The Yellow Wallpaper: Hysteria, Rest Cures & Gender Theory

Copy of Copy of 17th Century AmsterdamThroughout Victorian culture, ‘The angel in the house’ works as a one-dimensional character identity, however, in ‘The Yellow Paper’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman chooses to write about a 19th century woman who overtly experiences a crisis of the self and case of conflicted identity. This becomes evident at first through the division of the ‘rational’ which is associated with men like her husband and ‘fancy’ which she is trivially accused of by him. In Enlightenment gender theory, ‘rationality’ was a masculine trait and ‘sensibility’ a feminine one which was to be contained; the narrator in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ clearly feels ‘fancy’ in excess and it is John who ‘urges’ her to suppress this. In doing so, she is denied validation of her true feelings and emotions which she projects elsewhere and are made manifest.

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For example she writes: ‘I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition. But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself – before him, at least, and that makes me very tired’ — and this disclosure introduces the repressed self as indicated by the need to ‘control’ the aspect of herself that gets ‘unreasonably angry’. This points to a polarised or split identity which is at war with her passive ‘angel’ self, not dissimilar to the Jekyll and Hyde complex and criticism has identified the young Victorian wife experiencing ‘the ideological hybrid described as the fight between the authoritative word and the inner persuasive voice’[1]. Explicitly, the yellow wallpaper serves as a metaphor for what the narrator is experiencing and the division into multiple selves; she discusses a ‘sub-pattern’ of women behind bars and these ‘invisible women’ act as a mirroring device.

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The narrator writes of the woman behind the paper ‘by daylight she is subdued, quiet’ and adds that ‘it keeps me quiet by the hour’ which doubles her own ‘secret life’ and the split between shifting behaviour across night and day. Gilman makes evident that her narrator is distanced entirely from her role of wife and mother, withdrawing into herself and becoming consumed by a fictive pattern. The narrator’s conviction is made strong and compulsive by her fixation and repetition of ‘I think that woman gets out’… ‘I’ve seen her’… ‘I can see her’… ‘It is always the same woman’… ‘I see here’: Here doubling constitutes a ‘doppelgänger’ – a woman actively stalked by the outline of another. Allowed to manifest, the narrator notes that ‘that’ other ‘woman shakes it!’ (the pattern trapping her), that ‘she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard’ and this is a projection of internal, subconscious anxieties; those where the wife cannot escape the ‘pattern’ imposed on her by society.

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In these ways Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ actively engages with ‘the Angel in the House’ in that the narrator’s condition is worsened by the prescriptive methods of a ‘rest cure’ and exacerbated by the presumptive attitudes which surround her role as a 19th century middle class woman. These are shown to be ultimately damaging, as the narrator cannot sustain a state of passivity, here there is an internal struggle where a freer self wishes to exert itself, only, irreversibly affected by domestic conditioning, this shows itself as madness.

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The narrator’s account levels criticism at the system governing society, by extension of Gilman’s own experiences as biographical detail comes into play under the craft of the woman writer. The unresolved and unsettling nature of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ to its audience reads as a warning, intimately and explicitly playing out an instance where a woman is reduced to insanity by circumstance and confinement. In the canon of feminist criticism, Gilman’s narrative account stands to caution the reader of an outcome where the ‘Angel in the House’ has not been killed in its entirety and the potential damage that this has. It argues that women can have many, complex dimensions and cannot be limited to an archetypal role without dangerous consequence.

This has been the final part (3/3) in my analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, examining the ‘killing’ of the ‘angel in the house’. You can find parts 1 and 2 in my  chapters.

Women and Sexuality in ‘Kubla Khan’ here…
Toxic Renaissance Relationships here…
‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Women in Medieval Art here…

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!


Sources Used: 

[1] C. Nuñez-Puente, ‘The Yellow Hybrids: Gender and Genre’ in Short Story Theories: A Twenty-First Century Perspective, ed. by Viorica Patea (Rodopi, 2012), pp. 139-153 (p.147).

3 thoughts on “The Yellow Wallpaper: Hysteria, Rest Cures & Gender Theory

  1. Great article! I hadn’t thought about the Yellow Wallpaper in years. It was required reading when I was in high school in the United States back in the early 80s. Rather surprising I think now given that this was a midwestern middle-class suburban community where women were still mostly ‘at-home moms’ and most of the dads had high school educations (or less) and worked in various factories. I vividly remember the discussions in my classroom with the English teacher about ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and the symbolism. I have a recollection of a discussion about the vines on the wallpaper being representative of the bars of prison. The story wasn’t necessarily one that I liked – at that time, I was much more interested in reading the latest teen bestsellers, but I do vividly remember *loving* the process of analyzing story and I think I can credit this story with being the first one that showed me that literature can have hidden layers and messages. More importantly, this story also opened my eyes to the realities of how women have been historically oppressed and intellectually dismissed by men. Thank you very much for writing about this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was such a joy to read – I cannot thank you enough! I’ve written two others on this short story as it really does require a thorough probing! We studied this at university and it really got my mind working! I can remember reading ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ in Sixth Form (just before University – college years here in the UK) and disliking it with every bone of my being… funnily enough, I’m re-reading it now and I absolutely adore the writing. We all come round eventually! Analysis is the very best. I completely agree with you on the importance of this story (biased as I may be!) – it’s such a provocative study.

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