The tragedy in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman has always been a contentious one. On one level, the devastating psychological torment and breakdown of The Woman is gut wrenching. The betrayal she faces from a spouse who ought to protect her, the inescapable pathologization that seems to get her from all angles by all the male physicians in her life, the eerie infantilization of being kept in the nursery, and the list goes on. Gilman’s short story is harrowing to read and only made more difficult with added historical context and knowledge of the realities of the so-called rest cure. The Woman’s mental suffering after childbirth is exacerbated by isolation, stillness and boredom until she breaks – becoming terribly obsessed with the facelike pattern in the wallpaper that is her only company. Yet, on the other hand – she won in the end, did she not?
Part of what keeps readers returning to “The Yellow Wallpaper” year after year since 1892 is the mad power in its conclusion: “I’ve got out at last”. Despite the torturing rest cure imposed upon The Woman by her husband John, she carves out moments of liberty and community for herself. While these glimpses at freedom are both fleeting and imaginary, they are real for The Woman and they are hers – the one thing she has that is not controlled by John or her “caregivers”. The woman in the wallpaper is a manifestation of what The Woman needs to make it through each day. She creates a companion that can help her regain agency. In this way, The Woman revives herself in bringing life to the wallpaper.
The Woman’s journal is “dead paper,” meant to be read only by herself and, in fact, meant to remain totally secret for fear of punishment. Contrastingly, when The Woman brings her wallpaper to life, she keeps it a secret not for fear of facing repercussions but because she wants it to be hers alone. By the end of the story, The Woman is crazed, yes, but also empowered by her wallpaper to take control of her situation – She is not locked in by someone else, but has locked everyone out and thrown away the key. As The Woman crawls over top of John, she is taking back her power over him. She is no longer being controlled or caged by her husband.
Powerfully, the narrative of “The Yellow Wallpaper”is analogous to the real world functions of the story itself. In publishing her piece, Charlotte Perkins Gilman transformed her own dead paper. She liberated her mind by putting the pain of her rest cure treatment into words and revived generations of women by creating a community through literature and testimony.
Just as Charlotte Perkins Gilman did by bringing her life to her dead paper – in releasing the woman in the wallpaper, The Woman has released herself.
By Julia Edda Pape, Assistant Director, The Yellow Wallpaper
BIO: Julia Edda Pape is a current student at the University of Toronto and (hopefully) a future director, writer and actress. She is thrilled to return to Bygone Theatre as Assistant Director for The Yellow Wallpaper after working as Apprentice Director on The Birds last Fall. She is currently directing and acting in 7 Letters Since Sunday, a play she wrote for the UofT Hart House Dramafest and will be directing Maggie Chun’s First Love and Last Wedding by Helen Ho at the Toronto Fringe Festival this summer. She is grateful to her friends, family and Bygone for the on-going support, encouragement and opportunities.