Death is one of the themes in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” This feminist literary work presents the narrator’s perspective about her confinement based on her husband’s prescribed rest cure treatment for her supposed nervous illness. The death theme is expressed in the form of suicide, pertaining to the narrator’s thoughts about committing it. Gilman provides various examples of thoughts about death, as the narrator obsesses about the yellow wallpaper and her own challenges in dealing with her illness and social environment. Through the theme of death by suicide, “The Yellow Wallpaper” explains the importance of the narrator’s confinement as an issue linked to the short story’s theme of sex discrimination, the theme of freedom and free will, the theme of madness and insanity, and the theme of empowerment through writing. The narrator’s death and suicide thoughts in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” highlight the social problems of discrimination and oppression of women.
The theme of death is in the literary works of other well-known authors. For example, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” involves the theme of death, just as death is a theme in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” The subject of death is also included as a theme in Poe’s “The Black Cat.” In this regard, Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” presents another viewpoint that enriches the literary exploration of the subject matter of death.
Death by Strangulation in the Yellow Wallpaper’s Pattern (Quotes #1 and #2)
The theme of death by suicide is depicted through the pattern of the yellow wallpaper, as examined by the narrator of Gilman’s short story. The following quotes demonstrate how this theme is reflected in the narrator’s thoughts when she explores the yellow wallpaper’s design:
- “[W]hen 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.” (Gilman 648)
- “They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!” (654)
Quote #1 directly refers to suicide (and death) as a theme. For example, the narrator thinks that the plunging off at outrageous angles in the yellow wallpaper’s design is a form of suicide. This part of Gilman’s feminist captivity narrative points to the theme and links the yellow wallpaper and the narrator’s suicidal thoughts. Quote #2 strengthens this thematic view by examining the pattern that the narrator sees in the yellow wallpaper. In the quote, the narrator refers to the strangled heads of those who died attempting to get out through the yellow wallpaper’s front pattern. Thus, in these text excerpts, Gilman illustrates the theme of death by strangulation.
Suicide by Hanging (Quote #3)
Suicide as a way of dying is indicated through the rope that the narrator claims she has. As an instrument, the rope creates a concrete manifestation of this thematic view pertaining to death by suicide in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In the following quotation, the narrator refers to the rope as such an instrument:
- “I’ve got a rope up here that even Jennie did not find. If that woman does get out, and tries to get away, I can tie her! But I forgot I could not reach far without anything to stand on!” (655)
Suicide by hanging illustrates the theme of death in Gilman’s short story. In Quote #3, the narrator’s thoughts exemplify this theme. For example, the narrator says that she has a rope to restrain the woman when she gets out from the yellow wallpaper. However, in the same quote, the narrator says that she forgot that she does not have anything to stand on (the furniture pieces were already removed from the nursery). In this quote, Gilman implies that the narrator intends to use the rope to commit suicide by hanging. The above quotation illustrates this theme and implies the narrator’s desire to end her life.
Suicide by Jumping Out the Window (Quote #4)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman also develops the theme of suicide in “The Yellow Wallpaper” through the narrator’s thoughts about jumping out of the window. Such suicidal thoughts are expressed in the following quote:
- “I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.” (655-656)
Quote #4 reflects the narrator’s mental state in terms of her feelings and intentions. This quote supports the theme of death by suicide in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” For example, the quote shows that the narrator thinks of doing something desperate because she feels angry. Gilman explicitly shows that this desperate act involves jumping out through the window. The bars are the only factor that prevents the narrator from committing suicide in this manner. The yellow wallpaper and her confinement in the colonial mansion influence the narrator’s thoughts about death. Based on these quotes, the theme is intertwined with the narrator’s situation and the short story’s setting.
Explanation & Importance of the Theme of Death & Suicide in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Death by suicide is a theme that emphasizes the undesirability of the narrator’s confinement in the nursery that has the yellow wallpaper. The cited quotes from Gilman’s short story exposes the reader to this theme. The author hints about death and suicide in the narrator’s mind. The intermittent manner of these hints ensures that the reader is reminded about the theme and the narrator’s difficulties throughout much of the plot of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
The quotes illustrate different ways through which the narrator’s thoughts touch on the theme of death by suicide. For example, Quotes #1 and #2 describes thoughts about death by strangulation. Quote #3 is about death by hanging. Quote #4 illustrates death by jumping out through the upstairs window. Such variety in the narrator’s thoughts about death in “The Yellow Wallpaper” implies that the theme has various manifestations and meanings in life. Gilman uses this literary work to show examples that readers can use to identify and understand confinement and interpret possible suicidal issues in real life.
Works Cited and References
- Blackie, Michael. “Reading the Rest Cure.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 60.2 (2004): 57-85.
- Davison, Carol Margaret. “Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Women’s Studies 33.1 (2004): 47-75.
- Ford, Karen. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Women’s Discourse.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 4.2 (1985): 309-314.
- Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (Stetson, Charlotte Perkins). “The Yellow Wallpaper.” New England Magazine, Jan. 1892, pp. 647-657.
- Hume, Beverly A. “Gilman’s ‘interminable grotesque’: The Narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Studies in Short Fiction 28.4 (1991): 477.
- Jansen, Sharon L. “Madwomen in the Attic: Madness and Suicide in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Doris Lessing’s ‘To Room Nineteen’.” Reading Women’s Worlds from Christine de Pizan to Doris Lessing. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2011. 161-186.
- Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies 15.3 (1989): 415-441.
- Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 3.1/2 (1984): 61-77.