History: A 6,000-word short story, published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine. It is regarded as an important early work of American feminist literature, illustrating attitudes in the 19th century toward women's physical and mental health. As someone who was almost destroyed by S. Weir Mitchell’s “resting cure” for depression, it is not surprising that Gilman structured her story as an attack on this ineffective and cruel course of treatment. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an illustration of the way a mind that is already plagued with anxiety can deteriorate and begin to prey on itself when it is forced into inactivity and kept from healthy work.
Plot: Told in the first-person perspective as a series of journal entries, the story details the unreliable narrator's descent into madness. The protagonist's husband, John, believes it is in the narrator's best interest to go on a rest cure, since he only credits what is observable and scientific. He serves as his wife's physician, treating her like a powerless patient. She is forbidden from working, and has to hide her journal entries from him, so she can recuperate from what he calls a "temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency," a diagnosis common to women in that period, or the story hints that part of the woman's problem is that she recently gave birth to a child, insinuating she may be suffering from what would now be called postpartum psychosis.
While on vacation for the summer at a colonial mansion, the narrator senses "something queer about it." Confined to an upstairs room, she devotes many journal entries to obsessively describing the wallpaper—its "yellow" smell, its "breakneck" scrawling pattern, the various patches it is missing, and the fact that it leaves yellow smears on the skin and clothing of anyone who touches it. (Said yellow smears are found on her clothing, suggesting that all along it was she that was shredding the wallpaper). Obsessing over the hatred she believes radiates from the room, she supposes that it must have once been a nursery, and that the children who lived in it hated the wallpaper as much as she did. She notes a patch of wallpaper has been rubbed off at her shoulder height early in the book, and after lapsing into insanity confirms that she was the one who had done all the damage to the room, although she is oblivious to this fact herself. She describes how the longer one stays in the bedroom, the more the wallpaper appears to mutate and change, especially in the moonlight. With no other stimulus than the wallpaper, the pattern and designs on the wallpaper become increasingly intriguing, and a figure soon appears in the design. She eventually reaches the conclusion that the figure is a woman creeping on all fours behind the pattern, trying to escape the bars from the shadows.
After "realizing" she must try to free the woman in the wallpaper, she begins to strip the remaining designs off the wall. While working on peeling away the wallpaper, she tries to hide her obsession with it due to her paranoia and fear that John may re-diagnose her, and his sister will remain with them. On the last day of summer, she locks herself in her room in order to strip the remains of the wallpaper. When John arrives home, the woman refuses to unlock the door and tells him to go fetch the key from outside her window where she threw it earlier. Once he returns with the key and opens the door, however, he finds her creeping around the room, circling the walls and touching the wallpaper. She exclaims, "I’ve got out at last," her husband faints, as she continues to circle the room, stepping over his inert body each 'lap' around.
Review: This story has been interpreted by feminist critics as a condemnation of the androcentric hegemony of 19th century medical profession. The narrator's suggestions about her recuperation (that she should work instead of rest, that she should engage with society instead of remaining isolated, that she should attempt to be a mother instead of being separated entirely from her child, etc.) are dismissed out of hand using language that stereotypes her as irrational and, therefore, not qualified to offer ideas about her own condition. The feminist interpretation has drawn on the concept of the "domestic sphere" that women were held in during this period.
Modern feminist critics focus on the degree of triumph at the end of the story: while some may claim the narrator slipped into insanity, others see the ending as a female's assertion of freedom in a marriage in which she felt trapped. The emphasis on reading and writing as gendered practices also illustrated the importance of the wallpaper. If the narrator was not allowed to write in her journal nor read, she would begin to "read" the wallpaper until she found what she was looking for: an escape. Through seeing the women in the wallpaper, the narrator realizes she could not live her life locked up behind bars. At the end of the story, as her husband John lies on the floor unconscious, she crawls over him, symbolically rising over him. This is interpreted as a victory over her husband, notwithstanding that she lost her sanity in the process.
Gilman's interpretation: Gilman indicated that the idea for the story originated in her own experience as a patient: "the real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways".
Gilman had suffered years of depression, and Mitchell had been consulted as a specialist. He put her on a rest cure, urging her to "live as domestic a life as possible." She was forbidden to touch a pen, pencil or brush ever again, and only allowed two hours of stimulation a day.
After three months and almost completely giving up, Gilman decided to go against her diagnosis and continue to work again. After realizing how close she had come to worse mental illness, she wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" with additions and exaggerations to illustrate her point of misdiagnosis. She sent a copy to Mitchell, but never received a response.
She further added that her purpose in writing "The Yellow Wallpaper" was "not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked." Gilman claimed that many years later she learned Mitchell had changed his treatment methods, but this claim has been discredited by book historian Julie Bates Dock. Mitchell actually continued his treatment methods and was interested in creating entire hospitals devoted to the "rest cure" so that his treatments would be more widely accessible. This was as late as 1908, 16 years after her short story was published.
Other interpretations: "The Yellow Wallpaper" is sometimes referred to as an example of Gothic literature for its treatment of madness and powerlessness. Alan Ryan, for example, introduced the story by writing "quite apart from its origins [it] is one of the finest, and strongest, tales of horror ever written. It may be a ghost story. Worse yet, it may not."
Another interpretation is to doubt the veracity of many of the narrator's early statements. There may never have been a husband, sister, baby, or any other characters as described in the story, meaning the entire story (or a large part of it) is the product of a deluded mind, so the reader cannot know what is true and what is not.
Opening Line: “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and
myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.”
Closing Line: “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
Quotes: "It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw — not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper—the smell! ... The only thing I can think of that it is like, is the color of the paper! A yellow smell."
"For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow. But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way."