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Yellow Wallpaper Essay, Research Paper

Nicole Walker

English Paper #3

Dr. Murray

Oct. 28, 2000

“Descent into Insanity”

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a nervous wife, an overprotective husband, and a large, dank room covered in musty wallpaper all play important parts in driving the wife insane. The husband’s smothering attention, combined with the isolated environment, incites the nervous nature of the wife, causing her to plunge into insanity to the point she sees herself in the wallpaper. The author’s masterful use of not only the setting (of both time and place), but also of first person point of view, allows the reader to participate in the woman’s growing insanity.

In eighteen ninety – one, when the “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written, women were often treated as second – class citizens. They were, for the most part, dominated by a society controlled by men. The men were the leaders, ruling the home and the workplace; the women were under their authority. The wife, of whom this story is about, reflects this attitude society has towards her. Her husband even decides what furniture and things are to be in her room. She submits to those decisions, even to the point of agreeing with him. This is evidenced when she says, “But he is right enough about the beds and windows and things??I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim”(472). Wives like this were regarded as possessions of the husbands, and, in light of that, they had few rights. Just as was the wife, many women were believed to be good only for bearing children and running a household. Often times the husband retained a housekeeper or some such servant so the wives only bore children and did little else. In the case of the wife in our story, her husband, John, goes so far as to treat her like a child after the birth of their baby, as evidenced by his calling her “my darling” and “little girl” (475). He had even hired a housekeeper to take care of not only the house, but the baby as well. John also controlled almost everything in her life. In fact, the only thing he did not control was her journal writing, and even then she had to hide it from him since he did not approve of it. When he comes she says, “I must put this (the journal) away – he hates to have me write a word”(471). Part of John’s problem 1s that he is a doctor. As a doctor, he control’s his wife’s health care, prescribing her medicines and her overall cure. As her husband, he is too emotionally involved to look at the case objectively, or if he had, he might have seen her mind going before it was too late. Not only that, the accepted “cure” at that particular time was ineffective and would only serve to make his wife worse (473). This “cure” was the product of a certain Dr. Weir Mitchell; a nerve specialist whose theory of a “rest cure” for mentally unstable patients was later found to be unsuccessful. In the story, the husband’s ill-advised attempts to treat his wife’s symptoms drive her insane by taking all responsibility from her and forcing isolation upon her as a part of her “cure.”

Gilman emphasizes the wife’s isolation by describing to the reader where the story is set. The retreat John takes his wife to in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a large, dilapidated Victorian mansion “quite three miles from the village” (470). It is surrounded by extensive gardens replete with large hedges, locking gates and winding paths. This sets the mansion “well back from the road” and creates many secluded spots; intensifying the idea that the main house is well away from any outside activity (470). In fact, the wife’s first impression causes her to call it a “haunted house” and question why it’s available for lease (469). Part of the reason for her first impression that the house is falling apart is because no one has been caring for it for some time. This is apparently due to “legal trouble” involving the heirs (470). The mansion has defied time and weather to stand in all it’s dilapidated glory. The mansion’s strength signifies that it could be a place of rest for John’s wife, just as he intended. However, that same strength could also be viewed as giving the mansion prison – like qualities. Further evidence that this last interpretation is correct is found when his wife describes her new room, which is apparently an old nursery/playroom/gymnasium. While this room is large and “airy” with many windows to let in lots of sunshine, those very windows are covered with bars (471). With a closer glance, the reader finds that the room has a rather suspicious past. The wife describes the floor as being “scratched, gouged, and splintered,” the plaster of the walls as being “dug out in places,” the wallpaper as being “torn off in spots” and “stripped off” both at the top and the bottom; even the bed is portrayed as looking “as if it has been through wars”(473 & 471). Oddly enough the bed is bolted to the floor and it is the only piece of furniture in the room till other furniture is brought up for her. There are “rings and things in the walls” and a “gate at the top of the stairs”(473 & 472). All these details about the room are suggestive of a room in a sanitarium. This suggestion foreshadows the wife’s eventual descent into madness.

The wallpaper is the detail the wife becomes obsessed with; it serves to reflect to the reader her growing insanity. In the beginning she views it as horrid, “committing every artistic sin” (471). Even then, she goes into great detail in describing the wallpaper, more than she does any other part of the room. The wife depicts not only the paper’s repulsive shade of yellow, but also its “sprawling, flamboyant pattern” and very poor condition (471). As her mind grows more and more unsound, she follows the pattern “by the hour,” at which time she begins to see bars in the paper; then she sees someone behind those bars (474). The reader can see and feel the wife’s insanity growing as she reacts to what she “sees” in the wallpaper. The attention she gives the wallpaper is partially due to the solitary setting of her room. She has nothing to do but stare at the wallpaper all day long. The room is located on the top floor of the mansion, away from all the everyday happenings of the household. Here the author develops her theme of isolation by shifting the scene from the forlorn setting of the mansion to the lonely setting of the room. This parallels the narrowing of the wife’s focus from all the aspects of her surroundings to just the wallpaper, then, at the end, from the wallpaper to herself – her freedom, or lack of it. There are no outside stimuli to take her mind off the wallpaper due to her husband/doctor’s edict that she is to “rest” and not have any responsibility. She is “to have,” she says, “perfect rest.”(471). Since she has nothing to do but study the wallpaper, she continues her search for something deeper in it until, finally, she sees herself trapped in it, the woman she sees “stooping down and creeping about” behind the pattern (475). It is at this point the wife notices the musty smell of the wallpaper as well as its shifting patterns and changing shades of yellow (476). Her noticing that the wallpaper has a musty, moldy smell shows the extent of her mind’s decay. At the end, she notices the “women creeping” in the paper, and all she desires is to free them (478 & 479). The reader can now see that the wife has gone totally and irreversibly mad. Evidences that suggest her insanity includes creeping around the room, gnawing the bedpost in frustration, tearing paper off the walls, and then locking the door, and tossing out the key into the bushes (479, 480, & 481).

However, we as readers can only fully appreciate the progress of the wife’s descent into insanity and feel for her plight because we see the situation from her perspective. Also, because the wife has no name, the reader can put him or herself into the wife’s situation. From this perspective we get a vivid depiction of what it is like to go mad. If the story had been told from a limited omniscient or omniscient point of view, too much detail would have been given. It would have cluttered the story, lessened the reader’s sympathy for the wife, and detracted from the central theme of the story (the wife’s growing obsession with the wallpaper {her increasing insanity}). A third person participant point of view would not work either. First, John, her husband and doctor, would deny that she had a serious problem, making the reader unaware of the true situation. And again, we would feel less sympathy towards the wife. Second, if the story were narrated by the housekeeper, Jane, the reader might be given a hint that the wife was going mad, but her state of mind would be uncertain until the end. In either character’s case, the wallpaper would hold little significance to him or her.

In seeing the story through the wife’s eyes, we can see that her mental illness in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is inevitable. Between society’s view of women at that time, the husband’s attitude towards her, and his ineffective remedies, the wife’s mental instability can only grow worse. The wallpaper lets the reader follow the woman’s regression into insanity as the story progresses. Only with the first person point of view (the wife’s) can the reader follow this regression of the mind. All in all, this is a sad story of a woman’s struggle for sanity in an indifferent society.

Intro = talk about owl( barn owl and rodent – natural history

Procedure _ what we did


Discussion —do percentagese and such ?B.S.

Summary -Wrap it up,?.

Nicole Walker

Complete Outline

I. Introduction

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a nervous wife, an overprotective husband, and a large, dank room covered in musty wallpaper all play important parts in driving the wife insane. The husband’s smothering attention, combined with the isolated environment, incites the nervous nature of the wife, causing her to plunge into insanity to the point she sees herself in the wallpaper. The author’s masterful use of not only the setting (of both time and place), but also of first person point of view, allows the reader participate in the woman’s growing insanity.

II. Setting in Time

A. Mid 1800’s- 1900’s

a) A time in society where the family institution was strict

b) Women were possessions of men

B. Women’s Rights

a) They are regarded as fit only to bear children

b) They are kept from positions other than traditional ones

C. Relationship in Marriage

a) Husband treats her like a child rather than a wife

b) Husband is controlling

D. Inaccurate Medical Information

a) The cure for her prescribed by her husband and brother only makes things worse

b) They unwittingly aid her descent into insanity by the strict regimen they force upon her

III. Setting of Place

A. Older ‘Victorian Mansion’ with a shady past

a) It is a melancholy place with a sad sort of atmosphere

b) Neglected and abandoned house

c) Defying time and weather to destroy it

B. Jail-like room in poor condition

a) Bed bolted to floor

b) Bars on windows

c) Rings and things in the walls

d) Bolted or locked door

e) Lack of furniture

C. Wallpaper pattern, color, condition and smell

a) Pattern is sprawling, ugly, and repetitive

b) Color is a dirty, off shade of yellow and very repulsive

c) Condition is poor with ripped and missing sections

d) Smell is symbolic of her decaying state of mind

D. Solitary setting

a) The lack of stimulus due to isolation feeds her obsession with the wallpaper

b) The removal of responsibility causes her to lose her grip on reality as she is forced into uselessness

c) Confinement to her room causes her to narrow her focus from the house to the room and then from

the room to the wallpaper and its pattern. With nothing else to do she continues this search for

something deeper and goes into the pattern of the wallpaper, from there to the wallpapers scent.

IV. Point of View

A. First Person Participant

a) This lets us see how and why she thinks and behaves the way she does

b) If it were from another characters point of view we would miss many important details

c) If it were just limited omniscient point of view the reader would not be able to sympathize so

well with the main character and would see the husband in a different light

B. Limited Omniscient and Omniscient

a) Too much information

b) Story less moving

c) Unsympathetic to wife and her situation

C. Third Person Participant

a) Husband in denial and housekeeper unaware

b) Too little information, unsympathetic

c) Cant see relevance of wallpaper to story

V. Summary

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