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Dec 23, 2009

Starting points for Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"

 Some preliminary notes for study, analysis, and discussion of this great American short story.

Characters:
Narrator: wife, suffering from hysteria (a nervous disorder)
John: her husband, a physician, practical minded, dismissive of irrationality and emotion
Her brother: (mentioned in passing), also a physician
Mary – a nanny or maidservant
Baby – unnamed, not cared for by the mother
Cousin Henry and Julia – relations to narrator, who wishes to visit with them (request denied by John).
Jennie: John's sister?
Mother, Nellie and the children – relations who visit briefly during the summer stay.
The woman / women behind the wallpaper! more on that later....

Setting
A rented summer house on an old estate three miles from a village sitting on a bay shore with its own private wharf. They are renting the house for three months. Why? So the wife can recuperate

Most of the story's setting takes place in one room inside the house, once a nursery, now converted to their bedroom, bars on the windows and yellow paper on the walls.

The room and wallpaper are discussed in quite a lot of detail, which gives us a clue as to the importance of setting in this story.

From the way it is described, do you think the house is haunted?

The story was published in 1892. There is no date given inside the story. we can assume it is contemporaneous with the late 19th century. It's America (4th of July is mentioned). We do know that it is summer and the story spans a three month time frame.

Plot
The family arrives at the summer house.
The narrator (wife) describes the house, the room, the wallpaper.
Suffering form nervous depression, she spends much of her time in the room, thinking and writing (or trying to write).
John refuses her request to repaper the room or move to a different room.
She continues thinking about the wallpaper and begins to feel a presence skulking behind it.
The 4th of July passes and a visit with relations is over. She feels tired out from it.
Jennie assumes total care of her.
She cries and is alone much of the time.
She attempts to follow the patterns in the wallpaper, to make sense out of them or follow them to a conclusion.
She wants to visit Cousin Henry and Julia, but John refuses.
She tries to talk with John and asks to leave, but again he refuses.
She becomes convinced that there is a woman behind the wallpaper.
John forces her to lie down after every meal.
She is getting consumed by her fixation on the wallpaper and begins to smell an odor in the house – "a yellow smell."
She sees the woman creeping outside the windows.
She loses trust in John and Jennie – increasing paranoia?
On the last day of the vacation, she pulls the paper off the walls, locks the door, throws the key out the window and creeps along the floor of the room.
John comes home, pounds on the door, pleads her to open up. He finds the key and comes in. Shocked by what he sees, he faints.

Narrative technique
Who narrates? The woman, speaking as "I". This is called first person narration. We see everytyhing from her perspective, through her eyes. Is first person always reliable? not always.

The story is told via entries in a journal or diary. Gaps signify gaps in time. Through this method of telling, we get to hear her talking to herself, externalizing her inner thoughts.

Trapped in this room by well meaning but imperious husband, she is struggling to cure herself, fighting through emotional, irrational, hysteria. The story is a portrait of mental illness.

What about the imagery? What does Gilman's narrator spend most of her time describing or thinking about? The wallpaper. To grasp the story in its fullness, we need to analyze carefully how the wallpaper is described and considered. By doing that, you can construct a map of the woman's psychic responses and emotional state.  Does the paper signify something(s) outside itself? is it symbolic?

A symbol is something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else (not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or by some accidental or conventional relation); esp. a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial or abstract, as a being, idea, quality, or condition; a representative or typical figure, sign, or token; †occas. a type (of some quality).

Discussion questions

Who is the woman behind the wallpaper? who are these women creeping outside? Are they symbolic?

What do you make of the ending? why all this creeping?