The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Starved of any other intellectual stimulation, the wallpaper becomes a puzzle she must solve. But poring over its every detail never brings any satisfaction – the quest always ends in ‘unheard of contradictions’. This is precisely the pattern with obsessive thinking: the brain becomes locked into a cycle of thought – often revolving around something unpleasant, such as germs, dirt, irrational fears or violent acts. Again and again the mind wanders over the same thoughts – ‘Are my hands really clean?’, ‘Is the house safely locked up?’ – until the result is increasing frustration and disquiet and unhappiness. Nevertheless, the obsession – even if the person recognises it as ‘suicidal’ or absurd (‘plung[ing] off at outrageous angles’) – can never be forgotten or ignored.

The next time the wallpaper is described it has itself become sentient in the narrator’s mind – though there still seems to be an awareness that the sentience she imagines is not real. Her language, therefore, is still metaphorical, though it is slipping into the cracks between imagery and reality:

This paper looks to me as if it KNEW what a vicious influence it had!
There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.
I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere. (lines 140-6)

The narrator’s mental state here might be described as mildly paranoiac: she feels herself observed by the ‘eyes’ on the wallpaper and is beginning to treat ‘imaginative’ observations as though they are real. Her description begins with a simile – ‘the pattern lolls like a broken neck’ – but three lines later the ‘unblinking eyes’ are ‘crawl[ing]’ ‘everywhere’. This is the first time the narrator has used either the word ‘crawl’ or ‘creep’, both of which become extremely significant as she uses them later to describe both the imagined ‘creeping woman’ and her own strange and ritualistic compulsion to crawl around the skirting board of her room. Is it possible that the narrator has already begun her crawling ‘ritual’ even at this early point in the story? That seems unlikely, but it is not impossible: after all, she keeps her secret from the reader for as long as she can. The fact that crawling is first associated with the wallpaper is certainly significant. As it appears to acquire a life of its own, it becomes the repository of all the narrator’s more ‘insane’ thoughts and impulses – hence its association with broken necks and dead ‘unblinking eyes’. In this way, the paper seems already to be acquiring a kind of surrogate life apart from the narrator: it begins to divide her, just as the act of writing has already divided her. The difference, however, is that the written ‘I’ of her narrative is always trying to appear sane and reasonable and normal, even though this same ‘I’ is increasingly drawn to describing the wallpaper , which more and more comes to resemble the most deranged, insane and unreasonable aspects of her mind. In both instances, ‘dead paper’ (line 14) is mysteriously given life.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman