By Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
......."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.
.......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.
.......Another physician, in Kansas I think, wrote to say that it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen, andbegging my pardonhad I been there?
.......Now the story of the story is this:.......
For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholiaand 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 againwork, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasiteultimately 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 fateso 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.].......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, 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?
.......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.)Conflict
.......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.
.......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.
.......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 generaland a husband in particulargenerally 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.
.......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."
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 houseI 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 wifelike a child incapable of making her own decisions.
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)
Alliterationwith windows that look all ways
The paint and paper look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped offthe 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.AnaphoraPersonally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
I don't know why I should write this.
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."MetaphorYou 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.
Comparison of the wallpaper design to a person or another creaturePersonificationOne of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
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 chair to a human beingStudy Questions and Essay Topics
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.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?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.
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 doctorand men in generalare 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.
Share this page:
More To Explore
You May Like