Charlotte Perkins Gilman was crafty. Taken at face value, her short work, The Yellow Wallpaper, is simply the diary of a woman going through a mental breakdown. The wallpaper itself is the arbitrary object on which a troubled mind is obsessively fixated. The fact that Gilman herself suffered from a nervous breakdown makes this interpretation seem quite viable. This explanation is, however, dead wrong.
The wallpaper is not merely the object upon which she obsesses. The madness that overtakes the narrator is not rooted in any nervous disorder that her husband diagnoses. The wallpaper is actually meant to represent a mould into which all women are supposed to fit. The insanity is rooted in the narrator's inability to fall easily into that mould. Gilman's descriptions of the wallpaper are really eloquent delineations of the restrictions and constraints placed upon women. In short, the wallpaper is what all proper women are supposed to be; the narrator is one woman who is unable to adapt and, hence, she becomes a lunatic.
The narrator's first description of the wallpaper puts forth most plainly what the nature of women is believed to be: "dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they . . . destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions" (Gilman 4-5). Initially here, women are depicted as confusing objects; so confounding that they are always annoying and yet curious enough to demand "study" or scrutiny. Upon further examination, women are then found to be "lame uncertain curves" so full of contradictions they can't help but be self-destructive. This then infers that since women have no common sense or wits about them, they cannot be trusted to make decisions or fend for themselves. They must be strictly supervised and given detailed instructions, else they would end up who knows where due to their stupidity.
This is exactly what her husband, John, does. His wife writes that he "hardly lets me stir without special direction," and that she is given "a schedule of prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me" (4). He also speaks to her with a condescending tone, using demeaning names for her such as "blessed little goose," throughout the story. In fact, we never learn her proper name, which makes her seem even less of a human being.
Gilman's use of architectural and design terminology in describing the wallpaper creates a strange building within which the female mind is supposed to be housed. She first refers to the wallpaper's design as "a kind of 'debased Romanesque' . . . waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity" (Gilman 8). The word "Romanesque" refers to romance as well as a highly ornate form of architecture that utilizes decorative columns to support vaults. This implies that a woman's mind is filled with flawed romantic vaults supported by beautifully adorned columns of stupidity. In addition, she also depicts the pattern of the wallpaper as "a florid arabesque" (11). From this, it can be deduced that a woman's mind also consists of fantastic interlacing patterns of pretty flowers. Gilman points out that a woman's brain patterns contain "a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind" (11). This description lends itself nicely to the first one of the wallpaper and also indicates that the female thought process is generally seen as abnormal.
The wallpaper, which is intended to exhibit the characteristics of the ideal woman, is the source of madness in the narrator. they can't help but be self-destructive At first, she is simply disgusted by the wallpaper, but after long-term exposure to it, she begins to absorb its properties. This is indicated by her husband's belief that she is actually recovering from her nervous condition. She is actually going insane from the constant attempts and failures in attaining this "ideal" condition: "You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, it knocks you down, and tramples on you" (11). A duality exists within the narrator, though. Her senses being constantly bombarded by the wallpaper also cause her subconsciously to attempt to free herself from this oppressive mould. This eventually leads her to see bars in the pattern of the wallpaper and towards schizophrenia.
It is easy to see how someone could misinterpret what Gilman was attempting to express in The Yellow Wallpaper, but if you take into account her other books (which are clearly feminist), her intentions become more apparent. She obviously uses the wallpaper as a medium to expose the constraints that were placed upon women in the 19th century. Her attitude towards these restrictions is quite apparent from the narrator's account of the wallpaper and her subsequent insanity from overexposure to it. She despises the general view of women and of their mental capabilities. This work lashes out at a patriarchal society's belief system and, the funny thing is, not many of the patriarchs noticed.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. 1892. Alexandria, VA: Orchises Press, 1990.