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“The Yellow Wallpaper” is an Example of Modernist Literature

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman

Modernism is nowadays referred to as, probably, one of the most controversial periods in the history of arts and philosophy. The omnipresent aura of sophistication, reconsideration of the formulaic conventions and the guiding principles of arts, psychological logics, thematic and contextual oddity – each of these qualities determined Modernism as a unique artistic, philosophic, and esthetic trend. Since the aforementioned peculiarities are inherent in the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, it can be viewed as an example of Modernist literature.

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As has been stated above, the work of art under consideration is “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The author published the story under the pseudonym Stetson in 1892 in the New England Magazine (Nadkarni, 2012). It is the story of one woman descending into madness. Apart from the serious psychological, ethical, and philosophical issues raised in the story, the text itself offers a broad yet specific social context.

As far as the formulaic conventions of Modernist literature are concerned, the following points should be taken into consideration. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is written in the form of a string of diary entries. A woman who writes the entries is the main character of the short story, also playing the role of the narrator. The author provides very few details concerning the protagonist’s background. Therefore, the protagonist remains anonymous. The narrator is a young woman of noble descent who has just given birth to a child (Gilman, 1892). She is married to a doctor named John (Gilman, 1892). At some point, it might seem that the narrator’s condition is some sort of postnatal depression.

To improve her physical and mental health, John accompanies her on a journey of healing. The young couple and a child stay at a mansion that, presumably, appears to belong to John and his sister Jennie, who are there for the young lady, taking care of her and the baby (Gilman, 1892). Apparently, the protagonist manages to recover physically. Mentally, however, she is obviously getting worse. Everything changes for the main character, and thus, she is overwhelmed. As soon as the family gets to the mansion, the main character is experiencing obsessive and compulsive anxiety and, at times, even fear of the yellow paper that the walls of her room are covered with (Gilman, 1892). All things considered, the short story’s protagonist is emotionally unstable. Therefore, the term ‘unreliable narrator’ applies to the main character of the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

The story’s protagonist falls under the category of the so-called ‘flat characters’ since she herself barely changes. Her sickness reaches the apex in the short story’s finale: “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall so that I had to creep over him every time!” (Gilman, 1892, p. 656). Evidently, the main character’s consciousness is altered to the point that she is no longer capable of recognizing those she used to hold most dear once.


The researchers and biographers maintain that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the kind of a literary piece that, at some point, should be contemplated through the lens of its author’s own life. In other words, this story can be considered and characterized as an autobiographic piece. There was a time in the writer’s own life when she was experiencing some sort of emotional upheaval associated mainly with the writer’s inability to self-actualize, engage in self-realization, and by doing so, fully express her own identity and fulfill her potential. As Harbin (2014) puts it, in Charlotte Gilman’s case, “feelings of disorientation may have been triggered by events such as loss of her friend and her new motherhood, as well as simply by her increasing difficulty in living under her social circumstances” (p. 101). At this point, it is essential to discuss the social circumstances that have shaped the lives of societies and individuals in the nineteenth century.

In the nineteenth century, the patriarchal values were predominant in nearly all spheres of human activity. Thus, for a very long period of time, the understanding of the social functions of women was delimited to housekeeping, particularly, doing household duties. Developing his statement further, Harbin (2014) makes the following assertion: “Gilman feels disoriented early on in her growing struggle to live as a self-possessed woman in a sexist society, and later by the requirement that she make a decision about marrying a man in her heteronormative circumstances” (p. 101). Assuming that the foregoing statement is correct, the patriarchal values that influenced the interaction between people of opposite genders and defined their social functions were particularly oppressive towards women. With regard to this, the author of the story can be regarded as one of the first and strongest proponents of feminism.

It goes without saying that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one of the best-known works by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and basically, the author is making in the piece an attempt to share her experience with the audience. As Nadkarni (2012) puts it, Gilman’s “semi-autobiographical story of taking Dr. S. Weir Mitchell’s ‘rest cure’ to alleviate her depression after the birth of her daughter” (p. 219). The main character of the story is a talented young woman who has an agile mind and a vivid imagination. It happens that the protagonist reaches her breaking point. Probably, she keeps a diary just because she wants to preserve her skill to write. The moment when the narrator’s mental breakdown reaches its peak, relationship in a family most certainly reaches an impasse.

In addition, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a work of art that abounds with metaphors and symbols. The yellow color is typically associated with cowardice. In a way, the main character of the short story fears to embrace her destiny and to stand up for herself and her right to create and be accepted at the same time. The ornaments on the wallpapers that the protagonist thinks to be the bars with a woman hidden behind them who seems to be locked inside the wall represent the most climactic point of the protagonist’s mental breakdown and all the obstructions she has been facing up until that moment.

Taking all the aforementioned facts into consideration, the following conclusions can be made. “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the short-story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, can be regarded a vivid illustration of the major artistic principles of Modernism in literature. First of all, the author employs the psychological logic in her piece, attempting to show the inner workings of the main character’s mind. Secondly, the work of art under consideration is semi-autobiographical, which means that the author also attempts to artistically reconsider her own experience. Thirdly, the main character in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is portrayed wrestling some crucial and unresolved issues. Lastly, the short story ends with a cliffhanger as the author gives no clue about what happens to the characters next. All things considered, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a Modernist literary work.


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