The Yellow Wallpaper Summary
The yellow wallpaper is an important work of an American feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Gilman’s literature illustrated attitudes towards the physical and mental health of women in the 19th Century.
Brief Background of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Yellow Wallpaper
Gilman was a woman’s rights activist, a writer, and a mother who lived at a time when she felt that women were kept in a position that prevented them from existing beyond the sphere of their home.
Such a position prevented women from creative and intellectual growth.
Marriage was, therefore, a sticky situation, and Gilman felt that family life could never satisfy anyone in the family; consequently, she advocated for a change.
Women needed to have the opportunity to work, grow, and make connections outside the home.
It is, therefore, worth noting that most of her work focused on women’s unequal status in marriage and their need for financial independence.
Having in mind that the late 19th Century was the progressive era that was marred by many challenges, Gilman wrote many essays concerning concepts of progressive change and social reform along with short stories, poems, and even an autobiography. However, her most famous work is The Yellow Wallpaper.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story that she published in the year 1892.
It was written just a few years into the 20th Century, the same period as the Trifles.
It is a haunting psychological story as well as a feminist masterpiece.
During this time, Postpartum depression was not a recognized and documented illness.
The yellow wallpaper was inspired by her own life experience while in her 20s.
Gilman got married and gave birth to a daughter.
It was after the birth of her daughter that she suffered from a severe case of postpartum depression.
Her doctor prescribed her a ‘Rest Cure’ with which she was expected to do absolutely nothing.
Doctors prescribed the “Rest Cure” because they believed that there was so much going in a patient’s mind, such as hysteria and nervousness.
The “Rest Time” that was prescribed to Gilman was a miserable time, which made her experiences more severe and resulting in a mental breakdown.
It was only after Gilman stopped listening to the doctor and her husband that she started to improve.
Gilman eventually left her husband and began her writing career and contended that the postpartum experience, the traumatic course of action, and the lack of insight into her emotional state left scars that she felt for the rest of her life.
She achieved equal status in marriage and financial independence in her second marriage.
It is from the emotions that Gilman wrote the Yellow Wallpaper.
Gilman writes this story in a bid to warn others in the dangers of the so-called “Rest Cure.”
It is, therefore, vital that you read the Yellow Wallpaper summary with the above background in mind.
The Yellow Wallpaper Summary: A Synopsis
The story is written in the first person in the form of a journal.
Our narrator, who remains nameless throughout the story, and John, her husband, have gone for a summer vacation in a large house in the countryside after the birth of their daughter.
John feels that the vacation will be good for our narrator as she has been suffering from hysterical behaviors caused by postpartum psychosis, which led to her “Rest Care” treatment until she improves.
Postpartum depression is usually caused by a drop in hormones such as estrogen or progesterone, usually after giving birth.
John feels that the best room for her is an upstairs room believed to be a former nursery. The room has steel bars on the window, scratches on the floor, and a busy yellow wallpaper on the wall.
Today, the condition of Postpartum depression is treated with medication and therapy, but whatever John gave his wife in “The Yellow Wallpaper” definitely does not work.
The narrator says,
“John is a physician; perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.”
He is exceptionally bad in treating mental illness.
John has complete control over his wife’s body.
She recognizes that she is sick, but John belittles her claiming that she only has a temporary nervous depression- a slight hysterical tendency.
The narrator reveals that she does not agree with John, who also happens to be a doctor.
John tells our narrator that she should not do anything, including writing, which she loves to do.
John insists that her health improvement will only happen if she sticks to his instructions of doing almost nothing.
Our narrator disagrees and feels that a distraction will be best for her, and she secretly confesses her thoughts to a dead paper in a journal.
Her journal entries are made up of:
- Descriptions of the house
- Imaginations of what is happening in her environment
- Revelations of the narrator’s true feelings for her husband’s ideas, which she considers oppressive.
In her writing, she projects her mental disintegration onto the patterns she sees on the wall.
The narrator finds the yellow walls ugly and scary.
She imagines designs in the yellow wallpaper and tries to figure out its patterns.
The narrator believes that she sees a small pattern behind the large one of a woman stooping in front of bars.
This is how she projects her mental disintegration onto the patterns she sees on the wall:
“It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to irritate and provoke study constantly, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance, they suddenly commit suicide-plunge off at outrageous angles, destroying themselves in unheard of contradictions.”
It is fascinating how the narrator tries to understand her situation in terms of principles of design. For example, when she studies one strip of paper, she concludes that its pattern is:
“Not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of.”
At this point, the narrator is fixated; her descent into madness is clear as her obsession with the woman in the wallpaper plagues her.
I think anybody who has experienced mental illness can relate to that.
The wallpaper also changes as the light changes.
At night, the woman in the wallpaper’s captivity behind bars becomes as plain as it can be, so of course, does the narrator’s captivity.
Eventually, the narrator begins to suspect that many women are trapped inside this wallpaper.
“I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.”
The narrator wants to free this woman, and on her last day in the house, she locks the door and throws the key into the garden and tethers herself into the bed, which she also bites.
She reaps the wallpaper and thinks that it will be an admirable exercise to throw herself out through the window.
The narrator wedges her shoulders into a smudge that runs through the lower part of the wall and walks hunched over along the periphery of the room, a kind of reenactment of the woman stuck behind the wallpaper.
John enters the room and faints at the sight of his wife yet she continues her laps crawling over the body of the man who oppressed her (the husband).
“I’ve got out at last,” she announces, “in spite of you and Jane.”
Getting out, at last, involves rejecting societal norms and defying John and breaking free if Jane, a character not mentioned until this point.
The Yellow Wallpaper Analysis
It is through the situation itself in the narrator’s journal that the reader can infer that marriage and domestic life do not seem satisfying to her. The narrator feels that a chance for individuality would support her growth as a person, but that would not fit in with the expectations that, as a woman, she needed to serve the needs of her family, unlike her husband.
Bearing in mind that the bars that she sees in the wallpaper as well as the bars on the window, the story communicates one of its most prevalent messages, that women are kept in a kind of prison in marriage and life when forced to live a domestic life without personal growth.
The way the story unfolds with the narrator doing what her husband and doctor tell her to do despite her instincts and desires also underscores the fact that gender and oppression were ruling the narrator’s life.
Gilman invites the reader to reconsider gender dynamics and the treatment of mental health disorders.
At the time of its publication, this story may have inspired real change.
In fact, in an article published in 1913, Gilman claims that her story,
“…has to my knowledge saved one woman from a similar fate-so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity, and she recovered.
But the best result is this: many years later, I was told that my own doctor had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of Neurasthenia since reading the Yellow Wallpaper.”
The story, therefore, affected the world in mysterious ways, and if the Yellow Wallpaper helped end the practice of separating the sick from the world, then that’s a positive impact.
The story has also served another far more personal function. It has given form and expression to many people’s experiences with mental illness. It is a story that explains the way psychological brain disorders can be hurt or helped by treatments and by the way, the social order imagines and talks about mental illness.
Although we no longer embrace “Rest Cure,” we still have a long way to go in talking about mental illness without the stigmatization that can worsen suffering.
Overall, the Yellow Wallpaper should be seen as feminist literature.
The story communicates to the reader the lack of opportunity for a woman outside the mother and wife role.
The story dramatically illustrates what that kind of limitation can do to the mind.
Stooping behind bars is a metaphor for the narrator’s existence (and women in general), which is one that is limited by society and dictated by the men around them.
The Yellow Wallpaper Summary of the Characters
The Narrator: Unnamed Woman
She is the main character of the story
She is a new mother
She is suffering from a condition doctors call a nervous condition.
After losing touch with the outer world, she gets a better understanding of the inner reality of her life.
The narrator is faced with situations and relationships that seem natural and innocent; however, the circumstances are bizarre and oppressive.
From the start of the story, we see a narrator who is imaginative and highly expressive.
She remembers how she terrified herself with imaginary monsters as a child, and she also enjoys the idea that the house they are living in is haunted.
She turns her imaginations onto neutral objects such as the wallpaper and the house in a bid to ignore her frustrations.
As the narrator sinks into frustration with the house and wallpaper, she becomes dissociated from her daily life.
When the narrator eventually identifies herself with the women trapped in the wallpaper, she argues that women are forced to hide and creep behind the domestic patterns of their lives and that they all need to be rescued.
He is a respected physician
He embodies the “Rest Cure.”
John infantilizes and controls his wife and speaks to her like his child.
He gives orders that she must obey, restricting her freedom to an extreme degree by modern standards.
John is naïve about his wife’s need for intellectual exercise.
The actual problem with John is his all-encompassing authority and his combined roles as a husband as well as a physician
He is very sure what is best for his ailing wife.
John constantly patronizes his wife, calls her “a blessed little goose,” and vetoes her least wishes, such as switching bedrooms.
He has dry and clinical rationality, which renders him unsuited to understand his troubled wife.
John does not intend to harm his wife; however, his ignorance ultimately hurts her.
The unequal relationship between John and his wife prevents him from truly understanding her problems.
She is John’s sister.
She is the housekeeper.
Her presence and contentment with a domestic role highly intensify the narrator’s feelings of guilt over her inability to act as a mother and traditional wife.
The Yellow Wallpaper Summary of the Themes
The Importance of Self-Expression
The mental constraints placed on the narrator drive her insane. The narrator is forced to hide her fears and anxieties so that she can protect the idea of a happy marriage and to make it seem as if she winning the fight against her mental illness.
The worst aspect of her treatment is the “Rest Cure” prescription, with which she is required to go on compulsory idleness and silence.
She is forbidden from exercising her mind and forced to be passive.
She is also not required to write.
The narrator longs for an intellectual and emotional outlet, to the extent of keeping a secret journal, which she describes as a relief to her mind.
According to Gilman, a mind that is kept in a state of forced inactivity is a highway to self-destruction.
The Subordination of Women in Marriage
Gilman uses the story to critique the position that women have been given within the institution of marriage.
Initially, after the publishing of the story, most people thought it was just a scary tale of a crazy woman.
After its rediscovery in the 20th Century, the readings and analysis of the story became more complex.
Gilman reveals that the gender division kept women in a childish state that promoted ignorance and prevented the full development of women.
John thinks that he is more superior, more mature and that he has more wisdom than his wife, which leads him to misjudge, dominating, and patronizing his wife, all in the name of “helping” her.
The narrator is reduced to a petulant child, and she is even unable to stand up for herself without seeming disloyal and unreasonable.
She has no say in the smallest details of her life and retreats to obsessive fantasy, the only world where she has control.
The “Rest Cure”
From the beginning of the story, the narrator is said to be suffering from Neurasthenia. She is prescribed with a “Rest Cure.”
However, it is unclear if it is the illness or the “rest cure” that makes her actually go insane at the end of the story.
Gilman argues that any treatment that requires complete inactivity is far much worse to a woman who is only suffering from a minor anxiety disorder.
Significantly, according to her autobiography, Gilman sent a copy of the “Yellow Wallpaper” to the doctor who prescribed her with the “Rest Cure,” and he subsequently changed his prescription for Neurasthenia.
Other than the “Rest Cure,” she also criticizes any treatment that ignores a patient’s personal opinion.
Even though the narrator repeatedly asks her husband to change the treatment, John refuses, believing that he had total authority over the situation.
Freedom and Confinement
The narrator is confined to a single room in a large house. Her husband spends most of his nights in town working.
There is also a gate at the head of the stairs, the bed is immovable as it has been nailed on the floor.
The physical confinement drains her strength while the emotional and mental isolation plays a significant role in her fall into dementia.
Role of Women in the 19th Century
From the yellow wallpaper, it is evident that in the 19th Century, women were required to fulfill their duties as mothers and wives, and be content with their existence, and nothing more than that.
Women were required to spend their entire lives in marriage solely in the domestic sphere.
Although John is seen as a domineering villain in the story, he is basically a true reflection of the society in the 19th Century.
The narrator’s desire to have exposure does not correspond to the societal expectations.
Literature and Writing
From the story, it is evident that writing is a healthy way of self-actualization that is denied to the narrator.
The narrator believes that writing would help reduce her depression.
However, her husband disapproves the idea and argues that it is a tiring activity that would make her worse.
Mental Illness and Treatment
The Yellow Wallpaper provides the reader with the perception of mental illness in the 19th Century as well as its treatment.
The story shows how her husband’s attempted treatment made her health to deteriorate.
The story is a critique of the use of “Rest Cure” as a form of treatment for mental ailments.
The narrator underwent mental breakdown as a result of the “Rest Cure.”
The Yellow Wallpaper Summary of the Symbols
The Wallpaper and its Patterns
The wallpaper develops its symbolism throughout the story. It initially seems unpleasant as it is ripped, unclean, and soiled.
It also has a formless pattern, which fascinates the narrator as she tries to understand the design.
According to the narrator, the design resembles the bars of a cage.
The narrator sees the cage as festooned with heads of women.
The wallpaper represents the structure of the family and traditions in which the narrator finds herself trapped.
Gilman uses the wallpaper as a symbol of domestic life, which most women find themselves trapped inside.
The narrator writes that the woman trapped in the wallpaper is motionless during the day, and as the moonlight strikes the wall, the woman begins to move and creep about.
The pattern of comparing the sun with immobility and the moon with creeping around mirrors her daily lifestyle.
The narrator sleeps during the day, and she is awake and alert at night.
The symbol of the moon could also be compounded by the fact that the moon is regarded as inherently feminine. The moon represents a woman’s menstrual cycle.
The obvious symbol of the room is a prison.
The room has iron bars at the windows and a gate atop the stairs.
Such items bring the picture of a real prison.
However, they represent the figurative prison of a woman.
The narrator has been forced to rest against her will.
She is in sort of bondage.
The entire story is presented in the narrator’s diary.
The narrator has little to occupy her brain.
The diary is much more than a record of her thoughts.
By keeping the diary, she is defying the orders of her husband, and hence the diary is a symbol of rebellion.
The diary also represents her inner voice and her true self as she struggles to give the details of what is happening to her.
She gets relief by getting her feelings and thoughts in the diary.