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    The Unifying Plot of “The Yellow Wallpaper”

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    In this story we can speak of a unified plot because a clear sequence ofbeginning, middle and end is established.

    In the beginning we get information about where she and her husband willspend the summer , about who is involved in the story and also about whyshe is in this summer estate. The middle part, which makes out most of the story, is a description ofwhat she is doing all day , of the wallpaper and of the gradual turninginsane. The end of the story is rather clear – the protagonist finally turnsinsane. Another thing we can find is a chronological order of events.

    There is nouse of flashbacks, and only to some extent can we talk of foreshadowing (itis clear that the protagonist must turn insane). Tension is created gradually throughout the story, the suspense in thestory appeals to our curiosity. We want to know what happens next. Thereason for this suspense is that the main character needs some time tofinally figure out what she sees behind the wallpaper pattern. With herfirm will to find out what she sees, the reader has the feeling that hemust stay with her until she knows what it is.

    There are two quotes thatunderline that very well. “. . . and I determine for the thousandth timethat I will follow that pattern to some sort of a conclusion.

    ” (Gilman,Wallpaper 291) “I don’t want to leave now until I have found it out. “(Gilman, Wallpaper 296)Concerning the end of the story there are two ways to see it: either as anopen ending or not. In the end when she frees herself we don’t get a realsolution of the conflict, even though she mentions that in the end shefreed herself. But did she really free herself? Or was it maybe just herimagination? It might be that for herself it was satisfaction enough tofree the woman in the wallpaper.

    But we also don’t get to know what happensto her later on. Is she taken into a mental home or is she sent to Dr. Mitchell in fall? That’ s why we could say that the story has an openending. On the other hand the protagonist freed herself from the dominantrelationship between her and the husband by turning insane. She hasachieved independence from him, but she also freed herself to some extentfrom the society. Looking at the story from that point of view, theprotagonist solved her conflict and therefore we could say that theconclusion of The Yellow Wallpaper ends the conflict and we do not have anopen ending.

    The SettingThe story takes place in an old nursery room on the second floor of acolonial mansion. The reader easily gets the impression that theprotagonist was treated like a child since it was the husband who chose theformer nursery to be her room but also because her condition was not takenseriously. This attitude is also conveyed in the way John talks to hiswife. e.

    g. ” ‘What is it, little girl ?’ he said. ‘Don’t go walking aboutlike that – you’ll get cold. ‘” (Gilman, Wallpaper 293)In the case of this story the social setting, the cultural environment andthe ‘spirit of the age’ play an important role as well.

    The story is set5in the late 1800’s, a time when a woman had to face hard repression by men. It was a time when men still made all the decisions for their wives, whenmen knew what was good for women. Point of ViewThe Yellow Wallpaper is presented by a first person narrator who is alsothe protagonist of the story. One effect of the protagonist-narrator isthat he is much more limited in his mobility and in the range of variety ofhis sources.

    The perspective of a protagonist-narrator tends to be that ofa fixed centre (Rotter 187-88). Another interesting question is whether the narrator is reliable or not. Anunreliable narrator represents himself not as fully understanding the plotand the reader is not expected to take everything the narrator says at itsface value (Rotter 188)In the case of our narrator we can say that there’s a development as far asthe reliability is concerned. In the beginning of the story there are onlylittle hints that we cannot trust what we are told by the protagonist.

    Butin the course of the story she becomes more and more unreliable, due to thefact that she gradually turns insane. The diaryIn the story we can find several hints that this narrative is part of adiary. “I would not say this to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paperand a great relief to my mind. ” (Gilman, Wallpaper, 286)”But I can write when she is out, and see her a long way off from thesewindows.

    ” (Gilman, Wallpaper, 290)”I don’t know why I should write this. ” (Gilman, Wallpaper, 292)Usually a diary is a very intimate piece of work whose contents are notintended to be read by anyone else but oneself, sometimes though thenarrator may be addressing an imaginary audience. In a diary the author isconcerned with himself, writing things he wants to hide from other peopleor he is not able to convey otherwise. A diary must also be distinguishedfrom the journal which on a formal level is similar but mainly deals withthe recording of events and is often intended for posterity. The diary formis also important in our story because is it is something very typical forwomen, a lot of young girls often start keeping diary entries and a lot ofwomen keep that habit for their whole life. It is maybe typical for womenbecause women often feel the need to talk about their problems and thediary is a way to deal with problems immediately, when there is nobody totalk to or nobody who understands you, keeping a diary can bring relief.

    Ina diary you can also write down ideas, thoughts or feelings nobody else issupposed to know. You can be very personal and you can be sure that no onewill judge what you write. That is exactly why this form was chosen for TheYellow Wallpaper. While reading it, it becomes clear that the protagonist has nobody wholistens to her and understands her. Writing is the only way for her to dealwith her troubles and fears and to overcome her emotions and feelings.

    Hadshe been allowed to write, this would have probably eased her depressionsince writing gave her great relief. “I think sometimes if I were only wellenough to write a little it would relief the press of ideas and rest me. “(Gilman, Wallpaper 288) “I would not say this to a living soul, but this isdead paper and a great relief to my mind. ” (Gilman, Wallpaper)During her cure there is nothing else to do than to look at the pattern ofthe wallpaper in the room and when she starts to see a woman in it she, ofcourse, wants to share her observations with somebody else, but she knowsthat nobody would listen to her and, moreover, believe her. Therefore-secretly- she writes down her observations.

    This becomes very clear in twopassages, “There comes John and I must put this away, – he hates to have mewrite a word. ” (Gilman, Wallpaper 288) and “There comes John’s sister sucha dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find mewriting. (Gilman, Wallpaper 290) This brings the reader very close to theprotagonist. Reading this story gives you the feeling as if you werereading something secret, something very personal, something not even herhusband is supposed to know, but you as the reader are allowed to. According to diaries there is also an autobiographical link.

    CharlottePerkins Gilman got her first diary at the age of 15 as a Christmas present. She was very excited about it and writing daily entries became veryimportant to her. This continued over much of the next 25 years. Thebeginnings of her entries were typical for a teenager: remarks about herlove life , about the quarrels with her brother and struggles with hermother and her ambivalent feelings toward her father. In the pages ofCharlotte’s teen diaries are me bedded also subtle allusions to the workethic which was already beginning to form and which would influence herfuture years.

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman began to keep a journal in 1879,which gave her unrestricted space for making entries. But also a shift awayfrom the juvenile nature of the diaries, as she began to grow -intellectually, socially, artistically. (Knight, Diaries 1-6, xi-xviii). The personal diary form in The Yellow Wallpaper made it possible for Gilmanto express very personal feelings and thoughts, and even to explicitlycriticise Dr. Weir Mitchell in an uncommittal and yet authentical waythrough the eyes of a fictional character. Through the diary form it isalso not necessary to stick to the rules of cohesion and coherence ,because when writing for oneself one is not obliged to make oneselfabsolutely clear by explaining, providing background information, followinga logical pattern of reasoning etc.

    CharactersIn The Yellow Wallpaper the protagonist is the narrator herself. We knowthat our main character is a woman, but we actually never get to know hername . Only the final passage gives us a hint that her name may be Jane. Itseems as if she merges with the woman in the wallpaper.

    There is also somedevelopment in the character. In the beginning, we are informed that she issuffering from depression and that the “rest cure” is applied to her, butwithin the course of the story, she gradually turns insane. She is a roundcharacter, because we know that she’s not only a woman that suffers fromdepression and turns insane, but she is also a devoted woman who wants togain freedom and liberty for herself. In the end she gained freedom andliberty, but for a very high price – she traded it for her sanity.

    Another important character is her husband, John. He’s so important becausehe’s more or less responsible for the situation she is in. He is aphysician, a loving husband and he believes that all he does for his wifeis the best for her. What we know about him is established by the narratorand we have to trust her.

    We have to trust her description, her judgementwhich actually becomes rather difficult, because, as we know, she turnsinsane, and can you really trust someone that is insane?LanguageConcerning the language we can make the observation that in the beginningour main character refers to her husband always as John. But especially inthe last paragraphs there are passages where this isn’t the case anymore,there it seems as if a third person is talking about her husband. “It is nouse, young man, you can’t open it!” (Gilman, Wallpaper 299)Or in the last sentence when she says, “Now why should that man havefainted?” (Gilman, Wallpaper 300) This gives the reader the feeling as ifshe tries to distance herself from her husband. Historical BackgroundIn the time when the story was written, or generally, before the twentiethcentury, men assigned and defined women’s roles. Mostly the middle classwomen were affected, but generally we can say that all women suffered bymen determining women’s behaviour. Men perpetrated an ideological prisonthat subjected and silenced women.

    This ideology is called the ‘Cult ofTrue Womanhood’ and it legitimised the victimization of women. The ‘Cult ofDomesticity’ and the ‘Cult of Purity’ were the central tenets of the Cultof Womanhood’. Labouring under the seeming benevolence of the ‘Cult ofDomesticity’, women were incarcerated in the home or private sphere, aservant tending to the needs of the family. Furthermore, the ‘Cult ofPurity’ obliges women to remain virtuous and pure even in marriage, withtheir comportment continuing to be one of modesty.

    Religious piety andsubmission were beliefs that were more peripheral components of theideology of ‘True Womanhood’. These were the ways that men used to insurethe passivity and docility of women. Religion would pacify any vulnerableand dependence on the patriarchal head (Welter 373 – 377)The medical profession’s godlike attitude in The Yellow Wallpaperdemonstrates this arrogance. The rest cure that Dr.

    Weir Mitchellprescribed reflects men’s disparaging attitudes. The rest cure called forcomplete rest, coerced feeding and isolation. Mitchell, a neurosurgeonspecialising in women’s nervous ailments, expounded upon his belief forwomen’s nervous condition when he said, American woman is, to speakplainly, too often physically unfit for her duties as woman, and is perhapsof all civilised females the least qualified to undertake those weightiertasks which tax so heavily the nervous system of man. She is not fairly upto what nature asks from her as a wife and mother. How will she sustainherself under the pressure of those yet more exacting duties which nowadaysshe is eager to share with the man (Mitchell 141)Women were cast as emotional servants whose lives were dedicated to thewelfare of home and family in the preservation of social stability (Papke10). Gilman, in The Yellow Wallpaper, depicted the struggle to throw offthe constraints of patriarchal society in order to be able to write.

    In the time period in which Gilman lived, “The ideal woman was not onlyassigned a social role that locked her into her home, but she was alsoexpected to like it, to be cheerful and gay, smiling and good humoured”(Lane, To Herland 109). The women who refused this role and chose a life ofself-statement and freedom from the social constraints suffered ridiculeand punishment from their peers. This is not unlike the repercussions thatGilman experienced throughout her lifetime from expressing her need forindependence from the private sphere that she had been relegated to. Through her creation The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman wrote an autobiography orher emotional and psychological feelings of rejections from society as afreethinking woman. This work is a reaction to the lack of free agency thatwomen had in the late 1800’s and their inability to have a career and afamily; the pressures of these restrictions resulted in her involvement inDr.

    S. Weir Mitchell’s rest cure (Lane, To Herland 107-9)The Rest CureA central aspect in The Yellow Wallpaper is the so-called rest cure. Thereason why I want to go into more detail here is because this was atreatment especially for women who suffered from nervous breakdown ordepression. Usually it lasted for six to eight weeks and the focus was onnutrition and revitalisation of the body. It included four components:1. extended and total bed rest (the patient was forbidden to sew,converse, move herself in and out of bed, read, write and in the moreextreme cases, even to feed herself.

    2. Isolation from family and familiar surroundings3. a carefully controlled diet (overfeeding, especially with created, onthe assumption that increased body volume created new energy)4. massage and often the use of electricity for ‘muscular excitation'(Lane, To Herland 116)Dr. S.

    Weir Mitchell was a Philadelphia neurologist who specialised in restcures for “female hysteria”. After suffering from severe postpartumdepression and nervous prostration, Gilman travelled to Philadelphia toseek Mitchell’s help. The women he treated were basically taught an extremeversion of how to be domestic and submissive according to society outsideof the sanatorium. This treatment would be considered cruel and unusualpunishment to anyone today but then it was supposed to be the best care youcould get. After a month of treatment, Gilman was sent home with theinstructions to “live as domestic as possible”, to “have but two hours ofintellectual life a day” and “never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long asI lived”. (Gilman, Forerunner 106) for a woman of Gilman’s intellect andstamina this was an impossible feat to accomplish.

    She says in her diary,”I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came sonear the border lines of utter mental ruin that I could see over. ” (Gilman,Forerunner 106)There is no doubt about the fact that Gilman disliked Dr. Mitchell. Sheeven found him to be hostile presence.

    Her personal revenge rested onnaming the unacceptable neurologist in The Yellow Wallpaper, for the sakeof killing his reputation (Mitterhauser 24)Autobiographical aspectsMuch of what is reported about Charlotte Perkins Gilman is about hertroubled and loveless relationships: with her mother, her father and herdaughter. These relationships are central to the life of Gilman yet onlyperipherally related to the incident that sparked one of the greatestpieces of feminist literature ever written (Lane, Introduction xvi). To beable to relate to Gilman’s situation and appreciate The Yellow Wallpaperfor how it exemplifies women’s lives is difficult in this age where womenhave more freedom than ever before. Gilman’s original intention in writingthe story was to gain personal satisfaction from the knowledge that Dr. S. Weir Mitchell might, after reading the story, change his treatment.

    Butmore importantly, Gilman says in her article in the Forerunner, “It was notintended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being crazy, and itworked” (Gilman, Forerunner 107). Gilman experiences the same suppression as the female character in TheYellow Wallpaper in terms of her not being allowed to write or talk to herfriends while she was ill. As mentioned earlier, Gilman’s writing dealprimarily with the suppression of women. During her childhood, Gilmanexperienced many restrictions imposed by her mother but also the absence ofher father while growing up, and the disappointment with not having thefreedom to grow as a person while married, had a tremendous influence onhoer writings. The Yellow Wallpaper closely parallels Gilman’s lifeexperiences.

    In short, Gilman wrote what she knew and what she experienced. The Yellow Wallpaper is a testament to Gilman’s own life experience andreading it there is a feeling of the tough decisions she made in her lifeand the impact those decisions had on her emotionally and mentally. Neveragain did Gilman write anything with such a personal attachment as thisstory had (Lane, To Herland 126-127). With The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman tried to heal old wounds and anxietiesand underlined her decisions to trade security for freedom of thought anddeed. A great influence in that regard was definitely her marriage withCharles Walter Stetson.

    Her marriage with Stetson was not a nightmare butsimply something she should have never consented to. Gilman saw neitherherself as a victim nor her husband as a villain or the cause of herdisastrous marriage. The only unsettling issue in their relationship wasGilman’s lack of talent for close, personal commitment and patience for herfamily’s needs. But her intellectual life and public engagement opened upto her a new sense of achievement, which no family life could match(Mitterhauser 121).

    Of course Gilman tried to make this marriage work. In her attempt to do so,she started to consider it necessary to copy women’s passivity andcompliance. She grew childlike and submissive, but the new burdensomepersonality led to self-hate. In The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman tried to retrace this conditioned femaletendency to return to an infant state in marriage and she would try todemonstrate the humiliating aspect of it. To some respect this attitude isalso revealed in the setting of the story. The narrator is confined to anold nursery room on the second floor of a colonial mansion.

    InterpretationIn The Yellow Wallpaper, for short the dominant relationship between anoppressive husband and his submissive wife pushes her from depression intoinsanity. Throughout the story there are examples of this dominant-submissive relationship. Of course that is our perception of theirrelationship with our experiences and our background nowadays. Back then,in the late 1800’s such a relationship was normal.

    She is virtuallyimprisoned in her bedroom, supposedly to allow her to rest and recover herhealth. She is forbidden to work, not even supposed to write. Moreover, shehas also no say in the location or the dcor of the room she has to stayin. “. . .

    and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again. “(Gilman, Wallpaper 287)”There comes John, and I must put this away,- he hates to have me write aword. ” /Gilman, Wallpaper 288)”I don’t like the room a bit. I wanted one downstairs . .

    . but John wouldnot hear of it. ” (Gilman, Wallpaper 287)Probably in large part because of her oppression, she continues to decline. It seems that her husband is oblivious to her declining condition, since henever admits she has a real problem. Not only does he fail to get her help,but by keeping her virtually a prisoner in a room with nauseating wallpaperand very little to occupy her mind, left alone without any kind of mentalstimulation, he almost forces her to dwell on her problem.

    Perhaps if she had been allowed to come and go and do as she pleased, herdepression might have lifted. “I think sometimes that if I were only wellenough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me. “(Gilman, Wallpaper 289) It also seems that just being able to tell someonehow she really felt would have eased her depression, but John will not hearof it. The lack of an outlet caused her depression to worsen.

    The only waythe narrator could find solace was in her imagination, seeing a woman inthe wallpaper pattern, seeing people out in the garden and wanting towrite. But all the people around her try to repress this behaviour,ultimately driving the female instead of helping her. The males in thestory as well as in Gilman’s life see removing all intellectual andemotional stimulation as a cure to the female’s illness. Probably because of his oppressive behaviour, she wants to drive herhusband away.

    As her breakdown approaches, she actually locks him out ofthe room. “I have locked the door and thrown the key down into the frontpath. I don’t want to go out, and I don’t want to have anybody have comein, till John comes. I want to astonish him” (Gilman, Wallpaper 299) I seeno other reason for this other than to force him to see he was wrong, andsince she knew, he could not tolerate hysteria, to drive him away.

    The double in the storyIn Gilman’s story the double has no human existence. In the course of thestory the “double” gains an identity of its own in its attempt to involvethe heroin in its elusive existence. Therefore, the nameless phantom in TheYellow Wallpaper must not only be seen as the mad woman’s double but alsoas the biographical equivalent of Gilman herself. With this double and theprotagonist, Gilman was able to re-enacts feeling of fragmentation. In the beginning, her occupation with the wallpaper is a positivedistraction.

    The socially starved patient gradually believes to notice awoman behind the sub-pattern of the yellow wallpaper. The woman, sheobserves, appears to be in a similar uncomfortable, sulking waitingposition which she obviously wants to change all the same by escape, asurreal effect which immediately attaches itself to the artist’soverstrained mind and which mobilizes her energy (Mitterhauser 51-52). The heroine makes no attempt to see the similarity between her and thephantom. Both are incarcerated as soon as they enter the rest-cure room,and both hate it. Yet, only the double permits herself to rebel.

    “The faintfigure behind seems to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to getout. ” (Gilman, Wallpaper 293) In other words, the narrator, in a sense, sawherself reflected in the shape and pattern of this woman/ these womenstruggling to get out and be free. But still, somehow she he aligns herselfwith the woman. In the story she mentions that she often sees the womancreeping outside. “I see her in that long shaded lane, creeping up and down. I see her inthose dark grape arbores, creeping all around the garden.

    . . . I don’tblame her a bit.

    It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping bydaylight. . . .

    I always lock the door when I creep at daylight. I can’t doit at night, for I know John would suspect something at once (Gilman,Wallpaper297)This shows the narrator seeing herself in the woman and when she sees thewoman creeping outside she sees herself. What the woman in the wallpaperdoes, namely “Creeping”, can be related to the narrator’s writing. In herwriting she sees the only way to escape from the situation she is in.

    At some point, the double behind the pattern becomes a fully developedsilent identity. It multiplies itself and reclaims the garden in front ofthe hall in a feverishly creeping search of space. The climax and ultimateexistential crisis is reached when the double and the patient merge intoone person possession identity of the creeping, freedom-seeking double(Mitterhauser 53)The narrator not only fought the struggle of her male dominance of asociety but also of herself. She triumphs over her husband but also freesherself.

    But back to the woman she sees behind the pattern of thewallpaper. Sometimes the narrator not only sees one woman in the wallpaperbut many women. “Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind,. . .

    ” (Gilman, Wallpaper 297)She also at some point of the story, believes that the pattern movesbecause the woman behind shakes it. The narrator associates this patternalso with bars, bars that are usually in front of prison windows. Thispicture of a prison exists to some extent in this story. The room is almosta prison for her and she is pretty close to being a prisoner.

    Of course shewanted to escape this prison she was in and the women in the wallpapersymbolise also her attempt to break free by shaking these bars. But she wasnot only ‘imprisoned’ in this room but to some extent definitely in hermarriage and all the other social conventions of that time. The bars can also be associated with the society back then and the womenbehind the bars are women like Gilman trying to break free and be strongand independent. But society and men are keeping these women down andstrangle them. It was hard for them to leave these traditional conventionsof the time.

    “They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off andturns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!” (Gilman, Wallpaper297)But by pulling of the paper she managed to escape and break free. Not onlydid she free the woman inside her that longed to be free and strong butalso the woman in the wallpaper. But she has traded her sanity for herindependence and her freedom.This paper is the property of Copyright 2002-2003

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