The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Published way back in 1892, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is one of the few short stories to have truly stood the test of time. It’s still widely read to this day, and has been adapted into countless films, theatre productions and radio plays.
It’s no wonder the story has resonated with such a large audience. It brilliantly challenges problems around the role of women in society and the treatment of mental health – sadly issues that are still prevalent today.
It’s also a masterfully written piece of fiction, displaying writing techniques lightyears ahead of its time. From the use of objects to manipulating setting for the story’s advancement, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ really is a fantastically crafted piece of literature.
Enjoy our analysis of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. You can read a free, online PDF of the story by clicking here.
Telling a story: Diary format
One of the more striking literary devices deployed in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is the diary format. The reader learns just before the first section break that the story is, in fact, a journal being kept by the narrator, which she uses as a means of expression and escapism.
Epistolary and diary formats play an interesting role in the history of prose fiction. They are, in a sense, the precursor to the novel. Before the idea of the novel truly emerged and was popularised, much prose was written in the form of letters and journals – this being a way for the writer to justify why their story is being written in a real-world context, i.e. in Dodie Smith’s excellent I Capture the Castle, the narrator tells the reader from the off that she’s keeping a diary so that she might ‘practise my newly acquired speed-writing’.
This type of storytelling began to fall out of fashion in the nineteenth century, superseded by what we would nowadays recognise as a more conventional style of novel. (Here’s an interesting article that explains the history of epistolary and diary fiction in more and better detail.)
From a literary craft perspective, the diary format allows the writer to provide direct access to the narrator’s inner-thoughts, their voice and the lens through which they see the world. And beyond that, it’s a neat framing device. The writer can choose the intervals at which the narrator tells their story, without having to wade through a lot of ‘in-between bits’, where not a lot of action is taking place.
In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, there are twelve different diary entries, ranging from the first day in the house, right up until the final scene. These entries are not spaced out evenly (as you might get in some diaries). Between the first and second entries, for instance, two weeks go by; between the second and the third, it’s a week; and by the end of the story, the entries appear to be increasingly close together. The narrator (and by extension, Gilman) notes in her diary the main events that have taken place since her previous entry; for instance, John’s refusal to repaper the room, and Fourth of July celebrations. And given the intimate nature of the diary, we see the impact these events have on the narrator’s mental health.
Each of the story’s main themes – the narrator’s relationship with her family, her mental health, the yellow wallpaper – all evolve and change with each diary entry. This creates a rising sense of tension that comes together in a perfectly rounded finale.
Could Gilman have achieved this without the diary format? Yes, of course. As regular readers of Fetish Literature will know, there are plenty of ways to frame a story’s structure and build tension. But in the case of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, the style allows for it to be done in an ultra neat, efficient and, above all, engaging manner.
Setting the mood for a psychological horror
Next, let’s discuss one of the tropes that I find the most interesting in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: Setting.
Of course, setting plays a vital role in all fiction. Whether it’s the stuffy, suburban home in Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ or the rural Indian backdrop to Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Interpreter of Maladies’, setting is fundamental in creating the mood from which emerges a great story. There are few better examples of this than ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, where right from the off Gilman sets the tone that the rest of the story follows.
It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.
A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity – but that would be asking too much of fate!
Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.
Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?
In this brief opening passage, the reader is placed in the story’s sole setting – and what a setting it is! ‘Ancestral halls’, ‘colonial mansion’ and ‘hereditary estate’ all bring to mind something large, old and creepy; and to reinforce the image, the narrator herself compares the place to a ‘haunted house’.
The narrator then introduces the story’s more precise setting: the room. From its very first mention, we know she doesn’t like it, and who can blame her? Its big and airy emptiness is juxtaposed with the garden – ‘large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them’ – which the narrator looks out on through the room’s barred windows.
And then there’s the wallpaper. Of course, we’ll cover that as a wider theme in more detail later, but in terms of setting, it only adds to the room’s lack of appeal, with its ‘sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin’ and ‘repellant, almost revolting’ colour. Clearly, Gilman is going to great lengths to let us know that the narrator’s new, temporary living arrangements are far from convivial.
All of this description occurs within the story’s first three pages; and from then on, the room’s description is hardly expanded upon, save for the occasional detail and, of course, the unfolding drama surrounding the yellow wallpaper. This isn’t uncommon in fiction. Setting is a story’s foundation, in that it sets up and supports everything else that follows. And the sooner a writer can introduce their story’s setting, mood and texture, the better.
In the case of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, Gilman creates her setting with incredible efficiency and artistry. Within just a few pages, we have a perfect image of the room and the house; and we can be sure that the eeriness will manifest itself in some malevolent way or another. All of this is done with a subtlety (the beautiful garden, for instance, gives the house some interesting variety) and visceral sense of the surroundings. I don’t know about you, but I can smell the room’s ‘sickly sulphur tint’, and the ‘dull yet lurid orange’ of the wallpaper has my skin crawling. And that’s before we even begin to scratch the story’s surface.
Show, don’t tell: Characterisation in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’
In great fiction, the majority of a story’s key tenets – from world-building to characterisation – are introduced through narrative style and action, rather than exposition. ‘Show, don’t tell’, as the oft-cited creative writing mantra goes. Showing a reader what’s happening in a story is a far more engaging way for a writer to bring them into their fictional universe, rather than simply telling them what’s going on.
‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
– Anton Chekhov
The narrator’s characterisation in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a fantastic example of ‘Show, don’t tell’ in action. She is a compelling and engaging character, yes, but Gilman rarely tells us much about her directly. Instead, we’re shown her characteristics and qualities through how she interacts with and reflects on the world around her.
Let’s take a look at a few of the narrator’s character traits, as well as how Gilman introduces them to the reader:
- We know that the narrator is subservient to the other characters in the story, especially her husband, John. We find out early in the story that the narrator disagrees with her husband’s ideas concerning her illness, but she agrees to go along with them anyway because, as she writes, ‘what is one to do?’
- She also has a rebellious streak. She mentions several times that she’s been all-but forbidden from writing her diary, and yet she continues to do so
- She is superstitious, given that she has an odd, creepy feeling about the house
- She’s a devoted wife and mother, despite her complex relationship with her husband.
These qualities all come across clearly in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, without ever being said directly. For instance, the narrator never writes, ‘I suppose I’m quite subservient because of the patriarchal society I live in, but I’m a rebel at heart’; or, ‘I’m very much devoted to my husband, even though he can be creepy and overbearing.’ Gilman doesn’t need to hand-feed the reader this information. She’s skillful enough in her writing to reveal these details through actions and incidental thoughts elsewhere, which makes for a far more rounded, interesting piece of fiction.
The yellow wallpaper as a reflection of narrator’s interiority
We need to talk about the yellow wallpaper. As you will have picked up on when reading the story, the yellow wallpaper serves as a wonderful piece of symbolism for the role of women and the treatment of mental illness in the late-nineteenth century: the great many women stuck in the wallpaper, claustrophobic, ‘all the time trying to climb through.’ It’s an extremely powerful image, and one that’s (sadly) still poignant today.
The yellow wallpaper also serves as a powerful literary device to build the story’s tension and reflect the narrator’s emotional state. It’s what the writer John Thornton Williams refers to as ‘Indirection of Image’ in his excellent article on the subject (which you can read here).
Essentially, this means revealing a character’s interiority by describing how they react to external objects around them. It’s a little like ‘Show, don’t tell’, in that it relies on the principle that fiction is always more interesting when the details are drawn out through imaginative writing, rather than explained away in exposition.
Let’s consider an everyday example before we see how it applies to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.
Imagine two friends are walking down the street and they pass an Italian restaurant. They see a waiter deliver a delicious-looking pizza to a customer’s table. One of the two friends (John) thinks, ‘I’d love a pizza, but I’ve already had too many calories today.’ The other (Jane) thinks, ‘If only I could afford a pizza for dinner!’. In this very simple example, we learn that John is dieting and Jane is having money problems. Neither of these two pieces of information is directly said, but it’s implied through how each of them responds to the pizza.
The use of indirection of image in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a little more complex, but far more rewarding! The wallpaper in the narrator’s room serves as a barometer of sorts for how far she’s slipping into madness.
The first time the wallpaper is mentioned, for instance, the narrator is repulsed by its aesthetic.
I never saw a worse paper in my life.
One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
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.
This is a strong reaction to wallpaper. A little exaggerated, perhaps. But nothing I would consider to be too extreme.
Now, let’s look at how the narrator describes the wallpaper two pages later (two weeks later within the story):
I wish I could get well faster.
But I must not think about that. 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.
The wallpaper has now become more sinister. It’s anthropomorphised, with its ‘broken neck and two bulbous eyes’ that ‘stare at you upside down’. And the reaction it evokes from the narrator: it makes her ‘positively angry’. Suddenly, the wallpaper is having a negative impact on the narrator’s mental health.
Fast forward a few more diary entries and the narrator has become increasingly obsessed with the wallpaper.
There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.
Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day.
It is always the same shape, only very numerous.
And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern.
Now, there’s a woman ‘stooping down and creeping about’ in the wallpaper. This is no longer an exaggerated response to decor – it’s clearly a sign of something far more troubling going in the narrator’s head.
In the final pages of the story, the narrator’s relationship with the wallpaper only becomes more sinister and strange. She develops an obsession with it that occupies her for hours. She wants to analyse its smell, find out more about the many women she imagines are living inside it. She considers burning the house to better explore the wallpaper; she eventually peels off ‘yards of that paper’ in a particularly disturbing episode.
None of the other characters react strangely to the decor. For them, it’s nothing more than some ugly wallpaper. This is something that we, the reader, also believe. We’re not led by Gilman to assume that there really are women creeping around beneath the wallpaper. There’s no implication of fantasy at play here. Rather, it’s the sad story of a woman as she struggles with her mental health issues.
There are other ways that Gilman could’ve described the narrator’s declining mental health. She could have simply had the narrator tell us. But that wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful. By revealing the character’s inner psyche through her relationship with the yellow wallpaper, Gilman creates a dynamic that is incredibly tense and vivid, and a story that has truly stood the test of time.
As we always do when analysing a particular piece of fiction, let’s consider alternate choices the author could have made when writing this story, and the impact they would have had on the piece.
What if the story were not written in diary format?
As we’ve seen, the diary format is an interesting choice made by Gilman. It helps the reader to better relate to the narrator, while at the same time build tension. However, let’s imagine this wasn’t the route Gilman took. What if she chose a different way to tell the story? Perhaps a more conventional first-person point of view? Or maybe as a series of letters? What would this look like, and how would it differ from the original story?
What if the story had a broader setting?
The claustrophobic, one-room setting is perfect for ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. It seems tailor-made for the narrator’s descent into madness. But let’s imagine there are other scenes set away from the room. Perhaps on the house’s grounds? Or maybe the surrounding countryside? Or even a nearby town or city? How would Gilman have pulled this off, and what impact would it have had?
What if the story were told from another character’s point of view?
The narrator is the only character to strongly feature in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. She’s also the only character the reader is really invested in. But there are three other characters who feature: the narrator’s husband, John; John’s sister, Jeannie; and the nurse, Mary. What if the story were told from one of their points of view? Which character would you choose? And how would the narrator’s descent into madness look from their perspective?