Gothic and Feminist Elements of The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" has been interpreted in many ways over the years. Modernist critics have applied depth psychology to the story and written about the symbolism of sexual repression in the nursery bars, the chained-down bed, and the wallpaper. Genre critics have discussed the story as an example of supernatural gothic fiction, in which a ghost actually haunts the narrator. But most importantly, feminist critics (re)discovered the story in the 1970s and interpreted it as a critique of a society that subjugated women into the role of wife and mother and repressed them so much that all they could ever hope to be was an "angel in the house."
Keeping in mind that "The Yellow Wallpaper" can be - and most often is - interpreted as a feminist text in this way, we must also recognize that it holds its own in the Gothic genre. In fact, Eugenia Delamotte claims that "women who just can't seem to get out of the house [are] the most basic subject of Gothic plots" (207). The Gothic has always been and still is a genre that picks up on the concerns of its day. In the same way that postmodern Gothic (Don DeLillo and John Crowley, for example) concerns itself with late twentieth century technological issues, Gilman's Gothic of a century ago was very concerned with the plight of women in American society. When we recognize "The Yellow Wallpaper" as both a feminist treatise and a Gothic text, we can begin drawing conclusions that might not be obvious had we overlooked this dual nature of the story.
Gilman's narrator - who appears to be suffering from postpartum depression - has been diagnosed by several male physicians, including her husband, and prescribed a "rest cure." This is the reason she and her husband have leased a house in the country for the summer. It is significant however, that the narrator herself had absolutely no say in this matter. She was never asked if she thought that it would be of help to spend time in the country. She was never consulted about whether or not it could be her writing that is causing her emotional difficulties. Instead, the men who have power over her decided these things for her, locking her in a nursery and forbidding her to write. Whereas before she was figuratively locked into the role of wife and mother, she is now physically locked into the uppermost room of the summerhouse. Just as she has never been able to leave her prescribed social role, now she cannot leave her wallpapered prison. The narrator's imprisonment echoes all the way back to the female Gothic's classic beginnings in Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. Instead of being locked away "in a foreign land... surrounded by vice and violence," the narrator is locked away by the man who should be closest to her and is surrounded by the oppressive patriarchal power structure of her time (Delamotte 206).
Within a few pages of the story, it becomes quite...