Feminine Malady in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892)
This topic is divided into three sections. In the first part, you will consider the stylistic features of “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” In the second section, you will learn about the way neurasthenia (nervous exhaustion) was understood by Gilman’s contemporaries, and how “The Yellow Wall-Paper” was written as an intervention into the medical model. In the third section, you will examine some of the critical lenses that have been applied to the story in preparation for your second essay.
The Style of “The Yellow Wall-Paper”
“It’s a simple tale, but highly unpleasant.”
-Gilman, describing “The Yellow Wall-Paper” in a letter to her friend Martha Luther Lane, July 27, 1890 (in Golden 26–27)
Imagine for a moment that you did not know the English language. Now look at the text of In the Cage, McTeague, and “The Yellow Wall-Paper”—look, don’t read. The last text is visibly different. What do you see? You might notice blocks of short paragraphs, most of them just one sentence long, with columns of “I’s” (and the occasional “But” or “John”) cascading down the left margin.
The narrative voice of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is mimetic. That is, it does not simply describe claustrophobia and madness; it replicates, even induces, the condition it describes. At the same time, Gilman wrote the story in an effort “to save people from being driven crazy” (Gilman, “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’”). This fluctuation—between “craziness” and rationality, and between powerlessness and power—are inscribed into the diary itself. On the story’s first page we are told that the doctor-husband laughs at the narrator, “but one expects that”; more importantly, the narrator hints that she suspects his authority as both physician and husband is one of the causes of her illness. The narrator alternates between clear insights about her situation and the internalization of her husband’s perspective. When, for example, she claims to “get unreasonably angry with John sometimes,” her assessment of herself as unreasonable is clearly borrowed from her husband’s perspective. The story traces her movement away from her husband’s diagnosis toward the realization of her imprisonment.
It’s important to remember that “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is not Gilman’s real diary. Its immediacy is an effect of literary craft, no less than the free indirect discourse of In the Cage and the cinematic vantage of McTeague. Constructing a tale around a diary kept in secret, such that the action of writing and concealing the diary constitutes part of the plot itself, has a long history in English literature. This is another example of the way the history of literary forms is bound up with evolving notions about public and private (here you may wish to revisit our
discussion of privacy in Unit 1). American literature is also replete with confinement narratives, which delve into the psychological effects of intense isolation. Famous examples include Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), whose narrator nearly dies of thirst while hiding in the hold of a whaling ship, and the autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs, who spent seven years in an attic nine feet long and three feet high, watching her children through a hole in the wall, in order to hide from slave traders. And a classic work of second-wave feminist criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic, makes note of a recurring pattern of “textual/architectural confinement” in women’s writing.
Shortly after Gilman finished the story, William Dean Howells (yes, again) recommended it for publication to Horace Scudder, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Scudder rejected it, writing in a letter to Gilman, “I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself” (18 Oct. 1890). About forty-five years later, Gilman reflected, “The story was meant to be dreadful, and succeeded. I suppose [Scudder] would have sent back one of Poe’s on the same ground” (quoted in Golden 51).
Edgar Allan Poe was indeed among Gilman’s early influences, and a short selection may show you why. Here is the opening of Poe’s classic horror tale, “The Tell-tale Heart” (1843):
True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story. (Poe 277)
A few similarities between “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Yellow Wall-Paper” should be apparent: a narrator wedged into a cramped space, tormented by sharp senses and an irrational obsession, with an analytical mind that clashes with his or her increasingly deranged actions. In each case, the reader is put in the place of the analyst, detective, or diagnosing physician.
Poe—and Gilman—were writing in a literary convention that was already more than a century old, the Gothic.
Authors of [Gothic] novels set their stories in the medieval period, often in a gloomy castle replete with dungeons, subterranean passages, and sliding panels, and made plentiful use of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, and other sensational and supernatural occurrences; their principal aim was to evoke chilling terror by exploiting mystery, cruelty, and a variety of horrors. The term ‘gothic’ has also been extended to denote a type of fiction which lacks the medieval setting but develops a brooding atmosphere of gloom or terror, represents events which are uncanny, or macabre, or melodramatically violent, and often deals with aberrant psychological states. (M. H. Abrams, quoted in Campbell)
Readers of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” are alerted to the Gothic convention by the first sentences’ mention of “ancestral halls” and a hereditary estate with “something strange about the house.” Like the ancient mansions of many Gothic stories, this house will also become the prison for a madwoman whose perceptions intensify at night, “and worst of all by moonlight.” And as in most Gothic tales, the daytime world of empirical knowledge (here embodied by the doctor/husband) is ultimately inadequate to account for the nocturnal world of vision, haunting, and obsession.