Academic, Opinion

Insanity Creeping Out: Progressive-Era Subjugation in “The Yellow Wallpaper”

“You make me insane!” I’ve yelled at my husband at times. I never truly meant insane—only mad as heck! Unlike me (perhaps), however, Progressive-Era women did have something to be mad as heck about. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” during the Progressive Era in America, a time of tremendous social, political, and educational reform between 1890 to 1920. During this time, only men provided medical treatment (women were not “expected” to become doctors), so any medical diagnosis and subsequent cure was based upon a male’s perspective only. The “cure” for a woman’s “feelings of purposelessness and inactivity” resulted in “[finding] her desire to pursue a career diagnosed as an illness; her acts of self-determination or resistance might be prohibited, punished, or judged insane.” (Mays 522) Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” confronts the gendered oppression of Progressive-Era women through setting and character development, symbolism, and irony and illustrates the horrifying reality that the people they trusted to care for them ended up literally causing their insanity.

Two factors contributing to the narrator’s insanity are the setting—a large, airy nursery in a “colonial mansion [. . .] haunted house” (526; par. 2) where the husband kept the narrator to cure her “slight hysterical tendency” (526; par. 10)—and the narrator herself. The narrator spends a great deal of time describing her setting and analyzing her illness. Because her doctor-husband has forbidden her to do anything yet her mind craves stimulation, she gravitates toward a “sprawling flamboyant [pattern] committing every artistic sin” (528; par. 34), a “smouldering unclean yellow [wallpaper]” (528; par. 36) that “dwells in [her] mind so” (530; par. 95). The narrator’s personification of the wallpaper adds to her chaotic inner world with thoughts such as “this paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had” (529; par. 66) and “that awful pattern began to laugh at me” (536; par. 223). Personification of elements in the setting and character development of the protagonist illustrate the narrator’s mental and environmental prisons.

To further develop the setting and the main character, the author uses much symbolism. The captivating yellow wallpaper held the narrator captive of her own room and mind, and the woman is kept a prisoner of her own marriage through mental abuse and an oppressive society. The female narrator’s unknown name highlights the transferability of her experience—she could be any white, middle-class woman of the Progressive Era. When she says to John, “I’ve got out at last [. . .] in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (537; par. 266), the narrator speaks of freeing her suppressed inner self (Jane?) from her outer self (John’s wife, the no-name narrator) by ripping off the wallpaper veneer. The “front pattern”/“back pattern” of the wallpaper (532; par. 143) and the repetition of “sunlight”/”moonlight” many times throughout the story symbolize her outward vitality versus her inner distrust and despair.

The author uses repetition not only to stress symbolism but also to dramatize irony. The narrator describes the woman creeping behind the pattern, the moonlight creeping across the wallpaper (532; par. 125-130), herself as “creepy” when she watches the moonlight on the wallpaper (532; par. 125-130), and the smell that “creeps all over the house.” (534; par. 176) The narrator even starts creeping around after paragraph 195, and she repeats “creep,” “creeping,” or “creepy” twenty times throughout the story! All this creepy repetition horrifies the tone. We know that during the Progressive Era, readers interpreted “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a horror story and the woman an apparition, but this woman is not an actual ghost, merely a ghost of herself. In another ironic sub-plot, John’s condescension toward the narrator, such as “I am a doctor, dear, and I know,” (532; par. 136) and “What is it, little girl?” (532; par. 133) does not help heal his wife; it only drives her deeper into psychosis by dismissing her needs and sound self-expression. In an example of situational irony found in paragraph 267, the narrator says, “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!” (537) The woman “needs” the “rest cure,” yet it is the man who passes out!

When white, middle-class women of the Progressive Era were expected to do little else than pick out wallpaper, the nursery’s yellow wallpaper entrapped the narrator by stealing her curious, active mind. Perhaps the final irony is that, despite the era’s social, political, and educational forward progress, society still subjugated women, the male medical establishment still oppressed women, and women still suppressed their inner selves to please their men. Through setting and character development, symbolism, and irony, Charlotte Perkins Gilman shows us that uncritical thinking and complacency, whether by mindlessly trusting the medical establishment or by not reexamining societal gender norms with thoughtful scrutiny, can make us victims of our own progress and cause insanity to creep out.

Works Cited

Mays, Kelly J., editor. “Cultural and Historical Contexts: Women Writers in Turn-of-the-Century America.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, pp. 519-523.

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, shorter 12th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 526-537.

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