Rating: 5 stars
I read this as it was one of the June Books of the Month on the Shelfari 1001 Group on Goodreads. I’d previously read Herland for the Winter Scavenger Hunt Challenge on the Reader’s Room and not thought well of it, or Gilman, at all.
I’m happy to say that this was much better. It’s only 72 pages long, but so effective. There’s a real sense of someone’s mental state disintegrating. There was something of Henry James about its Gothic style.
For the book group, I responded to some set questions. My answers give a lot away, so if you’re thinking of reading it yourself and don’t want any spoilers, stop reading now!
What is important about the title, The Yellow Wallpaper? Could the wallpaper have been any other color? What are the psychological implications of the color “yellow”? How would a different color change the story?
The yellow wallpaper in the room Jane’s husband chooses for them to occupy at the mansion is oppressive in colour and style. The colour is a sickly yellow, described by Jane as repellent and unclean. It reflects the state of mind her husband tells Jane she is in. I imagined it as a pale mustard yellow, which made me think of words like miasma, gas, fog. It’s not a cheerful yellow, which might have brightened Jane’s mood.
How does the narrator’s description of the wallpaper change over time? How is the wallpaper representative of the domestic sphere?
Jane detests the wallpaper at first. It is repellent, unclean, with a suicidal design. Its dullness irritates her and she studies its patterns almost obsessively at first. It’s also interesting that the wallpaper in the room is “stripped off … in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach”, almost as though another woman has been imprisoned in the room and clawed at the wallpaper while she is restored to a socially acceptable state.
Jane ascribes personality to the wallpaper and imagines it is staring at her. Such impertinence angers her, but gradually she begins to develop a sort of Stockholm Syndrome about it. She spends so much time staring at it, following its patterns, that she starts to try to understand it.
She begins to see a woman imprisoned in the pattern, which is an acknowledgement of her own imprisonment. It spurs her to talk to John about her need to leave, but to no avail.
Jane is bored and all she really has to occupy her is studying the wallpaper. The colour ceases to be important. It’s the complicated pattern that pulls in her inactive creativity. I remember being ill in bed as a child and spending hours studying the wallpaper in my bedroom. It was almost hallucinatory, trying to follow a pattern of embossed flowers to work out if there was a logic to it. Jane becomes obsessed with the changes the wallpaper undergoes in different light.
Could the story have taken place in a different place (or at a different time)? Why does the narrator live in a “colonial mansion”? What does the setting mean? Is it important?
The story is universal. It’s about societal expectations of women. It’s relevant to the Victorian era (where “hysterical” women, i.e. those going through the menopause or suffering with premenstrual tension, were often committed to lunatic asylum because their husbands couldn’t cope with their moods and women were widely considered weaker in the mind than men), it’s relevant to the early 20th century when women who expressed opinions about women being equal to men were imprisoned and vilified by society, and it’s relevant to today when girls are raised to be nice, polite, unassertive and women are still largely treated a second class citizens expected to support their husbands in their careers and to sacrifice their own.
The bedroom Jane and her husband share sounds horrific. They have a baby, who is cared for by someone else. Jane feels she can’t be with him, so perhaps she has post natal depression. If so, John’s choice of the nursery as their bedroom is a cruel one. The presence of bars on the window and the equipment that Jane tells us is gym equipment (“rings and things in the walls”) make it seem like a prison, equipped for restraint.
The mansion is remote. John is separating Jane from society, gaining more control over her without observation. Jane can only see the surrounding area through the windows in her room. When she thinks she sees people walking in the area, her husband tells her she is imagining things.
Do you care about the characters? Do you like (or dislike) them? How real (or well-developed) do they seem to you?
I really didn’t like John from the off. He reminded me of the kind of men I dislike – those who belittle women for holding different opinions to their own, and who expect women to shut up and get on with supporting them in their great manliness.
I found Jane sympathetic. She is clearly intelligent and frustrated by her husband’s unwillingness to accept this intelligence in her. Her observations on her environment and her persistence in recording her thoughts both interested me as she seemed unaware that her actions were in defiance of her husband.
What are some themes in The Yellow Wallpaper? Symbols? How do they relate to the plot and characters?
The main theme is that of the primacy of men in society. Men are the opinion holders, the experts, the rationalists. Jane introduces her husband and brother as physicians of high standing. Both share the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with Jane, and yet both insist that she needs to stop writing. Why, if there’s nothing wrong with her? It made me think of Virginia Woolf, who was taken away from London by her husband to give her mind rest.
What is the role of women in the text? How are mothers represented? What about single/independent women? What is important about women–in the historical context?
Jane as a married woman is expected to be quiet and subservient to her husband. She is to exercise self-control and neither challenge him nor develop ideas of her own. She has been separated from her child, who is being cared for by a nanny, so isn’t able to exercise her role of mother.
Jennie is her sister in law and takes on the role of gaoler, carrying out John’s wishes in his absence, watching over Jane. She is his creature and shows little solidarity with Jane, although Jane says she is kind to her.
How does the narrator’s relationship with her husband evolve/change? Does her mental state improve or worsen?
At first, Jane seems extremely docile. She has, on the surface, accepted her husband’s opinion that she is weak in mind and needs to rest, away from stimulation. And yet, she also questions his opinion, finding herself increasingly angry with him and continuing her writing in spite of him.
Little changes in their relationship for most of the book. If Jane challenges John, he argues her down, applying his logic, making her seem insane. He tells her she is getting better, but that’s not how Jane feels. She keeps asserting to herself that John loves her, and cares for her, and seems incapable of seeing how he is controlling and diminishing her.
Eventually, though, whatever is going on in her treatment, she becomes afraid of John, suspicious of him. Her sanity seems to be deteriorating. Jane thinks it’s the wallpaper, and at times I found myself wondering whether it was like the arsenic impregnated wallpaper that covered the walls in Napoleon’s place of exile. Other times I wondered whether John was drugging Jane. She records that he was always encouraging her to sleep, so he was possibly tranquillising her and causing her to have hallucinations.
Jane ends by not wanting to leave her prison until she has worked out the puzzle of the wallpaper. Her belief is that the woman trapped inside the pattern is shaking it in an attempt to escape. It’s a sad contrast to Jane’s misguided acceptance of her own imprisonment.
By the end, Jane believes that she is the woman trapped inside the wallpaper, that she has escaped, and that she must destroy the wallpaper in order to prevent John and Jennie imprisoning her again. Her descent into madness is complete. John’s horror at how badly he misjudged the situation is deserved. What a pompous fool.
Why is The Yellow Wallpaper sometimes considered essential reading in Feminist Literature? What are the qualities that make it representative?
It speaks from direct experience. It’s about a woman needing to wake up to her treatment at the hands of men. I loved the lines “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition.” I think she knows it’s not unreasonable to be angry at her husband for dismissing her every thought. I think she’s hiding her true feelings in the words women use to stop people thinking we’re being rude or causing a fuss. She should make a fuss. We all should make a fuss if we’re being dismissed on the basis of our gender. Hang politeness!