Yellow Wallpaper and the Female Essay

Total Length: 1312 words ( 4 double-spaced pages)

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As the text by Davison (2004) contributes, "given that the narrator in Gilman's tale is a femme couverte who has no legal power over her own person -- like her flesh-and-blood counterparts at the time the story was published -- and that her husband is a physician whose pronouncements about his wife's illness are condoned by a spectral yet powerful medical establishment, it is no wonder that his wife grows increasingly fearful of him and suspects him of conspiring with his sister against her." (Davison, 48)

This helps to drive what the research discussed here will promote as a distinct literary tradition to be known as Female Gothic, so-named for the shared condition of American women during the time of Gilman's writing, who lived in obscurity in spite of the instincts and inspirations driving them to desire more. In the narrator of this story, these instincts become a cross to bear, particularly in the way that they seem to threaten her empowered husband and a sister-in-law content in servility. This scenario carries with it the clear "implications of Gilman's choice of what later came to be classified as the Female Gothic mode, a form that is generally distinguished from the traditional Gothic mode as it centers its lens on a young woman's rite of passage into womanhood." (Davison, 48)

This passage is driven home by the titular analogy. When the symbol of the yellow wallpaper comes into play, shapeless and revolting but quite visibly falling away from the walls, its representation simultaneously of a sort of molting into womanhood and of an ugly female docility and domesticity is clear. The correlation between the rite of passage and the acceptance of a bland and uninspired context denotes something of the nation and culture into which this type of literature was maturing. Its sharp critical stance denotes a categorical rejection of the idea that America's modernity and familial stability were to be seen as inherently progressive.
Here is where the author not only cites a problem of typifying Gothic discontent, but also offers a solution. First, it is reflected in her obsession with a figure, theretofore unseen, now becoming gradually more apparent within the tasteless wallpaper pattern. The narrator notes that "the faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out." Soon, the woman that has consented to her husband's poor medical advice, disinterested emotional partnership and intellectual disrespect is no longer. As the wallpaper falls away, Gilman literally reveals a figure that has been invisible even to those who seemed to look right at it.

Now, fixated on the figure behind the pattern, the narrator begins to see her everywhere from her isolated spot in the room. In response, she commits to tearing the yellow wallpaper recklessly aside, declaring symbolically a liberation for women forced to hide behind a hideous and repetitive pattern of bland, unimaginative and unfulfilling lives. When her husband, so stolid and emotionally inconsiderate through the story's duration, faints at the site of his emotionally disturbed wife manically shredding the room's wallpaper, there is a crucial shift of roles. The husband has shown himself to be vulnerable, and his subjugated wife is for the first time beginning to feel the power of self-determination and emergence from the dark recesses to be seen for that which she truly is.

In the developing American and Female Gothic tradition, Gilman reveals a life and experience which are common but ignored, and does so in a fashion jarring enough for us to reconsider that ignorance.

Works Cited

Clemens, V. (1999). What Gothic Nightmares Do. State University of New York Press.

Davison, C.M. (2004). Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in "The Yellow Wallpaper." Women's Studies, 33, 47-75.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. (1899) The Yellow Wallpaper. American Literature Research and Analysis Web Site. Online at

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