), replies that the lease is up in a few weeks, anyways; it would be foolish to leave.

The outer pattern undulates in the moonlight: becomes bars. The woman in the wallpaper is trapped behind them, and the reason they shake and quiver and move so is because she rattles them, creeping, desperate to get out.

Outwardly, the narrator appears to improve: she is quieter (complains less of terrible fears) to her husband and eats better. But she continues lying awake at night, watching the woman prowl inside the wall.

Even when she is away and out of the room, the wallpaper stays with her. All throughout the house, and even in the gardens the narrator begins to notice a smell—a smell she cannot entirely classify, except that it is the same as the yellow wallpaper.

Likewise, even in daytime now, the woman trapped behind bars remains. The narrator can see her out every one of the loft windows. She is everywhere. The narrator fancies, if she could spin a full circle fast enough, she would see the woman creeping in every one. It is dizzying.

When the summer is almost up—on the final night of their stay, when her husband stays in the city for work—the narrator determines to help the woman. She will free her by tearing all the wallpaper—the outer layer and the bars—completely off.

When her husband returns the next morning he enters their room he she has done and finds her pacing. Confused—terrified—he demands an explanation.

“I’ve got out at last,” his wife replies, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”

He faints. She resumes her creeping, stalking over his limp body.

Observations

This story is perhaps known best as a work of feminist literature, but I am not interested in such scholarly dissection; I’d prefer to focus on what elements make it great writing.

This might be the first (short) story I’ve read about the decline of the narrator’s sanity. It is done to brilliant effect. The details that accomplished this, I think, were the images: the eyes and broken neck she finds in the paper; the way the lines skew off and “commit suicide”, and “undulate” in the moonlight; the rattling of the outer pattern bars by the woman within them (this is really a frightening image to me). These truly convey the restlessness, the prowling, this oozing and terrifying unease; the lurking sensation one might associate with psychosis.

The story was written conversationally—from the perspective of the mentally ill woman—and that casual voice made it not just engaging but true to the nature of an account penned in private, for one’s own eyes. Though it was a bit irksome to see so many exclamation marks, that is probably how a good deal of people write to themselves and I think is passable given the circumstances (descent into madness: yes, that definitely merits an exclamation mark or two.)

Vocab

congenial: pleasant, agreeable because suited to one’s own taste or interests

lurid: vivid in color; unpleasantly harsh

delirium tremens: a psychotic condition often seen in chronic alcoholics, involving tremors, hallucinations, anxiety, and disorientation.

fatuity: absurdity; an outrageous folly

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7 thoughts on “30 Stories, Day 28: The Yellow Wallpaper

  1. It an amazing story; really astoundingly brilliant.

    If you’re looking for more recommendations for books that chart the decline of the narrator’s mental health, Guy de Maupassant is a brilliant choice – if you don’t read French, there are some really good translations of, in particular, Le Horla. While there is a suggestion of something supernatural in that story, it does also mirror the increasing paranoia and obsession experienced by the author at the time it was written. It’s quite fascinating!

    • I must read more Maupassant! I have been wanting to read his book Bel Ami ever since a friend recommended it. I’m just learning French now, so who knows, maybe picking up a volume (whether it’s that or Le Horla) in French isn’t totally out of the question 🙂

      As to stories that, as you say, chart the narrator’s mental decline, if you’re interested in them especially I highly recommend Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. Its narrator, a woman who becomes institutionalized, travels between colorful, alternate futures and the present, where doctors want to plant an automated device in her brain against her will. It’s a real page turner!

      • Oh, good luck with your studies! I’m a French translator, so I can assure you that it’s more than worth your while dipping into some of the amazing literature available! Of course you know that, but honestly, it’s so lovely to be able to read such beautiful stuff in a whole new language (particularly one as gorgeous as French!).

        Woman on the Edge of Time sounds fantastic – thank you for the reccomendation; I’ll definitely give it a look!

        • I absolutely agree. My foreign language skills are limited, but there is nothing quite like reading high literature (especially poetry) in its native language. The words are music even before the meaning!

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