Commentary by Karen Bernardo
“The Yellow Wallpaper” was one of the first works to chronicle the process of going insane. Its harrowing quality derives from the fact that the author knows whereof she speaks. But even though it is based on Gilman’s own breakdown, the story is crafted as a work of art, because the nightmarish motif of the yellow wallpaper itself serves as a metaphor for the disintegration of the protagonist’s mind.
The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” has no name. Generally, when the protagonist of a first-person story remains unnamed throughout the work, we take this to mean that the character represents all humankind. In this story, however, it seems more likely that the main character is unnamed because the experience she is undergoing robs her of her identity. Alone in the yellow-wallpapered nursery with the barred windows, she is treated like a combination inmate and child—denied her writing that gives her solace and lends meaning to her life, denied stimulating companionship that could distract her from her preoccupation with her meager surroundings. Denied any kind of healthy stimulus at all, she is forced to provide her own.
We can see that at the beginning of the book, our protagonist is not too far gone. Her first impression is of the ugly wallpaper; she’s “never seen a worse paper in [her] life.” Almost immediately, however, she veers into a type of language that could either be interpreted as metaphorical or disturbed, describing the pattern’s “lame uncertain curves” that “suddenly commit suicide—plunge[ing] off at outrageous angles, destroy[ing] themselves in unheard-of contradictions.” Obviously it is the protagonist herself who feels lame and uncertain, and fears suicide—fears that she herself will suddenly plunge off at some outrageous angle. Her self-control is still working, but like the wallpaper, disturbing patches show through.
By the second week of her stay, even more disturbance manifests itself in her description of the wallpaper. While she admits it is “inanimate,” she also, in the same sentence, says that she doesn’t like its “expression.” It looks like a face to her—“a broken neck and two bulbous eyes [that] stare at you upside down.” Two sentences later, the wallpaper face is not one creature but many, with multiple “absurd, unblinking eyes [which] are everywhere.” The wallpaper creatures anger her with their “impertinence” as well; this is the first time she mentions them crawling around the room. She sees, too, a “strange, provoking, formless sort of figure” that seems to skulk between the overlaying and underlying patterns of the wallpaper itself.
Soon the changes in the wallpaper become for her the daily unfolding of a soap opera; in fact, she tells us she is trying to follow “that pointless pattern to some kind of conclusion.” What she is trying to do, of course, is to find some sort of pattern, and reach some kind of conclusion, about her own life. In addition, the images she uses to describe the wallpaper are becoming more fantastic: “bloated curves and flourishes—a kind of debased Romanesque with delirium tremens” “waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity.” In her next epistle, she notes that the “dim shapes” skulking behind the overlaying pattern are getting clearer; they have begun to resemble a woman, stooping down and creeping. The protagonist is frightened.
Eventually not even the presence of her husband in the room can keep the demons at bay. More and more of the narrative is devoted to the wallpaper, which during the day has come to resemble a fungus, with toadstool-like shoots sprouting out from it. At night, the “outside” pattern becomes bars, and the woman in the wallpaper is imprisoned behind them, creeping around and around the circumference of the room (in submission?), looking for a way out. By daylight, the underlying pattern is so complex that it keeps the woman in the wallpaper “quiet”—the protagonist notes that the confusion of the pattern itself is so puzzling that it keeps her quiet by the hour, too. We see that the protagonist and the woman in the wallpaper are identical; in other words, the woman in the wallpaper is a projection of herself. At the end, in emulation of the wallpaper-woman, she has begun to crawl, too; she creeps around and around the circumference of the room, in a ritual re-enactment of the bizarre drama of her mind. At last she rips the wallpaper off the wall, freeing the wallpaper-woman and making them one in fact as well as in deed. And only then does she permit John to come upstairs and see what she has done.
What, in fact, has Charlotte Perkins Gilman done in this story? She has shown what happens when a woman is allowed no creative expression at all, no mental stimulus, and no access to the things that fulfill her. She keeps trying to go deeper, further inside, to reach a place where she can truly reach a sense of selfhood; but denied any avenue to accomplish this, her quest becomes a nightmare.
This story can be found in The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories.
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