In her 1899 short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman depicts the difficulties facing women and the practise of writing.
The female protagonist, prohibited from writing by her husband, is forced into writing her troubled thoughts in a secret journal.
Critic Paula A Treichler suggests that The Yellow Wallpaper is a “metaphor for women’s discourse”, and I would completely agree. Despite being under 100 pages long, the story runs deeper than you might initially think.
The literal yellow wallpaper in the story represents the male sentence, the barriers that women face when picking up their pen to write:
It becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind is as plain as can be
Later in the story the narrator extends this vision:
The front pattern does not move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!
This shadowed woman shaking the patterned “bars” is not only a metaphor for women eager to break free from “man’s sentence”; it also represents the narrator herself and her own eagerness to break free from her confined room and to be able to write freely. Instead she writes in secret as many women had done in years gone by. As Helene Cixous points out in The Laugh of the Medusa, “you’ve written a little, but in secret.”
Not only does the wallpaper change and move, so does the language in the text, yet it is one that is oppressed by patriarchal rule:
John laughed at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage
She dismisses her husband’s ridicule of her romantic notions because it is the norm. From the outset of the story the protagonist is forbidden to write and is oppressed mentally, emotionally and physically. In her continued efforts to write in secret, she defies the patriarchal rule and the language she adopts becomes more unruly, deranged even. Deranged it may be, but it is no doubt her own voice – a new language that has broken free from “man’s sentence”. A triumph:
“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back!” Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!
She escaped the sentence. Not only the literal sentence, but the physical sentence imposed on her by patriarchy.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a great short story and one of my favourites. My interpretation is one of many. The story also explores illness and depression, as well as marriage in the late 19th century. Read alongside Helene Cixous and Virginia Woolfs’ A Room of Ones Own, it is an integral part of feminist debate: is there an inherently female language? After all, Woolf said of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte “they wrote as women write, not as men write.” And so was Cixous spot on when she advised:
I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man.
This story hasn’t left my mind since the day I read it … enough said.