Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story that deals with many different issues that woman in the 19th century had to deal with on a daily basis. Some of these issues were within their control, but many of them were outside of the realm of control for women. The main point that I will focus on is how restricted societal roles can cause insanity. I will do this by deciphering the meaning of the “yellow wallpaper” and its symbolism.
In my opinion, I believe that once we get a better understanding of the author’s interest in this subject area and get a feel for life in the 19th century, then we will have a better understanding of the story. First, let’s take a look at the background of Gilman before and after she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and she definitely had her fair share of troubles. Her biggest struggle in life was living within the constraints of a society that put women in a class apart from everyone else; when in her heart she felt that she was an equal counterpart to men.
She suffered depression from this problem for many years, until finally she was seem by a world-famous neurologist, Dr. Weir Mitchell, who simply prescribed her with rest. This “rest period” sent her into an even deeper state of depression, which she didn’t come out of until she tried to resume her normal life, along with joining the American Woman Suffrage Association as a writer and active participant. Unfortunately, Gilman’s life got so bad that her condition got worse and she fell to the insanity level, eventually causing her to commit suicide with chloroform.
Now that we have a little background on the author, we can take a closer look at the actual work and its characters. The two main characters of the story a narrator and her husband, John, and the story takes place in the 19th century. Life for the two is like most other marriages in this time frame, only the narrator is not like most other wives. She has this inner desire to be free from the societal roles that confine her and to focus on her writing, while John in content with his life and thinks that his wife overreacts to everything.
Traditionally, in this era, the man was responsible for taking care of the woman both financially and emotionally, while the woman was solely responsible for remaining at home. This was a trap that prevented both women and men from developing emotionally and acquiring self-individualism. The story begins with the husband and wife moving into their summer home right after having their first child. The wife has a funny feeling about it stating that it is “something queer about it” (Gilman 658), but John thinks that she is being too suspicious.
She is sick in the sense that she is suffering from depression, but John, being a physician, thinks that she is fine and that she will be all right soon. The room that they move into is what used to be a nursery and this is where the drama really begins. The narrator describes the room as having windows that are “barred for little children. ” (Gilman 659) Seeing that she is a new mother, I see this as being a symbol of her dislike of her motherly duties. Jane is unable to take care of her own baby for a one central reason: she is too depressed.
Today, we would call this post-partum depression and we usually get over it, but in the 19th century this was not common. Just beginning to decipher this room, she goes on to say that there is a beautiful garden, only she has to look through barred windows to see it. Eventually, the narrator gets to the point where she takes notice of the wallpaper. Her first description of it says that it is: “dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicidedestroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. Gilman 659) This is quite an intense description that says many things. In a sense, the patterns on the wallpaper are being compared to women. It is as if women are confusing objects that are always annoyed, yet constantly receive study from others. When they are examined further, it is discovered that these objects are so full of contradictions that they will eventually self-destruct. This can also go to say that women have no common sense and therefore cannot be trusted to make logical decisions or defend themselves if the need should arise.
That is why the man is there: to supervise them and give them specific instructions to help them to make it through life safely. In further analysis of the wallpaper, it is discovered that the wallpaper is like a maze. One peculiar way that the narrator describes the actual design of the wallpaper is by saying that it is has “a kind of ‘debased Romanesque’go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity. ” (Gilman 662) The word “Romanesque” in this sense refers to romance as well as a highly ornamented design supported by decorated vault columns.
In connecting the description to the character, we can deduce that the female mind is filled with flawed romantic thought vaults that are supported by beautiful columns of confusion. Even though I think that this is not true, in most cases, it is a literal translation of the words in that sentence. She also goes on to describe the pattern of the wallpaper as “a florid arabesque. ” (Gilman 664) From this, it can be said that the female’s mind is an interlacing of patterns that to some can seem abnormal and quite confusing.
The wallpaper itself, which is obviously intended to portray the characteristics of the ideal woman, is the narrator’s source of madness. At first, she just dislikes the wallpaper in general. But after a while, she begins to utterly hate it and its properties and implications in her mind. This can be seen in the fact that her husband believes that she is recovering, when in actuality she is getting worse. She is going insane from her furtive attempts and failures to attain peace with this wallpaper.
This is evident in statements that she makes such as: “There are always new shoots on the fungus, and new shades of yellow all over it; There is something else about that paper – the smell! It creeps all over the house. I find it hovering in the dining room, sulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs. ” (Gilman 666) She has become absolutely obsessed with the paper! Why would anyone in their right mind be so concerned about a piece of wallpaper?
It is obvious at this point that the narrator is losing her mind, courtesy of her fascination with the wallpaper in her bedroom. Her senses are being constantly crowded with thoughts of the wallpaper and she is subconsciously trying to free herself from it. This eventually leads to her seeing bars in the pattern of the wallpaper and further towards schizophrenia coupled with a nervous breakdown. As this breakdown is nearing, she starts tearing the wallpaper off of the wall and locks her husband out: “I have locked the door and thrown the key down into the front path.
I don’t want to go out, and I don’t want to have anybody come in, till John comes. ” (Gilman 668) What is this all about? She has a rope with her and she is continually tearing paper off of the wall. All the while she is mumbling about “creeping women. ” (Gilman 668) She says: “I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did? ” (Gilman 668) Maybe that is why she has rope. Maybe she is going to hang herself from the bars in the window once she frees herself from the wallpaper. Soon John comes home and finds the door locked.
He begs her to open it and she tells him “The key is down by the front door under a plantain leaf! ” (Gilman 669) When he comes back and opens the door, he sees her ripping the rest of the paper off the wall, with the rope tied around her and he faints. This is when John realizes that his wife has reached the point of hysteria and is insane. But, the narrator sees it differently. She declares that she is now free by saying: “I’ve got out at last,.. in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back! ” (Gilman 669)
The one theme that I pulled out of The Yellow Wallpaper only cracks the surface of understanding this story. The wallpaper was used by Gilman as a medium to expose the constraints that were placed upon women in the 19th century. The same constraints that she utterly despised and tried so hard to get rid of them. The narrator’s overexposure to the wallpaper was just like Gilman’s overexposure to societal roles. They both needed to get out in order to keep their minds intact. Eventually they both did, but it took a long time and a big toll on their mental health and psyche.