Charlotte Perkins Gilman draws from her personal experiences of depression to create her most famous work, The Yellow Wall-Paper. After the birth of her daughter, Gilman fell into a terrible depression she describes as an “unbearable inner misery.” Gilman was sent to be treated by Dr. Weir Mitchell, whose treatment was that of inactivity. This only worsened Gilman’s condition, allowing her mind to degenerate into madness and driving her to crawl into closets and under beds. Only when Gilman began to write and work again was she relieved of this mental torment. Indeed, The Yellow Wall-Paper is a semi-autobiographical account of Gilman’s mental illness. She combines dramatic irony with foreshadowing and psychological exploration in order to prove two main points: that a creative mind – no matter how troubled - should never be left idle; and that inner realization can be destructive when not shared with the outer world.
The Yellow Wall-Paper is narrated by an un-named woman who is spending the summer with her husband, John, and his sister, Jennie, in an “ancestral hall.” From the start, the narrator describes her setting as much like “a colonial mansion, a haunted house.” She states there is definitely “something queer about it.” John, also a doctor, has diagnosed the narrator with a “temporary nervous depression” and forbids her to work until she is well again. Though the narrator prefers the beauty of the first floor, John sets up her bedroom in the second floor of the house in order that she can receive the most air and sunlight from the many windows there. From one of her windows, the narrator can see a beautiful, flourishing garden. Inside her room, however, the narrator is faced with a dismal scene which she ironically describes as a nursery. Her bed frame, with scratch marks on it, is nailed to the floor and the floor itself is covered in gashes and scrapes. There are bars on the windows and “rings and things in the walls.” Above all, there is dreadful yellow wall-paper on the walls.
It seems that outside of the second-floor bedroom, plants and people thrive. The scenery is beautiful, pleasant, calming; outside of the second-floor bedroom, there is life. Inside the second-floor bedroom, however, there is the equivalent of a wasteland. Nothing beautiful or pleasant is natural to the room or has been placed in the room. The bars on the windows prevent the room’s occupant from completely enjoying the sight of the blossoming garden or the fullness of the sunlight, for the bars strike dark shadows through both.
The aging yellow wall-paper serves many purposes. Firstly, is adds to the wasteland imagery. The yellow of the paper, most often a color used to symbolize happiness and optimism, is darkened and peeling in places, symbolizing that any pleasure will fade in the room. The color yellow is also used to symbolize cowardice and madness, two psychological elements that the room eventually brings out in the narrator. Indeed, the wall-paper - as well as other parts of the room, such as the “rings and things” and the gnaw-marks on the bed – suggests that the room previously housed an insane person. This first description of the room foreshadows the narrator’s later descent into insanity and her own attempts to destroy the room and the paper. Nonetheless, the narrator never becomes aware that the room was never a nursery as she believes it was, which lends to the dramatic irony of the piece. The reader continues through the story with the horror of knowing the narrator’s ignorance of such an alarming fact.
Though she initially spends some time walking in the garden, the narrator becomes obsessed with figuring out the perplexing pattern in the wall-paper and turns to spending increased amounts of time locked in the second-floor bedroom, commenting that the wall-paper “dwells in [her] mind so.” She comes to think of the wall-paper and its designs as her own, upon which only she can lay her eyes. With three weeks left in the summer, the narrator seems to have figured out the pattern of the wall-paper: an over-pattern of bars (like those on the windows), with an under-pattern of a woman “stooping down and creeping about.” She comments that the shape of the woman “gets clearer every day.” The narrator finds herself “creeping” around the second-floor bedroom during the day and watching the woman creep by night.
The narrator feels she has made a great discovery, and indeed she has, though not of the sort she believes. She believes she has discovered another woman who is desperate to get out from behind her caging bars, but in fact, the narrator has found herself, her consciousness, and her inner desire to share life with the rest of the world again. The narrator has been confined and inactive for too long. Even though she has realized her inner desire to reconnect with those around her, the narrator has shut herself away from the outer world and rendered herself incapable of sharing her inner thoughts with anyone but herself. This is exemplified in the fact that the narrator considers the wall-paper and the woman in it – the very projection of the narrator’s inner thoughts – to be for her eyes only. By separating her inner world from the outer world around her, the narrator gives into the wasteland of the room and to the destructiveness of her self-made isolation. Dramatic irony is once again present, as the reader is aware that the woman is nothing more than a figment of the narrator’s imagination, though the narrator destroys the room in order to free the woman – or to truly free herself.
The last element of the wall-paper that the narrator discovers is a “smooch” on the wall, “near the mopboard.” This is just at shoulder-height for a person crawling or sliding across the floor. The smooch passes behind “every piece of furniture, except the bed.” It is “long” and “straight…as if it had been rubbed over and over.” The smooch, too, foreshadows the narrator’s ultimate insanity.
At the end of the tale, the narrator becomes so obsessed with the woman that she pulls off the wall-paper in order to free the woman from her bondage. In doing so, she finally and fully identifies with the woman, proclaiming to John, “I’ve got out at last!” The narrator at last knows she was the woman in the paper, behind the bars, fighting to be free. This realization should liberate the narrator from her madness, but instead it only allows her to fully embody her insanity. She is reduced to creeping “smoothly on the floor,” her shoulder “just fitting in that long smooch around the wall.” As foreshadowed by the yellow wall-paper and by the “rings and things” in the wall, the narrator indeed descends into utter insanity, encouraged by her wasteland surroundings and her separation from the living, growing world. The use of dramatic irony allows the reader to understand what is truly happening to the narrator as she became worse and worse in her “nervous depression.” And the psychological development of the narrator throughout the piece mirrors Gilman’s personal psychological journey. All three of these factors serve to prove that a creative mind like Gilman’s or like the narrator’s should never be allowed to idly create fantasies for months, and that unless shared with the outer world, a realization of the inner self can be destructive.