Setting: Three months in a colonial mansion with “hedges and walls and gates that lock….a delicious garden–large and shady, full of box bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them“. The genteel swaying to and fro of a pendulum on a Cuckoo Clock. The protagonist (dynamic character) has a condition: a nervous disposition. Her frugal physician husband (static character) “practical in the extreme….who is careful and loving and hardly lets me stir without special direction” has prescribed rest to be followed by more rest, and the protagonist feels “basely ungrateful not to value it more“. “He says we came here solely on my account“…. not because it was “…..let so cheaply“…purely coincidental! The swaying of the pendulum to and fro is a little irregular! “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive……But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control…….I don’t like our room a bit. I wanted one downstairs that opened onto the piazza and had roses all over the window………but John would hear nothing of it” The pendulum swaying to and fro is becoming erratic. “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…..You know the place is doing you good……and really, dear, I don’t care to renovate the house just for a three months’ rental” My impatience grows and I imagine how I would rewrite the piece–on page two: during dinner she arose slowly with plate in hand.Feigning continued interest in his patronizing monologue, she made her way slowly to the buffet table behind him. As John droned on, she slowly lifted the bucket of ice-cold she had hidden behind the curtain and approached her unsuspecting husband from behind. Straining as she lifted the heavy bucket above him, she slowly poured it’s contents upon his head. As he jumped from his chair looking at her in disbelief, she calmly said “Oh, my blessed wet goose.You must not neglect proper self-control” The Plot: The narrator’s intended that I the reader become impatient,irritated, no! provoked beyond endurance, like the main character and protagonist, that I may better feel her pain; we have to wait until the very last and powerfully short paragraph for John’s comeuppance (resolution of the plot). “Now why should the man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so I had to creep over him every time” The narrator strains our patience throughout the story and to the very end to make that point.The narrator wants us to feel the tortured existence of the protagonist as she oscillates (conflict) between pain (“John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him“) and guilt (“I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!“). The narrator grates on our nerves, slowly building suspense as the plot swings like a erratic pendulum between the extremes of pain/anger on one side and guilt/conformity to social mores on the other. Finally, we are reprieved and breathe a sigh of relief in the second to last paragraph (climax) when the cuckoo finally screams out!– the protagonist has pulled off most of the wallpaper!. The climax and resolution were kept to the very end, the final two paragraphs. This sudden climax and resolution serves to underline our agitation.
Historical note: The protagonist’s physician/psychiatrist, Weir Mitchell (father of neurology) was born on February 15, 1829 in Philadelphia. He was an ardent proponent of the rest cure for nervous diseases. Isolation and confinement to bed (sensory deprivation) were key elements.His treatment was also used on Virginia Woolf, who wrote a savage satire of it in her novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925). In the year and place of his birth, the new prison discipline of separate confinement was introduced at the Eastern State Penitentiary. Commentators attributed the high rates of mental breakdown of prisoners subjected to the punishment, to the system of isolating prisoners in their cells. Charles Dickens, who visited the Philadelphia Penitentiary during his travels to America, described the “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body” (the historical note was largely copied from Wikipedia)