Was The Yellow Wallpaper a criticism of male patriarchy? A word cloud supports those who say yes!

Ray Poynter
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Ray Poynter

3 mins

The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in January 1892. At face value, it is the story of a woman descending into insanity. However, as countless reviews have pointed out, it is a savage condemnation of male oppression of women, and in particular of ‘diagnosing’ women as being in need of restrictive measures to enable them to cope with challenges.
In this post, I show how a word cloud can be used to help visualise and reinforce the meaning within the text. (If you want to follow along, create a free account at Word Cloud Plus.)

The word cloud of The Yellow Wallpaper was constructed with Word Cloud Plus (which you can use by clicking here).

Word Cloud from The Yellow Wallpaper

The first thing that jumps off the page is the word ‘John’. John is the narrator’s husband, a doctor of high standing, who is the one who prescribed and implemented the rest cure, effectively imprisoning the narrator in a room with yellow wallpaper. The book is a series of entries in the narrator’s journal, the restrictions created by her husband, ‘dear John’, and the preeminent theme. The story is not about the narrator; it is about John. It is about what John has done and is doing and the consequences of John’s actions. For example, “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. You see, he does not believe I am sick!”.

Beyond the role of John, there are two connected themes, the yellow wallpaper and the impact on the narrator. An interesting side note is that the phrase “Yellow Wallpaper” does not occur in the text, only in the title. But the topic of the yellow paper and its pattern develop during the story as the essential expression of the narrator's descent into insanity. For example, “It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw—not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.”. The impact on the narrator includes not sleeping, feelings, and creeping. Creeping is a subversive activity, something done to avoid being constrained. “I don’t like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast.”

Visualising the main themes avoids a potentially distracting and irrelevant topic, namely that of the ‘unreliable narrator’. Examples of the ‘unreliable narrator’ are asserted on the grounds of inconsistencies in the journal and because the later sections of the story can’t be journal entries as the narrator has already descended into insanity. A Google search for “The Yellow Wallpaper” AND “unreliable narrator” produces 10,800 examples of articles that combine these two phrases. However, this point about the unreliable narrator is irrelevant to the point Charlotte Perkins Gilman makes about men controlling women and the misuse of the power of medicine as a controlling mechanism.

Using Word Clouds when Reviewing Literature
I tend to use word clouds in two ways. If I have read something and want to check if I have understood the structure of the piece, then looking at a word cloud and grouping the key themes is helpful (as in the case of The Yellow Wallpaper).

The other use is to use a word cloud before I read something to construct a framework to enable me to work through the text more quickly and read actively instead of passively.

Do you want to experiment with visualising books?
My go-to source for books is Project Guttenberg. Project Gutenberg has over 70,000 free books to download, analyse (and read). You can create a free word cloud account at Word Cloud Plus.