The Yellow Wallpaper By Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Short Story
Charlotte Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper was published in 1892 by The New England Magazine . The first time I read this short story was over 10 years ago and it intrigued me even more the second time I read it. The subject matter depicted in the symbolism could fit into modern day scenarios with elements the writing pulls upon such as (1) the value of a woman's self-expression within a marriage or the inability to be self-expressive, (2) being given the suggestion you'll feel better if you just "rest" so your state of mind is improved, and (3) not entirely liking the idea of subordination (no free-spirited will).
One interesting highlight of Gilman's writing is the similar method employed to demonstrate stream of consciousness, which was a literary style imposing a written flow of thoughts or feelings of a character or even the narrator. In the case of The Yellow Wallpaper , the flow of thoughts were a product of the narrator. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf also wrote using this method.
What I found particularly interesting about this story taking into consideration the time period in which it was published, Gilman took a daring step to address subjects for which she could have been greatly shunned. It was a time and a place where women were expected to be seen and not heard and certainly expected to be subordinate to their spouses.
There is a gothic thriller movie based on the name of this short story released in 2011 although it is not built on the story details. The Yellow Wallpaper short story is categorized as a Gothic horror genre, although the story is not edgy, nor scary. There have been other films based on this story, but I have not seen them. Likewise, students and young filmmakers have brought this story to film.
The Main Characters
The Narrator--Throughout the story, the narrator is telling us how her husband and sister-in-law are taking care of her and everything else. At the tail of the story, we read the name, "Jane," and we wonder if that is the narrator's name. We are seeing and feeling her life, her discontent, the manner in which her early signs of depression are treated, and how she is supposed to overcome everything that brings her discontent. The symbolic measures of her angst and unhappiness are displayed by the yellow wallpaper.
John--The narrator's husband is John. He is also a doctor and fully believes that her hysteria, which might have been postpartum related to childbirth, should be treated with lots of bed rest. He wants his wife to do nothing at all, nothing, including anything she might want to write. Their newborn child is being cared for by John's sister. According to John, women are to maintain their beauty and be dutiful caregivers. Ah, yes, and be content in their domestic obligations.
Jennie--The narrator's sister-in-law is Jennie who cares for their newborn child. She also helps out around the house and is very happy to do so. She fulfills the stereotyped mold of what a woman is supposed to accomplish daily (and with a smile).
The Main Plot
The story begins when the family is staying in a house for the summer and because the narrator is not doing well, she is more or less confined to a room upstairs which is also a nursery and contains hideous yellow wallpaper inside her own commentary. The symbolic measures in this short story involve the yellow wallpaper which could be representative of her illness (depression after giving birth). Also, yellow could be synonymous with sickly. When the narrator peers out the window, she sees a whole world that she is unable to be a part of and is all too familiar with what "role" a woman plays. The windows in the room are also barred which could reflect how women were chained to the household. Be cheery in domestic chores, always look lovely, and just don't think.
The narrator is instructed by her husband, John, who is also a doctor that what she needs is a lot of rest and she's to avoid too much of anything that would involve intellectual thought. She is treated like she is a poor sick child and she is resentful. Her angst is displayed with her thinking relationship with the wallpaper. And, because I want to persuade you to read the short story, I do not choose to give away all the details. The narrator is essentially wanting her freedom, her freedom to think and to be treated as her husband would want to be treated. Her husband does not want her to dwell on her "condition," but she does, especially at night. The narrator studies the patterns on the wallpaper and the pattern in and of itself is symbolic of the treatment of women and begins to see the wallpaper as a form of trapping that which wants to come out (free will).
About the Author
Charlotte Perkins Stetson was later known as Charlotte Perkins Gilman after she remarried. She wrote The Yellow Wallpaper in 1892 while residing in California. If you have never read this short story (click this link to access this short), I would persuade you to do so because it is a remarkable reflection of how women can feel trapped. I found it very interesting that she was able to cover this subject of "trapped" during the time period the story was written.
Gilman was a feminist who wanted to bring about social reform to women's roles. When she was 24, she married an artist by the name of Charles Walter Stetson. Ironically, after their daughter was born, Gilman did suffer a period of depression and when she sought advice from a neurologist, she was told that rest and little mind work would help cure her problem. The doctor's prescription of "rest-cure" is a subject also reflected in The Yellow Wallpaper. She eventually avoided the rest advice and blamed her emotional upsetness on her marriage and ultimately left Stetson. Later, she moved to California becoming very involved with feminist activities which included lecturing on women's rights.
In 1898, another of her books was published entitled, "Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution." Many think this is one of her best works, but others also feel The Yellow Wallpaper is one of her best works.
George Houghton Gilman, whom she married in 1900, supported her cause. She published a monthly journal, The Forerunner, from 1909 to 1916. Sadly, in 1935, she learned she had cancer and learning she would inevitably die, she committed suicide.
Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortune, or ''broken heart,'' is excuse for cutting off one's life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of an unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.
(Quote: Charlotte Gilman; source: www.famous-quote.com)
Gilman's Explanation For Having Written "The Yellow Wallpaper"
This is the best video presentation I have seen based on "The Yellow Wallpaper"
Charlotte epitimizes the very use of the strong emotional effects of language. Her short story described in part above is as moving now as it was in the 19th Century when she took a risk to be so bold to describe a state of being which was also molded from her personal experience.
Language as we read it or as we write it can have longlasting effects on an audience that is similarly situated, or possesses the ability to be embraced by the relationship of words streaming against a page which affect an absorbing mind.
The influence of language is remarkable. Let us all keep writing.
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