Artwork by Safa Yakoob
The Other “Madwoman in the Attic:” A Lacanian Psychoanalytic and a Feminist Reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper"
by Farah Nada
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) follows the descent of a woman into madness through seclusion and isolation. The Yellow Wallpaper lends itself to analysis through the lens of different critical theories, such as Lacanian Psychoanalytic Theory and Feminist Literary Theory. Lacanian psychoanalytic theory applies principles and concepts of Lacanian psychoanalysis to the study of literature. Critics who apply Lacanian psychoanalytic theory look for parallels between the process of psychoanalysis and a literary text, with particular focus on the unconscious, and the mirror stage. Similarly, Feminist critical theory can also be applied to Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Feminist criticism is concerned with the representation of woman in literature. Critics who apply feminist criticism focus on exposing the concept of patriarchy, highlighting the underlining inequality that governs this social structure. Feminist literary critics also challenge the stereotypical representations of woman as passive and mentally unstable, and explore the issue of female identity. Because the story is concerned with the madness of women, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper may be analyzed from a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective as well as a feminist perspective.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a 19th century American short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman that is told in series of journal entries by an unnamed, female narrator. The story is set in a mansion which the narrator’s husband, John, rents for three months to provide her with rest and seclusion, the ideal cure for “nervous depression” (Gilman 2). Throughout the story, the narrator remains isolated within her bedroom, with no companionship and little conversation. She seeks solace in her writing, but her husband forbids her from working and so she must write in secret. As the story progresses, the narrator becomes both revolted and fascinated by the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. She begins to see figures and patterns in the design, eventually believing that the figure is that of a woman trying to break free. The story ends as the narrator descends into madness after ripping out the paper and freeing herself.
Lacanian Psychoanalytic Criticism
Gilman’s short story may be analyzed from a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective. Its subject matter, which is concerned primarily with mental illness, draws attention to the psychic nature of the text itself. The story, which demonstrates a woman’s decent into madness, reflects many aspects and stages of psychoanalysis. One of the most noticeable elements of Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is its form, which creates a chain of communication between narrator and reader. The story is written in a semi-epistolary form; however, rather than being written in a series of letters to another character in the story, it is written as a series of journal entries to the reader. As a result of this, the reader becomes a silent character within the story and the relationship between the narrator and the reader becomes similar to the relationship between a psychiatrist and his patient. Here, the psychiatrist listens to the periodic input from the patient without comment or interference. For example, with regards to her husband’s diagnosis, the narrator disagrees but states, “I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind” (Gilman 1). By “this,” the narrator is referring to her written communication, which none but the reader has access to (Gilman 1). Thus, the narrator quickly establishes a sort of privileged relationship between the reader and herself.
According to Peter Barry (2009), Jacques Lacan viewed psychiatry as a “verbal science,” because, “in investigating the unconscious the analyst is both using and examining language” (Barry 106). Similarly, in The Yellow Wallpaper language becomes paramount; written language is the form through which the narrator records her story, but it also an act that she is “absolutely forbidden” from doing (Gilman 2). Jeannette King and Pam Morris, in their article “On not reading between the lines: Models of reading in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” stated that the authority that the male characters have in creating the narrator’s reality is an “imposition of patriarchal order through language,” which allows them to determine not only what she does, but also what she suffers from (King and Morris 26-27). Language, thus, becomes more than a form of communication; it becomes a linguistic structure through which the story and the characters are slowly revealed. As a result, one of the first steps in analyzing Gilman’s story from a psychoanalytic perspective is to analyze its use of language.
According to Ferdinand de Saussure, “meaning in language is a matter of contrasts between words and other words, not between words and things.…[it] is a network of differences” (Barry 106). Lacan exemplifies a similar notion in his essay “The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious,” demonstrating that the same signifier may have a multitude of signifieds. Hence, meaning is not essentially existent in any given object; it is external. Lacan states, “no meaning is sustained by anything other than reference to another meaning” (Lacan 65). This ‘chain’ of signifiers is exemplified in Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper when the narrator attempts to describe her summer residence. The narrator calls it “a colonial mansion, a hereditary estate…a haunted house,” leaving readers with no clear image as to what the residence really is, or how it looks like (Gilman 1). Similarly, when describing the room, the narrator gives several possibilities, all of which are either incomplete or inaccurate, claiming that the room was “nursery first, and then playroom and gymnasium” (Gilman 2). Thus, the realities of the house and the room are not as significant to the narrator and the reader as her descriptions of them are.
In addition, the most important symbol in the entire short story is the yellow wallpaper itself, which fascinates and enthralls the narrator. While looking through a Lacanian lens, the wallpaper can represent both the narrator’s alter ego or doppelgänger, and the narrator’s unconscious. At the very start of the short story, the reader is told that the narrator suffers from “temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency” (Gilman 2). Today, her illness would probably be classified as post-partum depression; however, given that this diagnosis was not an option in the 19th century, she is prescribed a ‘rest cure’, which keeps her secluded and inactive. Her sole companion becomes the yellow wallpaper, and she begins to see in it a strange sort of life. Soon, the narrator recognizes the figure of a woman within the wallpaper; she states, “it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern” (Gilman 6). Hence, the narrator identifies with the figure of the woman; she is, to a certain extent, her “mirror” image. The more the narrator seeks her and recognizes her, the more she realizes that she too is similar to the woman. This recognition reflects Lacan’s “mirror stage,” when, according to Barry, the person sees their ‘reflection’ in a mirror and begins to see him or herself as a “unified being, separate from the rest of the world” (Barry 109).
Through his work in psychoanalysis, Lacan devised a three-step model of mental development: The Real Order, The Imaginary Order, and the Symbolic Order. The Real refers to a period in the infant’s life in which all needs are met. As the child matures, he or she moves into the Imagery, where there is no distinction between self and other. Then, the child sees their reflection in the mirror and begins to differentiate between themselves and others, a stage that Lacan calls the “mirror stage.” Having achieved this sense of self, the child enters the Symbolic stage; they learn language, which allows him to refer to people and objects (Barry 109).
In Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator exhibits these Lacanian stages of development. However, what is peculiar to this psychoanalytic reading is that, unlike Lacan’s traditional stages of development, the narrator of Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper seems to exhibit a reverse form of Lacanian development. According to Barbara A. Suess, “because of [the narrator’s] relative nonrelationship with the Symbolic Order and her correspondent inability to fully constitute herself, [she] attempts to create her own order, and thus to constitute herself” (Suess 90). As her obsession and association with the woman increases, the narrator’s awareness becomes consumed with this “other” (Barry 109). Here, these stages of Lacanian development appear to be turned on their head; as the narrator identifies with this “other” woman, she becomes more at one with her. This moment of identification may thus be interpreted as recognition of the unity between the narrator, “the self,” and the woman behind the wallpaper, “the other” (Barry 109).
In addition, as the story progresses, the narrator becomes less of an adult and more of an infant, which further demonstrates this reverse Lacanian development. For example, the narrator’s husband, John, refers to her as he would refer to a child, such as “little girl” and “bless her little heart” (Gilman 6). Similarly, the narrator’s final degradation and insanity is evident in her “creeping” around the room in the final scene; she states “here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way” (Gilman, 10). This idea of “creeping” reduces the narrator to a crawling child or an infant. Moreover, she is being guided by the wall, much like a child who is incapable of acting without guidance or assistance. Hence, her final representation as a child-like being highlights her descent into madness; her return to the Real Order is an escape from her mental and physical confinement.
Similarly, the yellow wallpaper may also symbolize the narrator’s unconscious, demonstrating its significance for the conscious mind. When the narrator first begins to describe the wallpaper she states that:
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. (Gilman 2-3, emphasis mine)
This description of the wallpaper in this passage reflects the process of psychoanalysis itself. Much like the narrator tries to follow the pattern of the yellow wallpaper, the psychoanalyst tries to find the patterns within the unconscious. In addition, the fact that the wallpaper “provoke[s] study” also reflects the field of psychoanalysis as a whole, which is concerned with the study of the elusive unconscious (Gilman 2). The unconscious’s effect on the conscious mind is also evidenced in the text as the narrator personifies the wallpaper, stating that it “knew what a vicious influence it had!” (Gilman 4). Hence, the significance of the yellow wallpaper in Gilman’s short story mirrors Lacan’s conviction of “the centrality of the unconscious” (Barry 110).
In addition, the images within the yellow wallpaper are described almost like images within a dream. The narrator states that there is a “recurrent spot” in the wallpaper, which has a significant effect on her, much like a recurring dream (Gilman 4). The pioneer of the field of psychiatry, Sigmund Freud, saw dreams as an escape route for the unconscious mind. Lacan, like Freud, recognized the significance of dreams, borrowing linguist Roman Jakobson’s concepts of metaphor and metonym to demonstrate how the unconscious and the conscious minds communicate (Barry 107). In The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator describes the figure in the wallpaper as a “broken neck” with “two bulbous eyes” (Gilman 4). This metonymic description of the figure, which is later revealed to be a woman, is a representation of the narrator’s trapped self. Hence, it demonstrates how the yellow wallpaper can represent a model of the narrator’s unconscious mind.
Moreover, the wallpaper itself has a “sub-pattern in a different shade” which is not always visible (Gilman 4). This may also reflect the model of the mind itself: the conscious and the unconscious. As the figure of the woman shakes the wallpaper, we can see a parallel with the unconscious mind that is trying to seep through. According to King and Morris, the energetic figure within the wallpaper is “a metaphoric substitution for the desire which haunts her socially conforming self” (King and Morris 29). This “forbidden” desire is the desire to “work,” to participate in social life, and to experience “excitement and change” (Gilman 2). Hence, as the narrator tears the wallpapers and frees the woman, she liberates herself both mentally and physically.
Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper can also be analyzed using feminist literary criticism. The subject matter of the story, the issue of women’s insanity, is highlighted in several works written by women, especially in the 19th century. One of the most famous examples of female insanity is in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, from which the phrase “The Madwoman in the Attic” emerged. In Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, the most striking element, particularly for a feminist critic, is the conclusion. The woman’s ultimate descent into madness reflects many patriarchal stereotypes with regards to female hysteria and insanity and highlights the realities of these women. In fact, in “Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman explains how the story emerged from her own experience with mental illness. Gilman describes her own illness, and states that she was also given a ‘rest cure,’ which almost led to her complete mental breakdown. Gilman states that the story “was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked” (Gilman). Hence, by exemplifying the conditions of 19th century female existence in her story, Gilman attempts to fight against them, and save others from becoming victims of an unjustified social construct.
One of the important elements in Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is the representation of the male and female characters. According to Barry, feminist criticism looks at the representation of women and studies the “power relations” between men and women in literature (Barry 128). From the very start of the story, the power dynamics within the narrator’s marriage are revealed. Her husband, John, is clearly the dominant figure in the marriage. At the very start of the story, the narrator describes her husband through a series of negative portrayals. For example, she states that John “laughs at [her] of course, but one expects that in marriage” (Gilman 1). She also uses words such as “practical,” “has no patience with faith,” and “scoffs openly” (Gilman 1). Through these descriptions, the narrator highlights John’s patriarchal role in the story; this is the role through which most of John’s behavior may be interpreted.
In Rula Qawas’s article “A New Woman’s Journey into Insanity: Decent and Return in The Yellow Wallpaper,” she states that:
John becomes [the narrator’s] jailer, policing every move and forbidding her to affirm her creative self. He denies her an autonomous existence as he tries to reshape her in accordance with all that being a wife/patient entails, including being submissive, childlike, and subservient. (Qawas 43)
Qawas’s statement demonstrates the kind of behavior that was expected of women in Gilman’s time, which is precisely that which feminist critics reject. For example, while the narrator disagrees with her husband on many accounts, at the early stage of the story she is still extremely passive and obedient; she does not provide any comment on his behavior, and only repeats the phrase “what can one do?” several times. This repetition highlights her helplessness and her inability to assert herself as a wife, mother, or woman. It isn’t until the end of the story that Gilman’s narrator finds her own way of asserting her dominance; through her final descent into madness, she undermines John’s dominance and escapes her physical and mental imprisonment.
Similarly, Qawas states that feminist critics may interpret “the narrator's descent into madness as a way to health and well being, as a rejection of and escape from an insane society” (Qawas 42). In The Yellow Wallpaper Gilman demonstrates how many women believe that the patriarchal order is the right order, and that any other order cannot exist in a patriarchal reality. The narrator’s inability to defy her husband, and her constant submission to his wishes demonstrates the extent to which women had to be submissive and obedient; any alternative behavior is quickly dismissed. Thus, the narrator’s ultimate madness is her only way to escape. She states, “I peeled off all the paper I could reach...It sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes…just shriek with derision” (Gilman 9). In this final scene, the narrator has a frantic desire to liberate herself from the patriarchal controls of John and the rest of society. Her madness, thus, becomes the key to this liberty; she had “got out at last,” and is no longer under anyone’s control (Gilman 10).
In addition, according to Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper is surrounded by “paraphernalia of confinement” (Gilbert & Gubar 90). This can be seen in the house itself, which the narrator describes through a series of perpetual barriers. For example, she states that the house has “hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses…” (Gilman 2). These features are all physical barriers that surround the narrator. However, they can also be interpreted as psychological barriers that trap the narrator in an isolated sphere, away from society, and away from mental well-being. Similarly, the room itself suggests confinement. There are rings on the walls and the windows are barred, which the narrator assumes were for “little children” (Gilman 2). However, what she initially fails to see is that the room and the house are both physical and mental prisons that are meant to isolate her, the woman, from the rest of the world. Hence, through the physical entrapment of her narrator, Gilman highlights both the physical and the psychological entrapment of women in the 19th century.
Another important aspect to note in Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is that the story is about reading as well as about writing. While telling the story, the narrator gives readers a first-person account of her thoughts through writing. However, through her communication and interpretation of the yellow wallpaper itself, the narrator engages in her very own analysis of what the yellow wallpaper represents, and who the figure within it really is. In a patriarchal society, Patrocinio P. Schweickart explains how “taking control of the reading process means taking control of one’s reactions and inclinations” (Schweickart 438). Hence, the reading process itself becomes a symbol of power for the narrator, allowing her some control within the male dominated structure of her ancestral home. At one point in the story, the narrator expressed great surprise when John and Jennie observe the yellow wallpaper. She states, “I’ve caught [John] several times looking at the paper! And Jennie too. I caught Jennie with her hand on it once….I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself!” (Gilman 7). Here, it can be seen that the wallpaper is the only thing that the narrator has any control over. She has discovered it, and discovered its secret. She is the only one who understands this secret, and she is the one who will eventually liberate it. Her desire to possess it, then, can be seen as an attempt to possess something. Similarly, the access to the wallpaper gives her purpose in life. For example, the narrator states that “life is very much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch…” (Gilman 7). Through her access to the meaning of the wallpaper, the narrator becomes empowered. Thus, Gilman demonstrates that, in order to achieve autonomy, women must be able to understand, to have opinions, and to have purpose.
It is evident that a story such as Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper can be analyzed in a variety of ways, using a variety of different theories. Due to its particular subject of women’s madness, the story is well suited to analysis through Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and Feminist critical theory. The yellow wallpaper itself, which is the most significant symbol in the story, symbolizes the inner most desires of the narrator, both as a character and a female character. Her interactions with the wallpaper throughout the story are like a dialogue that allows readers to understand more about her psyche and her position as a woman in the house. The more she interacts with the wallpaper, the more of her character is revealed. Her final decent into madness represents her internal recognition that madness is the only physical and psychological freedom.
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Farah Nada is an alumna of the American University of Sharjah, where she completed a double major in Journalism and English Literature. She is currently undertaking a master's degree in twentieth and twenty-first century literary studies at Durham University, after which she hopes to pursue a PhD in Modernist literature. Her literary bucket-list for 2016 is two words: Finish Ulysses.