Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A room and its wallpaper

I have lots of thoughts. I actually had to write these down. I wish I had time to jot the rest.

This is my third reading of Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. It is interesting how as a woman my interpretation changes each time I visit the work based on my expanding repertoire of experience. Details that I glossed over at first and second glance now cause question.
The most pressing query for the reader seems to be: At what point does the speaker “lose” her grasp on reality and could it have been averted? I would argue from this reading that Gilman shows us a woman who was never in control, by nature of the fact that she was Victorian, and thereby had been robbed grasp of anything, let alone her wits, long before she begins speaking.
As her husband moves her into a room that she fancies was once a nursery (though there is never any conclusive proof of this and is likely due to  unresolved childhood issues of abandonment and a present dissatisfaction with motherhood in general,) we are presented with his desparate attempt to continue to wage control over her waning lucidity, which most likely hinges on her lack of say in anything from her leisure activities to when she eats and sleeps. He has taken away her friends and familiar surroundings, tells her that she must not write, gives the care of her child to another. In essence, she is completely stripped of personal fulfillment and enjoyment, and also societal purpose. She is labelled hysterical, as troublesome women of the time often were, and taken into seclusion to “get over it.” It being her despondance, anger and aggitation at disatisfaction with her allotment in life.
Her relationship with the wallpaper is interesting. She relates it to her childhood, to her husband’s control of her life, to all women she sees, until it comprises her existence.
It is true that there are ideas dropped throughout the story to suggest that she is close to breaking, but I think her earliest description of the wallpaper is telltale of her relationship with it:
“One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
It is 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 suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.”
I surmise the speaker is revealing in this passage the state of her own thoughts under the strain of constant control and correction by sexist social normative and male subjugation.
In relating this to Ms. Woolf’s essay, and also to Ms. Woolf’s own fragile state of mind throughout her life, I believe that the first frontier that Gilman was suggesting must be claimed was that of the female mind. Until a woman’s thoughts are her own, until she is able to make decisions for herself and self-determine the day-to-day activities of her life, until those thoughts and choices for action are validated, she is nothing more than a decorative object—or a wallpaper—in the history of herstory.
Once she has control of this vital “room of one’s own” she may finally enter and own reality. 


  1. It's an interesting question, but I think she begins the story having lost any hold on reality or her sanity. Even the wallpaper functions only as a manifestation of her insanity. How do we even know if this wallpaper actually exists? Because she tells us so? Aren't we supposed to question the reliability of the narrator? Yes, she tells us about the wallpaper, which sound perfectly believable, but, she also, with the same conviction, tells us that there is a woman behind the wallpaper.
    I love this story. It's anthologized to death, but that's the kind of great thing about it: you get to read it a hundred times, always coming to it with different experience and understanding.

  2. Perhaps that is why she needed to paper the room in the first place... Good points. And I agree, I don't think I can get enough of the richness of this text.