An Unmellow Yellow
Written on November 21, 2017, this was my last major assignment for my English 102 class. I had to choose a story or poem we did not cover in class and argue why it should be added to the syllabus. I went with “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman because I liked its horror and Gothic undertones. I focused on symbolism, personification, and setting. The essay was written in MLA 8 format, complete with in-text citations and a Works Cited page. I made a 98%, because my margins were off on my Works Cited page and I didn’t notice. Stupid me.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” has the best ingredients of a good horror piece: a relatable main character, uncontrollable curiosity in something dark or sinister, and a dark and isolated setting. Although the horrors of the story develop within the protagonist’s mind, the real horror is the literal and social confinement placed on her by her husband and society. “The Yellow Wallpaper” should be added to the English 102 course schedule because of the unique way Gilman presents and moves through various psychological stages in the story to shine light on issues personal to her own life. She accomplishes this with heavy emphasis on characterization, personification, and setting.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an American feminist and writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She is best known for “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a feminist short story that stemmed from a dark experience in her own life (Gilman, “Why I Wrote” 792). Although she would become well known for speaking out against the infamous Rest Cure, she was a strong, independent woman of her time. She separated from and divorced her first husband, which was almost unheard of at the time, and created a life for herself, abandoning the “housewife” role men tried to establish for her (Lancaster). Although she married again, she lived life on her own terms, even until her death; when diagnosed with incurable breast cancer, she decided to take her own life (Butterworth). Her life experiences, her writing skills, and her audacity make her worthy of being studied.
Gilman’s experience with the Rest Cure was her inspiration for “The Yellow Wallpaper” (Gilman, “Why I Wrote” 792). Suffering from depression and anxiety, she went to see S. Weir Mitchell, a specialist in nervous diseases, and was prescribed the Rest Cure (Gilman, “Why I Wrote” 792). The Rest Cure consisted of bed rest with extreme limitations. She was told to “live as domestic a life… as possible, have but two hours’ intellectual life a day, and never to touch a pen, brush, or pencil again” (Gilman, “Why I Wrote” 792). Gilman tried to follow Weir’s advice, but eventually tossed the Rest Cure “to the winds” (Gilman, “Why I Wrote” 792). “[I] came so close to the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over” (Gilman, “Why I Wrote” 792). Her stance on the Rest Cure and her feminist ideals make her an interesting author to study. She shines light on both in “The Yellow Wallpaper” via the narrator.
The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a great subject by which to study characterization. She is neither named nor given physical description. She is fleshed out through her thoughts and actions via indirect characterization. Because she sneaks around to write for mental stimulation, readers can interpret that she is competent and intellectual; she is capable of being more than a housewife. Unfortunately, her husband, a physician, sets out to give her that role. He wants to take care of her, and tries to make her believe that she is incapable of taking care of herself. He controls her, telling her what she needs to do and causes her to doubt herself. Furthermore, he infantizes her. His actions in sentences like, “He took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose” (Gilman, “Wallpaper” 782), sound like things an adult would do to a baby or little child. John’s infantilization of the narrator is reinforced by the fact that their bedroom in which the narrator spends most of her time used to be a nursery. The symbol of the nursery represents the narrator’s passiveness and place in her marriage. The fact that John’s name is given many times in the story and the reader does not even learn the narrator’s name is also symbolic of the hierarchy in their marriage and the narrator’s place not only in her marriage, but in society as a woman. Arguably, it is settling into her husband’s and society’s role for women that causes the narrator’s dissent into madness. Altogether, these things make the narrator an interesting and effective subject by which to study characterization.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is an excellent vehicle in which to study personification because it is through the personification of the wallpaper that readers track the narrator’s psychological state. She starts by simply describing the wallpaper, but as the story progresses, the wallpaper seems to take on a life of its own. Its first actions are present in its patterns near the beginning of the story. The wallpaper’s patterns “commit artistic sin[s],” “commit suicide,” and “destroy themselves” (Gilman, “Wallpaper” 781). Her descriptions as well as the actions of the wallpaper are incredibly dark, and reflect her initial feelings toward the wallpaper, but as the story goes on, she begins to appreciate the wallpaper. “I’m getting really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper” (Gilman, “Wallpaper” 784). The personification of the wallpaper is accompanied with interesting moon symbolism. The narrator begins sleeping in the day and observing movement of the wallpaper by moonlight. The moon is feminine in many cultures; it is even personified by a goddess in Greek Mythology. Strengthened by moon symbolism, the wallpaper’s personification begins to represent feminism, contributing to the story’s theme. The wallpaper’s personification leads to it taking human shape. The narrator observes what is first a “strange… formless sort of figure” (Gilman, “Wallpaper” 783) behind the wallpaper, and later detects it to be a woman trapped behind the wallpaper. The story climaxes when the narrator begins ripping the wallpaper from the wall to free the woman, and actually becomes the woman. “I’ve got out at last… in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back” (Gilman, “Wallpaper” 791)! The personification of the wallpaper makes it an interesting symbol representing the narrator’s madness.
Through bars the narrator sees in the design, the wallpaper also represents the narrator’s confinement, contributing to the story’s setting. Setting is another literary element that can be extensively studied in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” not only because it conveys a theme of confinement, but because it also contributes to the narrator’s madness. Like her husband, the house binds and constricts the narrator, isolating her from society. The house is described as “quite alone,” three miles from the village (Gilman, “Wallpaper” 780). The house has “hedges and walls” and “gates that lock” (Gilman, “Wallpaper” 780). The nursery in which the narrator stays even has bars on the windows, and her bed is bolted down. All of these things create a sense of imprisonment. The setting parallels the social entrapment of the narrator, which is likely the reason for her emotional instability.
It is easy to see why Gilman is well-known for “The Yellow Wallpaper.” By way of strong characterization, vivid personification, and a constricting setting, Gilman explores and comments on the horrific psychological ramifications of not only the Rest Cure, but of the social confinement of women in her day. This short story should be included in the English 102 course plan for the literary elements she implements and the social issues she addresses.
Butterworth, Susan. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition, Salem Press, January 2001, http://ezp.gvltec.edu:2087/ehost/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=12429d84-8990-4ba3-b967-1c9550926ec1%40sessionmgr104&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=103331CSSF11860120000185&db=lfh.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Arguing About Literature, edited by John Schilb and John Gifford, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. pp. 780-791.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.'” Arguing About Literature, edited by John Schilb and John Gifford, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. pp. 792-793.
Lancaster, Jane. “‘I Could Easily Have Been An Acrobat’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Providence Ladies’ Sanitary Gymnasium 1881-1884.” ATQ Vol 8 Issue 1, University of Rhode Island, March 1994, http://ezp.gvltec.edu:2087/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=12429d84-8990-4ba3-b967-1c9550926ec1%40sessionmgr104&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=9410100382&db=lfh.