The Yellow Wallpaper and the Paper Parallel

An Analysis of the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Classic

“There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will” . This quote from Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, to me, is exceptionally compelling. We know from the context that the narrator is referring to the wallpaper that increasingly consumes her throughout the story. What is interesting to point out is that, just as she is the only one who knows the things hidden within the wallpaper, she is also the only one who knows what she has written within the paper of her journal, which is what makes up most of the text. The paper motif is used numerous times throughout The Yellow Wallpaper and correlates the wallpaper with the paper in her journal, creating an interesting literary parallel.
The first time the word paper is used in The Yellow Wallpaper is when it’s used to reference the paper she is writing on; not the wallpaper as one might expect. Gillman writes, “John is a physician, and perhaps – (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind) – perhaps that is the reason I do not get well faster.” The term dead paper is interesting enough in itself. One can delve deep and determine the numerous symbolic meanings behind her choice of adjective to describe the paper on which she is writing. One meaning, that we can deduce from the context, is that her writing is not meant to be heard or read by anyone but herself; thus, rendering the paper dead. John, the narrator’s husband, believes that writing may be harmful to her health and forbids it, so she must keep her writing a secret from those around her. On numerous occasions, the narrator tries to speak with her husband about her feelings regarding her treatment, but is always met with opposition. So instead, she disobediently turns to her journal as an outlet for her thoughts and feelings. “But I must say what I feel and think in some way – it is such a relief! But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief.” Because she must keep her writing secret, it becomes burdensome at the same time. It is almost as if she is imprisoned within the pages of her journal, an eerie correlation to the woman trapped behind the wallpaper.
 The paper motif is then continued many times throughout the remainder of the story while referencing the yellow wallpaper. Why is it that the narrator decides to use paper in place of wallpaper? The word paper could be used by the narrator due to the furtive manner in which she is writing. Because she is writing in secret, she may take shortcuts to quicken the writing process; consequently, using the term paper in place of wallpaper. While this is a valid argument, I believe that the term was used for a much more important reason. Good writers choose their terms very carefully, and Gilman doesn’t seem to suggest the use of any other literary shortcuts by the narrator, leading me to believe that this wasn’t her intention. Our narrator’s husband has made it clear to her that speaking of her condition is unacceptable, so she decides to speak of the house instead; with the one thing of particular interest to her being the wallpaper. A great example of this is when the narrator writes, “I wish I would get well faster. But I must not think about that. This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!” She quickly shifts her thoughts to the wallpaper instead. We can view this like we would an objective correlative. Being unable to speak of her feelings to anyone, she personifies them in the wallpaper. Another example of this parallel would be the woman that the narrator continues to see trapped behind the wallpaper. During the day, the woman remains still and almost content. Sometimes, during the day the narrator sees her creeping in the garden. At night, the wallpaper’s pattern becomes bars and the woman shakes them in an attempt to escape. This directly parallels the mentality of our narrator. During the day, when her husband is gone, she can write as much as she pleases and that is a great relief to her. The creeping woman that she sees during the day reflects that of the covertness of her writing. At night, our narrator lies awake obsessing over the paper while imprisoned in her room with the barred windows and at the top of a gated stairway. To see the connection here is in no way a stretch. An obvious parallel is being implied.
Toward the end of the narrative, there is a drastic shift in the writing style. From the context, we can tell that the narrator is no longer writing on the paper of her journal; she has escaped from behind the paper. Once the narrator has reached a breaking point in her illness and accomplished the task of ridding the room of the paper, she’s acquired freedom, in a sense. Her illness has completely taken over her mind and she no longer has to hide behind the confines of either paper; that of her journal or the wallpaper. The narrator says, “It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!” Here, she has completely transformed into the woman that was behind the wallpaper. At the end of the story, the narrator shouts, “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” Who is Jane? The protagonist hasn’t introduced the readers to Jane until this point in the narrative. One may mistake this upon first reading for the housekeeper, but her name is Jennie. We can safely assume that Jane is the name of the, previously unnamed, narrator. Jane had been projecting her feelings vicariously through this woman trapped behind the paper for so long that now she has taken the imaginary woman’s identity.
 The correlation between the woman behind the wallpaper and the narrator and her journal creates a beautiful and effective parallel throughout the story. It is effective because it gives us a clear insight into her illness. Gilman uses the paper motif to create strong ties between the narrator and the woman behind the wallpaper. By the end of the narrative, the protagonist has purged the room of the wallpaper and, as one may expect, she is no longer writing in her journal. Once the paper, in both forms, is finally removed, the narrator is set free.

Sources: Kennedy, Gioia, Literature An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing

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