We’re All Mad Somewhere: An Exploration Into The Environments of Madness

by Emma Walke

People always say that the things in our lives start to reflect ourselves. For instance, one could argue that pet owners and their pets start to look like each other. People try to make their homes look like themselves and how they want to appear with the way they are decorated. But I also believe a person can start to look like their surroundings, and the environment they are in can change a person fundamentally. Take the case of the Jane Doe narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. After being locked in a room that had previously housed the mad, our narrator begins to make sense of the wallpaper, something that has no pattern, and slowly reflects the madness the room houses. Though the room itself does not change, the narrator describes an evolving room that hints the reader into the mindset of our reader. These descriptions and events show the reader more about the state of the narrator, and less about the room itself.  

Her understanding of the room is the first sign of this room being an indicator into our narrator’s changing reality. After coming to the house, her husband recommends she sleeps in the big airy room at the top of the house. She describes this room as being a “nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, … for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls. The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it,” (648). Nothing in the room indicates that this was a nursery or a playroom for children. Our narrator was just separated from her child after birth, which is having a profound impact on her perception of this room. Instead of seeing the reality that someone was housed here, and the room was designed to keep that person in here, she instead sees a place for a baby. This may also have to do with the way her husband sees her. John, our narrator’s husband, uses pet names like “little girl” and has a desire to treat his wife as a child. Perhaps her understanding of the room comes from her denial of the loss of her child, and perhaps it comes from her lack of knowledge and treatment from her husband. It is important to note that John is some of the only socialization she gets in her life.

The people, or lack thereof, in the narrator’s life is also a contributing factor to her mental state. The narrator says “I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time. Of course I don’t when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone. And I am alone a good deal just now,” (650). The only people that she sees are her husband, Jennie, and a few other guests, but they have no sustained interaction. The narrator is kept in her room, not allowed to leave, or sleep somewhere else, with only herself to keep her company. In direct correlation to this environment the narrator is put in with a tremendous lack of socialization and interconnection with other people, she creates these images of women and people in her own mind.

The wallpaper and the windows in our narrator’s room seem to be points that she focuses a lot of her attention toward. The narrator when describing her room says there is a window “that commands the road, a lovely shaded winding road, and one that just looks off over the country,” (650). And then immediately goes to describing the wallpaper without any sort of transition. “This wallpaper has a kind of subpattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see It In certain lights, and not clearly then. But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so – I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design,” (650).  The windows, specifically what she sees outside of them, who she sees outside of them, and the wallpaper with the mysterious pattern are things she becomes hyper-fixated on. She talks throughout the story about the people she sees walking in the garden and how she even walks around the garden. She talks extensively about trying to ‘solve’ the pattern in the wallpaper. “I start, we’ll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion,” (650). At this time, the narrator is peering outside the windows at the outside world, following patterns on the walls, trying to make sense of a pattern that has no logic to it. Looking from an outside perspective in, without the narrator’s explanations, this woman appears mad: she is locked in a room and talking to wallpaper. From the narrator’s perspective, it makes sense with her reasoning. The process she is taking is logical when you add in her perspective. The room itself has not changed, but the change in the narrator’s descriptions and actions are what keys the reader into her mental state. The way that the narrator explains the things she is doing as sensical, make the reader believe that what she is doing makes sense. Looking from the outside perspective, without the narrator’s knowledge, it appears mad. But with that knowledge, her actions make sense. The reader stops questioning her behavior, stops seeing it as mad, because to the narrator, it makes sense.

In addition, the narrator starts staying up during the night because of the moonlight. “I hate to see it sometimes, it creeps so slowly, and always comes in by one window or another. John was asleep and I hated to waken him, so I kept still and watched the moonlight on that undulating wallpaper till I felt creepy. The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out. I got up softly and went to feel and see if the paper did move,” (652). The moonlight, she says, starts to reveal the pattern to her. She concludes that there is a back, sub-pattern, and a front pattern, which is actually bars to keep a figure in the paper. The narrators sleep pattern is changing, and she is more active at night. The wallpaper becomes less of a pattern to figure out and more of a moving picture that houses a woman. The windows have changed from portals to look to the outside and have instead become a thing that lets in this terrible light for the room and reveals truths to the narrator. This transformation that the items like her wallpaper and windows have is purely in the narrator’s mind. The object themselves do not change, but because of what they are doing (according to the narrator’s logic and descriptions of them), they are affecting the narrator and her reality of the room adapts accordingly. From the outside, the objects are not changing, they are not technically doing anything to the room. Therefore, it should have no real effect on the narrator. However, because the narrator’s mental health and sanity are deteriorating, she perceives the room as changing.

After concluding the woman in the wallpaper is quiet in the daytime, the narrator starts to see her outside of the wallpaper. “I can see her out of every one of my windows! It is the same woman, I know, for she’s always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight. I see her in that long-shaded lane, creeping up and down. I see her in hose dark grape arbors, creeping all around the garden. I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines,” (654). A couple lines down she talks about how she also creeps during the day, but she locks her door. It stands to reason, that she is seeing herself in the windows, creeping about. Much like the people she saw in the garden may have been her imagination, this creeping woman is most definitely her reflection. The windows are now this mirror to reflect herself into the outside world. The wallpaper has now become a trap that keeps her from the outside world and a trap that she also must escape.

Simply viewing the events of the story without the inside perspective of our narrator and without the context she provides us, what is being said in the story itself makes no sense. The narrator is nothing more than a deranged woman creeping about a room she never leaves. However, once we add in the logic that the narrator is providing for her actions, they seem to make a sort of sense. Once we get to the end, the narrator is correct in her judgments of the wallpaper. The wallpaper, or the room itself, is a prison she is being kept in. When she has to creep over her husband’s body she says “and I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (656). The narrator truly believes that the room she was in was a prison. The environment she was put into, while it may appear to be one thing to an outsider, has been molded to the narrator. The room begins to reflect her situation and it finally makes sense to the narrator. The reader saw the room as a prison to begin with because that is what it truly was. At the end, the room is a prison in a different sense because the narrator has uncovered it as that. The room never changes, but the perception of the room, by both the narrator and the reader, makes sense at the end of the story. The room itself reflects what the narrator is experiencing, and the reader sees the room as the narrator describes it to them because the room has symbolically become what the narrator describes it as.

Work Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Literature of Prescription Exhibition Materials, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2009, pp. 647-56.