The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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1 ‘It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.’ – The first sentence of narration is also the first paragraph, and in approximately 530 lines of print there are 266 paragraphs, making their average length almost exactly two lines. This stylistic choice can be interpreted in a number of ways. A paragraph of several lines implies semantic development; it suggests a writer with something to say, who has control over his or her thoughts, and one who is, implicitly, asserting control over the reader. Rooted, therefore, in the very structure of The Yellow Wall-Paper is a sense of the narrator’s lack of control. It can also be argued that her short paragraphs imply the actual restriction of her thoughts to short, somewhat disconnected, impressions. She is not allowed by her husband to write, so, perhaps, she subconsciously restricts her disobedience to note-like jottings. From another perspective, the lack of syntactic and semantic control demonstrated in the text could simply be a feature of her illness – as the story demonstrates, she is clearly not rational in the way a narrator is usually assumed to be.

Given the latter point, it is almost inevitable, perhaps, that Gilman chooses to write in the gothic tradition – the genre of choice for those who are irrational or unbalanced in some way or other – and this is signalled early on by references to ‘ancestral halls’, ‘A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house’ (line 3).

The narrator and her husband are, as she says, ‘mere ordinary people’ – no doubt, a subtle indication to the reader that something extraordinary is about to happen to them. ‘John’, the husband, is named while the narrator is deliberately kept anonymous. Her identity is secondary to her husband’s and is, indeed, largely subsumed within it.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman