November 7, 2019
The Yellow Wallpaper Analysis
The short story, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, has held acclaim and been regarded as an important piece of feminist literature. It is no challenge to see why this is the case. In this piece, Gilman masterfully utilizes and develops the titular yellow wallpaper throughout the narrative as a symbol to explore the theme of the oppressiveness of marriage and societal standards for women.
In the narrative, the narrator begins to see things within the wallpaper. In particular, a ‘woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern’. The pattern of the wallpaper is described as jailing the woman. ‘It becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be’. In context, the patterned nature of the wallpaper takes on new meaning. This story was published in 1892, a period of time where women were generally considered inferior to men, both physically and mentally (“Roles”’). Gilman herself experienced an unhappy marriage which later came to inspire this very short story (Biography). Perhaps the woman (and by extension the narrator and author) is not only trapped by the physical pattern of the paper, but also by the societal pattern of 19th century women where, subject to Victorian standards, the female role was largely limited to domestic care and highly restricted at all wealth levels. This can be inferred as later in the narrative, the narrator, in her maddened state, begins to believe that she herself is the woman trapped behind the paper. She questions ‘I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?, and remarks that she will have ‘to get back behind the pattern’. In this moment, Gilman conveys to the reader the conceptual parallels between the narrator and the woman. Additionally, the narrator gives a vivid description of the wallpaper as ‘repellant, almost revolting’ and her attitude toward the room as ‘I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long’. Not only is this describing her aversion to the actual wallpaper, but is, by extension, reflecting the narrator’s and author’s negative sentiment towards the conventional role of women of this time period.
Gilman continues to develop this symbol throughout the narrative. As the story progresses and the narrator’s hysteria deepens, she sees increasingly horrid details on the wallpaper, ‘it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside-down, and makes their eyes white!’ This grotesque imagery underscores the truly oppressive the institution of marriage of her time was. Specific diction like ‘strangles’ depict its suffocating nature. The deliberate plural use of the ‘heads’ and ‘they’ extends this issue to all women, that it is not only the narrator facing this difficulty.
At the end of the story, Gilman has the narrator tear down the yellow wallpaper to the horror of John, her husband. He exclaims, ‘For God’s sake, what are you doing!’. On the other hand, Jennie, who happens to be a woman, is not shocked, but rather she ‘looked at the wall in amazement’. This final symbolic act represents the narrator’s attempt to break free of the confines of her situation. She becomes free from the wallpaper and societal constriction to the horror of John, and the awe of Jennie. After John collapses at the sight of the narrator in the room crawling about, the narrator has to ‘creep over him every time!’ she passes. This can be interpreted as her triumph over him, and macroscopically, a triumph of women over men and societal standards as a whole. In her last lines of dialogue, the narrator declares her freedom victoriously, “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!” One way or another, the narrator has symbolically freed herself of the shackles her life as a married woman has placed on her despite the opposition of those around her.
Finally, it is only through Gilman’s use of first person perspective and journal style writing that the otherwise mundane yellow wallpaper was able to take on much greater meaning. Firstly, using this point of view, the reader gains a much more personal understanding of the narrator’s descent into madness. Not only does this cultivate sympathy from the reader, but also later becomes invaluable as the reader is able to infer that statements such as ‘that dim sub-pattern,—but now I am quite sure it is a woman’, are simply the delusions of the narrator. With this understanding, the idea that the woman in the wall is a reflection of the narrator gains more viability since that woman was born from the narrators imaginations and is ultimately a derivation of her marriage.
In conclusion, Gilmans development of the yellow wallpaper as a symbol and the narrator’s interactions with it speaks volumes on the role of women of her time. With the historical context and through the lens of this hysterical women, Gilman was able to transform this potentially dull story about a failed mental recovery into a timeless piece of chilling social commentary.
Biography.com Editors. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman Biography.” The Biography.com Website, A&E Networks Television, 12 Apr. 2019, www.biography.com/writer/charlotte-perkins-gilman.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The New England Magazine. 1892. [PDF Document]. Retrieved from HKIS Schoology site: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1952/1952-h/1952-h.htm
“Roles of Women in the Victorian Era.” The Victorian Era England Facts about Queen Victoria, Society & Literature, victorian-era.org/roles-of-women-in-the-victorian-era.html.