The Yellow Wallpaper. 2021. Directed by Kevin Pontuti. Screenplay by Pontuti & Alexandra Loreth.
Starring Alexandra Loreth, Joe Mullins, Jeanne O’Connor, Clara Harte, & Mark P. O’Connor.
Hysteria Pictures / Emerald Giant Productions / Penitent Productions
Not Rated / 98 minutes
Horror / Thriller
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains spoilers!
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled…
Most English majors in university will read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” just as I did years ago. Not everyone will love it, as is the case with any story, or piece of art in general; I have adored Gilman’s famous short story since the day I read it. It seems to grow in significance, in spite of how far away from Gilman’s day we get, and no matter how progressive we might feel we’re growing year after year. The Yellow Wallpaper does a beautifully Gothic job of adapting Gilman to the screen, translating her original story’s grim examination of so many women’s struggles in the 19th-century into something psychologically haunting.
The story follows Jane (Alexandra Loreth), who’s recently had a child, as she’s taken to the country by her husband and doctor, John (Joe Mullins). Her mental health isn’t doing well. Of course nobody in the 19th century, not even Jane’s doctor husband, was prepared to face the truth. It was easier to tell Jane she was ill, and that time in a country house to rest would fix her. When Jane arrives at the house she’s all but boxed into an eerie yellow room upstairs. It’s in that room she tries to hold onto her sanity while attempting to escape the limiting bonds of marriage and society.
The Yellow Wallpaper focuses on conditions women faced in the 19th century, at home and in the healthcare system. Jane’s struggle is one of so many women in the 19th century, and that struggle unfortunately continues in many ways today. Gilman’s original short story is a timeless piece of fiction that, while specific to the 1800s, is a universal tale of enforced gender roles and patriarchal expectations forced upon women, particularly mothers. The film—co-written by director Kevin Pontuti along with lead actress Alexandra Loreth—doesn’t stray much from Gilman’s story, though the finale is a slight change that makes the whole journey all the more unsettling. I’ve always considered Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” a psychological horror story. Pontuti’s film captures that type of atmosphere, illustrating the abject, isolating terror of what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated society.
Although the film is timely—in a contemporary era when Western society is trying to reckon with ongoing historical misogyny, racism, homophobia, and more—it’s very specific to the 1800s in its depiction of the separate spheres; that is, the ideology that separated life into public v. private spheres, or domestic v. social spheres. The separate spheres concept works in conjunction with patriarchy to keep the genders in their accepted spaces. Men were expected to be part of the public/social sphere, which primarily entailed business and labour, whereas women were relegated to the domestic/private sphere where they looked after the kids and took care of the house; housework and other home-related work was not considered actual labour at this point, and still to this day it isn’t by many men. The Yellow Wallpaper‘s Jane finds herself caught in a patriarchal web of strictly defined gender roles. She struggles with the domestic/private sphere. Her interests—namely reading and writing—lie beyond said sphere in the public/social. Many obstacles stand in Jane’s way of breaking out of the domestic sphere, and one of the biggest is her husband.
The most significant element of patriarchy’s poison values in The Yellow Wallpaper manifests in the presence of Jane’s husband. John’s ultimate conflict of interest as Jane’s husband and doctor keeps her mired in an existence defined entirely by patriarchal values. The medical silencing of women and their issues is, again, a social reality that continues to this day, especially for BIPOC women. In the film, John’s treatment of Jane is dismissive of her lived experiences/reality. He continually insists he knows her, as well as her body/mind, better than she does herself. Jane tries to tell John she’d feel better in a different room in the house, rather than the depressing and somewhat gross yellow that acts more like an asylum patient’s room than a bedroom. Yet John refuses to listen, believing his status as a man and doctor negate his wife’s psychological and bodily realities. This further plays into the general infantilisation of Jane by those around her, men and women alike.
Even the women charged with helping John look after Jane contribute to the latter’s infantilisation; this acts as a microcosm of the wider societal treatment of women in real life. The women helping John follow Jane around like they’re watching a child, making sure they know where she is at all times, in and out of the house. But it’s definitely John whose behaviour towards his wife infantilises her most. John refers to Jane as “my pet” and “good girl,” or “my sweet little girl.” Perhaps the most telling in regards to Jane being treated as a child is the fact that the yellow room where John has isolated here used to be a child’s nursery, then later a children’s playroom. The room has been repurposed into a regular bedroom, but continues to serve the patriarchal purpose of confining a woman whose mental health has rendered her unfit to the patriarchy, keeping her docile and infantile so John can continue to mould Jane into his vision of the perfect, obedient wife and mother.
Patriarchal themes abound in The Yellow Wallpaper, even in the more subtle moments. In an early scene, Jane asks her husband about the country house where they’re going to stay a little while as she recuperates. John explains two brothers are fighting over the property; the house is bound up in “hereditary paperwork.” This might feel like a throwaway detail. However, this story takes place during a time when women couldn’t own property. A woman like Jane would not be considered in the “hereditary paperwork” after the passing of a father. So the very idea they’re staying in a house being fought over by the next in line to own a family’s patriarchal property speaks volumes about a woman’s place in the world during the time Gilman originally wrote her short story.
The patriarchy of the house returns later when Jane says “We should burn this house down to the ground.” This quote has twofold significance. First, the combination of Jane’s name and the idea of a woman burning down a house in Gothic literature echoes Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre; another story of a woman trapped by her husband and patriarchy. Secondly, Jane’s brief thought about burning down the house is an act of resistance to patriarchal values; the house itself, steeped in patriarchy, represents the entire male-dominated system that confines women like Jane. She recognises there’s no changing the house—nor patriarchy—thus her only thought is to completely destroy it. This idea is reminiscent of Audre Lorde, who wrote: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Jane’s entire struggle is about agency and autonomy. The most significant component of Jane’s agency and autonomy involves her reading and, more specifically, her writing. John tells the women helping around the house: “No writing. However talented [Jane] may be, her talents as a mother are considerably more important these days.” His attitude is representative of most men in the 1800s who feared the New Woman—liberated, educated, independent women seeking radical change in how Western society was treating them. John wants to keep Jane dependent on him, and if she’s able to write, or even potentially publish her work—albeit at the time she’d likely have to use a male pseudonym, like Brontë when she wrote Jane Eyre under the name Currer Bell—this would allow his wife a modicum of freedom, as well as more access to the public/social sphere. The most nasty of John’s behaviour towards Jane is the fact he won’t allow Jane to write, but considers her ‘well enough’ to have sex with at night, despite Jane mentally checking out as he penetrates her; in the scene depicting this, Jane’s framed with shadows from the bars on her bed like the bars of a prison cell across her face. Jane later recounts a nightmare she has about being tangled in vines, describing them as “poking me and prodding me,” just like her own husband.
The unnerving ending in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes much more grim through Pontuti and Loreth’s film, as they offer a dark interpretation of the story’s closing moments. This bleak conclusion interprets the depressing reality of how trapped women were in the 19th century, and how many women remain trapped to this day, by patriarchal expectations and the sheer psychological pressure of societal gender roles. Jane uses the only remaining agency left available to her in that old patriarchal house, regardless of the fatal consequences.
It’s always difficult to take a famous short story and turn it into a full film, for several reasons. Sometimes a short story is short for a reason, and filmmakers can’t always stretch them into a feature-length film. Sometimes people love a story so much that a cinematic adaptation can’t accurately capture everyone’s expectations. The Yellow Wallpaper adapts Gilman’s work impressively, not taking any major elements out and never adding too much. Most importantly, the film’s atmosphere encompasses all the Gothic psychological horror of Gilman’s story while constantly calling attention to its themes of gender, misogyny, and sexism. Loreth’s lead performance as Jane is compelling. She’ll leave you haunted once the film’s over.
The Yellow Wallpaper is depressing, though a necessary story. The issues Gilman wrote about in the 1800s may have changed somewhat, but they still exist, in one form or another. The ending is horrific, and also liberating in a macabre sense; like Gilman’s original ending, the film’s ending offers something simultaneously shocking and liberating. Jane’s decision in the end is sad, and fatally final, yet likewise has potential to be read as an act of emancipation: she destroys herself, if only to escape the patriarchal ties that have bound her to the domestic/private sphere. Her story is the ongoing historical tale of women and their struggles, depicting the helplessness and hopelessness women endure in the face of patriarchy—the patriarchal systems operating at home, at work, and at the institutional level. Jane’s end is tragic, but she uses the agency available to her to escape a prison-like existence, and refuses to allow a man’s world to define her, death be damned.