Thoughts about “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

May 8, 2021 | Journal

The story of “The Yellow Wallpaper” – by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – is presented to the reader by a sole narrator, through her entries in her journal. The whole story is just a journal of this woman; the reader never gets any other viewpoint about the happenings.

First of all, we, as readers, are led to believe that the narrator and author of the journal is a reliable narrator, with whom the average person sympathises. This sympathy comes at first from the illusion of what the short story presents. Namely, that John is a controlling husband, and the narrator who is the main protagonist as well, is an oppressed and ill woman. Furthermore, we can get the feeling from what she writes that to her writing is a way to get along. It keeps her going and alive, and John would forbid her if he knew. As a result, the reader is led to believe that she is in the role of the oppressed woman, who is never understood or believed in by her husband who is always right, being a doctor, and who forces her to live in this horrible room. However, as the story progresses more and more symptoms of her illness are exposed. The readers may start to draw a conclusion that she is shifting from reliable to unreliable narrator. While at first she tries to control what she reveals, later on this control slips out of her hand and afterwards she just lets her madness loose, not caring about what she writes and therefore presents. From that moment, she is revealed to be an unreliable narrator.

Second, within “The Yellow Wallpaper” on every layer two worlds collide constantly.

The first layer is about the conflict between the modern vs the old (the outdated). This is the very first layer that today’s readers may come in conflict with. Feminist narratives could put more focus on how the narrator is controlled and oppressed by the patriarchy (viewing the roles of the wife and the husband and their relation). However, it is the result of judging the story by today’s standards. Therefore, it could lead us to have a very bad image about the husband, but if we take into consideration the norms of the past, then it shows that the husband loves his wife and cares about her in his own way. However, the whole story is set within this toxic environment with social norms that further deepens the bad state of this woman.

In connection to the first layer that I discovered, there is a conflict between the thoughts and feelings of the narrator and John. The feminine aspect refuses to be categorised by John, who is in fact symbolises the masculine, more logical thinking. For example, there is no problem, “there is no reason to suffer”. John is controlling, however the woman admits out of habit or out of realisation, that the man is right in most cases.

The second layer of conflict is about the collision between the superstition coming from education and the feelings of a person. Which connects back to the previous layer, seemingly, everything is fine, yet this woman is ill. The narrator feels that she is not alright, but her husband is telling her, judging by his own knowledge that she is doing well, and he is taking care of her illness or condition. In truth, judging by the level of medicine at the time of the writer, this could be true. What John does is all that he could do based on what they knew about these kinds of illness. The last resort would had meant to send her into an asylum.

In addition, superstition comes in to conflict in the case of John’s sister, Jennie who thinks that writing makes the woman sick in the first place. Or, at least this is how the narrator conveys her own superstitions about Jennie.

The third layer is about mental disorders or problems with mental health. These kinds of illness are not taken seriously by many people, even today! As mentioned before, medicine at the time was not that advanced and therefore it was very difficult to treat mental disorders. Most of the methods used in asylums were, by not even today’s standards, cruel and barbaric. Most of these treatments included torture. Today it is very different and advanced, however back in the time of the novella; they lacked knowledge about the subject. As a result, only a handful of patients could recover, most of them died or were locked away for eternity in their misery.

This third layer introduces the inner conflict of this woman, what goes down in her head. Slowly, she is sinking into madness. At the start of the novella, in her first entries, she was aware that her true condition and thoughts must never be revealed. In addition, she even mentions this before the last entry as well, that she shall not trust even dead paper.

Questions arose, namely what causes this illness? What is the reason behind her behaviour?

There is also a baby mentioned, who is said to be the child of the narrator. Could this story be about post birth depression?

If the woman was not ill, then she would take care of her own child. The baby is mentioned  only once, she misses her child. Yet, by the end, the baby is forgotten, there is no more mention of him. Therefore, the woman has to be seriously ill. A mother would break down all walls to get to her child. Elsewise, why would they need Jennie in the house to help with everything?

Third, we are tricked to believe the story of the narrator, to trust her side of the story. However, we know that she is mentally ill. In her entries from time to time, as she is trying to regain control, tells us and admits that what she is doing is not right at all. Although, before the last entry, she loses control and forgets about normality forever. From this point on, or even from an earlier point, we can no longer be sure about what happens. The entries that she writes can tell lies or hallucinations. (Which is in my opinion what truly happens.)

The narrator is obsessed with the yellow wallpaper. She starts to see the world as illusion compared to the wallpaper. Its yellowness is what really matters. There is one or sometimes several women trapped behind those bars. Although, could those be her? Are they separate entities or are they the fragments of her broken mind?

Through the telling of the narrator we cannot say for sure, that her condition is caused or worsened by the acts of the husband. Maybe she was normal at first and was forced into this state. However, the unreliable narrator tries to present the story in this narrative. She is telling us, how she pleaded and asked John to move downstairs. About how she tried to tell her husband about her condition. Nevertheless, did these really happen? Would not a doctor know better? And if she had really told him, then he would have acted. In addition, it is possible that this was part of her treatment that they had to sleep and stay in that room. Keeping in mind that she was forbidden to be with her child, but could go out walking and do a lot of other things. In the end, we could say that her treatment was unsuccessful.

While describing the wallpaper and the smell of the house, I noticed that these could be the result of not only her illness, but the mould that infests these kind of old houses. Maybe she was not mentally ill in the first place? But she got these hallucinations because of the fungus, the mould in the air? This explanation is one possible way to view the ending. During history, from ancient Germans who used mushrooms in their shamanistic rituals to lighthouse keepers who started hallucinating because of musty bread, fungi and especially mould caused a lot of dreadful events.

Furthermore, the ending could be explained through the lens of deep madness. In her last entries, she describes creeping, and refers to herself creeping around instead of walking or doing anything else. This further emphasis the fact that she was lost at this point. She started to let free the imprisoned women of the yellow wallpaper, but this could mean, she let her inner personalities free.

Also, as the husband enters, he faints. This could be the result of the narrator doing horrible things to herself. Maybe by tearing down the yellow wallpaper she meant that she started to skin herself alive. Alternatively, maybe she did other terrifying things to herself. At this point, it is possible that she was no longer able to tell apart where the yellow wallpaper started and her skin ended.

I wonder, after the last scene, when did she pen down the last entry?

In conclusion, the main point of this reading journal is that the narrator goes from reliable to unreliable as her condition worsens. This short story is about a mental illness of unnamed origin, which most likely ruined the life of this family.