Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-paper"—Writing Women

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Front page illustration for the original serialized version of The Yellow  Wallpaper from the New England Magazine (1892).

Front page illustration for the original serialized version of The Yellow Wallpaper from the New England Magazine (1892).

Credit: Poster courtesy of Library of Congress' Nineteenth Century in Print Collection.

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia—and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded that there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to 'live as domestic a life as possible,' to 'have but two hours' intelligent life a day,' and 'never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as I lived.' This was in 1887…"
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wall-paper," 1913

"Every kind of creature is developed by the exercise of its functions. If denied the exercise of its functions, it can not develop in the fullest degree."
—Charlotte Perkins Stetson (Gilman),
from Hearing of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., January 28, 1896

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wall-paper" was written during a time of great change. In the early- to mid-nineteenth century, "domestic ideology" positioned American middle class women as the spiritual and moral leaders of their home. Such "separate spheres" ideals suggested that a woman's place was in the private domain of the home, where she should carry out her prescribed roles of wife and mother. Men, on the other hand, would rule the public domain through work, politics, and economics. By the middle of the century, this way of thinking began to change as the seeds of early women's rights were planted. By the end of the 1800s, feminists were gaining momentum in favor of change. The concept of "The New Woman," for example, began to circulate in the 1890s-1910s as women pushed for broader roles outside their home-roles that could draw on women's intelligence and non-domestic skills and talents.

Gilman advocated revised roles for women, whom, Gilman believed, should be on much more equal economic, social, and political footing with men. In her famous work of nonfiction Women and Economics (1898), Gilman argued that women should strive-and be able-to work outside the home. Gilman also believed that women should be financially independent from men, and she promoted the then-radical idea that men and women even should share domestic work.

First appearing in the New England Magazine in January 1892, "The Yellow Wall-paper," according to many literary critics, is a narrative study of Gilman's own depression and "nervousness." Gilman, like the narrator of her story, sought medical help from the famous neurologist S. Weir Mitchell. Mitchell prescribed his famous "rest cure," which restricted women from anything that labored and taxed their minds (e.g., thinking, reading, writing) and bodies. More than just a psychological study of postpartum depression, Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-paper" offers a compelling study of Gilman's own feminism and of roles for women in the 1890s and 1910s.

This lesson plan, the second part of a two-part lesson, should be completed after students examine and understand the historical, social, cultural, and economic context of Gilman's story in Lesson One. This lesson requires a close reading of "The Yellow Wall-paper" itself within the context of students' research and analysis in the first part of the full lesson. This lesson is also suitable as a stand-alone lesson plan focusing on a close reading of Gilman's story, exploring such literary concepts as setting, narrative style, symbol, and characterization.

Guiding Questions

  • What does Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wall-paper" suggest about middle-class women's place and role(s) in this society?

Learning Objectives

  • Upon completing this lesson, students will strengthen their understanding of literary devices such as setting, narrative style, symbol, and characterization.
  • Students will gain an understanding of the rapidly changing roles of American women in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
  • Students will be able to provide a well-supported analysis of how the narrator of "The Yellow Wall-paper" represents Gilman's feminism.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Writing Women
  • Two online texts for "The Yellow Wallpaper" are available: the full text of "The Yellow Wall-paper" (1899 edition), available online at the University of Virginia Library's Electronic Text Center via EDSITEment-reviewed Center for the Liberal Arts, or the original New England Magazine version, available online at the Library of Congress' Nineteenth Century in Print Collection (periodicals).
  • As an option, students (especially those who did not complete Lesson One) can read Gilman's brief suffrage commentary in the Votes for Women Collection from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory collection, which further contextualizes Gilman's views
  • If students explored the contextual material for the story in Lesson One, each small group should have presented its findings. With this context in mind, begin a class discussion on the following general question, "What does Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wall-paper" suggest about a middle-class woman's place and role(s) in society in the mid- to late-nineteenth century?"

    Have students draw on their worksheets for class discussion, and relate answers back to students' findings in Lesson One. Students should explore how the story is told (the form) and how this influences the manner in which we perceive the main character and her situation.
  • In the course of your discussion about the form, content, and context of the story, discuss the following passages [sections correspond to University of Virginia online version]. During the course of the discussion, students should draw on their notes from their Active Reading Worksheet.
    • Section 1, "It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer. A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity but that would be asking too much of fate!"

      Questions:
      • How would you describe the story's setting?
      • How and why is the setting significant?
    • Section 1, "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 one reason I do not get well faster."

      Questions:
      • How would you describe the narrator's husband?
      • What is the narrator's style of writing? What is her tone?
    • Section 1, "Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good."

      Questions:
      • What does the narrator believe would be the best cure for her?
      • How does this contrast with what her husband and brother say? Ask students to cite additional passages from their active reading notes.
      • How does Gilman's vision of work compare to the roles of the mother in the "Light of the Home" image and the representation of "keeping house" in the "I Can't Keep House without It" (1918) advertisement?
    • Section 1, "There comes John, and I must put this away-he hates to have me write a word."

      Questions:
      • What is the narrative style of this story? What is the effect of this journal style narrative in developing the main character?
      • How does it influence how the reader understands the main character?
    • Section 2, "Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able, -to dress and entertain, and order things.

      It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous.

      I suppose John never was nervous in his life. He laughs at me so about this wall-paper!

      At first he meant to repaper the room, but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies.

      He said that after the wall-paper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on.

      "You know the place is doing you good," he said, "and really, dear, I don't care to renovate the house just for a three months' rental." "Then do let us go downstairs," I said, "there are such pretty rooms there."

      Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain.

      But he is right enough about the beds and windows and things. It is an airy and comfortable room as any one need wish, and, of course, I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim. I'm really getting quite fond of the big room, all but that horrid paper.

      Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deepshaded arbors, the riotous old fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees. Out of another I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf belonging to the estate. There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house. I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.

      I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me. But I find I get pretty tired when I try."

      Questions:
      • How does the narration mimic the narrator's mental state?
      • Point out digressions and discuss why the narrator might digress during her account. Review the 1867 Godey's quote from the "Motherhood" essay in Lesson One ("About every true mother there is a sanctity of martyrdom- and when she is no more in the body, her children see her with the ring of light around her head."). Compare this description to the narrator's role of mother.
    • Section 3, "And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head."

      Question:
      • What does this passage suggest about the relationship between the narrator and her husband?
      • How would you characterize the narrator?
      • How would you characterize the husband?
      • Ask students to cite another passage from their active reading notes to support their claim. Students might compare the narrator's and John's relationship to the relationship in the "Puss in the Corner" poem (introduced in Lesson One, section 1.a).
    • Section 3, "And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don't like it a bit. I wonder—I begin to think—I wish John would take me away from here!"

      Questions:
      • What is the significance of the woman behind the yellow wall-paper?
      • To aid discussion for the above question, compare the narrator's feelings about the wall-paper to the tone and message of the 1890 cartoon, For the benefit of the girl about to graduate, discussed in Lesson One (section 1.c.).
    • Section 4, "The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John."

      Questions:
      • How would you describe the narrator's mental state in Section 6?
      • How has she changed?
      • What is her tone at this point in the story?
    • Sections 5-9 (5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

      Questions:
      • What do you notice about the narrator's diction in Sections 5-9?
      • How does the narration change?
    • Section 10, ""What is the matter?" he cried. "For God's sake, what are you doing!"

      I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. "I've got out at last," said I, "in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!"

      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!"

      Questions:
      • What does the narrator mean by, "I got out at last?"
      • What does the ending of this story suggest about the woman behind the wall-paper?
      • How are this woman and the wall-paper itself symbolic?
      • Discuss the metaphor of the window in relationship to "getting out."
      • Compare the stopping woman to images of women doing domestic work you encountered in Lesson One.

Assessment

Here are some assessment options:

  • Active Reading Worksheet: Students should indicate that they have actively read "The Yellow Wall-paper" by providing thoughtful and well-supported responses to "Active Reading Questions" questions.
  • Small Group Presentations: Students should provide a clear understanding of their assigned topic, referencing strong support from corresponding Web sites.
  • Class Discussion: Students should engage actively and thoughtfully in full class discussions of key elements and "The Yellow Wall-paper."
  • Two-page Writing Assignment: Ask students to write a two-page essay that answers the lesson's guiding question: What does Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wall-paper" suggest about middle-class women's place and role(s) in this society? Require each student to include a brief discussion of at least three different examples of literary devices (e.g., setting, tone, symbol).

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Short Stories
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Using primary sources
Authors
  • Kellie Tabor-Hann (AL)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Student Resources
Media

Related Lessons