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The Role of Voice in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1890)

Jacqueline researches the literature of the Victorian era from a perspective influenced by the critical theories of Derrida and Foucault.


The voices we hear in our heads and the voices we hear emanating from our own and others’ mouths form an indispensable yet often conflicting realm of language and discourse in which meaning and intention are often reordered; literally Lost in Translation (2003) as Coppola might say. Lost, though, not only in translation from one language to another but in translation from thought to voice and from voice to action and/or reaction. As the French philosopher and literary critic Jacques Derrida asserts, ‘[w]e only ever speak one language [yet] [w]e never speak only one language’ (Derrida, 1998, p. 8). Thus he accentuates the difference (or what he terms la différance[1]) between elements of language, voice and discourse, and in this différance lies the root of the ambiguity and dissonance in the voices within Gilman’s short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, which she wrote in 1890 and first published in the New England Magazine in 1892 (Erskine & Richards 1, 1993, pp. 6-7). In this story, the barriers of language and discourse that exist between the narrator and her social environs prove insurmountable by any means other than her own descent into madness – a descent which is reflected in her changing voice and the voices of the people and things around her, and a descent which conversely allows her to ascend and rise above her situation into a more confident and assertive state of increased personal understanding and autonomy. This is one way in which Derrida’s concept of différance is evidenced in Gilman’s text.

Derrida further affirms that ‘[m]y language, the only one I hear myself speak and agree to speak, is the language of the other’ (Derrida, 1998, p. 25), and this, psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva suggests, conflates with the voice of ‘[t]he foreigner … within us’ (Kristeva, 1991, p. 191); that incontrovertible inner voice that troubles, soothes or remonstrates as our mood and circumstances dictate, and which we often associate with notions of conscience or desire. This voice, Kristeva continues, has an ‘uncanny strangeness … which takes up again our infantile desires and fears of the other –’ (Kristeva, 1991, p. 191)[2]. Due to its simultaneous familiarity and foreignness, it is both known and unknown, heard and unheard, comprehended yet incomprehensible, because each voice we hear is the voice of another.

Interestingly, William Golding could be said to have anticipated Kristeva’s theory as he first chose the title Strangers From Within for the novel that was eventually published as Lord of the Flies in 1954 (Carey, 2009, p. 150). In this novel, a group of English schoolboys swiftly descends into barbarism once marooned on a desert island, revealing and responding to bestial voices that had lain dormant within them in more civilised situations. In keeping also with Derrida’s theory of différance, the boys become different beings in different surroundings, responding to a drastic change in circumstances in the same way that Gilman’s narrator responds and becomes a different being in her different surroundings.

Différance, therefore, ‘has a spatial and temporal application’ (Hanrahan, 2010). It is capable of persistently defining, refining and redefining the world through the lenses of language and perspective, because what differs and what is deferred is dependent on the language used to signify and reference those things. In Structuralist terms[3], this is especially significant as the words we choose, and the style and tone of language we adopt, can denote and connote in a variety of differing ways depending on the commonality of the understanding of the sounds and signs being used. Language is thus controlled by différance so that its ‘meaning is constantly deferred … [and] never explicit’ (Hanrahan, 2010).

In the context of The Yellow Wallpaper, Kristeva’s concept of the simultaneous familiarity and strangeness of voice extends through the characters’ discourse to the narrator’s relationship with the only thing she can identify with as living in the room to which she is confined, and that is the wallpaper. The voices the narrator hears, internally and externally, serve, in keeping with Kristeva’s observations, to infantilise her and stir up childhood memories of getting "more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children find in a toy-store … [when] there was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend … [so] if any of the other things looked too fierce I could always hop into that chair and be safe" (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 46)

As she gets more and more “positively angry with the impertinence of [the wallpaper]” (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 46) the narrator comes to embrace it as both friend and foe, enfolding herself (in the same way that she once embedded herself in the safe chair of her childhood) in its ‘sprawling flamboyant’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 43) pattern – ‘dull enough to confuse the eye [yet] pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 43) - and ripping it frantically from the wall to which it ‘sticketh like a brother’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 47)[4]. The narrator describes working together with a woman concealed behind the wallpaper in this latter endeavour; a woman who ‘it becomes obvious to both reader and narrator … is both the narrator and the narrator’s double’ (Gilbert & Gubar, 1993, p. 121) as together, the voice that is, and is simultaneously not, the narrator tells us, "I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper … [so] that awful pattern began to laugh at me" (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 57).

This is indicative of the narrator’s mental anguish at this late stage of the story, and, as I shall explain, it is not only the wallpaper pattern that mocks and ‘laugh[s] at’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 57) the narrator, whose initially ‘fairly reliable though naïve’ (Shumaker, 1993, p. 132) voice is the first we encounter in The Yellow Wallpaper.

Like the character known only as ‘Curley’s wife’ in Steinbeck’s 1937 novel, Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck, 2000), the narrator’s name in The Yellow Wallpaper is not explicitly revealed in the text. This not only reflects her powerlessness, oppression and diminishing sense of identity and self-esteem but also denies her signification in Structuralist terms: without an agreed sign, or name, she is nothing; without signification she cannot be signified; therefore, by extension, she cannot signify or be significant in society. Such différance is the result, in Structuralist and material terms, of the anonymity of women in a patriarchal regime.

However, there is an indication in the final paragraph of The Yellow Wallpaper that the narrator may be called Jane, as she declares ‘I have got out at last, … in spite of you and Jane’[5] (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 58). This final naming of herself, if it is such, is a decisive assurance of her own re-emerging identity and independence; a determination to gain significance in the world, and an acknowledgement that she is a separate, adult human being rather than the submissive, infantilised and dutiful wife that her husband, John, has been trying to mould her into with his prescriptions of ‘phosphates or phosphites’[6] (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 42)[7], his patronising endearments, such as ‘blessed little goose’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 44) , and, of course, his confinement of her to the ‘nursery-prison’ (Powers, 1998, p. 65). Yet, even as she names herself, the narrator rejects that name, speaking of ‘Jane’ as an ‘other’; an external entity; a third party in the relationship. It is as if she is escaping from herself and the name – or, in Structuralist terms, the sign[8] - that signifies her as well as escaping from her oppressers. In so doing, she emerges as more than just one individual; more than just one woman seeking a voice in a world dominated by men, and more than just one voice calling for recognition and compassion.

So, in referencing ‘Jane’ as external to herself, and as an accomplice compliant in John’s treatment of her – someone from whom she has escaped, that is, ‘got out at last … in spite of’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 58) - the narrator is simultaneously acknowledging and denying her name and identity; accentuating, in Derrida’s terms, the différance in and of herself. She is using her voice more confidently in her new found freedom than she has at previous points in the text. Thus she successfully inverts the hierarchy of her situation by countering her husband’s paternalistic terms of endearment, such as ‘little girl’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 50), with her own ‘young man’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 58). In so doing, she compellingly asserts her freedom whilst, incongruously, constrained by her own leash; ‘a rope … that even Jennie did not find’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 57); a rope that enables her to travel no further than the walls of her room. This leash, which she herself has secured, is symbolic of an umbilical cord, tethering her to the womb-like bed, and thereby concluding John’s infantilisation process just at the moment that she feels released from it.

At this juncture, as John faints in an ‘unmasculine swoon of surprise’ (Gilbert & Gubar, 1993, p. 121) the narrator literally ‘steps over the patriarchal body, [as] she leaves the authoritative voice of diagnosis in a shambles at her feet … escaping “the sentence” imposed by patriarchy’ (Treichlar, 1984, p. 67). This ‘sentence’ is another example of Derrida’s différance and Structuralist semiotics in the text. As Treichlar explains, ‘[t]he word sentence is both sign and signified, word and act, declaration and discursive consequence’ (Treichlar, 1984, p. 70). It serves as a diagnostic construct, a disciplinary construct and a syntactic composition. However, men’s sentences and women’s sentences may not, and do not, always concur, as Susan Glaspell demonstrates in her short story A Jury of Her Peers[9]. Here, the ‘sentence’ passed by the men is diametrically and emotionally opposed to that passed by the women because each applies a different set of value judgements to the case. As Judith Fetterley asserts, in a sexist culture the interests of men and women are antithetical, and, thus, the stories each has to tell are not simply alternative versions of reality, they are, rather, radically incompatible. (Fetterley, 1993, p. 183)

In action as in voice, then, sentences signify différance by both differing in and deferring their meaning, intention and consequence depending on what Saussure terms the parole and langue[10] of a community.

In The Yellow Wallpaper, the diagnosing and sentencing voice of the narrator’s husband, John, is the second and possibly most influential voice we hear, and he is introduced thus by his wife. "John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage. John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience or faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures. John is a physician, and perhaps … that is why I don’t get well faster. You see he does not believe I am sick!" (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 41 author's emphasis)

John’s outspoken views and unequivocal opinions suggest a certain insecurity as well as intolerance and arrogance. True to Derrida’s concept of différance, beneath John’s gruff, assured exterior lie doubts and anxieties that his upbringing and status in society render him unable to express. He can only be ‘practical in the extreme’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 41) by not being drawn into ‘talk of things not to be seen and put down in figures’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 41). In other words, he can only be what he is by not being what he is not; a condition completely conversant with Derrida’s philosophy of différance. Nevertheless, John’s laughter, and his refusal to indulge his wife’s notion that she is sick, forms a vital undercurrent in the text and undermines her self-belief and sense of self-esteem as he dismisses as ‘fancies’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 44) her desire to move into a different room and mocks her condition with phrases such as: ‘Bless her little heart! … she shall be as sick as she pleases!’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 51). Like the laughter incipient in the ‘impertinence’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 46) of the pattern on the wallpaper, John’s laughter serves to both inhibit and incite the narrator, instilling in her a determination to overcome their suffocating suppression. This, again resonates with Derrida’s theory of différance and also with Kristeva’s interpretation of it in relation to internal and external voices, as the narrator experiences and interprets the laughter in two contradictory but complementary ways; on the one hand it compels her to submit to John’s ‘careful and loving … schedule prescription for each hour of the day’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 43) but on the other hand it drives her to resist complete capitulation and fight against his regime in her struggle towards greater self-awareness and autonomy. Ultimately, it is John’s voice that both nurtures and destroys his wife. His voice is accepted by everyone as, "the voice of medicine or science; representing institutional authority, … dictat[ing] that money, resources, and space are to be expended as consequences in the “real world” …. [his] is a male voice that privileges the rational, the practical and the observable. It is the voice of male logic and male judgement which dismisses superstition and refuses to see the house as haunted or the narrator’s condition as serious." (Treichlar, 1984, p. 65)

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So, it is John’s voice that pronounces the narrator’s diagnosis and sentences her to its consequent regime of treatment, forcing her to appeal to her inner, presumably female, voices and those of other ‘creeping women’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 58) for the succour and support his logical voice denies her.

Such inconsistencies between male and female language are a recurrent phenomenon in literature, philosophy and, indeed, everyday life. For example, in Dorothy Richardson’s thirteen-novel series Pilgrimage, referenced in (Miller, 1986), the protagonist, Miriam, asserts that "In speech with a man a woman is at a disadvantage – because they speak different languages. She may understand his. Hers he will never speak nor understand. In pity, of from other motives, she must therefore, stammeringly, speak his. He listens and is flattered and thinks he has her mental measure when he has not touched upon the fringe of her consciousness." (Richardson in (Miller, 1986, p. 177))

This again is germane to Derrida’s différance and is borne out in The Yellow Wallpaper by the duality of discourse between John and the narrator. Their communication is fatally fractured as she ‘stammeringly’ (Richardson in (Miller, 1986, p. 177)) tries to speak his language while he obdurately fails to ‘touch[] upon the fringe of her consciousness’ (Richardson in (Miller, 1986, p. 177)), stubbornly rejecting her attempts to discuss her symptoms as he rigidly pursues the tenets of his scientific reasoning because ‘there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 44).

In conversation with his wife, John is evidently following the advice of Dr Robert B. Carter[11] when he ‘[a]ssume[s] a tone of authority which will of itself almost compel submission’, (Smith-Rosenberg, 1993, p. 93), as demonstrated in the following exchange:

“Really dear you are better!”

“Better in body perhaps” – I began, and stopped short, for he sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word.

“My darling”, said he, “I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?” (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 51)

She can, and does at first, trust him, against her better judgement, and yet, unable to express herself openly in the face of his oppression, she begins to ponder for herself all the questions she is forbidden to ask him. Hence, she ‘lay[s] for hours trying to decide whether that front pattern and the back pattern really did move together or separately.’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 51). Ostensibly she is considering here the effects of the different patterns on the wallpaper, but she is in truth, of course, conflating them with the social paradigms of men and women as the voices within her begin to confer and to re-signify, in Structuralist terms, patterns for genders.

This complexity of signs, signifiers and signified is extended as the story expands to encompass not just the voice of one woman against patriarchal oppression, but the voices of all women affected by the symptoms of neurasthenia, hysteria and puerperal mania described in the text[12]. It is these women that Gilman is reaching out to as a more resounding, composite voice is gradually revealed in her text. ‘[T]his final voice is collective, representing the narrator, the woman behind the wallpaper, and women elsewhere and everywhere’ (Treichlar, 1984, p. 74). It is a rallying call to women as the narrator speculates: ‘I wonder if they will all come out of that wall-paper as I did?’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 58 my emphasis). It is also a warning to men, and particularly to physicians. Gilman made this clear in 1913 when she wrote a short article entitled “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper?” (Gilman 3, 1998, p. author's punctuation). In this article, she states that:

[The Yellow Wallpaper] has to my knowledge saved one woman from a similar fate – so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered. / But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist [Silas Weir Mitchell][13] had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper. It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked. (Gilman 3, 1998, p. 349)

It certainly did work to some extent as ‘[t]he front pattern’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 55) resignified, or reimagined, as the male establishment ‘does move’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 55 author's emphasis) as ‘[t]he woman behind shakes it!’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 55). ‘The woman behind’ is, of course, a metaphor for all women ‘all the time trying to climb through’ the stranglehold of male domination, for which the front pattern is a complementary though competing metaphor. ‘But nobody can climb through that pattern – it strangles so; …’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 55), and so the battle goes on; men versus women; front pattern versus rear pattern; sanity versus psychosis.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

In his endeavours, John can count on the full support of his own and the narrator’s family and friends, as well as the approval of the milieus of social and class moralities. For example, John’s sister, Jennie, who emerges as the third voice in the story, ‘sees to everything now’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 47) and gives ‘a very good report’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 56) in response to John’s ‘professional questions’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 56). However, in a manner that reinforces the inferiority and insignificance of her status as a woman, Jennie’s voice is not heard directly in the story but is reported second-hand by the narrator. Jennie is alternately ‘good’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 48) and ‘sly’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 56) in the narrator’s eyes, but as ‘a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, [who] hopes for no better profession’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 47) she represents the ‘ideal female in nineteenth century America … [h]er sphere … the hearth and the nursery’ (Smith-Rosenberg, 1993, p. 79). She is the silent, compliant helpmeet desired by patriarchal society, and yet the narrator suspects that she, and indeed John, are ‘secretly affected by [the wallpaper]’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 56). This transposition of effect from patient to carer is another aspect of the narrator’s psychological torment as she supposes the wallpaper to have the same influence over others as it has over her.

Also silent (and nameless) in the text, but because of his physical absence rather than his gender, is the narrator’s brother. He is, like John we are told, ‘a physician … of high standing … [who] says the same thing’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 42); that is, he concurs with John’s diagnosis and treatment, thereby endorsing his sister’s subjugation with the doubly-authoritative voice of both a physician and a close male relative. Other members of the narrator’s family, such as her ‘mother and Nellie and the children’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 47), similarly condone John’s conduct by silently leaving her ‘tired out’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 47) at the end of their week’s visit, which ironically coincides with American Independence Day[14] – a day designed to celebrate a freedom and independence denied to women such as the narrator. The voices of these relatives are not heard, directly or indirectly, but their actions, perhaps, speak louder than their words could as they abandon the narrator to her fate.

Wives and mothers in the nineteenth century were expected to accept and abide by the word of their husbands and physicians and a wealth of regularly published and popular Conduct Literature and Motherhood Manuals (Powers, 1998) would have confirmed the narrator’s relatives in their belief that John was following the righteous path of reason in confining and restricting her as he does. Two such publications are Catharine Beecher’s A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) (Beecher, 1998) and Susan Powers’[15] The Ugly-Girl Papers or Hints for the Toilet, (Powers, 1998) first published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1874. Powers’ advice, for example, was designed "to increase 'a woman’s value', which, for Powers, “depends entirely on her use to the world and to that person who happens to have the most of her society” [ie: her husband] (Bauer, 1998, p. 74)

Powers goes on to profess that, as Dale M. Bauer summarises, ‘“writing women” are especially susceptible to madness and depravity’ (Bauer, 1998, p. 74), hence John’s prohibition of the narrator’s writing in The Yellow Wallpaper. Writing thirty years earlier than Powers, Beecher also considers women’s value in a male-dominated society when she suggests that academic and intellectual training are of little use to girls, asserting in 1841 that "the physical and domestic education of daughters should occupy the principal attention of mothers … and the stimulation of the intellect should be very much reduced." (Beecher, 1998, p. 72)

The conspicuously female voices of such Conduct Literature and Motherhood Manuals (Powers, 1998), therefore, reinforced and reiterated the teachings of the governing patriarchs, furthering their cause in manipulating and controlling the lives of women, who thus became complicit in their own compliance and subjugation by their ingestion of these imprudent and persuasive tracts. A clue to this counterintuitive endorsement of the patriarchal hierarchy on the part of women can be found in the words of Horace E. Scudder, the editor of Atlantic Monthly[16], to whom Gilman first submitted The Yellow Wallpaper in 1890: ‘I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself!’ (Gilman 4, 1998, p. 349), he wrote. His rejection, therefore, was based not on a lack of literary worth in the text, which he evidently found profoundly moving, but on his opinion that it would be too disturbing for his readers and could upset the status quo in society. In other words, men’s voices controlled the publishing industry, so to get published, a woman had to write to a white male mantra.

Thus, the marginalisation of women’s voices was widely endorsed, condoned and encouraged. Silas Weir Mitchell[17], for example, wrote that ‘[w]ise women choose their doctors and trust them. The wisest ask few questions.’ (Weir Mitchell, 1993, p. 105). Weir Mitchell was, at the time, considered to be ‘America’s leading expert on hysteria’ (Smith-Rosenberg, 1993, p. 86) and his ‘“rest cure” was internationally accepted and acclaimed’ (Erskine & Richards 2, 1993, p. 105). This treatment, described so vividly by the shifting voices of the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper, created ‘a sinister parody of idealized [sic] Victorian femininity: inertia, privatization [sic], narcissism, [and] dependency’ (Showalter, 1988, p. 274). Weir Mitchell’s methods ‘reduced [his patients] “to a condition of infantile dependence on their physician”’ (Parker[18] quoted in (Showalter, 1988, p. 274)), as is apparent in the narrator’s induced infantilisation in The Yellow Wallpaper. All around her the narrator observes ‘so many of those creeping women’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 58) who result from this regime and recognises herself among them. She is therefore alive to the consequences of her treatment whilst feeling powerless to do anything but succumb: ‘[a]nd what can one do?’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 41), she asks abjectly, and repeats the question twice in quick succession: ‘what is one to do?’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 42); ‘[b]ut what can one do?’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 42). In seeking resolution, she is already challenging John’s authority on the ‘dead paper’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 41) of her journal before progressing to doing so through the ‘live’ paper on the walls.

In writing The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman conveyed her own voice through the narrator, partly, I believe, in a cathartic resolution of her own experiences of depression and illness, but partly with a propagandist purpose of giving that voice to other oppressed women, because, as she wrote, ‘it is a pretty poor thing to write, to talk, without a purpose’ (Gilman 4, 1998, p. 350). John, I think, would agree with this sentiment, but Gilman, the narrator and he would be at odds in defining any one purpose of writing, of talking, or of language itself; further confirmation, if it were needed, of Derrida’s différance and the ambiguities of signs and signifiers in Saussure’s langue and parole. The internal and external voices of The Yellow Wallpaper serve to demonstrate the chasm that exists between, on the one hand, science, logic and reason, and on the other hand, creativity, compassion and emotion. They bring into question the justice of valuing the former (male) qualities over the latter (female) qualities and lead readers towards a more balanced appreciation of all six attributes. Gilman is not the first, nor the last, author to use fiction to address such rudimentary and controversial topics, but the voices she created were unique in the 1890s in providing, as ‘one [Dr] Brummel Jones, of Kansas city, … wrote … in 1892’ (Gilman 4, 1998, p. 351), a “detailed account of incipient insanity”’ (Gilman 4, 1998, p. 351). This doctor’s voice, contrasting as it does with the voices of his peers in the text, demonstrates how immediately Gilman’s message began to be heard, so it is regrettable how relevant it remains in many areas today.

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Treichlar, P., 1984. Escaping the Sentence; Diagnosis and Discourse in "The Yellow Wallpaper". Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 3(1/2, Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship Spring-Autumn 1984 Online at, pp. 61-77 accessed 28/03/16.

Weir Mitchell, S., 1993. Selections from Fat and Blood, Wear and Tear, and Doctor and Patient (1872-1886). In: T. Erskine & C. L. Richards, eds. "The Yellow Wallpaper". New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, pp. 105-111.

[1] Derrida’s concept of la différance is a pun on the English and French meanings of the word difference. In French the word means both ‘to differ’ and ‘to defer’, whereas in English ‘differ’ and ‘defer’ have very different meanings: ‘differ’ meaning to disagree, or be other than, and ‘defer’ meaning to delay or postpone. ‘Defer’ also means to submit or accede to the wishes of another, which is significant in the context of The Yellow Wallpaper, where the narrator must defer to her husband/physician. Derrida’s obituary states: ‘He argued that understanding something requires a grasp of the ways in which it relates to other things, and a capacity to recognise it on other occasions and in different contexts – which can never be exhaustively predicted. He coined the phrase “différance” … to characterise these aspects of understanding, and proposed that it lay at the heart of language and thought, at work in all meaningful activities in an elusive and provisional way.’ (Attridge & Baldwin, 2004)

[2] Kristeva is alluding here, I believe, to Freud’s thesis on The Uncanny (Freud, 2003), first published in 1919.

[3] Terry Eagleton states that ‘Literary Structuralism flourished in the 1960s as an attempt to apply to literature the methods and insights of the founder of modern structural linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure.’ (Eagleton, 2000, p. 84). Roland Barthes explains that ‘For [Saussure], the signified is the concept, and the signifier is the acoustic image (the mental image); and the relation between concept and image … is the sign (the word [or name], for example), or the concrete entity.’ (Barthes, 1957). See also footnote 8.

[4] This is a biblical allusion to Proverbs 18, lines 24-25:A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother’ (Bible Hub, pp. proverbs 18-24)

[5] The Oxford World Classics edition The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, (Gilman 2, 1998) places a question mark after the word ‘Jane’ (Gilman 2, 1998, p. 19). The reason for this is not clear, but there is, perhaps, an implication that her escape is because of John and Jane rather than ‘in spite of’ them. This adds a new dimension to the psychology behind the story as John’s motivation and modus operandi become more sinister.

[6] The narrator also includes ‘tonics, and journeys, and air and exercise’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 42) in her list of John’s prescriptions, but the text includes little to indicate her conscious access to these.

[7] Dale M. Bauer, editor, notes that ‘phosphates and phosphites’ referred to: ‘Any salt or ester of phosphorous acid, used during the nineteenth century to cure exhaustion of the nerve centres, neuralgia, mania, melancholia, and often sexual exhaustion’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 42n).

[8] Signs and the things they signify are, as explained in footnote 3, arbitrary and apply only as long as everyone in a particular community agrees to use them; as Shakespeare wrote in Romeo & Juliet (1594-96) ‘a rose [b]y any other name would smell as sweet’ (Shakespeare, 2002, pp. 129: II:II:43-44), and does in languages other than English (eg: Irish ardaigh; Welsh rhosyn), but for our narrator there is a greater sweetness – a greater freedom - to be found outside the confines of that name with which she has hitherto been signified in her community.

[9] Available to download at accessed 08/03/16

[10] Ferdinand de Saussure defined speech – or what people actually said – as parole, and language – or the ‘objective structure of signs which made their speech possible in the first place’ (Eagleton, 2000, p. 84) as langue. Hence ‘”[i]n the linguistic system, there are only differences” – meaning is not mysteriously immanent in a sign but is functional, the result of its difference from other signs.’ (Eagleton, 2000, p. 84): therein is his link to Derrida’s différance.

[11] Carter was a leading nineteenth century British expert in treating cases of hysteria. More about his contribution to this field can be found in (Smith-Rosenberg, 1986), from which (Smith-Rosenberg, 1993) is taken.

[12] These three terms were commonly used in the nineteenth century to denote what we, in the twenty-first century, might call post-natal depression. Fordyce Barker, writing in 1883, states that ‘Puerperal mania is the form with which obstetricians have most frequently to deal’ (Barker, 1998, p. 180) and he lists a range of symptoms similar to those attributed to the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper.

[13] Silas Weir Mitchell is the doctor with whom John threatens his wife in The Yellow Wallpaper (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 47) and the doctor who in real life treated Gilman for her ‘nervous prostration’ (Weir Mitchell, 1993) in 1887.

[14] The narrator marks their visit with: ‘Well, the Fourth of July is over! The people [mother, Nellie and the children] are all gone and I am tired out …’ (Gilman 1, 1998, p. 47). July fourth is the day Americans celebrate the signing of their Declaration of Independence in 1776, freeing them from British imperial and colonial power, but obviously not from the colonisation of women by men, blacks by whites, etc.

[15] Bauer’s section subheading is Susan Power - From The Ugly-Girl Papers, but she later refers to Susan as ‘Powers’ (Powers, 1998, p. 74). Research confirms the latter surname to be correct: see, for example, (Powers, 2014) and (Powers & Harper & Brothers, 1996), where a full-text pdf copy of the papers can be downloaded.

[16] One of the oldest and most respected of American reviews, The Atlantic Monthly was founded in 1857 … [and] … has long been noted for the quality of its fiction and general articles, contributed by a long line of distinguished editors and authors’ (The Atlantic Monthly, 2016)

[17] See footnote 13

[18] Showalter is quoting from (Parker, 1972, p. 49)

© 2016 Jacqueline Stamp


Jacqueline Stamp (author) from UK on November 02, 2017:

Readers of this article might also enjoy John Sutherland's consideration of Gilman's novel in his chapter entitled 'What Cure for the Madwoman in the Attic' on pages 192-199 of his book 'Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? More Puzzles in Classic Fiction'. My copy was published by Oxford UP as part of its World Classics series in 2000.

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