The Yellow Wallpaper: Setting Study

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a chilling tale about a woman’s slow decline into insanity caused by her postpartum depression and her husband’s subsequent mistreatment of it. The Yellow Wallpaper is Gilman’s attempt at warning other women of the dangers associated with allowing their lives to be controlled beyond themselves. The Yellow Wallpaper is not a true story, however, it is based on something that actually happened to Gilman. The story mentions a specific doctor, “…he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall…he is just like John and my brother, only more so!” (Bausch 584). The doctor mentioned, Silas Weir Mitchell, was a real American doctor, one who treated Charlotte Perkins Gilman for her postpartum depression. He forced her to go on bed rest, and barred her from reading, writing, and painting. She could only stand the treatment for three months before she felt herself so close to a mental breakdown that she stopped the treatment and sought another doctor’s opinion, a woman named Mary Putnam Jacobi. Jacobi gave her a regimen of both mental and physical exercise, starkly contrasting Mitchell’s treatment, and she made a quick recovery (Koren).

The setting of the story is incredibly important. We know that our narrator is on mandatory bed rest, and that she isn’t allowed to do anything that her husband, brother, or sister-in-law deem too strenuous, which essentially includes most things that are stimulating. From this evidence, we can understand how she can feel trapped. This imprisonment is directly represented by the setting: “…the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls. The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off⁠—the paper⁠—in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach…”(Bausch 581-582). The narrator believes her room to have been a nursery or gymnasium, but the reader can use the context to understand it for what it is. Before the room is described, it is mentioned that the house was incredibly cheap, had no tenant, and seemed haunted to the narrator, even though her husband told her it wasn’t. From the evidence of the bite-marked bed that is nailed to the ground, the torn paper, the rings on the walls, a gate on the stairs, and the bars on the windows, Gilman is presenting us with the idea that our narrator has been staying in a room of an abandoned asylum.

This setting’s features are all representative of the narrator’s condition being something that is often mistreated, and cements the yellow wallpaper itself as a symbol of imprisonment. There is a reason that Gilman mentioned the paper being torn already. As our narrator is confined to her room constantly over the months, she is only stimulated by her imagination of this paper, and tears up as much as she can reach. The specific mention of rings in the walls and torn paper around the bed is indicative of someone who had stayed in this room before, only this time they were shackled to the various pieces around the room, and with nothing else to do, they tore off as much of the paper as they could possibly reach from their shackled position. The bite marks on the bed, the bars on the window, as well as the “smooch” around the wall are also something that the narrator revisits later on. It’s reasonable to assume that all of these things are here because whoever has stayed here before was locked in for a long time. The “smooch” is described: “as if it had been rubbed over and over.” (Bausch 589). What we can deduce is that a previous tenant who often stayed in this room was in danger of trying to jump out the window, peeled off the wallpaper, bit the bed, and rubbed smoothly on the wall evenly around the room enough to leave a mark on the wall. We also know, from the fact that the narrator locked the door using a key, and her husband could not enter, that the door locks from both sides. Once she has become the woman in the wallpaper, after peeling as much as she could off, she bites the bed, puts her shoulder into the groove in the wall, and even says that she would have jumped out of the window if there were no bars. She officially succumbs to the same feats of insanity that plagued the previous room’s occupant.

With the understanding of Gilman’s condition and the previous occupant of the room in The Yellow Wallpaper, we can see the symbolism behind most of the narrator’s “creeping” hallucinations. At first, she envisions the woman behind the wallpaper getting out and creeping along outside. However, when she believes herself to be that woman, she instead sees “so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast.” (Bausch 591). With this, it can be posited that her condition is not an isolated one, that there are many “creeping women,” that is to say, many women who are just as imprisoned as she or the previous occupant were. Gilman intentionally places these details to show the readers that the narrator’s condition is not an isolated incident.The Yellow Wallpaper’s purposeful symbolic representation of one woman’s mistreatment and abuse at the hands of her husband and physician, and the implication that her mistreatment is not an anomaly, is something Gilman tries to convey as a warning to her readers. She once said this herself, in an article titled Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper: “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.” (Gilman). Her personal experience with postpartum depression and the unsuccessful treatment of it with bed rest spurred her to write The Yellow Wallpaper, not for catharsis or out of morbid desire, but as a warning.

Bausch, Richard, editor. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. 8th ed., WW Norton, 

2015.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (October 1913). “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper”. The 

Forerunner.

Koren, Marina (2019-07-06). “The Pioneering Female Doctor Who Argued Against Rest”. The Atlantic. Retrieved 2022-04-26.

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