by Lee Weinstein
This article was first published in STUDIES IN WEIRD FICTION no. 4 Fall, 1988.
When “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was first published in 1892, it was generally read as a horrifying, but realistic, account of the progressive mental deterioration of a woman undergoing the then popular rest cure for nervous illnesses. This, in fact, was the author’s intention, as she states in her autobiography.(1)
In more recent years, feminist critics have found a wealth of symbolism that has changed the accepted reading of the story. According to this interpretation, the figure the narrator sees in the wallpaper represents not only her “…own divided self, but all women who are imprisoned…by a society which insists that women are childlike, merely decorative, and incapable of self-actualization. The wallpaper itself, like the social conventions it symbolizes, is hideously ugly…Any attempt to impose reason on such a tortuous pattern results in madness.” (2). The fact that Gilman was, in fact, a feminist tends to support this interpretation.
While both these readings have valid points to make, they leave certain points unexplained. Further, as pointed out by Schopp-Schilling, the psychological and feminist arguments often fall into the intentional and biographical fallacies of literary criticism.(3)
There is a third, supernatural interpretation, which would explain some previously unaddressed points. It was hinted at by H.P. Lovecraft when he described the story’s narrator as “…a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined.”(4)
This interpretation, that the room had a former occupant, and that the narrator is being possessed, has never been explored in detail. It shall be based upon a literal reading of the text.
In order to analyze the story, it is necessary to assume that the protagonist, who narrates in the first person, is a reliable observer, despite her dubious mental state. The fact that it is told in the form of a diary, each entry beginning with what is, in effect, a new viewpoint, is helpful in this regard.
Her first entry, made on her first day in the house, tells us that the nature of her disorder, according to her husband, John, a physician, is “temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency.” She also tells us about the house itself, which they have rented for the summer: “There was some legal trouble…the place has been empty for years. That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid, but I don’t care—there is something strange about the house—I can feel it.”(5)
We are presented with a scenario in which a nervous, imaginative, and emotionally unstable woman spends endless hours in a room with literally nothing to do but stare at the wallpaper. Soon, not surprisingly, she begins to see things. She sees a woman, sometimes behind the wallpaper’s pattern, and sometimes outside, always creeping about.
Feminist critics have given this woman a symbolic interpretation, but on a literal level there are two possibilities. She may be hallucinating, or she may, in her weakened state of mind, be falling prey to something in the room which is very real. Does she feel “something ghostly” about the house at the beginning because she is imaginative, and perhaps romantic, or, perhaps does she really feel a presence in the house, although she does not want to admit it, even to herself?
Her husband thinks there is nothing really wrong with her. She thinks him wrong. Do her symptoms worsen as a subconscious way of proving to him that she is really ill, are they indicative of actual mental illness, or is she being acted upon by an outside agency?
There are clues in the description of the room on the house’s top floor, which is the sole setting of the story. The narrator tells us: “It was a nursery first and then a playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.”(6)
We must accept her physical description of the room. There are barred windows, torn wallpaper, and rings in the walls. Later in the story we find that the bed is nailed down, and the floor is gouged and splintered. However, we do not have to accept her interpretation of these facts. She repeatedly attributes the damage done to the room to hypothetical children who once played in a room she “judges” to have been a nursery and a gymnasium. But what sort of nursery has barred windows, a bed bolted to the floor, and rings in the walls? As Lovecraft suggests, it sounds like a room where a madwoman has been confined.
Most feminist critics accept the room as having been a nursery, arguing that it symbolizes the childlike treatment of women. Some have gone as far as to suggest that the nailed down bed symbolizes the narrator’s sexuality. (7,8) Only one [Annette Kolodny] touches on the oddness of this “nursery,” noting the “fleeting resemblance between the upstairs chamber…and Poe’s evocation of the dungeon chambers of Toledo…” (9) But even she only implies a comparison between Poe’s hero, who is saved from the pit, and Gilman’s heroine, who is not. She does not consider the implications of a literal interpretation.
In the same way, feminist critics, if they entertain the notion at all that the room had a previous occupant, interpret it in only a symbolic sense. “Maybe this room has always been a place of confinement for mad persons,” says Rigney. (10) But the internal evidence indicates that the previous occupant was quite real.
For example, there is the matter of the wallpaper by the bed. The narrator tells us, “It is stripped off—the paper—in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach.” (11) Why should it be torn about as far as she can reach? Are we to infer that she tore it herself? If so, we run into an insurmountable critical problem. We see the story entirely through her eyes. If she is not a reliable observer, we cannot believe anything she tells us and analysis of her words becomes meaningless. We must accept, therefore, that if she tore the paper she would have described her actions in doing so, as in fact she does later in the story. Further, she makes the observation on her first day in the house, when she is in her most normal mental state.
If she didn’t tear the paper, then who did? Could it have been the hypothetical children she keeps speaking of? The problem here is that even if there really had been children in the room, presumably they would have had a shorter reach. The paper was torn by someone who could reach about as far as the narrator. The evidence points to Lovecraft’s madwoman.
This conclusion is further supported by an unusual mark the narrator later discovers on the wall, down near the mopboard. She describes it as, “A streak that runs around the room. It goes behind every piece of furniture except the bed, a long, straight, even smooch, as if it had been rubbed over and over.” (12)
Rigney says bluntly, “Perhaps it is the narrator herself who, although she does not realize it, has always been here, ‘creeping’ about the room until her own shoulder has left the grooves she notices in the wallpaper.” (13) Again, to take this literally is to face the problem of the unreliable narrator. If we are meant to infer that the narrator has always been there only in some vague, symbolic sense, then the literal presence of the mark is left unexplained.
The narrator tells us that she and her husband had to bring all the furniture, excepting the bed, up from the downstairs. (14) Although she has been two weeks in the house at this point, it is reasonable to assume that they moved the furniture upstairs when they moved in or very shortly after. Therefore, since the mark goes behind the furniture, it was there when they moved in. Because, as the narrator later discovers, the mark is level with her shoulder, the evidence again points to the madwoman.
Given the existence of this madwoman, several interpretations are possible. One is non-supernatural. The narrator somehow deduces that there was a madwoman in the room who caused the damage, deduces how she caused the damage, and begins to imitate her.
Of course, this runs into the unreliable narrator problem again. The narrator seems genuinely convinced that it was children who gouged the plaster, tore the paper, and splintered the floor. She also seems genuinely puzzled about the mark on the wall. “I wonder how it was done and who did it, and what they did it for. Round and round and round.” (15) Could it be this musing which eventually leads her to go round and round herself at the end of the story? This is unlikely because we are shown that she is imitating the creeping woman she sees behind the wallpaper. We would have to suppose that the narrator is imitating a hallucination constructed from a totally unconscious awareness of the room’s previous occupant. This seems highly unlikely.
A more plausible interpretation is that the room itself drives its occupants to madness. The narrator and the madwoman before her are both victims, and possibly not the only ones. At the story’s turning point the narrator says, “There are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all came out of the wallpaper as I did?” (16) Is she seeing a succession of victims? Possibly, but earlier the narrator says, “Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast.” (17) Also, her husband, who shares the room, is not affected.
Finally, there is the interpretation that the room is haunted by the madwoman, whose spirit gradually possesses the narrator. This fits the narrator’s actions quite well. For example, toward the end she notices a place on the headboard the “children had gnawed,” and a few paragraphs later she bites the headboard herself. (18) She may have been driven mad in precisely the same manner as the previous occupant(s) by the room itself, but it seems more likely that she has been possessed by the spirit of a single previous occupant and is doomed to repeat her actions in her victim.
Of course, this leaves the question of why she sees many creeping women at the turning point. If she has been possessed, why would she continue to see that which has possessed her? One possibility is that, although she is possessed, she still retains her own personality, and therefore a sort of double consciousness.
There are two clues at the end of the story that support the idea of possession. On the last page the narrator says, “I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane.” (19) This is the first reference in the story to a “Jane.” Hedges suggests that if this is not a printer’s error (in some printings “Jane” has been altered to “Jennie”), it may be the narrator’s own name. (20) The narrator refers to herself in the third person because she is free of her “Jane” self, that is, “herself as defined by marriage and society.” Is it not simpler to interpret the statement literally? Perhaps she refers to herself as Jane because she has literally become a different person.
The other clue comes when she hears her husband at the door to the room and thinks to herself, “It is no use, young man, you can’t open it.” (22) Why does she refer to her husband as “young man?” This is a point other critics have ignored. If it is supposed to be an indication of insanity, it is a rather arbitrary one. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense if she is seeing him from the viewpoint of someone else; someone much older who died in the house long ago.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New York, 1935), p. 121.
- Barbara Hill Rigney, Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel (Madison, 1978), pp. 123-124.
- Beate Schopp-Schilling, “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Rediscovered ‘Realistic’ Story” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 VIII (1975), p.284.
- Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Supernatural in Literature (New York, 1973), p. 72.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (Old Westbury, N.Y.,1973), pp. 10-11.
- Gilman, Wallpaper, p. 12
- Gary Scharnhorst, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Boston, 1985), p. 19.
- Loralee MacPike, “Environment as Psychological Symbolism in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 VIII (1975) 287.
- Annette Kolodny, “A Map for Rereading, or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,” New Literary History XI (1980):1, 455-456.
- Rigney, p. 124.
- Gilman, Wallpaper p. 12
- Gilman, Wallpaper p. 29.
- Rigney, Madness p. 124.
- Gilman, Wallpaper p. 17.
- Gilman, Wallpaper p. 29.
- Gilman, Wallpaper p. 35.
- Gilman, Wallpaper p.30.
- Gilman, Wallpaper p.34.
- Gilman, Wallpaper p. 36
- Elaine R. Hedges, “Afterword” The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Old Westbury, NY, 1973), pp. 62-63.
- Hedges, p. 63.
- Gilman, Wallpaper , p. 35.