Death and Rebirth in
“The Yellow Wallpaper”
Few would argue that Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a literary masterpiece. It has generated many discussions since its publication in 1892. The themes on which most readers and critics have focused their attention concern the destructive effects of women’s subordination at the hands of a dominating, patriarchal society, and more recently, mental illness, specifically postpartum depression and psychosis. Weir Mitchell, a doctor mentioned in the story, was a real person, who specialized in and was a proponent of the now infamous rest cure, in which women were told to “live as domestic a life as possible” and “never touch a pen, brush, or pencil” again. The authoress sent a copy of her story, which shows the devastating and tragic effects of the rest cure, to Mitchell, who reportedly changed his methods after he read it. For its early exploration of the reality of mental illness when psychology was not even in its infant stages, some might even say that “The Yellow Wallpaper” changed the world. However, Gilman’s story is not merely propaganda concerning pressing social issues, but is also a hallmark piece of art containing numerous literary devices. In their introduction to the piece in “The Portable American Realism Reader,” James Nagel and Tom Quirk suggest that some of the elements of the story that too often go overlooked include the effects created by the changes in narration, the true meaning of the woman’s perceived images in the wallpaper, and the increasingly evident fragmentation of the narrator’s mind (254-5). To their list of specific aesthetic elements in the story, I add my own idea of the ever-present theme of the binary idea of life and death. A close reading of the “The Yellow Wallpaper” reveals that the nameless female narrator figuratively overcomes death and is thus reborn through her experiences with the wallpaper, which evidence that the oft-debated and controversial ending of the story is to be interpreted as a sign of the woman’s victory.
The narrator has recently given life in having given birth, but through the events since, she herself has begun to metaphorically die. This is illustrated by her frequent exhaustion, which renders her unable to complete simple tasks: “Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able,-to dress and entertain, and order things” (257). Furthermore, the narrator has to “lie down ever so much” (261). Following a small family social event (where only a minimum number of guests were invited due to John’s concerns of not overwhelming her), the woman explains that, “Of course I didn’t do a thing… But it tired me all the same” (260). This illustrates that her exhaustion is not at all caused by too much excitement, but rather by being under stimulated and deprived of opportunity. She soon after expresses, “I will take a nap I guess” (261). The narrator’s near-constant sleep is thus a symbolic death of her actions, thoughts, and ultimately, her choice to do anything.
Not only does Gilman provide description of the narrator that is evocative of death, but the wallpaper too has deathlike images. In one of the numerous descriptions of it, the woman refers to a spot where a certain pattern “lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes,” which strongly implicates the image of a dead figure (258). She also likens the way that some of the lines suddenly bend and jump to “ commit suicide,” an even more explicit reference to death (257). Paradoxically, this same wallpaper will be what liberates the narrator and gives her a sense of rebirth and renewal. The paper represents death; by tearing it away, she is obliterating this sense of death. There is an interesting connection between the paper on the wall and the paper of the woman’s journal. As the story is written as a series of journal entries, the woman more than once remarks that “this is dead paper, and such a relief to my mind” (259). She is giving life to the once dead paper by filling it with her thoughts, just and she is giving life to herself by tearing the dead paper off the wall.
As the woman begins to become more and more involved with the wallpaper, specifically with ripping off the paper to free what she perceives to be a woman trapped inside, she has a renewal of energy and stimulation and is often compared to an active child. She remarks that “Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch. I really do eater better” (264). Even her husband John observes that she is “gaining flesh and color,” and her “appetite is better” (262). The woman also mentions that she doesn’t “sleep much,” as she is too busy tearing off the wallpaper (264). She also has an awakening of her senses that help her experience the wallpaper more fully. The smell of the wallpaper particularly affects the woman, which she describes as a “peculiar, enduring odor… even a yellow smell” (265). The woman obviously has a relationship of touch with the wallpaper; as she tears it off, she explains how she gets “yellow smooches on all my clothes” (264). She evens gnaws the bedpost with her teeth, echoing a sort of childlike action (267). Another strong example of this is how she begins to frequently creep (or crawl) around the room, which clearly evokes an image of a child.
It is interesting that before she begins having her interactions with the wallpaper, the narrator is treated like a child. Her husband often calls her a “little girl” and has confined her to a room that was once a nursery, or a place for children. However, it is not until the woman begins a rebirth and starts to act like a child of her own doing that she truly becomes free.
The narrator recounts how when she was a young girl, she “used to lie awake… and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store” (259). By likening her actions then to her behavior now as a fully-grown woman, it is clear that she has begun to strongly resemble a child in her behavior.
When observing the now paperless room, the woman remarks, “How those children did tear about here!” (267). Having regressed to a fragmented mental state, she does not fully understand that she is one responsible for the bareness of the room, not the children who previously lived in it. And yet, by including this comment, Gilman again reminds us of the childlike state of the woman herself as she has had a rebirth.
When the woman notices that her husband and Jennie are becoming concerned about the wallpaper’s effects on her and will perhaps seek to remove it themselves, she threatens, “No person touches this paper but me- not alive!” (267). Thus, her rebirth is contingent upon the wallpaper, and she will pursue that rebirth fully, even at the expense of the life of another.
Textual evidence supports the idea that the troubled narrator of this story has explicitly contemplated suicide. When discussing the awful odor of the wallpaper, the woman admits that she has “thought seriously of burning the house-to reach the smell” (263). Toward the end of the story, she recounts, “getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong to even try” (268). The woman also reveals that she has “got a rope up here that even Jennie did not find” (268). Interestingly, it seems that the narrator’s deliberation of literal suicide seems to take place when she has become most alive in her physical and sense-involving experiences with the wallpaper.
The closing scene of “The Yellow Wallpaper” has particular resonance of the notion of the woman being reborn and thus re-empowered. Upon seeing his wife in her strange state, John faints to the ground. This can be interpreted to mean a figurative death of him and his domination, especially since his wife literally crawls over him, suggesting that she has become triumphant and independent. Thus the controlling male power is dead, while the female, albeit a crawling infant figure, has been reborn and fully able to make choices, defy authority, and experience the world around her with her senses.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is undoubtedly most known for its themes concerning a woman’s lack of agency due to a male-powered society. Some critics think that the ending of the story is to be read as the woman being victorious over her dominating husband, while other readers interpret it to mean that she has been completely stripped of any agency or dignity, as evident by her regression into such a weakened mental state. I interpret this story as the former, where the woman gains power over her once-controlling husband. The way in which this takes place is experiencing the wallpaper through her senses, in which she overcomes the death of sleep, inactivity, and lack of choice, to a life of energy, purpose, excitement, and agency. The wallpaper, which is dead itself in its rotting state and becomes even more so as it is pulled from the wall, paradoxically gives life to the woman as she rips it away to release her projections of a female prisoner.
The question arises as to what is a big idea that can be gained from this discussion of death and rebirth. My answer would be this: The binary theme of life and death is the artistic vehicle through which the deeper themes of mental illness and marital/gender inequality are conveyed. Some pieces of fiction provide a compelling plot line, but perhaps lack thematic substance, while others speak of pressing issues and controversies, but sometimes at the expense of an enjoyable and interesting story. “The Yellow Wallpaper” achieves both of these ends, thus proving it more than deserves its place in the American literary cannon.
*This paper won me an award when I got to present it,
first in Salt Lake City, Utah, and later in Missoula, Montana…