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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work
......."The Yellow Wallpaper" is a short story centering on the mental deterioration of a young woman. The story is (1) a psychological study, (2) a Gothic horror tale, (3) a commentary on the inferior social status of women at the end of the nineteenth century, and (4) a satire ridiculing the
so-called rest cure for persons suffering from depression and nervous disorders.
.......New England Magazine published the story in January 1892 under Gilman's married name, Charlotte Perkins
.......The action takes place in the late 1800s in an upstairs room of a mansion rented for the summer by the narrator and her husband.
.......Charlotte Perkins Gilman based her story on her own experience with a physician who treated her for a nervous disorder, according to an article she wrote for the October 1913 issue of The Forerunner. Here is the text of that article, entitled "Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper.'
.......Many and many a reader has asked [why I wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper]. When the story first came out, in the New England Magazine about 1891, a Boston physician made protest in The Transcript. Such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone
mad to read it. .......The physician who treated Gilman was Silas Weir Mitchell, MD, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and president of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The narrator mentions him by name in "The Yellow Wallpaper." Mitchell believed American women were not up to the task of
fulfilling their duties as mothers, let alone competing with men. In a paper that he wrote, he said,
.......Another physician, in Kansas I think, wrote to say that it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen, and—begging my pardon—had I
.......Now the story of the story is this:.......
For many years I suffered from a
severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia—and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he
concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to "live as domestic a life as far as possible," to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again" as long as I lived. This was in 1887.
.......I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.
.......Then, using the remnants
of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and went to work again—work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite—ultimately recovering some measure of power.
.......Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper," with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the
physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.
.......The little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar
fate—so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.
.......But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends
of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading "The Yellow Wallpaper."
.......It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked. [You can access the article in
its original form by clicking here.]
To-day, the American woman is, to speak plainly, too often physically unfit for her duties as woman, and is perhaps of all civilized females the least qualified to undertake those weightier tasks which tax so heavily the nervous system of man. She is not fairly up to what nature asks from her as wife and mother. How
will she sustain herself under the pressure of those yet more exacting duties which nowadays she is eager to share with the man? Conflict
.......While making these stringent criticisms, I am anxious not to be misunderstood. The point which
above all others I wish to make is this, that owing chiefly to peculiarities of climate, our growing girls are endowed with organizations so highly sensitive and impressionable that we expose them to needless dangers when we attempt to overtax them mentally. In any country the effects of such a course must be evil, but in America I believe it to be most disastrous. (Wear and Tear, or Hints for
the Overworked. 5th ed. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1871.)
.......The narrator is in conflict with her husband, a physician, because of his limitation on her activity. She is also in conflict with herself, for she internalizes her frustrations rather than asserting herself and bringing them into the open.
Narrator (Jane): A young woman suffering from a nervous disorder because she has no outlet for her active and highly creative mind. Near the end of the story, she speaks of a woman named Jane in an apparent reference to herself.
John: Narrator's husband, a physician. He prescribes rest therapy for his wife even though it is inactivity that unnerves her. He forbids her to engage in any kind of activity, including her favorite pastime, writing. Unfortunately, she follows his orders without protest.
Narrator's Brother: He supports John in his approach to the narrator's treatment.
Jennie: John's sister, the
Baby: Child of the narrator and John.
Mary: Baby's nanny.
Henry, Julia: Relatives of the narrator and John.
Mother,Nellie, Children: Characters whom the narrator mentions without
providing additional information. Presumably, "Mother" is her own mother.
Point of View
.......Gilman presents the story as diary entries (first-person point of view) by the narrator. She describes her husband as kind and loving. However, her mental state and easygoing nature may be clouding her perception in this regard.
Plot Summary ..
By Michael J. Cummings.
........"There is something strange about the house—I can feel it,” says the narrator, a young woman.
........However, for her, this strangeness—this spookiness—only adds to the appeal of the place, an ancestral hall that she and her husband, John, decided to rent for the summer. John, a physician, does not share his wife's fanciful notions. As a man of science, he is practical and down to earth. The mansion is just another house.
There are no ghosts; it is not haunted. He agreed to sojourn at the dwelling only because his wife needs rest to relieve her “temporary nervous depression."
........Situated three miles from the village, the house sits well back from the road behind
hedges, walls, and gates. It has a garden with paths running through arbors covered with grapes. The mansion has been unoccupied for years, supposedly because of legal problems involving heirs and coheirs.
........Although the look and feel of the house
excite the narrator, she does not like the room her husband selected for them. She wanted one downstairs that opened onto a large porch, but he told her they should occupy the nursery at the top of the house so she could take advantage of air blowing into the large room, which is quite large and has windows all around.
........Apparently, the nursery had at one time been converted into a gymnasium and playroom, the narrator says, “for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.” Much of the wallpaper is torn off, but there are patches of it here
and there. It has a gaudy design and an ugly color: “a smouldering unclean yellow” with “dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.”
........She writes down her impressions on the first day of their occupation of the house,
but she puts her work away when she sees her husband coming. He forbids her to write because he thinks it overtaxes her. So does her brother, who is also a physician.
........Two weeks pass. She sits at a nursery window with a
desire to write but not the strength. Her husband is away most of the time to attend patients. He really does not know how much she suffers, she thinks.
........“Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able,—to dress and entertain, and
........She is happy that Mary is there to care for the baby. She herself is too distraught to look after the child.
........The wallpaper continues to bother her. Early in their stay, John was going to have new wallpaper put up. However, he decided against this idea in the belief that she would only turn her attention to another irritant, such as the barred windows or her heavy bed. She accepts his opinion and thinks, “ I'm really getting quite fond of the big room, all but that horrid
........From one of its windows, she can see the garden. From another, she can see the bay and the lane that leads to the estate's wharf. When she tells John that she imagines seeing all sorts of visitors walking on the lane and the grounds, he tells her
to avoid doing so. Such thoughts can unduly excite her, he says. Nevertheless, she yearns for companionship. When she gets well, he says, they will invite Cousin Henry and Julie for an extended visit.
........Meanwhile, the wallpaper is really getting to
her. She decides to write.
........“There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down,” she notes. “I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before. . . .”
........The room itself bears evidence of the mischief that the children committed against it, she says. And the floor is “scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there, and this great heavy bed . . . looks as if it had
been through the wars.”
........When she spots John's sister, the housekeeper, approaching, she puts away her writing. Like John, the woman believes that the narrator's writing makes her sick. Or so the narrator says.
........Time passes. The narrator writes that she and John "had mother and Nellie and the children" for a week over the Fourth of July holiday. Exhausted after entertaining them, the narrator says her husband is going to get her an appointment with Weir Mitchell, MD—a famous
neurologist—if she does not soon improve. She opposes the idea, saying Mitchell's approach to medicine is just like her husband's and her brother's.
........After spending so much time alone in her room, the narrator writes that she is beginning to like
her room “in spite of the wallpaper” or because of it. She finds herself studying its pattern while lying on the bed. To help her get over her malady, John gives her cod liver oil, tonics, rare meat, ale, and wine. She now says she would like to visit her cousin Henry and Julia, but John won't hear of it. She ends up crying.
........“It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight.,” she says. “Just this nervous weakness I suppose.”
........One day, he carries her upstairs and puts her in bed, then reads to
her. He tells her that she is his comfort and that she must get well for his sake. One thing that comforts her is that her baby is well and does not have to occupy the nursery and see the wallpaper. In its pattern, the narrator now begins to see a woman “creeping about.”
........One night while John is sleeping in his bed, she gets up to feel the wallpaper to see whether it is moving. When her husband awakens moments later, she asks him whether they can return home. He opposes the idea, saying their sojourn will end in just three weeks. Besides, their house is undergoing repairs at the moment. Of course, he would return if she
were not getting well. But, he says, she is improving.
........“You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better, I feel really much easier about you," he says.
........The wallpaper begins to irritate her again. The pattern changes depending on whether sunlight or moonlight is striking it. In the moonlight—or by candlelight, lamplight, or twilight—the pattern forms bars. The woman behind the pattern is becoming easier to see.
........The narrator has noticed strange behavior in her husband lately, as well as in Jennie. Perhaps the wallpaper is causing it. Both of them are paying more attention to it, and Jennie even once placed a hand on it. When the narrator asks her why she felt the wallpaper,
Jennie says she was simply checking for the source of yellow stains on the clothes of the narrator and those of her husband. In a sharp voice, she tells the narrator to be more careful.
........But the narrator thinks Jennie is just making an excuse. Because of
the attention she thinks her husband and Jennie are giving the wallpaper, says the narrator, she now has something to look forward to—their behavior—and even has a better appetite.
........During the day, the narrator continues to analyze the pattern of the
wallpaper. As for the color, she thinks it the oddest shade of yellow she has ever seen. It makes her think of yellow objects, “not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.” She also begins to take more notice of its smell, which spreads throughout the house and even into her hair. The damp weather lately makes it all the worse. She notices a streak on it that runs around
........Eventually, she discovers that the woman in the wallpaper shakes it and attempts to climb through the pattern. Apparently, she sometimes succeeds, for the narrator can see her on the grounds. When a carriage approaches, she hides in
........The vacation is nearing its end. While John is staying in town overnight, the narrator sees, by moonlight, the woman in the wallpaper shake the bars. The narrator goes to help her. By morning, she and the imprisoned woman have torn away a good
deal of the paper. When Jennie enters the room and looks at the wall, the narrator tells her, “I did it out of pure spite at the vicious thing.” Jennie says she wouldn't have minded doing it herself. She also warns the narrator not to tire herself.
clear the room of the belongings of the narrator and her husband. She and John will sleep downstairs and in the morning take the boat home. After the room is empty—except for the bed—the narrator wishes to be alone in the room. So she locks the door and throws the key into a path in front of the house. Then the narrator begins ripping off the wallpaper. Out of a window, she sees creeping women
and writes, “I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did? I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!”
........When the narrator hears John at the door, she tells him the key is outside, under a
plantain leaf near the steps. After he retrieves it and enters, he sees her creeping around. She says, "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!"
........In the last paragraph of the story, she
says, “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!"
.......In the nineteenth century, males dominated the workplace and the home. The role of a typical wife was to bear her husband's children and comply with his wishes in domestic affairs. She would cook, keep house, and manage social events in support of her husband. Wealthy men often hired servants
to perform those chores, allowing the women to supervise the help. Society in general—and a husband in particular—generally frowned on a wife's attempt to become the equal of her husband in decision-making; for her to entertain notions of pursuing a professional career, such as law or medicine, was out of the question. Sometimes a husband even discouraged a spouse's pursuit of an avocation, as in
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which John disapproves of his wife's desire to write because, he says, writing might aggravate her illness.
.......But he is her illness—that is, his control of her life depresses her and frays her
nerves. "I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day," she writes in her diary," and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. But he said I wasn't able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished."
.......John may mean well and is probably not aware of his deleterious effect on his wife; nevertheless, it is he who is the problem. For her part, the narrator also may be unaware of the real cause of her illness. Like other women of her day, she simply
follows her husband's dictates. In doing so, she stifles her positive qualities—her lively imagination, her creativity. So she remains confined to a room studying the ugly wallpaper and imagining she sees a woman behind the pattern. She is that woman, of course, imprisoned behind the arabesque pattern, which represents the male attitudes and societal traditions that prevent women from
participating fully in society and its challenges.
.......Inactivity proved to be the wrong therapy for the narrator and the wrong therapy for Charlotte Perkins Gilman in real life. Gilman wrote her story in part to develop this theme, which she refers to early in the story, saying, "John is a physician, and perhaps . . . that is one reason I do not
get well faster." Climax
For more information about Gilman's treatment, see Background.
The climax occurs when the narrator liberates the woman (herself) from the wallpaper while at the same time completing her descent into insanity. She is free at last to control her own destiny but lacks a rational mind to pursue it. Her husband faints at the sight of her.
.......Perkins establishes a Gothic atmosphere early in the story to prepare the way for the narrator's eerie adventures with the wallpaper and her descent into insanity. Note, for example, the emphasis on the isolation of the house: "It is quite alone standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the
village." Note also that all the greenhouses are broken, a spooky foreshadowing of the narrator's breakdown. Then there is the mysterious "legal trouble . . . something about the heirs and coheirs." The narrator concludes, "There is something strange about the house—I can feel it." The narrator later discovers that her room has barred windows, torn wallpaper, and a nailed-down bed, all
of which suggest that the nursery may have been used to house an insane person, à la the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre.
Examples of symbols in the story are the following:
Nursery: The nursery symbolizes the way John treats his wife—like a child incapable of making her own decisions.
Wallpaper: The wallpaper represents the barrier that the male-dominated society has erected against
Yellow: The sickly color symbolizes the mental state of the narrator, as well as the blandness of the life she leads.
Garden: The garden represents the
development and growth denied to the narrator by her husband and by social standards and expectations.
Greenhouses: They are all broken, just as the narrator's desire to flourish as a writer is broken by her husband.
Figures of Speech
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)
with windows that look all ways Anaphora
The paint and paper look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off—the paper in great patches all around the head of my bed. . . .
The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Irony
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
I don't know why I should write this.
I don't want to.
I don't feel able.
Although John is a physician, his wife's condition worsens under his care.
Although the narrator thinks at times that her mental health is improving, it is worsening. For example, after seeing the woman behind the wallpaper, she says, " I'm feeling ever so much better! I don't sleep much at night, for it is so interesting to watch developments; but I sleep a good deal in the daytime."
You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. Personification
Comparison of the wallpaper
design to a person or another creature
One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. Simile and Personification
Comparison of the wallpaper pattern to a person. (Only a human being can commit a sin.)
when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—
Comparison of the wallpaper curves to persons. (Only human beings can commit suicide.)
I remember what a kindly wink the knobs of our big, old bureau used to have, and there was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend. Study Questions and Essay Topics
Comparison of the chair to a human being
1....The narrator follows her husband's directives even though she apparently realizes that she needs increased mental, social, and other forms of activity, as the following passage indicates.
Personally, I disagree with their [her husband's and her brother's] ideas. Does her ending question suggest that she feels powerless in a male-dominated society? Or does it suggests that she lacks the boldness to assert herself? Perhaps you think the answer to both questions is yes. Whatever the case, write an essay that attempts to explain the narrator's passivity. Support your thesis with quotations from the story as well
library and Internet research.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?
2....Write an essay about what society expected of the typical nineteenth-century American woman.
3....Write an essay comparing and contrasting the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" with Mrs. Mallard in "The Story of an Hour" or Nora Helmer in A Doll's House.
4....Charlotte Perkins Gilman attended the Rhode Island School of Design. Do you think her studies there had any influence on the way she wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper"? Explain your answer.
5...."The Yellow Wallpaper" contains very short
paragraphs, some of them consisting of a single sentence. Do you believe Gilman intended her short paragraphs to suggest that the narrator lacks the ability to concentrate? Or did Gilman normally write short paragraphs (after the manner of many newspapers) as a matter of preference? Explain your answer. Support it with research.
6....The narrator does not give her own name except in an oblique reference at the end of the story. Why? Does she believe that she lacks an identity, that she is a mere appendage to her husband?
7....The narrator reports at the end of her story that John faints. Did Gilman intend this incident as a suggestion that the doctor—and men in general—are really no stronger than women emotionally? Explain your answer.
8....The narrator and her husband sleep in separate beds, as the following sentence indicates: "He said there was only one window and not room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another." Is the reader to take this statement as an indication that the narrator and John are having trouble with their marriage? Explain your answer.