‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a document of the mental breakdown of a middle class Victorian woman, but beneath this, is the portrayal of her breakthrough that women are being treated as inferior by men, and her discovery in her insane and insecure state of mind, that woman are chained to a patriarchal society where men are the ones who have the majority of the power and control. But to what extent is it a breakthrough rather than breakdown?
The narrator’s insanity increases throughout the novel and the reader becomes aware of this by her language; her short and choppy sentences show her agitated state of mind and the fact that she is ‘forbidden to “work” until she is well again’ gives us more of an insight into her illness. The whole story is a record of her descending to insanity and depression, a document of her thought patterns as her mind becomes clouded as her vivid imagination unravels her strange and confused thoughts (or unravels the true allegory of her obsessive examination of the wallpaper). The end is ultimately a culmination of all her insane (yet allegorically relevant) thinking as she tries to find a ‘conclusion’ to the ‘pointless pattern’ that symbolizes the rules of society.
As the story progresses, the mysterious yellow wallpaper becomes mentioned increasingly, and the reader is made aware of how unreliable the narrator actually is in this state of mind as her opinions of the wallpaper change rapidly and not for much reason. The way she projects her feelings onto her surroundings from the start, not necessarily the wallpaper, marks the beginning of her slide into obsession and madness, and the way she prefers the outdoors perhaps conveys her underlying wish for freedom from the restraints of society – ‘There is a delicious garden! I never saw such a garden’. Here Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents the narrator as exceptionally melodramatic by her use of superlatives and seemingly unnecessary speculation of inanimate objects, probably to show her mental instability and the breakdown she is going through that causes her to obsess like this.
At first she describes the wallpaper as ‘committing every artistic sin’, the colour being ‘repellent’ and ‘sickly sulphur’, her first impressions of it as it becomes apparent to her, that it is repulsive and not conforming to ordinary conventions of what ‘art’ is. In the allegorical view of the story (i.e. the breakthrough of the narrator), this could be conveyed as the idea of women not wanting to break free of the chains of the patriarchal society they are living in, instead ‘hugging their chains’ and conforming to the ordinary patterns of the life they are used to – not committing an ‘artistic sin’ and rebelling as she feels the wallpaper is doing. In due course, she becomes stronger and more confident in her opinion and ultimately will rebel and break through the wallpaper’s theoretical separation of women and society, for herself at least.
Moreover, the wallpaper seems to represent the thin line separating women from men that holds them back from their true potential and freedom. She mentions at the start that it is ‘pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study’, showing how much it is beginning to affect and interest her – whether it is because of her obsessive insanity and is provoked by her illness, or because of her need of freedom from the chains of society. She then even personifies the wallpaper, saying the ‘lame uncertain curves… suddenly commit suicide’, perhaps conveying the idea that if women do not stick to their role in society, or if they try to understand or ‘follow’ how the bars of patriarchy are restricting them, they will be driven insane enough to want to commit suicide. Her obsession increases a great deal throughout the novel, and as she begins to unravel her idea of what the wallpaper actually is, the extended metaphor of it being this shield protecting women or wall denying them of freedom becomes more and more clear, resulting in her descent into madness or enlightenment.
Furthermore, her changing perspective of the wallpaper, the confusion surrounding it (‘I’m getting really fond of the room, in spite of the wallpaper, perhaps because of the wallpaper’) and the fact that she ‘will follow the pattern to some sort of conclusion’ ultimately builds up to the state she is in at the end of the novel; on the one hand she is clearly driven to insanity – ‘It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please’, but on the other hand, past her insanity and agitated state of mind, she unravels the deeper meaning of the wallpaper – ‘the pattern just enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes… just shriek with derision!’, the heads and eyes being those of women shrieking from joy (or fear) that someone is finally breaking free of the chains society has put on them. On the other hand, the ‘shriek’ and ‘bulbous eyes’ could be a metaphor for the baby she has neglected, as is subtly hinted at throughout the short story. The description of ‘lolling neck’ and ‘waddling fungus’ increasingly builds this concealed image of a baby that perhaps expresses the insanity she has been driven to by post-natal depression, the shrieks being as unbearable to her as the wallpaper is; ultimately conveying how the restrictions society have on her and other women prevent her from connecting to her child.
In addition the way she says ‘this paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had’, shows how she believes the wallpaper is affecting everyone and everything around it, including her relationship with her child. Similarly, she says the smell of the wallpaper ‘creeps all over the house’ displaying how it contaminates everyone, not just her. This conceivably implies the idea that the bars of patriarchy affect all women, not just the narrator, although it could mean that it affects the entire household, not just the women. The way Charlotte Perkins Gilman never names the narrator, also adds to the universality of the constraints of patriarchy in that everyone is affected, even if not directly.
When the wallpaper’s ‘sub patterns’ start to get in focus for the narrator – ‘it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern’, she begins to reveal the disturbing truth that she is trapped within the suffocating domestic pattern and unable to escape as she is drawn further into fantasy. In addition, it is quite ironic that at this point she ways ‘I wish John would take me away from here!’ as he is exactly the one who is trapping her; she wants her captor to be her saviour, whereas this is not the case at the end of the novel as she has to ‘creep over him every time’, implying that she has finally overcome his rules and restraints and understands (in her insanity) that he was the one imprisoning her behind this wall society has created. This fast progression of her confidence in her opinions and views is in some ways how she comes to this ‘breakthrough’, although she seems to have to go through an extreme mental ‘breakdown’ in order to understand what has been holding her back, i.e. she has been driven to insanity in order to discover how much she had been held back by the patriarchal society.
The way in which she wants the wallpaper to remain a secret she keeps to herself also portrays her feverish and chilling obsession with this inanimate thing she ‘doesn’t like a bit’ – ‘I never mention it to them anymore… there are things in that paper that nobody knows but me’. The reason she does not want to share it could be because she does not want to share the awful secret; that of patriarchy destroying women’s lives in ways they do not understand, and will not understand unless they are driven as insane as she is. She says ‘I am too wise’, perhaps showing her belief that her knowledge of this ‘secret’ is eventually tragic for her in ways she cannot even understand herself, showing how she had to break down in her unravelling of the secret of the wallpaper in order to recognize what it represents.
Moreover, when she sees John ‘looking at the paper!’ and catches Jennie ‘with her hand on it once’, she is distressed and even more ‘determined that nobody shall find it out’ but herself. She hates the fact that they are part of the system that is keeping her so trapped, and does not seem to want to believe that they are against her. As she gets more determined to keep her investigation of the wallpaper a secret, we begin to feel she is planning a display of her discovery when she has unravelled the true and entire meaning of it. ‘I think that woman gets out in the daytime!
And I’ll tell you why – privately – I’ve seen her!’ – here her excitement about her further discoveries of the pattern behind the wallpaper shows her growing passion and obsession for discovering the truth, and we are left wondering what she will do when she does discover the truth for herself. In addition, the way she addresses the reader shows her growing confidence and trust in herself that she is right about this woman, and that she will do anything to find out more about her. The juxtaposition of the image of the woman creeping by daylight and herself creeping by daylight (‘I don’t blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight! / I always lock the door when I creep by daylight) also emphasises how she seems to relate to this woman, and parallels are drawn between the both of them; foreshadowing her breakdown at the end as she becomes the woman, and showing the breakthrough that she is a woman barred by the rules of patriarchy (a woman behind the wallpaper).
The wallpaper becomes increasingly active inside her mind as she continues to break down every single aspect of it in her battle of comprehending its true place and meaning – ‘It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you’. This violent action of the wallpaper is the first time it is described as active, showing her growing belief that it is harmful and ‘torturing’, i.e. how the restrictions of patriarchy are destroying to everyone. Moreover, she says it is ‘a constant irritant to a normal mind’, again implying how even to someone normal (someone who does not know the secret of the wallpaper) the rules of patriarchy are a nuisance and a limitation to the potential of a woman; that women could do so much more with their great minds without the ‘constant irritant’ of society being against them.
As she begins to believe that there is more than one pattern in the wallpaper and believe that the two patterns move, the unravelling of the true meaning of the wallpaper becomes more and more clear. The narrator says she ‘lay there for hours trying to decide whether that front pattern and the back pattern really did move together or separately’, perhaps leading on to the idea of the two patterns being symbols of her and John, and her questioning whether his views on how society should be and her views could work together without conflicting.
As the story progresses and the pattern behind is personified, the idea that the two patterns or conflicting views cannot work together becomes apparent, and eventually the narrator will become barred by the pattern which is John’s view on society. The way in which the image behind the wallpaper is first described as ‘the faint figure’ and at the end of the story is described as ‘a great many women’ shows the development of the narrator’s innovation from the idea that there is one insignificant person (maybe herself) affected by patriarchy, to the idea that there is a great many people being affected by it. Her increasing visions of these images of people behind the patterns could essentially be her breakdown as she grows more insane, or on the other hand her increasing knowledge of the secret she is gradually uncovering in order to understand what has been holding her back.
Another symbol Charlotte Perkins Gilman incorporates in the story is that of the moon; the narrator seems visualise the bars in the wallpaper at night time, but her thoughts are more focused on John and Jenny by day – ‘by moonlight, it becomes bars!’. She says she ‘wouldn’t know it was the same paper’ by moonlight, showing by moonlight she seems to see the allegory of it clearer in her mind. Furthermore, the inclusion of this moon metaphor also has connotations with madness as well as women in general, further emphasising the narrator’s struggle with her sanity and how being a woman plays a major part in the reason for her entire mental breakdown.
Towards the end of the story, her sole goal becomes much more focused and clear, and eventually she says ‘there are only two more days to get this paper off’. This perhaps shows her determination to reveal her breakthrough, implying that she already knows in her mind what she has discovered. In a way this makes the ending of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ more of a show of her breakthrough in the most insane way as possible. The narrator cries ‘Hurrah!’, in a manner much like her enthusiastic tone at the beginning of the story, showing how the wallpaper is not bothering her anymore seeing as she has fully understood its secret. She seems to be working with the woman behind the wallpaper as they both pull and shake the paper as a team – ‘I pulled and she shook’. Looking at the deeper allegorical reason behind the story, this could be representing the way in which women only have a hope of overcoming the prejudice society has of them if they work as a team; one woman alone cannot do anything to change how society is run.
As soon as the wallpaper is gone, the narrator is much more confident and pleased with herself, and even says ‘I quite enjoy the room, now it is bare again’, before immediately having to ‘get to work’. Now the wallpaper, the symbol of the restrictions patriarchy has on women, is mostly gone, the narrator receives a sudden gain in self-assurance and desperation to ‘astonish’ John with her breakthrough. The way she says ‘there are so many of those creeping women… I wonder if they all came out of that wall-paper as I did?’ also shows how so many women are affected by the limitations society has put on them, and she finally seems to make the connection that the reader has already made; that she is the ‘woman’ behind the paper, her breakthrough being that she had to breakthrough this wallpaper representative of patriarchy and be driven completely insane to understand freedom from the restraints of society.
The creepy and chilling culmination of her total breakdown and the fact she has to ‘creep over him [John] every time!’ also adds to her insanity, and the reader is left either admiring her breaking free from the chains of society, or feeling pity for her due to the fact that she has not broken free at all; she still has to ‘creep over him’, implying how she as a woman still has to live with the fact that the prejudice society has on her will always be there, and is perhaps left thinking that the only way to break free of society is to go completely insane. In this way, the ending is almost a way of Charlotte Perkins Gilman saying that in order to experience a breakthrough and discover how to break free of society, you have to undergo an entire breakdown.
In conclusion, the ending of the Yellow Wallpaper is a culmination of the rapid breakdown of a woman barred by the rules of society, and who gradually gains insight into why she has felt so restricted in the past as she becomes more and more insane. Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses the narrator’s perhaps metaphorical mental ‘breakdown’ in order to portray her ‘breakthrough’ that women are very much being restricted by patriarchy, and the ending is a display of this woman’s understanding of this idea, although she has to be driven completely insane to appreciate what has been holding her back and driving her insane in the first place. So, the ending is in fact both a breakdown for the narrator and a breakthrough as she is ultimately driven mad in order to convey the idea of patriarchy greatly affecting society in general.