Yellow Wallpaper Paper

Nash Kevanyu
February 1997

Wallpaper as the Apotheosis of Womanhood?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was crafty. Taken at face value, hershort work, The Yellow Wallpaper, is simply the diary ofa woman going through a mental breakdown. The wallpaper itselfis the arbitrary object on which a troubled mind is obsessivelyfixated. The fact that Gilman herself suffered from a nervousbreakdown makes this interpretation seem quite viable. This explanationis, however, dead wrong.

The wallpaper is not merely the object upon which she obsesses. The madness that overtakes the narrator is not rooted in anynervous disorder that her husband diagnoses. The wallpaper isactually meant to represent a mould into which all women are supposedto fit. The insanity is rooted in the narrator’s inability tofall easily into that mould. Gilman’s descriptions of the wallpaperare really eloquent delineations of the restrictions and constraintsplaced upon women. In short, the wallpaper is what all properwomen are supposed to be; the narrator is one woman who is unableto adapt and, hence, she becomes a lunatic.

The narrator’s first description of the wallpaper puts forthmost plainly what the nature of women is believed to be: “dullenough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantlyirritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertaincurves for a little distance they . . . destroy themselves inunheard of contradictions” (Gilman 4-5). Initially here,women are depicted as confusing objects; so confounding that theyare always annoying and yet curious enough to demand “study”or scrutiny. Upon further examination, women are then found tobe “lame uncertain curves” so full of contradictionsthey can’t help but be self-destructive. This then infers thatsince women have no common sense or wits about them, they cannotbe trusted to make decisions or fend for themselves. They mustbe strictly supervised and given detailed instructions, else theywould end up who knows where due to their stupidity.

This is exactly what her husband, John, does. His wife writesthat he “hardly lets me stir without special direction,”and that she is given “a schedule of prescription for eachhour in the day; he takes all care from me” (4). He alsospeaks to her with a condescending tone, using demeaning namesfor her such as “blessed little goose,” throughout thestory. In fact, we never learn her proper name, which makes herseem even less of a human being.

Gilman’s use of architectural and design terminology in describingthe wallpaper creates a strange building within which the femalemind is supposed to be housed. She first refers to the wallpaper’sdesign as “a kind of ‘debased Romanesque’ . . . waddlingup and down in isolated columns of fatuity” (Gilman 8). The word “Romanesque” refers to romance as well as ahighly ornate form of architecture that utilizes decorative columnsto support vaults. This implies that a woman’s mind is filledwith flawed romantic vaults supported by beautifully adorned columnsof stupidity. In addition, she also depicts the pattern of thewallpaper as “a florid arabesque” (11). From this,it can be deduced that a woman’s mind also consists of fantasticinterlacing patterns of pretty flowers. Gilman points out thata woman’s brain patterns contain “a lack of sequence, a defianceof law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind” (11). This description lends itself nicely to the first one of thewallpaper and also indicates that the female thought process isgenerally seen as abnormal.

The wallpaper, which is intended to exhibit the characteristicsof the ideal woman, is the source of madness in the narrator.they can’t help but be self-destructive At first, she is simply disgusted by the wallpaper, but afterlong-term exposure to it, she begins to absorb its properties. This is indicated by her husband’s belief that she is actuallyrecovering from her nervous condition. She is actually goinginsane from the constant attempts and failures in attaining this”ideal” condition: “You think you have masteredit, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns aback-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face,it knocks you down, and tramples on you” (11). A dualityexists within the narrator, though. Her senses being constantlybombarded by the wallpaper also cause her subconsciously to attemptto free herself from this oppressive mould. This eventually leadsher to see bars in the pattern of the wallpaper and towards schizophrenia.

It is easy to see how someone could misinterpret what Gilmanwas attempting to express in The Yellow Wallpaper, butif you take into account her other books (which are clearly feminist),her intentions become more apparent. She obviously uses the wallpaperas a medium to expose the constraints that were placed upon womenin the 19th century. Her attitude towards these restrictionsis quite apparent from the narrator’s account of the wallpaperand her subsequent insanity from overexposure to it. She despisesthe general view of women and of their mental capabilities. Thiswork lashes out at a patriarchal society’s belief system and,the funny thing is, not many of the patriarchs noticed.

Work Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. 1892. Alexandria, VA: Orchises Press, 1990.

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