Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a commentary on the male oppression of women in a patriarchal society. However, the story itself presents an interesting look at one woman’s struggle to deal with both physical and mental confinement. This theme is particularly thought-provoking when read in today’s context where individual freedom is one of our most cherished rights. This analysis will focus on two primary issues: 1) the many vivid images Gilman uses to illustrate the physical and symbolic confinement the narrator endures during her illness; and 2) the overall effect of, and her reaction to, this confinement.
The Yellow Wallpaper begins with the narrator’s description of the physically confining elements surrounding her. The story is cast in an isolated hereditary estate, set back from the road and located three miles from town. The property boasts protective hedges that surround the garden, walls that surround the estate, and locked gates which guarantee seclusion. Even the connecting garden represents confinement, with box-bordered paths and grape-covered arbors. This isolation motif continues within the mansion itself.
Although she preferred the downstairs room with roses all over the windows that opened on the piazza, the narrator finds herself relegated to an out of the way dungeon-like nursery on the second floor, appropriately equipped with “rings and things” in the walls. Windows in each direction provide glimpses of the garden, arbors, bushes, and trees. The bay is visible, as is a private wharf that adjoins the estate. These views reinforce isolationism; they can be seen from the room, but not touched or experienced. There is a gate at the head of the stairs, presumably to keep the children contained in their play area.
Additionally, the bed is immovable as it has been nailed to the floor. It is here that the narrator secretly describes her slow decent into madness. Although the physical confinement drains the narrator’s strength and will, the mental and emotional confinement symbolized in the story play an important role in her ultimate fall into dementia. By being forced to be her own company, she is confined within her mind. Likewise, part of the narrator’s mental confinement stems from her recognition of her physical confinement. The depression the narrator has experienced associated with child bearing is mentally confining as well.
Specifically, she cannot control her emotions or manage her guilt over her inability to care for her child. These structures of confinement contribute to the rapid degeneration of her faculties. As the wife of a prominent physician in the late nineteenth century, the narrator’s assumption of the typical female role illustrates one aspect of the symbolic confinement present within both the story and the society. She is subservient and deferential to her husband John who enjoys the power traditionally associated with his sex and additional authority afforded him by his status as a doctor.
Jean Kennard notes, “By keeping her underemployed and isolated, John effectively ensures his wife’s dependence on him” (81). John’s control over his wife is typical of the control most men had over women in the late nineteenth century. He decides everything on her behalf, including what room she will stay in and who she will be allowed to see. He diagnoses her postpartum depression as a “temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency” and in doing so, diminishes her complaints and demeans her individuality.
His prescribed treatment is worse than the disease; every hour is scheduled, she is forbidden to write, told what to think, and prohibited from acting as mother to her child. John’s behavior illustrates his covert efforts to control his wife as well. He looks to the narrator’s brother, who is also a physician, to validate his diagnosis and prescribed cure, making it even more difficult for the narrator to challenge the prescription herself. He repeatedly diminishes her by laughing at her and not taking her grievances seriously. The narrator complains “John does not know how much I really suffer.
He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him. ” John’s contempt for his wife’s ideas is blatant; he refers to her as a “little girl,” and when she requests that she be moved to a different room downstairs, he “took [her] in his arms and called [her] a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if [she] wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain. ” That he is only willing to move her into the basement, instead of allowing her a room of her choice, epitomizes his domineering personality.
As the woman descends into madness, she notices that the pattern in the wallpaper “becomes bars” in the moonlight and that “the woman behind it is as plain as can be. ” Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar assert that the woman behind the wallpaper is the narrator’s doppelg nger (10). This woman is symbolic of the narrator’s own confinement by the patriarchal society she lives in. Moreover, we see that the wallpaper is a metaphor of her fractured mental state.
She describes the chaotic pattern that will follow “. . . the lame uncertain curves for a little distance. . . ddenly committing suicide–plunging off at outrageous angles, destroying themselves in unheard of contradictions,” alluding to her own, and society’s, eventual destruction in the absence of enlightened change. Furthermore, the narrator acknowledges that she is representative of most women of her time with the statement “I think there are a great many women [behind the paper]. ” The effect of John’s oppression on the narrator is severe. At the climax of her insanity she writes that she can see the woman from behind the wallpaper pattern “out of every one of my windows!
The narrator continues: It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight. I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines. I don’t blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight! That evening the narrator noticed the woman in the pattern begin to crawl and shake the wallpaper in an effort to break free from it, just as she would like to break free from the confines and restrictions imposed on her by society and her husband John.
In her diary she describes helping the woman tear down the paper: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled . . . .” Most of the paper was removed the next day while the narrator watched many women creeping around in the street. At the end of the story the narrator has surprised John, who has come home from work to find her creeping around the room. She proclaims “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! “
Although the reader might pity the narrator’s inability to challenge John’s authority, one must view the events of the story within the context of the 1860’s. At this time, socitey would not tolerate such assertiveness from women. Moreover, the tragic story ends with a paradox. By definition, one who is mentally ill is not healthy. However, the narrator finds freedom, and apparently health, by rejecting an insane society and loosing her identity to the wallpaper. In contrast, the reader concludes the narrator is now confined by her insanity, and cannot be free.