The Progression of Madness in 'The Yellow Wallpaper'

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Close-reading analysis of Charlotte Perkins-Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," done in my first year of university.

Submitted: November 13, 2011

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Submitted: November 13, 2011



Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ centres around the deteriorating mental condition of the female narrator.  As a woman in a male-dominated society, the narrator has no control over her own life, and this repression contributes to her madness.  The progression of madness throughout the story is reflected by the narrator’s change in attitude towards her husband, her growing obsession with the wallpaper, and by her projection of herself as the woman behind the wallpaper.  The ‘rest cure’ prescribed by her physician husband, rather than curing her, created the perfect environment for madness to flourish, because it was only in her imagination that she was permitted to have freedom and some sort of control.

When the story begins, the narrator’s relationship with her husband, John, is trusting.  She does not agree with his belief that extensive rest is the best thing for her, and feels that “congenial work, with excitement and change,” would be better.  However, she does believe that he knows best, and she feels somewhat guilty for her dissenting opinion, and she informs the reader that “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.”  These conflicting emotions confuse the narrator and become a cause of stress.  She wishes she could write in her notebook more freely, but is forced to hide it from John, because she knows he would disapprove of it.  Writing in her notebook is the only way she has of expressing what she feels and thinks without meeting with disapproval, but keeping it a secret from John becomes a tiring effort.  She does not want him to know that she disobeys him, because she does not want to be a bother.  After a time, the effort of keeping her notebook a secret becomes greater than the relief gained from writing in it, and this is the point where her attitude towards her husband begins to change.  She no longer trusts him; when she lays awake at night she lets him think that she is asleep, and confides in her notebook, “The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John.”  She is wary of being reprimanded, and this wariness develops into paranoia.  She no longer views his behaviour as logical, saying that he acts “queer,” and she begins to suspect that he is being affected by the yellow wallpaper.  This suspicion agitates her, because she doesn’t want anyone else to discover what is behind the paper.

The narrator develops a very intimate relationship with the yellow wallpaper throughout the story, as it is her constant companion.  Her initial reaction to it is revulsion; she dislikes the colour and despises the pattern, but does not attribute anything ‘queer’ to it.  Two weeks into their stay she begins to project a sort of personality onto the paper; she blames it for slowing the progress of her healing, and says that it “…looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!” She begins to study the pattern more closely, and that is when she first notices “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.”  At this point, her madness is vague, but becoming more pronounced, because although the figure that she sees behind the pattern has no solid shape, she dwells on it and it becomes very real to her.  The wallpaper no longer revolts her, as it has become an object of fascination instead.  She becomes obsessed with the pattern, trying to trace it with her eyes and becoming frustrated each time she loses track of the complex lines, but in her intense study of the paper she finds that “There are things in that wallpaper that nobody knows about but me, or ever will.”  What she sees in the wallpaper becomes her secret, something that she can keep from her husband, and without his controlling influence, she is able to find a sort of escape within the wallpaper. She no longer sleeps at night because she lies awake and studies the wallpaper’s pattern. The figure behind the pattern solidifies and metaphorically becomes her madness.

The narrator’s assertion that there is a woman trapped behind the pattern of the wallpaper is an inverted expression of her own desire for freedom.  The trapped woman’s predicament is, metaphorically, the narrator’s own.  Both are constrained by lines; the trapped woman’s being the lines of the pattern, the narrator’s being the rules of society that are not to be crossed.  Neither of the women have any control over their situation, as the woman in the wallpaper cannot remove or break the top pattern to escape, and the narrator is strictly controlled by her husband and cannot behave as she wishes.  The woman in the paper begins as a formless figure lurking in the pattern, and solidifies as the narrator comes to feel more and more stifled under her husband’s controlling, patronizing demeanor. For a time, the narrator is only observes the woman in the paper, but as her internal desire for freedom increases, she tries to help the woman escape by tearing the wallpaper off of the walls.  Finally, she becomes the woman in the wallpaper, because by becoming that woman, she is able to escape her confinement by getting out of the walls, instead of returning to her old life with her husband, where she would forever be under his control.

The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper descends into madness to escape the patriarchal dominance of her society.  Throughout the story, this descent is shown through the narrator’s deteriorating trust in her husband, the increasing obsession she has with the wallpaper and its pattern, and finally by her delusions of a woman trapped behind the pattern of the paper.  The narrator is confined by the rules of men who will not permit her to have a say in what she can and cannot do, and so she becomes the woman confined only by walls.  In madness, she is able to escape what is confining her, and in madness she achieves a level of control over her own behaviour that she could never have when bound by the rules of sanity.






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