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Into the Dark: The Freeing Power of Darkness in Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

By: Meghan Farbridge

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a tale of “female confinement and escape,” which depicts the narrator’s experience of a “nervous breakdown” under the care of her “censorious and paternalistic physician” husband (Gilbert 89). The story is set and written in the late Victorian era, a period during which women’s emotions were often discounted, and so the unnamed female narrator’s hysterical condition is aggressively misprized both within the text by her husband and also, likely, by many contemporary Victorian readers. To the narrator, however, insanity is a mode of psychological emancipation. Physically powerless in a male-dominated reality, and trapped by a fundamentally masculine setting, Gilman’s narrator uses her “imaginative power” to enter a realm of female freedom (Gilman 330). Her madness becomes a tool that she uses to take refuge in the feminine space of night and shade. Her story joins works by female writers from before and after Gilman’s era, such as Anne Finch’s Nocturnal Reverie (c. 1709) and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s I Dreamed I Walked Among Elysian Fields (c. 1928), whose texts imagine “mirages of health and freedom” in night and portray dark spaces as locations of autonomy for their female subjects. The woman is a joyful “free soul” in the night, “whilst tyrant man does sleep” (Finch 332). In imagining this liberation, the eponymous yellow wallpaper becomes an abstract space onto which the narrator projects her conflicted affection for her husband and her feelings of restraint. She sees herself reflected in the figure of a woman trapped inside the wallpaper’s patriarchal pattern and joins her in the freedom of darkness in solidarity with those other female writers. Simone de Beauvoir argues that “women have never formed an autonomous and closed society” as they are “governed by males” and must, therefore, physically exist within a male universe (Beauvoir 638). By abandoning this physical male reality and accepting her hysteria, Gilman’s narrator joins a legacy of literary women who use nighttime, shade, and dreams as a freeing metaphysical space. Her ultimate descent into madness is a conduit for her escape from the inherently imprisoning masculine setting and enables her entrance into a feminine space.

In order to understand how Gilman’s narrator transcends a male reality to become part of an abstract female realm, a distinction must be made between masculine and feminine spaces. In the context of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” these may be understood as the “traditional gendered binary of day and night, male and female, clarity and delusion, reason and imagination” (Quinsey 76). This binary “associate[es] day with…knowledge, reason, clear judgment, and order, and night with darkness…confusion, loss of distinction, and delusive fancy” (Quinsey 71). In Greek mythos, men such as Phoebus and Prometheus are associated with light, which symbolizes knowledge and enlightenment; in Judeo-Christianity, a male God makes “the patriarchal command, ‘Let there be light’” (Salvaggio 58). Day is, consequently, a space of reason and rationality. John, the husband and physician in Gilman’s story, embodies this male brightness: he is “practical in the extreme” (Gilman 327); subsequently, he diagnoses his wife, the narrator, with a “slight hysterical tendency,” marking her as the antithesis to his rational practicality (Gilman 327). Nervous disorders characterized by “depression, anxiety, excitability” were thought to be “particularly prevalent among women”—eighteenth-century Spleen, which supposedly afflicted Anne Finch, evolved into nineteenth-century Hysteria, which was thought to have affected Charlotte Perkins Gilman—and were often understood as the result of a lack of male rationality and logic (Gilman 327). Nonetheless, this “masculine reasoning is not relevant to the reality she [the woman] experiences” (Beauvoir 640). Instead, the “delusive fancy” of “darkness and shade reflect…an essentially feminine opposition to what [Ruth Salvaggio] calls a masculine ‘Discourse of Light’ typical of a [male] ‘Enlightenment Mind’” (Miller 604). The dark realm is a “feminine territory” (Salvaggio 55). The hysteria that builds within the narrator throughout the story draws her closer to feminine darkness.

The feminine dark is a literary space that existed centuries before Gilman and, evidently, persists long after her in both prose and poetry. A Nocturnal Reverie by Finch and I Dreamed I Walked Among Elysian Fields by Millay are poems from distinctly different time periods – the former, from 1709, the latter, from 1928 – but both present the dark feminine space of night as an environment in which women are free. In A Nocturnal Reverie, Finch reimagines nighttime as a world in which women are animals unrestrained by their collective “cares…toils…clamors” (Finch 332). In their dreams, and in Finch’s own, they exist as creatures who are free to frolic “in darkened groves” where “no fierce light disturbs” (Finch 332). The poem allows for women’s “shortlived jubilee…/Which but endures, whilst tyrant man does sleep” (Finch 332). Salvaggio notes that Finch’s poetry “accepts change and transformation, welcomes the ‘shades’ that take her away from the man’s world of light and into the process that is woman…[shade] was also the feminine space she [Finch] desired” (112). The women in Millay’s sonnet have full autonomy in the female speaker’s dream. The speaker is “in converse with sweet women long since dead” who, in death, exist in the “feminine dark [which is] the ‘chaos whence we have all come and…all must one day return’” (Millay 888; Salvaggio 55). The women with whom she speaks had been silenced in life by a male god who seduced and raped them; in the feminine darkness of death, they speak and walk “freely…and at ease” (Millay 888). Though women may be physically confined within a male universe, through literary imaginations and female delusions, the woman writer joins a different feminine universe and reality.

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator’s delusions free her from her “practical” and “wise” husband, who literally confines his wife to a room within the paternal house (Gilman 327, 333). The domestic space of the home is often associated with femininity, but in a male universe she “does not find absolute security in her home…and because she is incapable of grasping [the masculine world] through…sound logic, and coherent knowledge, she feels like a child…surrounded by dangerous mysteries” (Beauvoir 645). The estate, house, and room to which the narrator is confined for the summer are physical manifestations of the masculine universe due to the historical context they exist within. Because land was passed down through the paternal line during the Victorian era, women were commonly considered ephemeral objects who could occupy, but never control, the house. Within the “ancestral halls,” “colonial mansion,” and “hereditary estate” the narrator feels that “there is something strange about the house”; this feeilng is, no doubt, a result of her discomfort as a woman in such a patriarchal space (Gilman 327, 328; emphasis added). She lacks the male rationale which would allow her to grasp the reality of the house—which is, as her logical husband says, that the strangeness she “felt was just a draught”—and further associates women with intellectual darkness, “delusive fancy,” and emotionality rather than rationality (Gilman 328, 335; Quinsey 71). Locked up in a nursery with barred windows, “rings and things,” and a gate at the head of the stairs, which Gilbert and Gubar call “paraphernalia of confinement,” the narrator is certainly made to “feel… like a child” (Gilman 328, 90; Beauvoir 645). To avoid the dangerous and foreign mysteries of the “masculine province…she turns her attention to her [room’s] wallpaper, determining to discover the secret of her room in order to hoard it as a knowledge peculiarly her own” (Delamotte 9-10). She begins to sever herself from the house (her prison), her husband’s masculine knowledge, and, subsequently, the male world.

The narrator discovers a reflection of her own life in the wallpaper: her entrapment and desire to be free, as well as her relationship to her masculine setting–the Beauvoirian male universe. She alone recognizes this mirroring and subsequently decides that “there are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will” (Gilman 333). Her relationship with the yellow paper is tumultuous, and changes as time passes. The paper is “ancient, smoldering, ‘unclean’ as the oppressive structures of the society in which she finds herself…[and] haunting as the ‘hereditary estate’ in which she is trying to survive” (Gilbert and Gubar 90). She finds it “repellant, almost revolting,” yet seems simultaneously “fond” of the wallpaper’s “florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus” (Gilman 331, 334). If the wallpaper is, as Gilbert and Gubar suggest, a “patriarchal text” as “censorious and overwhelming as [the narrator’s]…husband,” then her repulsion towards it mirrors the repulsion she feels for her husband. She praises his wisdom and notes that “he loves me so,” but while she descends into madness, this admiration for the husband becomes increasingly ironic (Gilman 331). The narrator comes to like the paper more as she begins to see fanciful delusions behind its patterns, which illustrate her own escape through a “faint figure,” who takes the shape of “a woman stooping down and creeping about,” and who is simultaneously “the narrator and the narrator’s double” (Gilman 333; Gilbert 90). The narrator sees this double “out of every one of her windows,” which indicates that the figure is, in fact, her own reflection in the window. The top pattern, a symbolic weaving of patriarchal structures that subordinates the woman and engenders her domesticity and passivity, “becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it as plain as can be” (Gilman 334). The paper reveals the possibilities of escape to the narrator and, as she sees her double behind the bars, she “discover[s] something at last”: the restraints of the male universe. This space, like her husband, “pretend[s] to be very loving and kind,” but is actually confining (Gilman 337; emphasis added). As the narrator’s sanity degrades, so too does her affection and trust for her husband—who is a manifestation of the masculine universe—and her tolerance for her confinement.

Growing closer to the women of the wallpaper and descending further into the madness that begets her freedom. The narrator begins to react to light – “any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight” – and the darkness of night and shaded areas (Gilman 334). When she notices “that [the paper] changes as the light changes,” she thus becomes aware of masculine and feminine spaces; the effects of the male day and female night (Gilman 334). In the daylight, the women are seemingly unable, or at least unwilling, to break free from the pattern. Beauvoir points out that “to be feminine is to show oneself as weak, futile, passive, and docile,” a disposition which the woman in the wallpaper certainly assume during the day (Beauvoir 543). The wallpaper’s pattern, a symbol of the oppressive male universe, holds her to this feminine passivity: “by daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still” (Gilman 334). In the dark, however, both the narrator and her double become mobile. The narrator attempts to “get the woman out at night,” in order to bring her double into a feminine dark space and thus free both the woman and herself from the patriarchal pattern. The narrator notices that “at night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight…the pattern becomes bars” (Gilman 334). The double “keeps still” in the light, trapped “in the very bright spots…and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard” (Gilman 336). Only in the shade, as “it must be very humiliating to be caught creeping in the daytime,” does the woman in the wallpaper move to free herself. Sleeping “a good deal in the daytime” and not “very well at night,” the narrator moves along with the woman in the paper. Together they shake the paper – “I pulled and she shook, she shook and I pulled” – until it begins to peel off before morning breaks (Gilman 337). At her husband’s “unmasculine swoon of surprise,” the narrator is wholly immersed into the feminine realm. It is nighttime when the narrator emancipates herself, which renders her husband unconscious; as she enters the feminine dark, her freedom parallels Finch’s imagined free space. The husband becomes the “tyrant man [who] does sleep,” while the narrator enters a female dark space. The story, therefore, concludes not only with the triumph of female power and reversed power roles, but also indicates that men cannot be a part of the “hysterical” female space. This is a space for women alone, where they get “out at last” from the confines of patriarchy (Gilman 338).

The narrator’s descent into madness may be seen as a form of protest against her husband’s control. While patriarchal forces of the masculine world, like her husband and the “hereditary estate,” have driven her “deeply into what the world calls madness,” the narrator uses this insanity to escape its patriarchal origins (Gilbert 90; Gilman 327). “[T]he woman herself recognizes that the universe as a whole is masculine; it is men who have shaped it and ruled it and who still today dominate it,” but she also realizes that the literary female space is separate from the physical universe of reality (Beauvoir 639). Much in the same way that the masculine universe ostracizes the woman—both the narrator in Gilman’s story, and women in the broader literary tradition—the “feminine territory” of night, madness, and darkness is distinct from reality. It encapsulates a different space that may only last “till morning breaks, and all’s confused again,” but which still allows for the emancipation of the woman from the constraints of a masculine world through her literary imagination (Finch 333).

Works Cited

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. A Division of Random House, 1974.

Finch, Anne. “A Nocturnal Reverie.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Ed. Mary Jo Salter, Ed. Jon Stallworthy. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. 331-333. Print.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Anthology of Shorter Fiction. Ed. Richard Bausch, Ed. R. V. Cassil. 8th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. 327-328. Print.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “I dreamed I walked among Elysian fields.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Ed. Mary Jo Salter, Ed. Jon Stallworthy. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. 888. Print.

Salvaggio, Ruth. “Anne Finch Placed and Displaced.” Enlightened Absence: Neoclassical Configurations of the Feminine. University of Illinois Press, 1988. pp. 105-26.

Miller, Christopher R. “Staying out Late: Anne Finch’s Poetics of Evening.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 45, no. 3, 2005, pp. 603–623.

Photo: “Who is afraid of yelllow?,” Hester van Dapperen