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The Lady Within “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Peeling back the layers of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's master craft

By Ryan BurnettPublished 4 years ago 11 min read

Most stories come prepackaged with a general roadmap of where the reader’s emotions should go: twists, betrayals, revelations, and even exposition are expected to make the reader think, feel, or perhaps even experience a call to action. The road an author takes the reader down is often tied to some lesson or theme it is meant to embody, whether that theme is a point along the road or found by viewing its scope. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “Any narrative which is concerned with the idea of storytelling,” metanarratives are more than a linear path built on reactions and expectations. Metanarratives speak to a theme or idea by demonstrating it extrinsically, be it through the reader’s experience with the work or through the work’s interactions with dominant tropes in the genre. Enter “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Its narrator, a young woman temporarily living in an old manor with her husband (and eventually his sister), writes an account of her observations and experiences throughout her stay, with the wallpaper in her room becoming a focal point therein. Though the wallpaper appears hazy and abstract, behind the buds and stalks of fungus and strangled visages, in the daylight she eventually makes out the figure of a woman. She is frozen by daylight, but at night that woman creeps about the back-pattern, thrashing the front pattern and bars that hide behind it. As the wallpaper continues to clear, the narrator becomes increasingly obsessed with it, and obsessed with the lady she sees behind it. The lady seems to multiply as her pattern recurs, and she attempts to escape, strangled by the front pattern every time. Eventually the woman does seem to escape out from behind the wallpaper into the garden during the day, and she seems to multiply there as well. Strangest of all, she seems to slip back into the wallpaper by nightfall. The journey through the narrator’s writings, particularly her journey with the lady, invokes a curious metanarrative which, in a sense, can place the reader in her uncertain and contemplative shoes. The use of a mentally ill and unreliable narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” creates a metanarrative concerned predominantly with a search for truth within the reader, which begins with the titular wallpaper and its illusory prisoner, continues into its vague ending, and leads the reader to question the veracity of the people and places around her.

The reader is first put off by changes in the wallpaper, and its apparent occupant, which prompts one to question the narrator's perception of it. The wallpaper at first appears as the rest of the manor does--eerie, certainly, but nothing more. A lot of the strangeness surrounding the manor house from the outset comes from the narrator’s descriptors of it, which she initially attributes to an overactive imagination. The narrator describes how the patterns “suddenly commit suicide - plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (Gilman 572-573), tracing bulbous, unblinking eyes across the wall. Yet, as she finds herself trapped in the room with the hideous wallpaper, she begins to see something deeper within. This “sub-pattern” (Gilman 575) is where things become a bit more explicit. Though it is difficult to make out in daylight, she sees “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about” (Gilman 575) behind the pattern visible to the naked eye, and, as she later describes, prison bars. The way that the pattern continuously evolves and changes escalates with her strange, off-kilter descriptions, which may hint at the narrator’s insecurity and mental hangup on self-harm, into something seemingly a bit more supernatural. The lady’s influence eventually extends out of the wallpaper, when she begins to appear in the garden. Unsettling, sure, but something that the reader could rationalize, especially given the perceptions of the narrator, both by herself and her husband, John. She admits to herself that “[She] used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy store” (Gilman 574), and John lectures her time and time again on the dangers of her fancies. With that in mind, it is far from impossible to imagine that the wallpaper and its prisoner are very much the same, nothing more than her delirium, termed as a nervous disorder, manifesting itself. The reader may well interpret her hallucinations as symbolic, and quite justifiably. She may see herself in the wallpaper, trapped in her room, or more literally behind the bars of the, “gate at the end of the stairs” (Gilman 573). She tries over and over to escape, begs to sleep in a different room, but her hope is strangled, and the move forbidden by John and his sister, Jennie. Both wait on her hand and foot, but are always prying. Perhaps she sees their eyes lining the walls in one of the many forms the wallpaper takes on. As for the lady, she escapes in the daytime, when John is away with patients, and when the narrator often finds herself sleeping as her obsession mounts. The narrator “always locks the door when [she] creep[s] by [in the] daylight” (Gilman 580) by her own admission, just as the lady does. She returns to the wallpaper at night, when John returns home from work, shaking the constraining bars that come to symbolize their marriage. She, enamored by the wallpaper, is trapped just as much in it as the marriage, remarking “I fancy it is the pattern that keeps [the lady] so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour” (Gilman 578), likely not even consciously realizing the parallels she draws between the two being trapped in the wallpaper in some respect. It is even less likely that she realizes the subconscious connection this draws between the wallpaper and her strained marriage. With this initial reading, albeit likely much less structured and perhaps focused on different aspects of her confinement, the reader forges on to the ending, with the clear understanding that the narrator’s perceptions are faulty at best.

With an understanding of the narrator’s faulty point of view, the ambiguous ending of the narrator’s writings take on a level of intrigue that entices the reader to delve deeper in their dissection. As the narrator continues to descend into madness, her stay at the old house starts to draw to a close. Her furniture is moved out, and John is out with a patient on the last night before their departure. She decides now that the room is clear and she is free from his prying eyes, she will tear the wallpaper down. She intends to make a show out of the ordeal for John, and explains in her diary, “I’ve got a rope up here that even Jennie did not find. If that woman does get out, and tries to get away, I can tie her!” (Gilman 581). She considers jumping out her window, but decides against it, insisting that she, “[doesn’t] like to look out of the windows even- there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all came out of the wallpaper as I did?” (Gilman 581). This is the point where she begins to see herself as one of the women from behind the wallpaper, and a point where her attempt to capture the woman who escapes the wallpaper seems especially odd, considering she now states there are multiple figures. Ironically, it is the narrator who becomes “securely fastened by her well-hidden rope” (Gilman 582), and stubbornly refuses to leave the room, content to creep about, until John comes home, demanding entry to the room. When John enters the room she says, still acting as a woman trapped in the wallpaper, “‘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 582). He faints across her path by the wall, leaving her to, “creep over him every time!” (Gilman 582). This very ambiguous ending is likely to cause some level of confusion in the reader, be it regarding exactly who Jane is or what John saw. With the earlier imagery of strangulation and suicide the narrator conjures when describing the wallpaper, it isn’t a reach to imagine that the fastening she produces with her rope is a noose, and that she intends to hang herself. John, seeing his hanged wife, faints from the shock, and she looks at him over her shoulder as a ghost, or perhaps one of the faces she sees in the wallpaper. There comes an issue of how she could write this conclusion in her diary since it had earlier been established that she had been recording the events in this narrative. Yet, that can be waived away to allow for a hopeful ending, where she frees herself of the constraints of her marriage or societal role by taking control of her life in her final moments. Maybe, in the eyes of a more pessimistic reader, she fails to escape, becoming one of the faces in the wallpaper, strangled in an attempt to escape. But both of these readings don’t quite hold. If she did hang herself, regardless of the postmortem outcome, she wouldn’t have to creep over John as he lies in her path by the wall, literally or symbolically. If she successfully hanged herself, she has no reason to follow a path by the wall, and symbolically it makes no sense for her to have to re-enter the wallpaper, seeing as she is either free from it or at the very least already trapped within its front pattern, unable to escape. John is no longer an obstacle for her symbolically, so his literal lying in her path is strange and extraneous. If she didn’t kill herself, what did John see that would cause him to faint? Surely the sight of his wife peeling off and wearing the wallpaper alone isn’t enough, especially given his existing suspicion that she was doing just that. Also, what is the fate of the narrator when John awakens? With these questions in mind, the reader re-examines the text to see if they can come to a more definitive conclusion on the fate of our narrator.

When re-evaluating the short story in search of clarification, vagaries in the setting appear where there were none before. Equipped with the knowledge that the narrator hallucinates, some aspects of the room, initially described as a nursery, come off as more sinister. The bed is nailed down, the bedstead, “fairly gnawed!” (Gilman 581), bars cover the windows, a gate sits at the head of the stairs, and the room is quite bare before John carts furniture from the rest of the house up to it. Perhaps the room was initially a small psych-ward. Still unsatisfied, the reader digs back into the text, and notices just how odd the justification for staying in the “nursery” is. John and the narrator stay up there because, “[John] said there was only one window and not room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another” (Gilman 572) in the narrator’s preferred room, which isn’t really that strong of a justification, and is likely false, especially given how old and colonial the house appears. For that matter, John is acting odd beyond that, with how clinical and non-affectionate he is towards his own wife. He refuses to let her change rooms, or even change the wallpaper. He treats her like a child and even calls her a “little girl” (Gilman 577), and condescends to her as his “blessed little goose” (Gilman 573). Towards the end he seems especially clinical, asking Jennie a lot of professional questions about the narrator. This could cause the reader to theorize that John is merely her doctor, and the narrator, driven mad by loneliness, imagines him as her husband. Perhaps she merely imagines all of his sweet-talk, and in reality he is apathetic and clinical. Unsatisfied by this interpretation, this compels the reader to delve back into the text, find a new wrinkle, and seek evidence to substantiate the resulting conclusion.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s use of an unreliable narrator in her short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” inspires a metanarrative centered around a search for truth on the part of the reader, which we have now completed. The reader is first put off by changes in the wallpaper, and its apparent occupant, which prompts them to question the narrator's account, and her sanity. Now in doubt of the narrator’s word, the ambiguous ending of her writings entices the reader to dissect it more than they otherwise would have, all for a sense of a cohesive meaning spanning the text. When re-evaluating the short story in search of clarification, the reader’s perception of the setting changes, which prompts multiple readings or fine-toothed examinations one after another, ending in an inevitable failure to draw a definitive conclusion. This conclusion mirrors the middle of the narrator’s journey where she is entranced by the wallpaper, which is “Dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study,” (Gilman 573) just as the reader is by her recount of events. Both find something more, something beneath the wallpaper- the lady. While the lady that the narrator sees is a literal woman trapped behind the wallpaper, the reader sees her more symbolically, as a manifestation of something within the narrator, be it anxiety, loneliness, resentment for her status as a woman in the late 1800’s or as a mentally ill individual. While the lady is not real herself, the reader recognizes that she stems from something very real within the narrator. And just as the wallpaper and its observer end up, “[Plunging] off at outrageous angles, [destroying] themselves in unheard of contradictions,” (Gilman 573) the reader may risk doing the same, by looking too deeply into the existence of the lady and the mystery of the manor she is a part of. In digging too deeply, they may find threads that are not truly present, and risk their understanding of the text; losing any coherence at all. The fact of the matter is that what the narrator sees in the yellow wallpaper is analogous to what the reader sees in the text. Their psyche is reflected back in abstract ways, just as the woman in the wallpaper is in some way a reflection of the narrator or her outlook; a reflection that she doesn’t ever quite seem to grasp the implications of. This reflection or imprint each individual reader leaves on the story affects what one sees within it. They see their “woman in the wallpaper,” so to say, in, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Shorter 13th

Ed. Sarah Touborg. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2018. 571-582. Print.


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    RBWritten by Ryan Burnett

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