Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-paper”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ca. 1900. From Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ca. 1900. From Wikimedia Commons, public domain.


In Arts One this week, we’re reading parts of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and all of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wall-Paper.”

I didn’t gauge the time well in class yesterday, and we didn’t get as much time to talk about Gilman’s story as I wanted! My fault. So I thought I’d post some thoughts and some of my questions here, trying to work through my own ideas on my questions. And maybe some of this will be useful for my seminar group (and it’d be great if anyone wants to add their thoughts too, in the comments!).

The wallpaper patter and confinement

The wallpaper in Gilman’s story has both a main pattern and a “sub-pattern,” one underneath the main one; it’s in the latter that the “creeping woman” can be found. The main pattern, in the dark, “becomes bars,” and the woman behind it “takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard,” trying to get out. The main pattern, then, is somehow linked to confinement, imprisonment: “she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern–it strangles so ….”

I connected this confining main pattern to the social role expected of women, or the actions of others that confine them (like the narrator’s husband). That seems a pretty easy interpretation to make, but then I wondered: why is this pattern described as so chaotic, so hard to follow, so contradictory?

  • “…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”
  • “I start … at the bottom … and I determine that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion. I know a little of the principle of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of.”
  • “On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind. … You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream.”

This would suggest, on the reading above, that somehow the expectations of women, the actions towards women, the ways women are talked about, are confusing, hard to follow, even contradictory. I think this could make sense as an interpretation; in particular, Beauvoir talks The Second Sex about how women are viewed in contradictory ways (page references are to the Vintage edition, translated by HM Parshley, not the newest translation by Borde and Malovany-Chevallier): “She is an idol, a servant, the source of life, a power of darkness; she is the elemental silence of truth, she is artifice, gossip, and falsehood; she is healing presence and sorceress; she is man’s prey, his downfall, she is everything that he is not and that he longs for, his negation and his raison d’etre” (143). Woman represents life (birth) but also death: life leads inevitably to death and decay; the mother is the source of life and flesh, and flesh is what dies (154). Woman is “the chaos whence all have come and whither all must one day return” (147). Beauvoir and others have pointed out how images of woman have included both the idea of us being innocent and pure, morally good (Virgin Mary. e.g.), as well as evil temptresses (Eve, e.g.) and seductresses.

So we can see that women have been talked about and treated in contradictory ways, at least in the West (which is what I know the most about). I don’t know to what degree such observations were common in Gilman’s time, but perhaps we could find some example in the story of how the way the narrator is treated, or how she acts towards John at first, is confusing, not clear, or contradictory? I don’t know for sure; I’m just putting this out as something to consider.

The woman in the wallpaper

As we discussed in class, it seems pretty clear that the narrator somehow “becomes” the woman in the wallpaper, or the two were the same all along. I was thinking that this woman was a kind of unconscious expression of what the original narrator thinks and feels and wants to do. The narrator (I’m going to call her “Jane” in what follows for clarity of discussion, and we talked about how Jane is probably the woman at the beginning of the story) does express to her husband that she doesn’t want to be in that room, and that she wants to leave the house generally, and she does express in her writing that she wants to continue working even though her husband tells her she ought not do. So it’s not that Jane’s desires to escape the confinement placed upon her by her husband are unconscious and need to come out in other ways (e.g., Freud’s notion of the “return of the repressed”), but she is not able to actually do what she wants–she can’t leave, and she can’t continue to write except in hiding. So I think it makes sense to say that the woman in the wallpaper could be an expression of Jane’s desire to get out of her own confinement, and the ending being a kind of fulfillment of that desire to some extent. Jane/the woman in the wallpaper does get out of the wallpaper, and she has torn it down so they can’t put her back. (I’m writing here as if the two people become one at the end, but that need not be the only interpretation!)

But if we interpret the wall paper patter, the main pattern, as the confining social/political/economic/cultural position of women generally, has she really escaped this? Perhaps to some extent, insofar as if she is now considered “insane” then she doesn’t have to live up to those expectations anymore. But, as I realized while discussing this story with one of the students in the seminar during office hours after class, Jane/the woman in the wallpaper is just going round and round in the room at the end; she doesn’t really get out in any significant sense. She even says that she doesn’t want to go outside, because “outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow” (last page). So she’s still in the room, still confined, and just going around and around as if she were exploring the edges of her confinement without really wanting to fully escape.

I’m puzzled, then, by this ending of her going around and around in the room. She is still creeping, just as the woman in the wallpaper did while she was in the wallpaper. She hasn’t been able to escape this “creeping,” which we discussed in class (? or maybe it was when I met with one of you in office hours?) as her having to hide, to do the things she wants (like write) without anyone else seeing. She still is doing that, still “hiding” to some degree. So is there any emancipation in any sense by the end, even though she’s out of the wallpaper?

Day and night

In class I raised the question of why it would be that there is a difference between day and night in how the woman in the wallpaper acts, how the wallpaper itself looks. Here are some examples in the text:

  • [as already quoted above] “On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.”
  • “At night, in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, in becomes bars! The outside patter i mean, and the woman behind it as plain as can be.”
  • “By daylight she [the woman in the wallpaper] is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour.”
  • At night the woman in the wallpaper “crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.”
  • later in the story, the woman in the wallpaper “gets out in the daytime” and “creep[s] by daylight.”

As one of the students in the seminar noted in class on Friday, Jane, too, starts to become active at night and quiet during the day at one point in the story: “I don’t sleep much at night, for it is so interesting to watch developments; but I sleep a good deal in the daytime.” But then later, Jane notes that like the woman in the wallpaper who started to creep by daylight, she does too: “I always lock the door when I creep by daylight.”

Though there are interesting things to say about the relationship between Jane and the woman in the wallpaper, I’m focused at the moment on the day/night discrepancy. Why would the woman in the wallpaper at first be active only at night, and shake the bars only “in the very shady spots” but keep still “in the very bright spots”? One great idea that was brought up by one the students in class was that Jane has to act correctly in the daylight, do what she is supposed to, say what she is supposed to, and has to hide her other actions and feelings as if in the dark. Then, towards the end, it all starts to come out clearly even in the daylight. Note that when the woman in the wallpaper gets out it is also during the day.


I hadn’t thought of this at all when reading the story, but one of the students in class on Friday pointed out a kind of temporal discrepancy in the narrative. In most of the story Jane is writing about what she thinks at the time, what has happened in the past week or few days–all things that would seem normal for a kind of journal. But at the very end, when the woman in the wallpaper is getting out, it turns into even more of a narrative of what is happening right at that moment. In particular, she says, “Why there’s John at the door! It is no use, young man, you can’t open it! How he does call and pound! Now he’s crying for an axe.” It becomes more of a narrative about what is happening at that very moment.

Then another student point out that in the last bit after those lines I just quoted, the narrative turns into past tense. It changes abruptly from what-is-happening-right-now to what the narrator “said,” what John “said,”  how he “fainted,” etc. Why should this be?

Honestly, I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about. Anyone have any ideas?