The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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“The Yellow Wallpaper”, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was published in 1892.  The story concentrates on the experience of the narrator who is taken to the countryside by her husband after the birth of her child, to rest and recover from a nervous condition which he has diagnosed.  The narrator becomes increasingly fascinated by the yellow wallpaper in her room with its strange, convoluted, intricate and formless pattern.  A work of gothic fiction, and originally interpreted as a disturbing psychological tale of horror, more recently “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been seen as depiction of power relationships between men and women in marriage.

Click here for more information about Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Yellow Wallpaper.  You can also read the article which Perkins Gilman wrote in which she explains why she wrote the story.


It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity —but that would be asking too much of fate!

Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.

Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted? John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.

John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he  scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.

John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.

You see, he does not believe I am sick!

And what can one do?

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?

My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work”until I am well again.

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

But what is one to do?

I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.

I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and  and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.

So I will let it alone and talk about the house.

The most beautiful place! It is quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people.

There is a delicious garden! I never saw such a garden—large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them.

There were greenhouses, too, but they are all broken now.

There was some legal trouble, I believe, something about the heirs and co-heirs; anyhow, the place has been empty for years.

That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid; but I don’t care—there is something strange about the house—I can feel it.

I even said so to John one moonlight evening, but he said what I felt was a draught, and shut the window.

I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition.

But John says if I feel so I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself,—before him, at least,—and that makes me very tired.

I don’t like our room a bit. I wanted one downstairs that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings! but John would not hear of it.

He said there was only one window and not room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another.

He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.

I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.

He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get. “Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear,” said he, “and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time.” So we took the nursery, at the top of the house.

It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playground and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.

The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off—the paper—in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.

One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions. The color is repellant, 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.

No wonder the children hated it!

I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long. There comes John, and I must put this away,—he hates to have me write a word.


 

Some thinking points …

The writer has decided to tell this story as a first person narrative and writes from the point of view of the woman in the story. Why do you think the she has chosen to do this?

Consider what the reader learns from this perspective about the character’s:

  • Emotions
  • Thought processes and state of mind
  • Relationships
  • Needs and desires
  • Treatment
  • Perceptions
  • Likes and dislikes

The narrator describes the grounds, the location of the house, and her bedroom:

  • the “delicious garden”
  • the house is “quite alone” “standing back from the road”
  • “a colonial mansion”
  • “I would say a haunted house”
  • large with “air and sunshine galore””
  • with barred windows

What do these phrases suggest about the qualities the woman sees in the house and her bedroom?

The narrator describes the wallpaper as:

  • “spawling” and “flamboyant”
  • an “artistic sin”
  • with “lame, uncertain curves” which “suddenly commit suicide” and  “plunge off” “to destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions”
  • a “repellant” colour, “a smoldering unclean yellow”, and a “dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others”

In titling this story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the writer is signalling the significance of the wallpaper.  Why do you think that the narrator is so repelled by the wallpaper?  What does this show about her character or perceptions?


Classic inspiration – some ideas for writing based on this extract

  • Choose an object or place which is very important to someone, or affects them deeply,  and describe it from the point of view of a particular character, writing in the first person.
  • Write a dialogue between two characters, enabling the reader to understand the thoughts and emotions of one of the characters but not the other.
  • Write a description which contrasts an inside with an outside space, writing in the third person.