Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” involves the theme of insanity or madness. This theme is based on the developments in the narrator’s character. The narrator’s relations with the other characters lead to the interpretation that such madness is partly due to her confinement in the nursery that has the yellow wallpaper. While the narrator’s condition is characteristic of postnatal psychosis (Dosani 411), she is also presented in terms of her progress deeper into insanity. This theme promotes the argument that confinement or the lack of freedom leads to further problems. In a way, “The Yellow Wallpaper” serves as an examination of the connection between madness and oppressive situations. This thematic view creates a channel for deriving meanings from the narrator’s difficulties and challenges as she is confined in a space surrounded by the yellow wallpaper and by her husband who keeps her confined against her will.
The theme of madness or insanity in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is founded on the theme of freedom and free will and the theme of sex discrimination, both of which emphasize the narrator’s oppressed state. Also, the theme of death and suicide is partly based on the narrator’s decline into insanity. Charlotte Perkins Gilman develops the short story’s plot in such a way that the theme of madness gives clues about the narrator’s thoughts on death and suicide. The madness or insanity theme relates “The Yellow Wallpaper” to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which presents the theme of fear and paranoia based on Roderick’s mental illness.
The Narrator’s Inability to Think Straight (Quotes #1 and #2)
Gilman hints about the narrator’s mental instability in various points of the plot of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The text refers to the yellow wallpaper along with the theme of insanity or madness linked to the narrator’s condition. The following quotes show clues pertaining to the narrator’s mental health:
- “It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight. Just this nervous weakness I suppose” (Gilman 652).
- “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” (656).
In Quote #1, the narrator thinks that it is her supposed nervous condition that makes it difficult for her to think straight. The quote supports the theme of madness through the narrator’s recognition of her difficulty in thinking straight. In relation, the narrator thinks of suicide later on. For example, in Quote #2, she thinks of jumping out of the window. Considering that the room with the yellow wallpaper is upstairs, such a thought is suicidal. Thus, the theme of insanity is expressed in the above text excerpts. These quotes are among the ways Gilman makes the narrator unreliable and increases the theme’s significance in interpreting “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
The Creeping Woman in the Wall becomes the Creeping Narrator (Quotes #3, #4, and #5)
“The Yellow Wallpaper” merges the narrator’s character and the character of the woman behind the yellow wallpaper. One of the ways Gilman illustrates this merging is through the creeping of the characters. The following quotes represent this aspect of the theme of madness:
- “I think that woman gets out in the daytime! And I’ll tell you why – privately I’ve seen her! I can see her out of every one of my windows! It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight” (654).
- “I always lock the door when I creep by daylight. I can’t do it at night, for I know John would suspect something at once” (654).
- “It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!” (656).
In Quote #3, in saying that she sees the creeping woman, the narrator establishes that she is different from the woman. However, in Quote #4, Gilman hints that the narrator gradually adopts the behavior of the woman from the yellow wallpaper. For example, Quote #4 shows that the narrator creeps by daylight, just as she sees the woman creep in the daytime. This behavior points to the theme of madness. In Quote #5, in referring to the pleasure of being out in the room and creeping, the narrator becomes the creeping woman from the wallpaper. This transformation in the narrator’s mental state supports the theme of insanity. The quotations indicate that the narrator’s descent into insanity involves adopting the woman’s creeping behavior, as if the narrator is that woman who is initially trapped behind the yellow wallpaper’s front pattern.
Rope for the Woman in the Wall and for the Narrator (Quotes #6 and #7)
The theme of insanity is illustrated in how the narrator refers to the rope, which is supposedly for tying the woman of the yellow wallpaper. In changing the rope’s use, Gilman develops the theme of madness or insanity in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” This aspect of the theme is expressed in the following quotes:
- “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!” (655)
- “But I am securely fastened now by my well-hidden rope – you don’t get me out in the road there!” (656)
Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” uses the rope to support the theme of madness, by linking the narrator to the woman from the wall. For example, based on Quote #6, the narrator intends to use the rope to tie the woman if the latter gets out of the yellow wallpaper. However, in Quote #7, the narrator uses the rope on herself instead. This shift in the rope’s use represents the short story’s insanity theme in terms of the narrator’s shifting mental condition. Initially an outsider and separate from the woman behind the wallpaper, the narrator becomes that woman when she uses the rope.
Trapped Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: The Female Figure and the Narrator (Quotes #8, #9, and #10)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s captivity narrative interchanges the characters of the narrator and the woman behind the yellow wallpaper. The narrator assumes the role of the woman from the wallpaper. The theme of madness is shown in this role assumption, which illustrates the narrator’s descent into insanity. The following quotes show this role assumption:
- “The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.” (652)
- “I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!” (656)
- “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!” (656)
The final scene of Gilman’s feminist short story reinforces the theme of insanity. In Quote #8, the narrator initially sees the female figure behind the front pattern of the yellow wallpaper. This quote indicates that the narrator and the woman are two different characters. However, Quote #9 shows that, by the end of the story, the narrator assumes the character of the woman from the wall. For example, the quote illustrates that the narrator can go back behind the wallpaper’s pattern. The madness theme is further emphasized in Quote #10, which shows the narrator’s full assumption of the woman’s character. For instance, the narrator tells John that she got out from the wall, and that he cannot put her back because she has already removed most of the yellow wallpaper.
Explanation & Importance of the Theme of Madness/Insanity in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”
The narrator’s development in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” coincides with the development of the theme of insanity or madness. This theme is weakly implied in the first half of the story, and becomes strongly established by the end of the plot. The cited quotations indicate that this theme is expressed through the narrator’s inability to think straight, her creeping, her use of the rope on herself, and her reference to going back behind the yellow wallpaper’s front pattern. These quotes show that the theme of madness or insanity is linked to the changes in the narrator’s character. Thus, the reader is presented with the idea that confinement or oppression of freedom and free will is a possible cause of the narrator’s descent into madness.
Considering that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a feminist literary work, the theme of insanity is important in emphasizing the negative impacts of society’s problematic treatment of women. For example, the short story’s narrator descends into madness because of her isolation. Gilman confronts the reader with the issue of social influence on one’s mental state. Based on the cited quotes, the theme provides a sociological explanation of the narrator’s condition, pertaining to her confinement in the room with the yellow wallpaper.
Works Cited and References
- Davison, Carol Margaret. “Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Women’s Studies 33.1 (2004): 47-75.
- Dosani, Sabina. “The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A gothic story of postnatal psychosis – psychiatry in literature.” The British Journal of Psychiatry 213.1 (2018): 411.
- 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.
- Hume, Beverly A. “Managing Madness in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’.” Studies in American Fiction 30.1 (2002): 3-20.
- Johnson, Greg. “Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Studies in Short Fiction 26.4 (1989): 521.
- Kimura, Akiko. “A Story on the Verge-Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Narrative of Madness in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” The Journal of Psychoanalytical Study of English Language and Literature 2005.25 (2005): 13-26.
- Quawas, Rula. “A New Woman’s Journey into Insanity: Descent and Return in The Yellow Wallpaper.” Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 2006.105 (2006): 35-53.