The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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With such a patent social message behind her story, the success of The Yellow Wall-Paper depends precisely on the skill with which Gilman depicts the descent of her central character into madness – and so, in practice, her literary and political ambitions in composing the piece coincide. There are a number of techniques Gilman uses in her narrative to this effect, but the most famous and impressive is the fiction of the wallpaper itself. In this – assuming we are to believe her own testimony – Gilman was not reproducing her own experiences. She says quite specifically in ‘Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper ’: ‘I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations.’ Her use of the wallpaper is, therefore, a literary device that combines in an entirely new way a number of familiar gothic elements: an apparently unsolvable mystery or puzzle; a heightened sinister meaning attached to a colour; hallucinatory experiences in a bedroom at night; the doppelgänger idea; a mysterious and penetrating odour – and this is certainly not an exhaustive list. What Gilman adds to these well-known tropes is her acute psychological analysis of the character she has created. Rather than try to directly reveal or describe her character’s inner mental state, the wallpaper – in all its many guises – serves both as the focus of her incipient madness and also appears to mirror her mental state at different stages in the story.

For example, the first phase of the narrator’s decline comes with the onset of a serious obsession. Rather than just have her character mentioning the wallpaper again and again, or some other similarly mechanical device, Gilman turns the paper itself into a visual representation of obsession:

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
(lines 76-9)

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman