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The Yellow Wallpaper: Childbirth, Madness and Patriarchy

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is considered to be a seminal text in context of feminist literature. The short story, or novella, written in the form of journal entry, is about the gradual deterioration of a woman’s psychological balance. It is believed that Gilman used her own experiences with post-partum psychosis as the basis for the narrative, making the story almost autobiographical. The narrative structure, together with the central symbols and images make this story an extraordinary exploration of the female psyche.

the yellow wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The narrative begins with the introduction of the two central characters, the narrator herself and her husband John. They appear to represent two extremes, establishing a kind of binary opposition. While the husband is a practical, worldly, logical man of high social standing, the wife is emotional, vulnerable and in need of medical supervision. Additionally, the husband is a physician who has little regard for his wife’s psychological state. There is a constant reiteration of these binaries throughout the text. This, together with the central symbols of the story, become powerful articulators of feminist voice.

Context

A cursory glance at the timeline and background helps to contextualize the woman’s voice in the story. Gilman published this story in 1892, a time when voting rights were still not allowed to women of America. Gilman’s narratorial voice gains an added dimension when considered against this backdrop. This was the period of “first wave feminism”, when the primary concern of feminists was to attain some sort of economic and social equality. Concepts of sexual liberation, psychological emancipation were at the rudimentary stage. In Gilman’s story we find the stirrings of impulses both personal and social, incorporated into the fabric of the play.

 

Central Symbols

The yellow wallpaper in the story appears to be an extension of the patriarchal prison, all-pervasive, limiting and ugly. In the beginning, the narrator feels like an object of gaze, imagining the wallpaper to be a sentient being with sight:

There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down

Women have been allotted the role of passive recipients of male gaze, defining her, evaluating her, down the ages. In her imagination, the narrator ascribes the qualities to the wallpaper and makes it an active agent of suppression and scrutiny. On the other hand, the paper on which she writes is a passive recipient of her words, passing no judgment or making no claims: “this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind”.  The pages of the diary offer the narrator a refuge, a safe space, secure from the gaze of judgmental gazers.

Additionally, the bed, nailed down to the floor, becomes another symbol of patriarchy that traps the woman and allows no escape. The immovability of the bed corresponds directly with the immovability and obstinacy of John, the figure of man in the story. The barred windows add up to this sense of isolation and claustrophobia. Ironically, this room is supposed to have been airier than the other rooms in the house. This contradictory element reveals an important fact, that physical comfort has nothing to do with emotional well-being, especially in context of psychosis.

Wellcome Library, London, The Holl portrait of Dr S. Weir Mitchell Wellcome L0027929, CC BY 4.0

Post-Partum Psychosis

It is important to look at the narrator’s psychological condition. She was suffering from post-partum psychosis. This disease was not granted any specific diagnosis or medication. Usually, childbirth is associated with a lot of glory and the figure of the mother is considered to be a symbol of patience and selfless tolerance in itself. Post-partum psychosis is triggered by hormonal and nervous resistance to these claims to a large extent. Therefore, when a woman begins to have nervous and psychological breakdown after delivering a child, the condition was not traditionally treated with much sympathy or consideration. Within the core of her heart, the narrator yearns to be with her child because she knows that is expected of her. She hates herself for not being able to take care of her baby. This is all reinforced by the social expectations that woman is responsible for well-being of her baby.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

Patriarchy and Binaries

As the story progresses, an interesting thing begins to happen. The action of the story being mostly internalized, the plot develops more through changes in the narrator’s perception of everything than through actual physical action. The yellow wallpaper, which is seen as an active agent with sight in the beginning, is seen to transform gradually into a prison with a hidden chamber. The figure of the woman, multiplying gradually, is seen to be crawling about endlessly. Usually crawling and creeping are associated with serpents and insects. There is an almost Kafkaesque descent into monstrosity that is found in the description of the women, generating the nuances of the gothic. This is directly connected to the eternal idea of the archetypal evil. A woman seeking liberation is equated with the figure of Satan, creeping about. This is further established by the narrator’s desire to stay close to the garden while her husband prefers the airier loftier position. This is how Gilman makes subtle suggestions to strengthen the binaries of the man and the woman as opposing agents.

It is very interesting to see how the yellow wallpaper is defined in terms of not just sight but smell as well. “It is not bad– at first, and very gentle, but quite the subtlest, most enduring odour I ever met…A yellow smell”. She had earlier mentioned the medications, which might have been a reason for the smell. This accounts for why the smell continues to irritate the narrator even away from the room at times. However, she associates the unpleasant smell directly with the wall paper as it had already become the central agent of oppression for her.

The very act of tearing down the wallpaper becomes then, an act of transgression. In doing so, the narrator feels like the fallen women she has hoped to grant freedom. This moment becomes a moment of union, when the narrator merges into the crawling woman and their identities fuse: “I wonder if they all come out of the wallpaper as I did?” It is at this moment that her entire perspective changes. She speaks to John in the same condescending patronizing tone as John has spoken to her all this time: “John dear! … the key is down by the front steps, under a plantain tree!” This is the first time she is acting as the initiator of action, giving direction to her husband as if talking to a child. What follows this is even more dramatic. John questions his wife about her actions, in the same way as men have been questioning women for ever for their transgressive actions. However, the wife’s reply is very illuminating:

I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane.

John and Jane are two arbitrary names usually given to unidentified bodies recovered at a crime scene or accident. These names become emblematic of all men and women who define and reinforce patriarchy.  John faints after this and the narrator comments sarcastically: “Now why should that man have fainted?” It was not expected of men to be faint-hearted, let alone actually faint out of fear. This is the moment when the husband and wife act contrary to their social norms. The figure of the man changes to a frail, vulnerable one while the woman looks empowered. The binaries are destabilized. The last line of the story is definitely the central concern of feminists down the ages:

But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!

It is, as if, invariably over the body of an incapacitated man that a woman has to establish her rise and her agency. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a metaphor of the quintessential feminist struggle for liberation and equality. However, the end suggests that if the patriarchal forces are not ready to accept this they might as well be ignored and crawled over. Gilman’s story is a story of resistance, not just against the external forces of suppression but the inner urges to walk the path defined by society.

Additional Reading

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