Reflections of Kafka and Gilman: The Significance of Social Reflection in “Die Verwandlung” and “The Yellow Wallpaper”

by Christopher Sheehan

The work of the two orders of men is at the bottom the same, – a criticism of life. The end and aim of all literature, if one considers it attentively, is, in truth, nothing but that.

–Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism

In the epigraph, Arnold’s coupling of literature and truth refers in particular to those who Arnold describes as men of genius and men of ability. In consideration of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I extend Arnold’s literary vision in Essays in Criticism to Charlotte Perkins Gilman as well, as a reflection of her demonstrated ability to satirize. In this respect, both Kafka and Gilman have written stories that criticize life in their distinctive societies. “Die Verwandlung” [“The Metamorphosis”[i]] and “The Yellow Wallpaper” benefit, therefore, from consideration of their historical context, which attributes importance to the way both authors represent their respective societies and cultures. The events of both stories contain fantastic elements, which does not elicit the response of literal representation, but rather, reflects a particular interpretation of society’s interaction with those who do not participate in the social ideology – voluntarily or involuntarily. Through the representation of the family dynamic in terms of the respective transformations of both protagonists, the veil of das Unheimliche [the Uncanny] obscures them to their families and relegates them to the margins of society.

The corporeal transformation that both protagonists experience requires them to reinterpret and alter their once-adequate environments. Gregor’s physical body is transformed beyond recognition, though (as far as the reader may apprehend) his consciousness remains intact. Despite this, Gregor’s family is not able to recognize him through his transformation, nor is Gregor able to conduct himself in any recognizable way. Likewise, by the end of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator’s actions no longer reflect the sense of patience and trust for John (the narrator’s husband and physician) that allows her to conform to society’s view of the role of women, according to the governing ideology. As an indication of mental deterioration, she affects a style of posture that she refers to as “creeping” (“Wallpaper” 38). This serves as an indication of her altered mental state, resulting in her physician-husband fainting when he sees her creeping around the room and (subsequently) over his unconscious body. The narrator, of course, expresses her confusion towards his reaction.

The foregrounding of the protagonists’ transformations reflects Michel’s Foucault’s analysis of madness and asylum in Madness and Civilization, which explores the way convention has shaped our reaction to mental instability, as well as alternatives to that convention. I extrapolate this to a more general sense, in terms of Foucault’s idea as applied to those who are marginalized by society for lacking the ability or means to be a “productive” member of society. In terms of asylum, the physical spaces inhabited by the protagonists and their families exist as representations of Kafka’s and Gilman’s interpretations of late-19th to early 20th century Austrian and affluent American culture, respectively. Within these representative spaces, Kafka’s Gregor Samsa and Gilman’s unnamed narrator assume an unheimlich[ii] role within their families. As a result, they are falsely interpreted and experience incarceration within once-familiar surroundings. This incarceration redirects the unheimlich effect that these protagonists have on their families, whereby their surroundings progressively reflect their families’ response to their transformations. Thus, the families further alienate the protagonists from the ideological basis of their respective societies, which precludes the protagonists’ productive participation in society.

Freud describes the unheimlich object as “nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression” (Freud 944). Though the connotations of Freud’s concept of repression typically involve a subconscious mental process, in these texts I also associate “repression” with the intentional denial of significant transformation – most notably from the families’ point of view John, the husband of Gilman’s narrator, denies that the rest cure is ineffective against her ailment. His insistence only exacerbates her condition and leads to her embodiment of the identity that she associates with the woman[iii] behind the bars of the wallpaper. Gregor’s family refuses to believe that the creature in Gregor’s room has any connection to him, even though they initially exhibit some sense of responsibility to take care of him. The families’ responses result from their inability to interpret the protagonists outside of an unheimlich context, which partially arises from their conflicted recognition of the protagonists as familiar, yet unfamiliar enough to treat differently.

The families’ inability to reconcile new and old information precludes the possibility of a working re-interpretation and improvement of the condition of Gregor and Gilman’s narrator. This failed process mirrors the act of interpretation that readers engage in when reading a text. A commonly taught strategy of interpretation concerns an apprehension of the author’s intentions, which can also be said of Gregor’s family and the husband of Gilman’s narrator. Their failed attempt to create a faithful interpretation, and the detrimental side-effects of it, reflect the inadequate nature of this strategy. The author’s purpose in writing the text, or their projected context for it, may help the reader understand the climate of the times in which it was written, but it does not necessarily need to influence the reader’s interpretation of the text. Oftentimes, the ideas readers have about these intentions are conjecture formed under the influence of autobiographical information. In that context, both families have their own ideas of how the protagonists normally act, as well as how they should act based on social conventions. When the protagonists’ transformations alter this idea, their families’ inability to reconcile the differences problematizes the protagonists’ positioning in their own households, as well as society – insofar as their households create a microcosmic resemblance of society’s governing ideology.

In her essay “Writing,” Barbara Johnson summarizes Jacque Derrida’s ideas of how readers create significance from texts. Through an interpretation of Derrida’s ideas, she communicates a view that presents authorial intention as more of a façade than we might acknowledge: “When one writes, one writes more than (or less than, or other than) one thinks” (46). An author cannot have reasonably conceived of all the responses that readers will have to his/her writing. One reader may interpret the father in “Die Verwandlung” as an authority figure, interacting with Gregor as an enforcer and warden, while another may view him with the connotations of the Oedipal Father that Sigmund Freud describes. A reader of “The Yellow Wallpaper” may likewise view the narrator’s husband/physician as an authority figure. A more feminist reading of the text, however, may produce an interpretation of John as a symbol of male dominance and perpetrator of female oppression. On these grounds, Johnson claims that the reader has the ability to pursue significance outside of any attempt to discern what the author meant by writing the text: “The reader’s task is to read what is written, rather than simply attempt to intuit what might have been meant” (46). At the same time as this idea vindicates the families for “misinterpreting” the protagonists’ intentions, it also complicates the idea of an ideologically-based interpretation, through which a person may attempt to create understanding through a restricting frame. In a typical deconstructionist way, Johnson’s reading of Derrida’s separates the words on the page from their author, and attempts to derive significance from how these words are strung together, allowing them to reveal connections that are outside of that text’s particular context. In both “Die Verwandlung” and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the families’ consistently contextualized interpretations prevent them from connecting the protagonists’ actions with positive intent.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman perfectly exemplifies the distinction between the strategies of reading words versus reading intentions in her short essay “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper.” Readers don’t often get the straightforward explanation that Gilman provides for her audience. She tells her readers that her conscious decision to work – “in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite” (54) – allowed her to regain power and save herself from the brink of madness. While she does not attempt to tell us what “The Yellow Wallpaper” means, she does tell us that she wrote it for a specific reason: “to save people from being driven crazy” (55). According to Johnson’s reading of Derrida, readers should not let their interpretation of a text be driven by the author’s vision of it, which constitutes only one potential facet of understanding a text.

How does this affect our reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper?” Does Gilman give us the definitive closure that most authors cannot offer us? Johnson finds a resounding no through Derrida. While Gilman offers a unique insight into her story, it cannot stop a reader from reading the story through the lens of personal significance. Though Gilman has stated her purpose, the meaning of the story is not fixed. In a way, Gilman simply offers another interpretation of a story that perhaps belongs no more to her than to any of its readers who have formed their own interpretations and conceptions of it.

In his essay “Interpretation,” Steven Mailloux also acknowledges the inability of one particular interpretation to serve every purpose that one may look for it to fill. He states that the varied usage that different readers have for the same text creates the need to make choices when translating a text: “the interpreter mediates between the translated text and its new rendering and between the untranslated text and the audience desiring the translation” (121). The idea of “translation” for Mailloux indicates a greater range of literary meaning than translating a work from one language to another. The idea, and practicality, of translation entails moving a text between languages of understanding, of which linguistic difference constitutes just the traditional understanding. Even if the language of a text is the reader’s own, it may be used in such a way that is unclear to the reader, and so the reader must translate to understand (like code-switching).

In this sense, the language of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is deceptively graspable. Because the story chronicles the protagonist’s descent into madness, her choice of language illuminates her condition better than she might consciously (or purposely) articulate. She personifies the yellow wallpaper in her room with a particularly sinister disposition: “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!” (29). By perceiving the wallpaper’s influence, she presents an interpretation of her environment that acknowledges the way it has begun to reshape her. Her interpretation of the yellow wallpaper performs an unheimlich transformation upon herself, which drives her towards insanity. By the end of the story, the narrator is found creeping around the room, completely identifying with the woman from the wallpaper, in whom she initially saw none of herself: “‘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!” (58). Aside from the fact that she has aligned herself with the woman she perceived behind the wallpaper, her language indicates that a change has taken place. Her use of “said I” sounds incongruous with sanity in this context, especially when we take into account her previous formulations of language that adhere to conventional linguistic practices. At the beginning of the story, before the influence of the yellow wallpaper, she frames an interaction with John as “I said” (44). Additionally, when she says “in spite of you and Jane[iv],” the wording recalls an earlier point in the story, when she begins to become accustomed to the wallpaper: “I’m really getting fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper” (48). This earlier use of “in spite” places her in opposition to the wall. As she creeps around the room at the end of the story, however, “in spite” vilifies Jane and John. This demonstrates her reinterpretation of herself through the unheimlich lens she discovers through her seclusion in the room, which is sanctioned by accepted medical practices and magnifies the wallpaper’s influence.

Even though she assigns positive and negative connotations to various expressive pieces of furniture, we do not see madness in these interpretations of her environment – only within her descriptions of the wallpaper’s effects on her. Though seemingly contradictory, the other instances of the narrator personifying furniture actually elicit the reader’s complicit identification. She asserts, “we all know how much expression [inanimate objects] have” (29; emphasis added). This assertion evokes the readers’ sympathies through the frame of unembarrassed confession, which masquerades as the telling of a basic truth about the interpretation of one’s environment, reminiscent of childhood and innocence. We do not necessarily need to agree with her or identify with her characterizations in order to experience her endearment to the reader through her projection of a particular idea of sanity onto her audience.

In connection with my above argument about her significant use of “said I” instead of “I said,” I also argue that an unheimlich process is at work in this mode of confession. The narrator writes her thoughts in her journal; therefore, epistolary connotations frame “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a conversation with herself. Her previously-mentioned change of syntax mirrors the comparative change in her mental state between the beginning and the the end of the story. Therefore, her idealization of the reader’s perspective can be viewed as the beginning of her transformation into the unheimlich part of herself that serves to normalize her feelings towards the household furniture. She does not need the reader to reassure her of their similar experiences. Rather, she presents it as a necessary tie to the reader through her conception of the reader as coming from a similar state of mind, which she desires to label as normal[v]. A rejection of this idea of sanity – and insight into the narrator’s transformation – depends on the reader’s willingness to indulge in the self-deprecating identification with the signs of instability that she progressively reveals through whimsical and paranoid interpretation.

Her use of language voices her desire to find validation – in a misery-loves-company way. Initially, she is able to mask the deviance of her thoughts by seeking affirmation in the reader. Her instability becomes immediately clear, however, when she characterizes herself by the same language that she has formerly used to characterize the movement of the woman that she sees behind the wallpaper: “I always lock the door when I creep by the daylight” (38). She communicates this message without any apprehension, and indeed it is presented to the reader nonchalantly. Beyond the obvious indication that she “creeps” – a word she previously used to characterize the movement of the woman behind the wallpaper – her confession utilizes an “always . . . when” structure. This communicates to the reader, almost as subtly as she indicates that a transformation has taken place, that creeping is regular behavior; she does it often enough to have adopted a pattern of behavior regarding it.

My reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper” emphasizes how the narrator’s specific arrangement of words dictates the interpretations that are available to the reader. Translation introduces another concern to the act of interpretation. The connotations of the text are altered because the words of a different language tradition can only create an approximation of the original text. As this is a concern for an English-speaking reader attempting to read “Die Verwandlung,” so it is also a concern for Gregor’s family, as he is unable to communicate with them through a common language tradition after his transformation. Because they cannot rely on his own assertion of his intentions, Gregor’s family must form their own interpretations. In a similar fashion, each of the many translations of “Die Verwandlung” reflects the particular literary or linguistic aim of the translator. The popular conception of Gregor as a cockroach reflects this idea of the subjectivity of translation. Kafka describes Gregor as an “Ungeziefer” (56), which has ambiguous connotations in German that the vague word vermin captures better than the more specific cockroach that is often associated with descriptions of Gregor’s form.

Gregor’s form at the onset of the story does indeed share some affinity with a cockroach’s: “Er lag auf seinem panzerartig harten Rücken und sah, wenn er den Kopf ein wenig hob, seinen gewölbten, braunen, von bogenförmigen Versteifungen geteilten Bauch . . .” [He lay on his armored back and saw, if he held his head up, his curved, brown stomach, segmented with arched supports . . .] (56). The text alludes to the overall appearance of Gregor through partial descriptions like this, but his form is never described (or identified) as a whole. The explicit identification of Gregor with the cockroach represents a distinct translation and interpretation, as well as a strategy of understanding. It conceives of Gregor in terms of a rational connection to our own world, based on viewing him as an amalgamation of the partial descriptions of his body. This restricts the vision of the piece, despite its attempts at sense-making, as well as its potential to create a more coherent representation of the story from vague details. The term Ungeziefer is purposely ambiguous, enforcing the idea that Gregor’s transformation is less important than the fact that he undergoes a transformation that compels his family to subsequently interpret him as ungeheuren [“monstrous”]. The vagueness of Ungeziefer provides the reader with the opportunity to grapple with the text; it challenges the reader to accept Gregor’s humanity in spite of his ungeheuren appearance.

As a way of interpreting a text, Mailloux describes historicizing as “a strategy of placing the text in the historical context of its production” (124). It works in conjunction with the text to clarify information, but not necessarily to indicate its meaning; just as knowing the author’s intention – as we know Gilman’s – does not restrict the possible meanings that we may derive from the text. Discussing “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Die Verwandlung” in terms of their ability to represent historical societies, entails an examination of how these depicted environments reflect the framing social milieu. This entails looking at Gilman’s and Kafka’s experience to derive some sense of how their respective stories reflect, but do not necessarily depict, biographical information.

As I briefly examined above, by writing “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman hoped to communicate that the rest cure was potentially more dangerous than the sickness that it was intended to treat. She tells the reader that she finally decided to work after she “came so near to the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over” (“Why I Wrote” 52). The mental illness that Gilman experienced undoubtedly sets the scene for “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Jonathan Crewe addresses the implications of this in his essay “Queering ‘The Yellow Wallpaper?’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Politics of Form.” Crewe asserts that this association “drastically reduces the story’s field of implication” (277). For Crewe, the identification of Gilman’s narrator through Gilman’s own sphere of experience limits potential interpretations of the story. Just as Gregor is not specifically identified as a cockroach, however, neither is Gilman’s narrator identified as suffering from postpartum depression – any assertion of the validity of those two reflects a particular interpretation. This is not to say that the autobiographic elements are pure coincidence[vi]; certain details are integral to Gilman’s professed purpose in writing the story. The narrator must be female and suffering from some kind of mental affliction[vii] in order to be prescribed the rest cure, so that her subsequent madness could communicate the method’s ineffectiveness and advocate for change. We need not read the story as Gilman’s soapbox for advocating the disuse of the rest cure. Nevertheless, the dynamic between Gilman’s narrator and her husband/physician reflects the historical climate during which the pathologization of hysteria popularized the rest cure.

In her essay, “New Feminist Socialism – Community in the Writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman,” Catherine Kalish addresses the issue of embracing the story’s biographical relevance. She points out that the readers’ desire to view “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a better depiction of Gilman’s life than her autobiography[viii] is “not the best solution that readers can employ” (130). Though Gilman addresses aspects of her life through “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Kalish argues that interpreting the story as a metaphor for her life over-simplifies the matter. Her argument involves Gilman’s preoccupation with and dependence on community: “In her autobiography, Gilman presents her own hybrid of feminism, socialism, and humanitarianism. Hence, community emerges as an answer to the struggles that Gilman faced as a woman scholar in the early 20th century” (130). For Gilman, “community” entails the company of like-minded women: “If only I could recall the names of all the kind and friendly women I have met! Women from all over the world, fine women, thoughtful progressive women” (qtd. in Kalish 132). In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” however, the only woman that the narrator interacts with is her sister-in-law Jennie[ix], who does not create the same sense of community for the narrator that Gilman expresses. Instead, the narrator approaches Jennie as a challenger in her attempt to unravel the secret of the wallpaper: “But I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself!” (35). This does not suggest an inherent inability to create a community on Jennie’s part, but rather the narrator’s perception of Jennie as unable to participate in her refutation of ideological dependence. The process of the narrator’s identification with the woman she perceives behind the wallpaper reinforces her sense of both Jennie’s and John’s repressive force. Additionally, John’s strategy for treating her precludes any instance of the narrator reaching out to Jennie, as the insistence upon confinement directs her interpretation and identification solely to the wallpaper. Rest is undoubtedly a solitary activity, unless one attributes any meaning to interactions within one’s dreams, which the narrator might, in light of her perception of the women behind the wallpaper.

The alienation of Gilman’s narrator reinforces the idea of autonomy that Foucault attributes to the strategy of Samuel Tuke, a philanthropist who ran the “Retreat” (243), in his chapter entitled “The Birth of the Asylum” from Madness and Civilization. The strange and unheard-of gesture that Tuke is said to have extended to “a maniac” (245), was to allow him to move about the Retreat free of confinement: “He had no sooner arrived than all his shackles were removed, and he was permitted to dine with the keepers; his agitation immediately ceased” (245). This gesture indicates the sense of community afforded to Tuke’s guests. His gesture allows the guest to interpret the surroundings through association with the men who were free to move around, and also because of the actual sense of community afforded by a shared meal (which both Gregor and Gilman’s narrator are deprived of). Foucault’s example emphasizes the ability of community to relieve the tension that may cause or exacerbate mental illness, saying of the patient: “At the end of four months, he left the Retreat, entirely cured” (246). Tuke’s actions normalized the patient’s illness by allowing him to dine as an equal amongst his caretakers. This is in direct opposition to the narrator’s confinement and solitude in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which reinforces the idea that she requires coddling and special treatment that diminishes her sense of self-worth and competence – perhaps even more so since she is not entrusted with the care of her child[x].

Although she has just given birth, the narrator mentions very little about the baby; it even eventually falls to Jennie to assume the role of mother. By preventing the narrator from fulfilling this role herself, John’s treatment unwittingly ostracizes her from the rest of the family, as well as the ideology that compels her participation in this role, which she is prevented from filling. As this process of ideological disenchantment progresses, her former conception of the reader as confidant collapses. The narrator begins to conceive of the reader as another potential competitor, like Jennie: “I have found out another funny thing, but I shan’t tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much” (39). In addition to indicating her distrust of the reader, it also serves to establish the reader as someone other than herself, despite the use of epistolary form through her journal entries. By isolating her from the rest of her potential community, the narrator’s husband facilitates her fixation on the wallpaper, thereby producing the identification with what is initially das Unheimliche. Her subsequent unwillingness to collaborate with anyone other than the women behind the wallpaper reinforces her disconnection with society, and allows the reinterpretation of herself in terms of the solitary and further confined existence of an individual stripped of the autonomy that ideologically-based society attributes to conventional behaviors[xi].

Gilman tells the reader that she escaped the fate that awaits the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by disobeying her physician’s orders for fear that she would suffer the same fate that she projects onto her protagonist. Gilman’s explanation thus provides a perspective through which a reader may glimpse her interpretation and translation of the social climate during the time she was living and writing. The idea of rest as a treatment for hysteria informs not only the medical discourse of the time, but also the skewed relationship between men and women. As a facet of this, Gilman’s representation of family dynamics indicates the inferior position of women, through her representation of the twofold authority that John has in relation to the narrator as her physician and husband. A feminist reading might argue that this duality foregrounds the idea of men as the primary oppressive force over women, as the relationship between the narrator and her husband can be extrapolated in terms of the relative positions of men and women in society, as per Gilman’s depiction of medical discourse as an extension of the governing ideology that she depicts.

Jonathan Crewe addresses this idea through the medical discourse at the time, focusing on how women were diagnosed with hysteria, and the particular implications of it. Crewe asserts that “The Yellow Wallpaper” “confirms the importance of distinguishing carefully between depathologization and the wholesale denial of pathology” (288), which is to say that he views hysteria as the pathological creation of male-dominated medical discourse, particularly during the time of the rest cure’s popularity. Now that medical practices have moved past the classification of hysteria as pathology, however, Crewe urges the reader to recognize the difference between denying pathology altogether, and depathologizing hysteria. The former rejects the idea of disease and its implications, while the latter entail a reexamination of the practices associated with the diagnosis of hysteria. He also identifies Gilman’s position on this topic as a “polemical redetermination of her protagonist’s ailment as a purely sociological condition arising from female unemployment and incapacitation” (288). Gilman’s opinion is communicated by the turn of events with her protagonist, which allows her to address the idea of pathology through John’s treatment of the narrator and its increasingly negative effects on her. According to Crewe, his treatment is ultimately ineffective because it participates in the formerly-prevalent idea that hysteria was a disease and needed to be treated. This reflects the similarly unnecessary and detrimental pathologization present in “Die Verwandlung” through Gregor’s struggle to be understood by his family.

Although “Die Verwandlung” does not reflect autobiographical influence as strongly as Gilman’s story, Kafka’s life does share some similarities to the position in which Gregor finds himself. In The Kafka Problem, Kate Flores tells us that after Kafka received his “doctorate in jurisprudence . . . he continued to live with his parents, where he had his own room and the solicitous care of his mother, but there could be no thought of accepting further support from his father” (6). This dynamic makes an appearance in “Die Verwandlung” as well, only the roles are initially reversed, so that the father (indeed the entire family) is supported by Gregor: “Wenn ich mich nicht wegen meiner Eltern zurückhielte, ich hätte längst gekündigt, ich wäre vor den Chef hingetreten und hätte ihm meine Meinung von Grund des Herzens ausgesagt” (57) [If I did not have my parents to think about, I would have resigned long ago; I would have gone before my boss and told him just how I feel]. Like Gilman, who wrote in “embellishments and additions to carry out the ideal” (“Why I Wrote” 52), Kafka’s portrayal of Gregor does not necessarily represent his own position in real life. It nonetheless reflects the necessary complacency of someone on whom people are dependent, which entails the performance of a role according to an ideology, for the sake of maintaining the relationship between productivity and living a comfortable/prosperous life.

The role that Kafka was most reluctant to fill seems to be the role of father – in terms of both supporting a family and possessing authority. In Kafka: A Very Short Introduction, Ritchie Robertson provides us with an excerpt from Kafka’s Brief an den Vater [Letters to my Father], in which he writes about his father’s influence over his ideas of marriage: “marrying is the greatest thing and gives the most creditable independence, but at the same time it is most closely connected to you [Kafka’s father]” (qtd. in Robertson 8). Robertson concludes from this statement a conception of Kafka’s relation to his father as a reflection of their power struggle: “what Kafka formulates here is the classic oedipal relationship” (8). “Die Verwandlung” presents Gregor’s attempted mimesis of his father through his assumption of the roles that were typically identified with a father figure. The family, however, remains under his father’s patriarchal authority. Gregor’s actions, therefore, indicate an instance of borrowing conventional, ideologically-based behavior, rather than identification and replication, as the Oedipal Father requires.

As a reflection of this patriarchal struggle, Gregor’s father is his biggest source of anxiety once he has transformed, at which point Gregor relinquishes the power he held over his father through his supporting income and his help with their debt. Post-transformation, Gregor’s father reestablishes authority by frightening Gregor and attempting to control his movements: “Unerbittlich drängte der Vater und stieβ Zischlaute aus, wie ein Wilder” (69) [the father advanced relentlessly and hissed like a savage]. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Jennie is dismissed for consideration in the narrator’s community, based on the narrator’s clouded perspective and her assumptive judgment that they have disparate goals. Gregor’s dismissal from his family community reflects this assumptive judgment, based on his “monstrous” appearance, as well as his actual inability to be productive in social-ideological terms. When Gregor was providing the income of the family, the father was forced to take a secondary role in decisions concerning the family. As an indication of this, the event of Gregor’s death reveals his influence over the family’s lifestyle: “sie wollten nun eine kleinere und billigere, aber besser gelegene und überhaupt praktischere Wohnung nehmen, als es die jetzige, noch von Gregor ausgesuchte war” (99) [they would take a smaller and cheaper, but better situated and overall more practical apartment, than the current one that Gregor had chosen]. The story portrays the family as coming out from under the huge burden of Gregor’s influence, which stands in contrast to their former dependence upon his willingness to support them and their complacency with the lifestyle that he afforded them.

The irony of their rejection of Gregor is that three people grow tired of supporting one non-contributing person, whereas Gregor previously supported three people who did not work, additionally paying for a maid and a cook. This is not to say that Gregor did not complain, for he certainly seems aware of the bitterness he is entitled to feel for the non-negotiable part he must play in reducing his parents’ debt. The task itself paying off their debt does not annoy him – only that he must do so in the service of the man from whom his parents happened to borrow money – a man who Gregor finds unbearable. He reveals the satisfaction he would get from telling this man how he feels: “‘. . . habe ich einmal das Geld beisammen, um die Schuld der Eltern an ihn abzuzahlen – es dürfte noch fünf bis sechs Jahre dauern –, machte ich die Sache unbedingt’” (57) [once I have the money to pay off my parents’ debt to him – it should take five or six more years – that is exactly what I will do]. Despite this, he accepts his role gracefully, and only when he is physically unable to work does he abandon his role – despite his sense of obligation to continue fulfilling it, reflected by his desperation to explain the situation to the chief clerk and his family alike.

His family’s inability to recognize/utilize his desire to fulfill his role leads them to view him only through their impulse to confine him. With Gregor listening, Grete tells her parents that she cannot think of the “Untier” [monster] in the other room as Gregor: “‘Ich will vor diesem Untier nicht den Namen meines Bruders aussprechen und sage daher bloβ: wir müssen versuchen es loszuwerden’” (94) [I will not speak of this monster with my brother’s name, and therefore I say plainly: we must try to get rid of it]. The family member for whom Gregor has the most affection – though sometimes compromised by his territorial desire to keep her in his room – has turned on him, just like his father who pelted him with apples. But even the father is not in complete agreement with Grete. She must persuade him and her mother that the monster that they have been thinking of as Gregor is not their concern: “‘Du must bloβ den Gedanken loszuwerden suchen, dass es Gregor ist. Dass wir es so lange geglaubt haben, das ist ja unser eigentliches Unglück’” [You must try to give up the idea that it is Gregor. That we believed it so long is our real misfortune] (95). Gregor’s inability to continue fulfilling his role as the provider for their household necessitates a restructuring of their lives because they can no longer depend on him. They view him as a burden, and ultimately relieve themselves of any obligation to look after him. They initially seem to feel that the Ungeziefer in Gregor’s room is still Gregor on some level. After his transformation forces them to assume the roles that he can no longer fill, however, Gregor is simply a hanger-on and cannot be tolerated.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Gregor’s reverence for his parents and his complicit participation in reducing their debt is that he feels that he has chosen this career: “‘Ach Gott,’ dachte er, ‘was für einen anstrengenden Beruf habe ich gewählt!’” [“Oh God,” he thought, “what a stressful career I have chosen!] (56). This speaks to the power of the ideological influence of society, as reflected through Gregor’s positioning in his environment. The sense of obligation is so strong within Gregor that he sees the fulfillment of his role as something he has freely chosen to do, rather than something in which he has been enlisted.

Encapsulated in Gregor’s attachment of agency to the role that his family’s needs have thrust upon him was his desire to earn enough money to send Grete to the conservatory. At the end of the story, after noticing Grete’s lively behavior, Gregor’s parents content themselves by thinking about how appropriate it would be for Grete to look for a partner: “. . . dachten sie daran, daβ es nun Zeit sein werde, auch einen braven Mann für sie zu suchen” [they thought that it would soon be time to find a good man for her] (99). The parents’ idea serves to reestablish Grete in terms of the conventional roles that her society’s ideological basis would put her in – that of the wife and mother. Gregor’s intentions for sending her to the conservatory, however, stand in direct conflict with his parent’s designs for her. He wishes to give her the chance to transcend the roles that (based on his own experience) he knows she will be forced to accept otherwise: “es war sein geheimer Plan, sie, . . . nächtes Jahr, ohne Rücksicht auf die groβen Kosten, . . . auf das Konservatorium zu schicken” [It was his secret plan to send her . . . next year, without regard for the great cost . . . to the conservatory”] (75). This type of work differs from the work of a housewife, and also reflects the intellectual work that Gilman’s narrator initially endeavors to do. It would allow Grete to transcend the conventional role that she would necessarily inherit through the position of women in society, as reflected by the small-scale representation of it through their household. Without Gregor’s encouragement and investment capital, however, Grete does not have the opportunity or the proper subversive lens to realize her potential.

The undoing of Grete’s subversive potential communicates a different loss for Gregor and Gilman’s narrator, both of whom ultimately experience a complete disassociation from the ideology, rather than incorporation back into it. Building on the catalyst of Gregor’s transformation, Grete’s professed apathy allows for further mistreatment and neglect of him, which leads to his death. Similarly, as a result of her layered subversion of ideology through triumph over her medical treatment, Gilman’s narrator creates the possibility of literal institutionalization. The intensification of the narrator’s condition as a result of her confinement communicates Gilman’s idea that “work . . . is joy and growth and service” (Why I Wrote” 52). In this sense, the narrator’s condition creates the same subversive power that Gilman herself claimed by refusing her physician’s treatment method. Through her altered perception, Gilman’s narrator wields the power to frighten authority in the form of her husband/physician John, and thereby the medical and patriarchal authority that they represent: “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!” (“Wallpaper” 42). In this sense, the narrator’s dismissal of social behavior codes upsets the ideological conformity that John has attempted to establish through her treatment.

The disparity between the narrator’s behavior and the way this is presented through the text reflects Jonathan Crewe’s assertion about Gilman’s maintenance of literary form, which he describes in terms of her observance of the “constructed literary, discursive, aesthetic, or behavioral codes through which social propriety is ordained and regulated” (274). In relation to “The Yellow Wallpaper,” this presents a twofold subversion that challenges the twofold authority that the story attributes to John. The narrator, unlike Gilman, does not adhere to any standards of “social propriety” outright. Rather, the narrator’s transgression of social propriety allows her to obtain power that subverts societal pressure. Working through (rather than against) the oppressive governing ideology that provides a basis for her literary form, however, Gilman effectively communicates the metaphorical madness of the story, about which “a Boston physician[xii]” said “it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it” (“Why I Wrote” 52). Gilman achieves power for herself (and others in her position) by adding the role of author onto her conventional role as mother – a balance which Catherine Kalish speaks of in terms of Gilman’s recognition of her position: “in practice, this duality is difficult” (132). Gilman writes of Weir S. Mitchel: “the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” (“Why I Wrote” 53). This was Gilman’s goal in writing the story. We need not acknowledge this particular autobiographical influence within the story to form a productive interpretation, but it does inform her presentation of the ideologically-based social role that she rebels against.

Ultimately, the problem of ideological translation and interpretation falls upon the two protagonists, as well as the readers of their stories. Both Gilman’s narrator and Gregor interpret their respective environments in ways that affect how they understand their transformed bodies. Gregor is initially content with the physical space of his room because he still interprets his environment through a human lens. Once his perspective becomes synchronized with his transformed body, he begins to realize the limitations presented by a space that was meant for human inhabitance: “kreichen konnte er aber auf den paar Quadrametern des Fuβbodens auch nicht viel . . .” [he could not crawl around too well on the few square meters of the floor] (78). Interestingly enough, the German word kreichen can be translated into English as “to creep.” In light of Gilman’s narrator, it seems that these two protagonists have more in common than their transgression of roles imposed upon them by their households’ ideological reflection of society.

The physical necessity for Gregor to creep, and the mental compulsion for Gilman’s narrator to likewise creep, present the idea of abnormal movement, which transgresses the idea of good form that Crewe mentions in terms of Gilman’s literary merit. Especially within the idea that there are certain qualities that garner merit, and as far as these qualities may be said to conform to some idea of polite and accepted society, the figures of Gilman’s narrator and Gregor are well outside the realm of social propriety. Though he attempts to comport himself with the sociably acceptable behavior that he was familiar with as a human, his gestures do not translate through his transformed body. Gregor attempts to put his family and “der Prokurist” [chief clerk] at ease, but he only succeeds in creating more tension with his incoherent message: “‘Hast du Gregor jetzt reden hören?’ ‘Das war eine Tierstimme,’ sagte der Prokurist, auffallend leise gegenüber dem Schreien der Mutter” [“Did you hear the way Gregor spoke?” “That was the voice of an animal,” said the chief clerk, noticeably quiet against the cries of the mother”] (64). The families are unable to productively assimilate the transformed protagonists into their ideologically-reflective environments – only in terms of an unheimlich and unproductive resemblance to their former roles. The protagonists are thus presented to the families through madness, which acts as a generalizing and dehumanizing force. This strategy of treatment represents the antithesis of Tuke’s treatment of his patient at the Retreat, and focuses on punishment of behavior rather than rehabilitation, which is the ultimate result of Tuke’s strategy. Consequently, through their treatment as outcast of society, Gilman’s narrator and Gregor are confined to certain areas of their respective environments. This restricts their involvement with the rest of society by limiting physical interaction as well as ideological identification – an improvised version of institutionalization.

Characters in “Die Verwandlung” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” use interpretation as a personal and situational activity. Before Gregor reveals his transformed self, Grete interprets Gregor’s situation with sympathy: “‘Ist dir nicht wohl? Brauchst du etwas?’” [“Are you unwell? Do you need anything?”] (58). The frame of madness through which Grete comes to view Gregor, and the imprisonment to which the family subjects him, makes it easier for them to strip him of his humanity, especially as she must devote more of her increasingly precious time to him. Unlike Gregor, Gilman’s narrator is not suddenly transformed at the beginning of the story. Because Gilman writes her narrator into a social climate that pathologizes the neurasthenia behind the classification of hysteria, the narrator’s family is also initially sympathetic. We do not see the process of her family viewing her more and more critically through the frame of madness because she keeps most of her thoughts to herself and mimics the behavior that would indicate John’s successful treatment. The narrator’s creeping, however, eventually elicits the same response from her husband that Gregor’s transformation elicits from his family. This informs the presentation of bodies in both “Die Verwandlung” and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” especially in the context of transcending the dominant social ideology. While we may view Gilman’s narrator simply as a madwoman and Gregor simply as an “ungeheuren Ungeziefer” (56) [monstrous vermin], these ideologically-driven designations implicate the compromise of individual freedom through their basis in social and familial obligation, which reflects the narrators’ inability to conform.

The interaction between the protagonists and their respective families challenges the ideology that punishes those who transgress their social roles by virtue of the interpretive approach encouraged by that same ideology. As a facet of this problem and the ideologies that these stories criticize, the depiction of pathologization in terms of the protagonists’ conditions condemns the recourse to disease as an explanation for anti-ideological behavior, rather than an examination of the ideology that ostracizes those whose conditions are pathologized. “Die Verwandlung” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” depict societies that ostracize those who do not productively apply the governing ideology to their lives. For both protagonists, this indicates the paradoxical pressure for them to fill conventional roles, even though their conditions also entail their exclusion from society. By constructing the reader’s perspective through the protagonists’ conflict with their society’s governing ideology, the protagonists are vindicated in their search for alternative interpretive strategies that embrace their new perspective. These stories thus problematize ideologies that marginalize those who cannot embody them, as well as identification through them.


End Notes


Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “Joubert.” Essays in Criticism. London: Macmillan, 1895. 214-52. Print.

Crewe, Jonathan. “Queering ‘The Yellow Wallpaper?’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Politics of Form.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 14.2 (1995): 273-93. Print.

Flores, Angel, ed. The Kafka Problem. New York: Octagon, 1963. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “Passion and Delirium.” Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage, 2006. 85-116. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “The “Uncanny”” Trans. Alix Strachey. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. By Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 929-52. Print.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper. Ed. Catherine Golden. New York: Feminist at the City U of New York, 1992. 24-42. Print.

Kafka, Franz. “Die Verwandlung.” Sämtliche Erzählungen. Ed. Paul Raabe. Frankfurt Am Main: Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1992. 56-99. Print.

Kalish, Catherine. “The New Feminist Socialism: Community in the Writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction 9.1 (2008): 127-36. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

Mailloux, Steven. “Interpretation.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas MacLaughlin. Chicago [u.a.: U of Chicago, 1995. 121-34. Print.

Oakley, A. “Beyond the Yellow Wallpaper.” Reproductive Health Matters 5.10 (1997): 29-39. Print.

Robertson, Ritchie. Kafka: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.


[i] All translations from the original German are my own, except in cases of an established translation for titles and concepts.

[ii] The proper name of the concept is “das Unheimliche,” but to match its syntactical usage, in instances of its use as an adjective, I change this to the corresponding German usage of “unheimlich.”

[iii] Initially, Gilman’s narrator describes the wallpaper as being shaken by one woman. As the story progresses, however, she begins to sense more women behind the wallpaper. For convenience I will refer to a single figure behind the wallpaper as the source of the identity that the narrator begins to embody. Her perception of multiple women, however, lends itself to Catherine Kalish’s discussion of community, which I explore on page 12.

[iv] It should also be noted that “Jane” is mentioned for the first and only time in this context. As a sign of the complete disassociation of the protagonist from her former self, I propose that “Jane” is the previously unnamed narrator. In this sense, she seems to hold herself accountable for the lack of freedom that she experienced before her rejection of “Jane” as her identity. This also indicates her disassociation with the ideological underpinnings that reinforced her identity as “Jane.”

[v] This can also be read in terms of Catherine Kalish’s ideas about Gilman’s relationship to community, in which case Gilman’s narrator attempts to establish a community with the reader as a means of support. Her subsequent distrust of both the reader and Jennie (a change from her initial ambivalence towards her) indicates her regression towards instability.

[vi] In terms of the autobiographical aspects of “Die Verwandlung,” the designation of Gregor as a cockroach implies metaphorical relevance in terms of the power struggle between Kafka and his father, which will be explored further on page 16. Through the frame of autobiographical relevance, the connotations of depicting Gregor as a cockroach emphasize the sense of powerlessness and oppression that Kafka felt in terms of his actual relationship with his father.

[vii] A physician would have interpreted this as “hysteria” at the time.

[viii] The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

[ix] “The Yellow Wallpaper” initially features a nurse named Mary, but her presence in the story is relegated one mention, and her duties are eventually assumed by Jennie, which may be viewed as the limitation of the narrator’s potential community. In terms of the husband’s influence, Jennie’s assumption of this role (as well as the role of housekeeper) may be viewed as a widening of John’s influence, as the narrator may only interact with him or his relatives.

[x] This aspect of the story reflects Gilman’s own struggle with post-partum depression.

[xi] Ultimately, this autonomy is an illusion, as the person whose actions are based in an ideology is restricted to behavior accepted under that ideology. Through her transformation, Gilman’s narrator reveals the illusory nature of autonomy in an ideology by breaking transgressing codes of accepted behavior.

[xii] This is a reference to Weir S. Mitchel, who “treated” Gilman.