‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman overturns the reader’s expectations of a 19th century wife and mother. The narrator’s ‘descent’ into madness is an evocative commentary on the powers that be – a troubling psychosis which reads as an early psychological horror story. In the first part of this series, we referred to Virginia Woolf and her call to ‘kill the angel the house’. Predating this, Gilman very much sets the wheels in motion with her unsettling short. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend reading this exploration of the ‘gothic’ and ‘other’ having read the introductory article for better context.
Gilman subverts the stabilities of ‘angels’ occupying a tranquil home through the mechanisms of the female gothic, a form used to disconcert the reader through a series of underlying fears, crises and conflict both personal and interpersonal. Johnson writes on the conventions of the female gothic horror as being ‘confinement and rebellion, forbidden desire and irrational fear […] the distraught heroine, the forbidding mansion, and the powerfully repressive antagonist’1 and Frances L. Restuccia comments how ‘the gothic aspect of a woman’s life is all in its normality’2
In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ a feeling of unease is sustained throughout the text and elements of the female gothic, an exposé of domestic horrors, can be identified from these premises. For example, the story opens with a questioning tone, which is amplified by the setting of a ‘colonial mansion’ which the narrator fancies ‘haunted’.
With the house’s history relatively unknown and the tentative nature of the journal entry, a background is created for unsettling details to be unearthed. The narrator juxtaposes the ‘ordinary’ with the ‘romantic’ and ‘queer’ showing an inclination for the supernatural and she goes on to question ‘else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?’. The gothic depends on that which is unnerving and Davison writes how ‘generally familiar space is displaced in the Female Gothic to unfamiliar territory for the purposes of engendering terror and an institutional critique’.3
Parallels with Charlotte Brontë’s gothic Jane Eyre (1847) can be drawn when considering themes of confinement, oppressive forces, madness and disjuncture between the narrator and others at work in the narrative. Both Jane Eyre and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ share a realistic first-person narration with the gothic house in each of these mirroring, under Roberta Rubenstein, each woman’s ‘ambivalent experience of entrapment and longing for protection’4
With ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ it is the unknown which fosters fear, or something uncanny which cannot be explained rationally. The acceleration of the plot comes from the wife growing increasingly fearful and preoccupied with conspiracies, such as the ‘deceit’ she feels and ‘getting a little afraid of John’ who in turn appears ‘queer’. Gilman examines the progression of this fear in a character who progresses from writer to wife to mother to invalid to lunatic5, illustrating fear which is contained yet somehow exacerbated by the surroundings and circumstances under which the family occupy the house.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ feeds into a gothic tradition of transformation, madness and threatening forces through its narrator, who, in her final ‘creeping’ form parallels a ‘demonic’ view of women. This concept of women as ‘the other’ or dangerous as opposed to ‘angelic’ concerns 19th-century attitudes towards madness and was used to propel feminist criticism in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s 1979 essay ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’.
Referencing Bertha Mason from Brontë’s Jane Eyre they propose the distinction between the ‘angel’ or the ‘monster’6 across literary works of the period that preyed on male fears and anxieties. In Jane Eyre the language used to describe Bertha Mason objectifies her as a ‘vampire’, ‘goblin’, ‘clothed hyena’, ‘figure’ and ultimately reduces her identity to ‘it’ or as a ‘thing’7. This makes her in one aspect an object of fear, a ‘shadow self’ in a society where excessively passionate women become monsters or madwomen.
The female narrator in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ increasingly becomes unsettling and redefines the boundaries of sanity and insanity when she finally gives in to her urges. As an unnamed entity who neither satisfyingly fulfils her role of ‘wife’ or ‘mother’ the narrator occupies the space of ‘other’ and is eerily altered by her animal-like captivity. It is Jennie who cryptically remarks that ‘the paper stained everything it touched’ and the narrator is ‘touched’ and ‘stained’ by it in a way that to possesses her character and alters it.
Jean Rhys writes back into the story of Bertha Mason through the prequel Wide Sargasso Sea following the transition of this character from persecuted woman to ‘other’, in this novel alluded to as ‘Obeah’ or spirit theft possessing and reducing human beings. Bertha is seen as a succubus and Rhys ties together forms of voodoo and demonic spirits rooted in Creole culture and Bertha’s background as Antoinette Cosway8.
Linking this to Jane Eyre, the repercussions for Bertha Mason is existing as a base, bestial human, locked away and on the floor. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ the narrator becomes a similar creature on all fours, who ‘creep[s] smoothly on the floor’ seeming insectoid and animal. The process behind this metamorphic transition from ‘invalid’ to creeping woman comes from hysteria and lunacy induced through a passive existence and triggered by a perverse fascination with the wallpaper which ‘makes’ the narrator ‘think of old foul, bad yellow things’.
The narrator takes on strange routines watching her husband ‘I have watched John when he did not know I was looking’, not sleeping ‘I don’t sleep much at night… but I sleep a good deal in the daytime’ and locking herself away ‘I always lock the door door when I creep by daylight., with activity by ‘moonlight’ taking on a certain prominence as it is the moon which, through history, has been associated with ‘strangeness’, ‘lunacy’ and ‘transformations’. Gilman stirs nocturnal, vampiric attributes into her character which work to unsettle the reader, going initially unnoticed by those around her.
The wallpaper which described using the sinister active verbs ‘creeps’, ‘hovers’, ‘skulks’, ‘hides’ and ‘lies in wait’ starts to reflect the narrator’s own behaviour giving rise to the animal instinct when she bites at the bedstead ‘I was so angry I bit off a little piece at one corner — but it hurt my teeth’ and tears down the paper itself. Rhys’s concern in Wide Sargasso Sea was to give Bertha from Jane Eyre grounding in her former existence before she became ‘demonic’; by exposing the more ‘fearful’ characteristics taken on by women, both Rhys and Gilman challenge the perception of what constitutes an ‘angel’ or a ‘monster’ by blurring these boundaries and bringing in causal factors. Indeed, Gilman’s narrator is fearsome at the end, causing her husband to faint in supposed shock.
I shall be posting this analysis in instalments, so keep an eye on the available chapters.
1Johnson, ‘Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in “The Yellow Wallpaper”’, Studies in Short Fiction, 26 (1989), 521-30 (p. 522).
2L. Restuccia, ‘Female Gothic Writing: “Under Cover to Alice”’, Genre, 19:3 (1986), 245-64 (p. 247).
3M. Davison,’ Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in “The Yellow Wallpaper”’, Women’s Studies, 33 (2004), 47-75 (p. 60).
4Roberta Rubenstein, ‘House Mothers and Haunted Daughters: Shirely Jackson and Female Gothic’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 15:2 (1996), 309-331 (p. 312).
5A. Crowder, ‘Beside My Self: The Abject in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’’, eSharp, 8 (n/a) <http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_41203_en.pdf> [accessed 2018] (para 2 of 24).
6S. Gilbert, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination (Yale University Press, 2000) pp. 596-609.
7Atherton, The Figure of Bertha Mason (British Library: Discovering Literature) <http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-figure-of-bertha-mason> [accessed 2018].
8J. Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (Penguin Classics; New Ed edition, 2000), Introduction.