While short in length, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” – narrated from the first-person perspective of an unnamed young woman said to be suffering from some ailment – is open to a range of interpretations and covers a variety of themes in the nineteenth century, from the societal and domestic roles of women to perceptions of physical and mental illnesses as well as their treatment. By centring the story on the personal experiences of the woman and on her relationships with her husband and sister-in-law, the external context is also narrowed within the confines of a colonial mansion, thereby amplifying much of the internal tensions and putting emphasis on the extent to which the woman and her condition appear to be misunderstood by the ones who are closest to her.
Though whether she is misunderstood or delirious is (deliberately) left ambiguous, given her unreliability. From her point of view, she is made to rest in the upstairs room of the mansion – where John, her husband, explains the many of windows which would provide a useful supply of fresh air for her condition – after showing signs of “temporary nervous depression”, is perturbed by the supposedly dilapidated state of the windows, wallpaper, and floor, and seems to descend into greater psychological instability. In particular, her journal entries explore the many characteristics of the yellow wallpaper of the room, and eventually she tears off the remaining paper so as to free a woman who she thinks is creeping behind the pattern. The story reaches its climax as she is engaged in this endeavour.
The many interpretations of “The Yellow Wallpaper” includes the entrapment of women – who might be depicted as deranged and helpless – in an oppressively patriarchal society, the poor treatment of (female) patients suffering from breakdowns, and the disproportionate representation of men in the medical sector. Gilman, some have argued, may be focusing on the struggle and the eventual freedom of women in socio-cultural settings dominated by men, and perhaps even problematising other women, such as Jennie, John’s sister, who enable these processes. Whatever the metaphors or allegories, the short book is also a good reminder of the power of brevity, of the importance of reading texts in the context of their publication, and of the role of personal backgrounds shaping what is read and seen.