During the nineteenth century, women were seen as property rather than human beings with rights. Because of this ordeal, women became active feminists and social reformists in order to change their social rank in society, known as the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Among these women was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who wrote many works pertaining to the discrimination and minority of women during these times to change how people viewed women in society. This progressive movement had a heavy impact on Gilman’s writing, where nearly each one of her works carries a theme of feminism. Gilman also met with a physician who diagnosed her depression, where she was given the treatment known as rest cure, a typical solution for women suffering from illnesses that were diagnosed by male doctors. However, the treatment was more detrimental than beneficial. By following these directions, Gilman approached the threshold of utter mental ruin (Why I Wrote 1). Through this specific experience, “The Yellow Wallpaper” came to be, where a troubled woman undergoes a similar situation to which Gilman experienced. Because of this exaggerated account of Gilman’s life, she is able to express her feminist stance as she intended to save people from being driven crazy (Why I Wrote 1). In the short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman utilizes first person narration, allegory, and symbolism to demonstrate how nineteenth century domestic life trapped many women and led to limited rights.
First person narration is a key device in the story to strengthen the oppression of women. Throughout the events of the novel, the reader is able to have a sense as to what the narrator is feeling, thinking, and going through. Readers are able to undergo the transformation into madness that the narrator does. It is “like finding someone’s journal hidden in the wall of an old house” (On “The Yellow Wallpaper” 4). This is significant because the narrator wants to be able to write but she is instructed not to, as a part of her treatment. However, she disobeys and continues to secretly write, keeping a personal journal. She has to hide her writing, “having to be sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition” (Yellow Wallpaper 1). This story is a like a journal that the narrator could have written during her stages of madness, enabling readers to endure the suffering and intensity felt by the narrator.
The first person allows the readers to descend into madness on a personal level. Since women were dominated, Golden says: “In introducing ‘myself’ and ‘John,’ the narrator intensifies her awkward positioning in her sentence and society; she is not even on par with ‘ordinary people like John’” (195). This is very important because women were seen as lesser in society, and the reader is able to feel the awkwardness that the narrator feels when describing people that are higher than her. Women were believed to think that they would always be lesser and in turn, they were accustomed to being in a disadvantage position.
Without the use of first person narration, the reader is unable to have a full experience with the means by which the narrator undergoes her madness. Through third person or another character’s point of view, the meaning of the story would change. Through John’s perspective the story would enhance the dominance of males while still diminishing the women. Although the readers are unable to know what John thinks, it is clear that he believes that the rest cure is what is best. Not only would his perspective add another perspective to the woman’s madness, but it would make him a more sympathetic character towards the narrator, knowing that he put his wife into imprisonment.
Gilman uses the literary device of allegory to display her thoughts towards the role women played in society back then. She is allegorizing her own struggles, and showing how she chose art [of writing] over feminine ordeals (Johnson 523). As Johnson suggests, “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ contains Gothic themes such as ‘confinement and rebellion, forbidden desire and ‘irrational’ fear . . . the distraught heroine, the forbidding mansion, and the powerfully repressive male antagonist’ (522). Therefore, Gilman implements these Gothic features to show the nineteenth-century woman writer from the domestic, social, physical and mental limitations of male-controlled society. It is seen that “Gilman uses gothic conventions to relate her tale of the oppression encountered by a nineteenth-century woman” (Johnson 522). Seen through characters, the setting, and symbols, it is evident that “The Yellow Wallpaper is an allegory for subordination of women. Through the narrator’s husband, it comes to show “That her husband exerts his tyrannical control in the guise of protectiveness makes the narrator feel all the more stifled and precludes outright defiance” (Johnson 225). This shows how men subjugated over women and made them feel lower. It demonstrates how men were compared to tyrants because they controlled the lives of their wives.
Symbolism is a prevalent literary device used throughout “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Several symbols exist in the story each conveying a message of their own. The overall main symbol is the torn yellow wallpaper which is a unique symbol because of the irony it holds. The wallpaper is a constant symbol throughout the story. On the third page, the narrator refers to the wallpaper as “horrid paper” (Yellow Wallpaper 3). The phrase “horrid wallpaper” repeats itself several times, in order to stress her feeling of imprisonment towards it. The wallpaper symbolizes the situation she is in: flat, repetitive, and immovable (Kasmer 2). Like other women during this time, they were being controlled by their husbands and unable to attain freedom, where they had defined rights.
Additionally, the wallpaper’s condition in the story has symbolic meaning. Around the room, it has been torn in several places. According to Quawas:
The narrator is torn asunder between her own personal feelings, which are indeed healthy and positive, and the patriarchal society’s view of what is proper and decent behaviour for women. Since she has internalized society’s expectations of women, this conflict is felt as a schizoid within herself. The narrator writes, ‘So I take phosphates or phosphites-whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again’ (30), but she adds, ‘Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good’ (30). This is one of the most significant statements in the entire story concerning the ideals of the New Woman, for here the protagonist asserts her need for a life outside of strictly domestic and familial cares. (4)
The torn wallpaper coincides with the fact the she is ambivalent between what is right and what she wants. These contradictions and hectic patterns reflect the narrator’s own confusion about the contradictory forces in her own life: “her need for security yet fear of dependency and entrapment, her acceptance of the American Dream (marriage, family, house) amidst the nightmare of reality; her passive acceptance of duty but rising protest” (Berman 199). Since women at the time were seen to marry, bear children, and do housework they were limited to do that only. The mindset on women was to be a simple housewife and their husbands intended them to be and do so (Wolfe 1). The narrator wants to be free and not live the expected “American Dream.” Many women were afraid to express their opinions in fear of being punished for such absurd dreams and thoughts. The Women’s Suffrage Movement allowed women to voice their opinions and be heard. As a result, women were able to inspire others to join in rallying for equal rights, which eventually they were able to get some rights.
Additionally, the wallpaper’s pattern is symbolic to the story as well. The wallpaper has a series of vertical lines, representing prison bars because the narrator is trapped inside the room and her mind (MacPike 2). Women were trapped with the same domestic lifestyle because they had to obey their overpowering husbands and not given equal rights. As the madness develops, the narrator comes to the realization that a women is trapped within the paper. MacPike points out that “the figure of a woman, ‘stooping down and creeping about’ behind the pattern as she herself creeps behind her restricted life” (3). During the day, while the narrator’s husband is away, the woman seems to escape and wander about in the outside world. The husband is not home to keep watch of the narrator so in the daytime she is free. As Johnson states in relation to the daylight: “It depicts ‘masculine order and domestic routine’ and ‘rigidly hierarchical and imaginatively sterile daylight world . . .’ and a ‘conscious struggle . . . from idle fancy . . . ’” (523, 525). The narrator becomes infatuated with this woman being able to escape in the day, “creeping as fast as a cloud shadow in high wind” (Yellow Wallpaper 8). This symbolizes how the narrator’s dream is to be free and escape the invisible chains that bind her to the house.
Conversely, during the nighttime, the woman “seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out” (Yellow Wallpaper 5) and “she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard” (8). This is because the husband comes back during the evening to come home and watch over the narrator, guard her. The woman wants to get out, wants to be free, and wants to rid her life of the men that constantly incarcerate her. Much like the woman confined in the wallpaper, the narrator is restrained in a toxic environment, where she hopelessly fights off her own imprisonment.
However, the wallpaper also symbolizes freedom. As the narrator becomes obsessed, she realizes that the women within the wallpaper is her as well as the other women in society. The narrator wishes to free the women inside so she can then replace her and no longer live contained. Once it has been torn down, the woman inside has been freed, which is the narrator, who has finally granted herself liberation (Kasmer 1). The woman she sees in the wallpaper trying to get out is her own self (MacPike 2). Since women were to obey their husbands and would receive a punishment if done otherwise, it was hard for women to find a way to escape. But through perseverance, women were able to overcome the difficulties faced and see a new light.
Furthermore, another symbol in the story is the room that she is confined in. The room which is really a nursery with barred windows, a chained bed, and torn yellow wallpaper acts as a symbol that indicates her status in society (MacPike 1). The narrator is a child in the nursery who needs someone to guide her and tell her what to do, which is the role of her husband. Women were treated like children because they were seen as lesser. The nursery symbolizes a prison, and like the narrator she is trapped inside and cannot free herself. The windows are barred up and she is barely able to see outside of them. Her vision for freedom and equal rights are blocked by the domination and her societal role. Through it she sees all that she could be and everything that she could have (Sant 1). The women in society were trapped under the domination of their husbands. The bed is chained to the floor and is immovable. This symbolizes that women are unable to change their fate, and stuck (2). No matter what she truly wants, she is stuck in this room, repeating the same pattern every day, experiencing very little of the outside world.
In addition, the house symbolizes the place of madness and the metamorphosis. On the outside the house is beautiful like a woman who is insane however the inside becomes a haunting place for the narrator (Sant 1). The house is a place for the madness to undergo its transformation. The narrator is taken aback by the beauty of the house, however she has a feeling that the house is somehow “bad.” Sant states “her impression is like a premonition for the transformation that takes place in herself while she is there” (1). The narrator has a feeling that something bad is going to happen while she stays there.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” symbolism, allegory, and first person narration are each used to emphasize the domesticity and inferiority of women. The literary devices help to enhance the struggles of women during the nineteenth century. With the influence of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, Gilman was able to put her personal experience into the story with even further meaning. This story of Gilman serves as historical account of how women felt and persevered through discrimination and submission, and shows a new perspective to readers of the story, so they can also feel the suffering endured by the narrator. As people read this story, they should be able to see how women were able to overcome the hardships and difficulties during this time.
- Berman, Jeffrey. “The Unrestful Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Talking Cure: Literary Representations of Psychoanalysis. By Jeffrey Berman. New York: New York University Press, 1985. 33-59.
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- Golden, Catherine. “‘Overwriting’ the Rest Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Literary Escape from S. Weir Mitchell’s Fictionalization of Women.” Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ed. Joanne P. Karpinski. New York: G.K. Hall, 1992. 144-158.
- Greg Johnson, Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in `The Yellow Wallpaper’, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 521-30.
- Kasmer, Lisa. ‘Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Symptomatic Reading.’ Literature and Psychology 36, no. 3 (1990): 1-15.
- MacPike, Loralee. ‘Environment as Psychopathological Symbolism in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 8, no. 3 (summer 1975): 286-88.
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- Quawas, Rula. AUMLA : Journal of the Australasian Universities Modern Language Association 105 (May 2006): 35-53,147-148.
- “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Forerunner October 1913. Ed. Catherine Lavender. 8 June 1999. The City University of New York. 3 March 2003 .
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