1. If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do? . . .
So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.
Personally, I disagree with their ideas . . .
In this passage, which appears near the beginning of the story, the main elements of the narrator’s dilemma are present. The powerful, authoritative voices of her husband, her family, and the medical establishment urge her to be passive. Her own conviction, however, is that what she needs is precisely the opposite—activity and stimulation. From the outset, her opinions carry little weight. “Personally,” she disagrees with her treatment, but she has no power to change the situation. Gilman also begins to characterize the narrator here. The confusion over “phosphates or phosphites” is in character for someone who is not particularly interested in factual accuracy. And the choppy rhythm of the sentences, often broken into one-line paragraphs, helps evoke the hurried writing of the narrator in her secret journal, as well as the agitated state of her mind.
2. I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad. So I will let it alone and talk about the house.
This section appears near the beginning of the story, and it helps characterize both the narrator’s dilemma and the narrator herself. Notably, the narrator interrupts her own train of thought by recalling John’s instructions. Gilman shows how the narrator has internalized her husband’s authority to the point that she practically hears his voice in her head, telling her what to think. Even so, she cannot help but feel the way she does, and so the move she makes at the end—focusing on the house instead of her situation—marks the beginning of her slide into obsession and madness. This mental struggle, this desperate attempt not to think about her unhappiness, makes her project her feelings onto her surroundings, especially the wallpaper, which becomes a symbolic image of “her condition.” The play on words here is typical of Gilman’s consistent use of irony throughout the story. She feels bad whenever she thinks about her “condition,” that is, about both her depression and her condition in general within her oppressive marriage.
3. There are things in that paper which nobody knows but me, or ever will.
Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day.
It is always the same shape, only very numerous.
And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder—I begin to think—I wish John would take me away from here!
About halfway through the story, the sub-pattern of the wallpaper finally comes into focus. The narrator is being drawn further and further into her fantasy, which contains a disturbing truth about her life. Gilman’s irony is actively at work here: the “things” in the paper are both the ghostly women the narrator sees and the disturbing ideas she is coming to understand. She is simultaneously jealous of the secret (“nobody knows but me”) and frightened of what it seems to imply. Again the narrator tries to deny her growing insight (“the dim shapes get clearer every day”), but she is powerless to extricate herself. Small wonder that the woman she sees is always “stooping down and creeping about.” Like the narrator herself, she is trapped within a suffocating domestic “pattern” from which no escape is possible.
4. Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be.
This comment comes just after the scene in which the narrator catches Jennie touching the paper and resolves that no one else is allowed to figure out the pattern. It captures one of the most distinctive qualities of “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Gilman’s bitter, sarcastic sense of humor. Now that the narrator has become hopelessly obsessed with the pattern, spending all day and all night thinking about it, life has become more interesting and she is no longer bored. Gilman manages to combine humor and dread in such moments. The comment is funny, but the reader knows that someone who would make such a joke is not well. Indeed, in the section that follows, the narrator casually mentions that she considered burning the house down in order to eliminate the smell of the wallpaper.
5. I don’t like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?
In the story’s final scene, just before John finally breaks into her room, the narrator has finished tearing off enough of the wallpaper that the woman she saw inside is now free—and the two women have become one. This passage is the exact moment of full identification, when the narrator finally makes the connection she has been avoiding, a connection that the reader has made already. The woman behind the pattern was an image of herself—she has been the one “stooping and creeping.” Further, she knows that there are many women just like her, so many that she is afraid to look at them. The question she asks is poignant and complex: did they all have to struggle the way I did? Were they trapped within homes that were really prisons? Did they all have to tear their lives up at the roots in order to be free? The narrator, unable to answer these questions, leaves them for another woman—or the reader—to ponder.
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