The Yellow Wallpaper: Essay Q&A
1. In what ways is John to blame for his wife’s descent into madness?
As physician and husband, John embodies the two prevailing cultural power structures that Gilman sought to criticize in “The Yellow Wallpaper”: the dispassionate and stolid medical community and the dominant male hierarchy of husband over wife. In these respects he is entirely to blame for his wife’s descent into madness. First, as a physician he fails to heed the opinion of his patient when she begs on numerous occasions to be allowed some mental stimulation either from visiting her relatives or by being allowed to write freely in her journal. Paying scant attention to her worsening mental state, John (the physician) misinterprets various quantifiable indicators such as appetite and duration of sleep to mean that his patient is responding to the “rest” treatment. Even when his patient informs him that she is in fact eating and sleeping less when he is away, thus nullifying his conclusion, he chooses to immediately fall into his perceived role of husband and treats her like a child: “Bless her little heart,” he says, “she shall be as sick as she pleases.”
It is in the role of husband that John seems most to blame for his wife’s worsening condition. Firmly rooted in the paternalistic tradition of husband’s treating their wives as little more than children and housekeepers that prevailed in Gilman’s time, John refuses to consider his wife’s nervous condition an illness; rather it is an aberration of her tendency to hysteria and an over active imagination that she can only surmount by reason. This tendency to dismiss his wife’s illness as simply the fancy of a childlike mind plays out with disastrous consequences. When her last attempt to reason with her husband that she must be allowed to leave the house ends in tears he completely infantilizes her by carrying her upstairs, putting her to bed and reading to her. By removing all traces of responsibility and self-determination from his wife, John utterly fails her as a husband.
2. How does the Narrator’s changing perception of the yellow wallpaper work as an indicator of her mental state during the course of the story?
Upon arriving at the estate the Narrator’s uneasy frame of mind is indicated by her perception of the house as seemingly “haunted” but even she recognizes this as an easily dismissed fancy when she acknowledges that its vacancy is due not to the supernatural activities but the financial difficulties of its heirs. In this state of mind, the Narrator’s first impression of the wallpaper is that it is “one of those sprawling, flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.” Further, she describes that pattern as full of “lame uncertain curves” and the color as “repellant”. These are the judgments of an artistically sensitive mind judging the paper on its aesthetic merits alone.
After two weeks of the “rest” treatment, however, both the Narrator’s mind and her descriptions of the wallpaper have become markedly less sound. The first elements of paranoia appear in her admission that she must hide her writing from her sister-in-law. Moreover, she begins to suspect that the paper – now characterized as having a “vicious influence”, full of “unblinking eyes” – is causing her illness. The first evidence that her unhinged mind has seized on the wallpaper as a creative outlet appears in her perception of a “sub-pattern” masking a skulking, “formless sort of figure.”
After a bit more time in the house, she confesses that she spends much of her time alone crying and that the wallpaper “dwells” on her mind. Evidence that her mind is not completely unhinged appears in her judgment that the pattern is not “arranged on any laws of radiation” but this is quickly swept aside by her perception of a point of radiation where the “interminable grotesque” seems to form a focal point.
As the Narrator’s mind continues its steady descent into madness certain clues, recorded in the journal as simple observations reveal the alarming state of her mind. She states that there are things in the paper that “nobody knows about but me, or ever will.” Further, the moonlight “creeps” into the room at night and reveals the women creeping in the sub-pattern. Most horrifying, the Narrator continues to have moments of lucidity when she recognizes her own worsening situation as when she begins to suggest to her physician/husband that her mind may be compromised: “Better in body perhaps-” she begins only to be cut off. During this time period the color, formerly simply “repellant” has become a living thing, like: “old, foul, bad yellow things.” It begins to affect not just her sense of sight but also smell. She comes to suspect both her husband and Jennie of interest in the wallpaper and her paranoia rises to the forefront of her entries with statements such as “I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself,” “It does not do to trust people too much,” and calling her sister-in-law a “sly thing” for trying to keep her company in the room. During the latter portion of the story she increasingly identifies herself with the creeping woman in the sub-pattern trapped behind the pattern which has now assumed the aspect of a “cage” that undulates with the movements of the women trapped inside. The narrator explains why she does all her own “creeping” in the daytime and, toward the end of the story, wonders matter-of-factly if all the creeping women she sees outside the windows all came “out of the wallpaper as I did.” With her mind completely driven to madness she tears down the paper and its pattern as a means to free the woman trapped both inside its sub-pattern and the mind trapped inside the restrictive “rest” cure.
3. In what ways is Narrator defeated at the end of the story?
First, and most obviously, the Narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is defeated because she is driven to madness by the enforced inactivity of the “rest” treatment prescribed by her physician/husband. Within in the context of this larger defeat, however, are smaller losses that conspire to occlude her mind. She suffers a defeat almost immediately upon arriving at the estate when she requests that she and her husband use the small, quaint bedroom on the first floor rather than the expansive upstairs nursery with the yellow wallpaper on the second floor. As the story progresses she is defeated on several points such as the question as to whether or not she can go visit the stimulating “Cousin Henry and Julia” or if they in turn may visit her. On several other occasions she is similarly defeated on the issue of relocating downstairs. Resigned to the upstairs room she asks her husband if they can remove the wallpaper; when he initially accepts she seems to have won a small victory but this is almost immediately taken from her when he changes his mind and concludes that to entertain her “fancy” on this point would open the door to all manner of requests. His unwillingness to negotiate with his wife means that she will always suffer defeat in her arguments with him because his dominant role as husband will always trump her submissive female perspective.
4. In what ways is the Narrator triumphant at the end of the story?
Though forced to insanity, the Narrator’s mind finally triumphs over the creative restrictions imposed by the “rest” cure by escaping into the realm of imagination. In this sense, the Narrator triumphs over the “rest” cure because, ironically, to have been cured would have meant the defeat of her imagination. Further, she succeeds in her initial desire to remove the wallpaper by literally tearing it from the walls and triumphing over her physician/husband’s refusal to do the same. Finally, at story’s end, the deterioration of her sanity and the sudden realization that his wife has gone mad causes her physician/husband to faint – an action typically associated with weakness and female frailty during the period. Then, the narrator is free to climb over his inert body she makes her madness-driven circuits of the room. He has become nothing more than an easily surmounted obstacle in her physical progress, a basic triumph of her body over his.
5. Hdoes the journalistic narrative style work to support the plot?
We learn from the beginning that the Narrator is keeping the journal against the stated wishes of her physician/husband. Also, we learn that a near constant state of exhaustion brought on by her depressive condition leaves her little energy to write. These two circumstances collude to create a rhetorical atmosphere of short bursts of thought which risk discovery at any moment. They are secret and, as such, not meant for any other purpose than to relieve the Narrator’s own mind of the burden of its imagination. In this role, the entries become a chronicle of her mind’s increasing fixation upon the yellow wallpaper and the disastrous consequences. Just as the journal must figuratively never see the light of day, the Narrator comes to fear discovery during the daylight (when she must “creep”) in favor of the clarity of moonlight. Moreover, as the Narrator’s mind becomes increasingly unhinged, her journal entries, now steered entirely by her desperate imagination, become longer as if fueled by the energy of her emerging insanity.