As American society progresses, so do the cultural expectations held for women. However, during the 1800s, women were viewed as inferior and were all together categorized under the domineering man. In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Charlotte Gilman uses irony, dialect, point of view, and symbolism to illustrate the theme—dangers of subordination of women in marriage, and also the demonization of women in society all together.
In the opening of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the narrator describes the setting, but gives very little about herself.
“It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer” (Gilman 376). It can only be assumed the narrator is a woman because [she] is married to a man, John, in the 19th century and is said to just of had a baby. Nonetheless, this anonymity of the female narrator strengthens the argument by supporting the faceless label given to women. While some critics have named the narrator ‘Jane Doe’, others have taken to naming her Charlotte, due to the autobiographical relationship Gilman has with this story (Rao 39).
By combining the first-person narrator and the present tense narration, Gilman allows readers to see only what Charlotte sees and how she sees it. This gives readers the insight to the feelings of entrapment, isolation, and unreality that Charlotte eventually experiences. Her decline into true madness is gradual and her narrative voice seems to be very level-headed, even when she describes events that one knows are impossible—such as the creeping women in the garden or the woman struggling to free herself from behind her room’s wallpaper—that readers might misinterpret this as a ghost story, rather than an account of Charlotte’s mental deterioration (Kerr).
By illustrating the story in this way, readers sympathize with Charlotte instead of condemning her for potently ignoring her husband/physician’s orders.
Another strong literary technique Gilman used to endorse her theme is the heavy usage of symbolism. It starts off small, with the obvious allusions to the summer house as being an abandoned mental asylum, with the “gates that lock”, and the room that Charlotte occupies where the “windows are barred”, and “It is stripped off—the paper—in great patches” that is “a smoldering unclean yellow” (Gilman 377). The oblivious narrator misses the evident implications that this room used to house a mental patient—and it is now housing another. A different symbol is the journal the narrator writes in; it shows how intellectual she really is, and how despite her physician’s orders, Charlotte knows that would really cure her. Although John has specifically told her not to exercise her imagination, the self-expression in her journal is the only way she can fully communicate. Charlotte already feels guilty because she wants to be “a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!” (Gilman 378). He has also denied her visits from her “stimulating” friends, and so the only outlet Charlotte has left is the ‘dead paper’ journal. By taking away his wife’s mental stimulation (her journal) and her ‘right’ to fanaticize, he is ultimately diminishing her as a person, by implying that she is not worthy of such luxuries. By continuing to write in the journal and rebelling against him in secret, Charlotte is an image of present day feminism—not subsiding to patriarchal confinements.
However, the central symbol is, of course, the yellow wallpaper. When Charlotte is first denied her journal outlet, her creative imagination turns to other channels. Charlotte turns to the Wallpaper and begins to engage herself in studying it. In the beginning it is just another ‘dead paper ‘ but slowly gains life and stirs up her imagination. She begins to relate herself to it (Rao 40).
Charlotte then speaks about the wallpaper saying:
I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns,
committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in the following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow
the lame uncertain curves for little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. (377)
This very gruesome description which would not normally be used in different circumstances symbolizes insight to the conditions women in her position are going through. “…and I determine, for the thousandth time, that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of conclusion” (Gilman 380). After trying to follow the wallpaper to an end, Charlotte has decided that there isn’t one. This can be understood to mean that there is no meaning to her life, or to most women’s lives. Instead they are pointless patterns of obedience and submission to the societal standards—which are most always patriarchal.
After studying the paper day in and day out, Charlotte notices different patterns at night, that resemble a woman trapped behind bars. ‘At night, in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind is as plain as can be.” (Gilman 383) This is very significant in the fact that while Charlotte cannot see herself trapped in the house by her husband and society, her subconscious is allowing her to project these hidden emotions onto the wallpaper, portraying herself, and women in general trapped behind the bars built by society. The woman on the inside is “as plain as can be” because the male dominance of that time does not allow for anything other than a sheer domestic life for women. Even reading novels with their potential for impure ideas and themes was seen as going against women’s primary duties to their families, husbands and society altogether (Kerr). Women were not allowed to be anything other than ‘plain’, ‘modest’ and ‘pure’—which is a real struggle for women with such intellectual genius, for they had no way to express themselves, and were instead trapped by marriage and children, like Charlotte.
As the story progresses, Charlotte gets more possessive of the wallpaper. It gives her hope to see if the woman behind the bars will get free—just as she hopes she will be one day
(Rao 43). In the end she rips of the paper off little by little, trying to free the woman behind the paper. Eventually when John unlocks the door and discovers her creeping along the wall she proclaims “I’ve got out at last…!” (Gilman 387) Charlotte has reached complete insanity, yet through insanity she has gained freedom. She ripped off the wallpaper and freed both the woman inside and herself from the chains of society and her husband. It is an ironic victory, and that by losing her sanity she gained strength and independence from her husband. By referring to John as ‘young man’, Charlotte no longer shows guilt for being a burden to him, instead, she shows distance and indifference towards the man who essentially took away everything she was. The yellow wallpaper is very dynamic with its multiple symbolic meanings—yet they all strengthen the argument the damage done to women who accept the patriarchal view in society.
This leads into the very important and apparent gender roles. While they were alluded to and symbolized through many elements in the story, the very fact they are present is noteworthy. Because John is both Charlotte’s husband and physician, he holds more weight over her than what would usually occur in the 1800s. Through his blind pride and male dominance, he ultimately sacrifices his wife to mental insanity—rather than letting her explore her imagination and giving her a voice of her own. While Charlotte hardly has any negative views about her husband, other than the fact she is frustrated with him for not letting her write, this shows just how molded women were into believing that they were secondary citizens to men. Charlotte never blamed John for being a patriarchal, misogynist asshole (excuse my language), because even though he was, it was society and culture that conformed them both into believing these standards acceptable. It wasn’t until Charlotte lost her sanity that she realized they weren’t. If Charlotte hadn’t been made to feel like a burden to her own husband, and therefore guilty for thinking that his opinion was wrong on her condition, this whole scenario could have been avoided. The significance of gender roles ultimately destroys not only Charlotte, but many other women whom are put in the same situation.
There are many different elements in which Gilman explores in order to have a central theme about the danger of subordination of women in marriages—and women in society in general. Through symbolism, gender roles, and language Gilman was able to create a story portraying the consequences of complete male dominance and women inferiority. The Yellow Wallpaper not only demonstrates what happens when women are silenced into submission, but also how to fix this problem by allowing complete equality of women throughout society.