“The front pattern does move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. They get through and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!” (94).
Centering on a woman’s struggle with depression, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s battle with the illness herself inspired the short story The Yellow Wallpaper. The plot starts out with the narrator and her husband, a physician named John, staying in a mansion in order for her to regain strength. She is left alone sometimes with John’s sister, the housekeeper, when he goes on house calls. While sequestered in the upstairs nursery converted into a bedroom, the woman ruminates about the distasteful wallpaper surrounding her. She realizes after constant scrutiny that the patterns begin to change throughout the day and especially at night. Utilizing the woman’s obsession with the wallpaper visions, Gilman showcases how the journey through depression can consume an individual’s sense of self.
Amidst the waves of color and arabesque swirls, the narrator begins to notice the patterns moving and a woman taking form underneath. Gilman italicizes the word “does” in the above quotation in order to illustrate the woman’s surprise at the personification of the wallpaper. She gradually becomes entranced by watching the woman struggle to break free. The parallel between the two is evident: both are in a state of entrapment. The imagined woman is physically behind the patterning. The narrator, on the other hand, is in a more complex situation. Controlled by her husband, she does not have much say over what goes on in her life. She “take[s] pains to control [her]self—before him, at least” (84), so that he will be appeased, since he is a high class physician and should know what is best for her. John constantly tells her to rest and neglect her passion of writing in order to alleviate the depression. Her husband’s expectations strain their relationship, making the narrator feel trapped like the woman she sees in the wallpaper. Thus, the wallpaper woman is a culmination of the narrator’s anxiety. Many times, people seek solace in someone who has gone through the same situation for relief. The narrator, however, does not relate to anyone in the story, so she creates an entity that mirrors her situation. This imagined woman embodies the feelings that the narrator possesses, even though she does not have real people and emotions trapping her.
In order to mimic the narrator’s struggles, Gilman personifies the pattern by writing that it strangles anyone who attempts to escape. This parallels the narrator’s battle with depression and her attempt to reconcile John’s idea of getting better with her own. Imagining the wallpaper coming to life also allows the woman to have a secret creative outlet. This, however, quickly turns into an obsession when she constantly holes herself up in her room solely to watch for any changes in the wallpaper. She tells John’s sister that she would “undoubtedly rest better for a night all alone” in order to keep her late night viewings a secret (95). By doing this, the narrator is still in touch with reality enough to realize the expectations of others. However, as the story unfolds, she quickly loses her sense of what is real. At the end, she is totally consumed by the idea of the woman trapped in the wallpaper, and the narrator begins to take on the imagined person’s characteristics. She starts “creeping” around the floor, clawing at the wallpaper to break free and even trying to bite off a chunk of her wooden bed frame (96). This obsession culminates in the last sentence of the story, when the narrator shouts, “‘I’ve got out at last…in spite of you [John] and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’” (97). Speaking as though she is the wallpaper woman, the narrator has officially lost all sense of self. Emotionally strained, she clung to an imagined person which ultimately led to the death of her sanity.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story of the narrator’s struggle to cope gives insight to readers about a particular experience with depression and the effect it can have upon the human psyche. The story also sparks the question as to if the author’s own struggle with depression resembled that in her story, and if the illness can be dealt with in a way that does not ultimately harm the individual.