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Literature / The Yellow Wallpaper

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"The Yellow Wallpaper" is a semi-autobiographical short story written in 1891 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It takes the perspective of a young woman who has been ordered to continuous bedrest as a treatment for hysteria. Trapped in a small room in her husband's country house, with nothing to do all day but sleep and write in her journal, she starts to dwell upon the dingy yellow wallpaper that decorates the place. In her boredom, she begins to see a woman crouching, cowering, trapped in the walls...

A landmark feminist work, its depiction of postpartum psychosis was also an inspiration for early cosmic horror, in particular The King in Yellow. Note that H. P. Lovecraft may have named the Gilman family after her when writing The Shadow Over Innsmouth (and as a pun on "gill"). Film adaptations of the story were released in 2011 and 2021. Read by Chilling Tales For Dark Nights here.

This work provides examples of:

  • Abandoned Hospital: Although it is never stated outright, it is heavily implied that the narrator is not the first person to suffer a mental breakdown in the room with yellow wallpaper. The windows are barred and there are bite marks on the (heavy, bolted-down) bed—which the narrator assumes to be signs that previous occupants were particularly rowdy children.
  • Alien Geometries: The narrator attempts several times to describe what's so troubling about the wallpaper, but it seems to change every time she looks at it. All she can convey is that the pattern is wrong, somehow.
  • Ambiguously Evil: It's not entirely clear if John, the narrator's husband, genuinely thinks isolation is the best possible cure, or if he's merely controlling and possessive. The narrator starts out often saying that he loves her and wants what's best for her, but later entries have him becoming cold and angry as she expresses her belief that she's not getting better or wants things he thinks she shouldn't.
  • Apocalyptic Log: On a small scale. The narrator seems much more put together and sane in the first entries and deteriorates as time passes.
  • Author Avatar: The narrator is implied to be a fictionalized version of Gilman herself.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Subverted. It's implied that the narrator's hysteria is at least partly due to post-partum depression. Her baby hardly enters into the story. However, it is also implied that if the narrator could have just taken care of her child (and see a reason to live in said child) she could have gotten better faster. Being denied even being a mother was another part of going insane.
  • Bad Bedroom, Bad Life: The narrator's Sanity Slippage is focused on the sickening yellow wallpaper in her bedroom, where she's forced to spend a majority of her time, isolated and without entertainment. In addition to the wallpaper, though, the room has scratches on the walls, bars on the window, and bite marks on the bed. The very fact that she's trapped in this room at all reflects badly on her husband, who put her in there, thinking her Postpartum Depression is Hysteria, much as was common for the time period.
  • Cassandra Truth: Victorian-era wallpapers often contained toxic arsenic-based dyes. Although everyone knew that arsenic was toxic, it was generally believed to be safe as long as you didn't actually eat it. However, there was a then-new theory (now considered correct) that wallpaper and other objects containing arsenic give off microscopic dust particles that can make people sick if they inhale or accidentally ingest them. So when the narrator complained that the wallpaper was making her sick, this was likely the literal truth.
  • Forgotten Framing Device: To start with there are several references to the fact that the protagonist is keeping a journal, such as one section ending with her saying that she has to stop writing now because she has a visitor. These fade out about halfway through, and by the end she's narrating events as they happen. (Events which clearly do not involve her stopping to write anything down.) Arguably, this shift helps cement that the protagonist has absolutely lost it.
  • Freak Out: The narrator freaks out by the end of the story. Justified due to how she was locked into a room with nothing to do.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: Being locked in a room with nothing to do for months on end has an adverse effect on the narrator's mental health. While she's not entirely confined to the room and mentions sitting in the garden and going on carriage rides a few times, she's not allowed to visit friends or family or even to take her rest in a room she likes better.
  • History Repeats: The narrator describes odd iron loops attached to the ceiling and scars in the windowsill that indicate the windows were once barred. Then there's the strange worn spot in the wallpaper, exactly at the height of a woman's shoulder, that goes all the way around the room and which the narrator winds up endlessly following once she loses her mind, and may or may not have been created by her. All signs indicate that she's not the only person who was ever kept prisoner in that room, and that the previous resident might have suffered the same fate.
  • Hysterical Woman: Deconstructed. Everyone around the narrator treats her as if she is on the verge of a mental breakdown, and will snap if she so much as thinks too hard. She starts out sane and complains that if she had something to do she thinks she'd recover better; in the end, it's her imprisonment in the house and room, and everyone treating her like a ticking time bomb, that drives her around the bend.
  • Lovecraft Country: Definitely the seclusion part, if nothing else.
  • Madwoman in the Attic: The narrator is slowly driven insane by being cooped up in the room with the yellow wallpaper with nothing to do except stare at it and see patterns in it.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: An interesting use that reverses the normal comfort of "maybe it wasn't real". The writer Alan Ryan put it well with the description "It may be a ghost story. Worse yet, it may not." That is, the less horrifying possibility is that the woman in the wallpaper was real and possessed the protagonist, rather than the protagonist is driven insane by her loved one's insistence that she was insane.
  • Mind Screw: The latter half of the story gets increasingly incoherent as a symptom of the narrator's decaying mental state.
  • No Name Given: The narrator. Some conclude from a line near the end that the narrator is named Jane, as there was no mention of a character named Jane previously in the story.
    • It could also be argued that she was writing so frantically, and had gone so insane at that point that she had gotten Jennie's name wrong. The names are close and it makes sense for Jennie to have been in the room.
  • The Ophelia: Deconstructed—there's nothing at all romantic or pretty about the narrator's illness.
  • Primal Stance: The women in the walls as well as the narrator. The movements are described with the word "creep".
  • Purple Prose: It's deliberately written this way to show her boredom. She has nothing to do but overly describe the room she's in.
  • Sanity Slippage: The entire story details the narrator's downward spiral while she's sequestered in an ugly room with nothing to do.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: The rationale behind the narrator's husband forbidding her from writing. Gilman herself was told by a prominent neurologist to "Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time... And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live," as a cure for her depression. Creative endeavors were considered too exciting and disruptive for women in a fragile condition.
  • Straw Vulcan: In the first paragraphs, John is described to be practical to the extreme, has no interest in things that aren't able to felt or seen or put down in figures. He's a physician who things it's just a temporary nervous depression (or hysterical tendency), and disregards her initial complaint about something being wrong with the room where he puts her. Later, he's condescending at best and angry at worst when she tries to tell him about wanting to leave or have company and says that since she has no reason to be suffering, she's not actually suffering. Because of this, he contributed to the breakdown described in the story.
  • Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl: The woman in the wallpaper, according to the narrator.
  • Take That!: The entire story was spurred by how ineffective the "rest cure" was in treating the depression of the author, Charlotte Gilman, and how the lack of any form of stimulation nearly drove her crazy.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: The story becomes more incoherent as the narrator slips further into madness.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The narrator is having a nervous breakdown, and is utterly convinced there's a woman behind the wallpaper, crawling around and looking for a way out.
  • Wallpaper Camouflage: The narrator believes there's a woman trapped behind the wallpaper, trying desperately to get out. When the narrator finally snaps completely, she tries to assist, and it's up to the reader to decide if that means she's tearing off the wallpaper, or tearing off her own skin.
  • Wandering Walk of Madness: As the narrator goes mad from prolonged confinement in her bedroom, she starts circling the room over and over, obsessively following the pattern in her wallpaper in the belief that something is hiding within it.
  • Wham Line: "I always lock the door when I creep by daylight." This is where the reader realizes how deep into madness the narrator's slipping.

The 2011 film adaptation adds examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The film adaptation gives the narrator a name, expands a bit on her (meager, tiny) social life, and expands on the character of her husband, John.
  • Hypocrite: John gives a lecture on the importance of mental stimulation, exercise, and fresh air—while his isolated, cloistered wife is having her psychotic break in the attic.
  • Named by the Adaptation: The narrator is named "Charlotte" in the film adaptation.