The Victorian Cage: A Woman’s Fascinating Obsession with Hideous Yellow Wallpaper

by Jenna Thrasher

When reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” you can’t help but feel the same sense of entrapment that the leading lady endures. Since she can’t tell her husband or his sister what is really going on inside, she releases all of her thoughts onto paper, trying to find a way to express herself. 

The story is written in the form of a secret journal, with breaks in the text like, “There comes John, and I must put this away — he hates to have me write a word” (67). Or, “There’s sister on the stairs!” (68). I can easily imagine the unnamed narrator stashing away her pen and paper under her pillow or in a drawer, making sure no one knows she is engaging deeply with her personal thoughts. She then starts writing again at random times, and it is somewhat unclear how much time has passed between entries.

Regardless of time, the summer days she chronicles from her caged room blend together. The only thing that defines these days are her new discoveries within the pattern of the hideous yellow wallpaper adorning the walls of her bedroom.

At first, the wallpaper is her greatest enemy. She despises the color, the pattern, the way it has peeled off the wall, and even the smell. However, after countless hours, days, and weeks, she starts to look at the wallpaper like a puzzle, one she is desperately trying to make sense of.

All the while, she is suffering from some sort of depression. Her husband and brother, who are both physicians, tell her that she has, “temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency” (66). However, it seems that there is perhaps something else going on, as this diagnosis doesn’t even begin to explain the condition that she is in — one where the only window in her bedroom is barred and there is a gate at the top of the stairs, like one would have for a small child.

It is also not a coincidence that her bedroom was formerly used as a nursery. She is treated just like a child by her husband, who calls her “little girl” (69) and “a blessed little goose” (67). Little does he know that she is much more complex and aware than he cares to consider.

In fact, her mind is so complex that she starts to think that there are women who are trapped behind the yellow wallpaper. In these women she sees a reflection of herself — they are imprisoned just like she is. 

She believes there is one woman in particular that “crawls around fast” (71) on the floor, which in turn “shakes [the wallpaper] all over” (71). She also thinks that this woman is “trying to climb through” (71), and then realizes that, “nobody could climb through that pattern — it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads” (71).

At the end of the story, on the last day in the house, she grabs a rope and it seems like for a second that perhaps she is going to end her life. Especially since the wallpaper “strangles so” and “has so many heads.” However, she is actually just trying to catch the woman behind the wallpaper in case she gets out from behind.

The story ends not with a happy ending or a solemn one. Rather, it seems that her condition has gotten worse, but she has found a new sense of internal freedom from associating herself with the women of the wallpaper. Who knows if she will ever be fully cured.

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