“There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.” – Kate Chopin, The Story of an Hour
The nineteenth century was notoriously seen as the era of family confinement; novels sprouting around that time were always about crimes committed by heroines in flights of passion within a psycho-medical confinement construed by male villains in a marriage. The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman ponders various issues of its contemporaries. Through the eyes of a no-name heroine being ensconced in the sickroom by her physician-husband John, this story portrays a woman’s role in a marriage and satirically illustrates her impressionable disposition as seen in the case that the yellow wallpaper step by step acts as the medium to trigger narrator’s awareness of her role in an ill-assorted matrimony.
In its first stage of the most outer layer, the story first begins with the fairest scenes – a suburban colonial mansion. The grandeur of “ancestral halls, a hereditary estate” and “a delicious garden” all remind the heroine of English prim and prude and instill typical romantic prestige belonging to an upper-middle class couple.
After that, we are introduced to John through the eyes of narrator. John represents an authoritative figure of a patriarchal commander. As a physician-cum-husband, he laughs at the wife’s instinctive superstitions, indicates her temporary nervous breakdown as emotional temperament which is habitual “manner of excited fancies”, and too weak-minded to exert self-control in defense of foolish imaginations. “There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?” Assertive in his grounds of reasons and practicalities, John applies a “rest-cure” – the single patient is “forbidden to work” but only increases her sense of isolation. Ironically, the wife is assigned to once-a-nursery room at the attic as in affirming that John treats her like a child in the matrimonial roles. “[D]ear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head.” He calls her “a blessed little goose” when appeasing her whining and sobbing behavior, looks at her with such “a stern, reproachful look” once she starts making unreasonable excuses. On the other hand, the heroine has an inferiority complex of an acquiescent nature. “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.” The wife admits herself “dreadfully fretful and querulous”), places her husband on the pedestal and conveys subordinating attitudes filled with tentativeness, uses words like “perhaps”, “personally” in demeaning her own opinions. It is expected even by the wife herself that she should be complying with her husband’s wishes.
However, as the layer being unveiled one by one, the interior acts as the wife’s latent accomplice against the husband’s tyranny and topple over her peripheral relationship with John. Once entering into the “sickroom”, windows sheathed with bars and an immovable bedstead echo the solitary confinement likening to a penal cell or, as prevalently seen in England, a private asylum which was operated by physicians in the nineteenth century. Convalescing in ill-used and long-neglected room of solitude, the narrator is enshrouded in a spatial confinement which gradually exposes the inner soul and vice of the marriage in various aspects.
As the story proceeds, she devises more time and exhaustible energy in watching, touching, and smelling the yellow wallpaper. “One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.” She describes the florid arabesque pattern as “dull”, “confusing”, “constantly irritates and provokes study”, and being destructive to make one suicidal in its optical illusion. She also further illustrates the tainted yellow as “repellent” and “revolting”. In this case, she flouts the conventional idea in the figurative art that is wildly admired in the Islamic world. In the early centuries, this Arabic embellishments were seen intertwining and interweaving with rhythmic patterns thereby attributing to God’s grace and reign of “justice, compassion, power, mercy, knowledge, and love” beyond humans’ imaginations; its ethereal infinity in light and shade was appreciated compared with the materialistic world. In contrast, the patterns of the yellow wallpaper transform into an ever-changing stereograms that she keeps staring, assessing and examining. From vision to her point of view, it is a blasphemy that the wife is subconsciously re-evaluating bit by bit her roles and identity in the marriage, and begins defying her high-standing physician-husband’s power as the “Almighty God of the Home”.
In continuous stages, the narrator is deprived of social interaction with the outside world as being stuck in the “atrocious nursery”. Her husband is away all the time in town with “reasonable” ground, dismisses her imploring needs without much consideration and calls her “a blessed little goose”. During that daytime in solitude as being forsaken all her maternal duties, she unremittingly observes the vicious influence of the wallpaper, and identifies a recurrent spot where “the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes” which reminds of her childhood whim of pareidolia. Apart from that, she describes the pattern being in a state of tolerance with “perseverance as well as hatred”. (“A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.”) The yellow wallpaper’s “absurd, unblinking eyes” reflect the careful scrutiny from her husband and the housekeeper – John’s “perfect and enthusiastic” sister with no other better profession.
Later on, the haunting “smell” pervades the interior, it “creeps all over the house” and “gets into her hair”, it is caused by the smooches of the wallpaper on everything it touches as well as marking the progression of insanity. The heroine analyses that in the beginning the odor is gentle and subtly enduring but gradually it becomes so disturbing that the thoughts of burning the house emerged to reach the smell. In this case, it not only signifies the deteriorating state of relationship but also resonates with the “draught” in the beginning that John says before shutting the windows of his own accord. The smell of poisonous yellow smog, the unbearable “London peculiar” pervades tenants of the “English place” perturbingly.
Digging deeper into the wallpaper, she sees a sub-pattern that emerges to be “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.” It initially conjures up a form of dim faint shape and gets brightening into a plain tangible womanly figure. In the end, the figure becomes her own self. “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper.” The wife firstly intends to tighten a “well-hidden rope” to the woman in case she jumps out of the window but ends up tying herself in a hallucination. The doppelgänger signifies the reality of projection as being in controlled by her husband. During daylight (while John is away in town), the figure is dwelling in the “hideous”, “unreliable” and “infuriating” colour but “torturing” pattern, subdued, quiet. “I lie down ever so much now. John says it is good for me, and to sleep all I can…Indeed he started the habit by making me lie down for an hour after each meal.” At night (with her husband), the outside pattern becomes bars that the womanly figure fiercely shakes the wallpaper. The story culminates in narrator’s madness of tearing the wallpaper is a necessity of unleashing the wife’s liberation in body and soul. “‘I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’” The ending is also being satirical as her husband gets his comeuppance with his founded beliefs about women’s values in treating his wife and his medical knowledge as a physician.
To conclude, the wife is secluded in the cage in a languid obscurity and tedium. Being withdrawn from her maternal and wifely duties, her solitude progresses into a monomania of closely reading the yellow wallpaper at different angles, which in the most extremity transfers her exhaustible energy into a ferocious power of rescuing herself from renunciation of her own individual identity. The Yellow Wallpaper is a progressive story which not only pictures the deteriorating state of mental health but also questions the domesticity and moral contemporary values of female covert versus female sole in stages of self-realization.