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“As figures in literature, the women portrayed in these stories are either worshipped of they are victims; they are rarely just allowed to be themselves”. Women of the nineteenth century were generally regarded as being inferior to men and were treated with little respect. At the beginning of the century, women enjoyed few of the legal, social or political rights that are now taken for granted in western countries.
This meant that they could not vote, could not sue or be sued, could not testify in court, were rarely granted legal custody of their children in cases of divorce, were barred from institutions of higher education and had extremely limited control over personal property after marriage. Women were expected to remain subservient to their fathers and husbands. Their occupational choices were also extremely limited. Middle and upper class women generally remained at home, caring for their children and running the household while lower-class women often were domestic servants or labourers.
Many women had to fight the battle of conforming to society’s views against their own freedom and independence, an idea which “The Yellow Wallpaper”, “The Woman’s Rose” and “26 Men and a Girl” discuss and explore. Therefore women often could not be themselves. “The Yellow Wallpaper” shows the narrator’s struggle to deal with both mental and physical confinement. The narrator is mentally trapped by the views of society and her husband, John. She is not allowed to be herself so she confides in “dead paper”. This allows the reader to see who she is – a strong-minded and independent woman, shown by the repetition of “personally”.
Physically the narrator is trapped by the room which she is staying in, “for the windows are barred”. These barred windows can symbolise entrapment or a prison cell. From the beginning of the text the story is very personal as it is written in the first person. The narrator is very interesting as she writes using many one sentence paragraphs, making the story seem very realistic, “Still I proudly declare that there is something queer about it. ” The realism comes from the narrator’s style of writing – continuous streams of thought which could also suggest her state of mind.
In the story the narrator shows us that she does not get anything she wants, “John has complete control”. John controls every aspect of the narrator’s life, even her thoughts. This becomes clear when she is writing, but then stops and contradicts herself. The narrator finds herself stopping her line of thought for fear of what John would say, “I know John would think it absurd. ” Everything in and around the house is separated and divided, boxed in, and locked like a prison, much as she is held captive in her own room,
“there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people… I never saw such a garden – large and shady, full of box-bordered paths,” In fact, the house itself seems designed for men. Larger-than-life mansions were typically symbols of masculine aggression and competitiveness, while it’s being a “hereditary estate” reminds us it was probably passed down to men in the family. It is immediately apparent in the story that the narrator is treated as being inferior to many men, particularly her husband John.
Being a physician, he has made a ‘schedule’ for her. She is told to stay in bed, suppress her imagination, and most importantly to discontinue her writing, even though it makes her feels better, but she does not say a word. Her schedule also makes her unable to show her true personality. The readers are the only ones who really know what the narrator is like, “Personally I disagree with their ideas,” she writes, “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
” From this repetition of “personally” we can assume that the narrator is very independent. This statement, “What is one to do? ” implies a lack of self-confidence and a feeling of inferiority. She speaks as though her opinions do not count in any way. However, she is very accepting of this, which was often the general feeling of women at the time. The narrator belittles herself several more times throughout the story “I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already”.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is driven by the narrator’s enthusiasm to interpret the wallpaper and realise that it symbolizes something that affects her directly. The wallpaper develops its symbolism throughout the story. At first it seems merely unpleasant; it is ripped and an “unclean yellow. ” The worst part of it is the formless pattern, which fascinates the narrator as she attempts to figure out how it is organized. After staring at the paper for hours, she sees a ghostly sub-pattern behind the main pattern visible only in a certain light.
She then sees a woman, which could be a sign that her mental state is deteriorating, or it could be a projection of the narrator onto the wallpaper. This woman puts an element of mystery and excitement in the narrator’s life and it gives her something to think about other than her own health. The desperate woman is constantly crawling and stooping, looking for an escape from behind the main pattern, which has come to resemble bars of a cage. The bars of the cage can symbolise the barred windows in the narrator’s room which in turn symbolise jail.
The wallpaper can also represent society’s view in which the narrator finds herself to be trapped by. When the narrator finally identifies herself with the woman trapped in the wallpaper, she is able to see that other women are forced to creep and hide behind the domestic patterns of their lives, and that she herself is the one in need of rescue. The horror of this story is that the narrator must lose herself to understand herself. She has untangled the pattern of her life, but she has torn herself apart by getting free of it.
An odd detail at the end of the story reveals how much the narrator has sacrificed. Now she is horribly “free” of the constraints of her marriage, her society, and her own efforts to repress her mind. The narrator has no name which could show the lack of identity and recognition women were used to in the nineteenth century. However, the fact that the narrator has no name could mean that Charlotte Perkins Gilman wanted the narrator to symbolise all women at that time. The narrator seems to have a lack of self esteem and is unsure about her thoughts and what she wants to say.
This can be seen when she breaks up her sentences using hyphens, “I wonder – I begin to think – oh I wish John would take me away from here! ” The narrator is free of her constraints of her marriage as she has detached herself from her husband, John. While she would usually call him “John” or “my husband” she now refers to him as “that man”, which can underline the fact that her strength as a woman and also her strength as a character has increased. The end of the story shows a switch in power between the narrator and John. At the beginning John had all the power, however at the end the narrator has power over him.
We can see this when John comes into the locked room and faints in her path, “now why should that man have fainted? “, [… ] “I had to creep over him every time” which can also suggest the fact that women can gain temporary control over men, but they will never seem to be free of them. At the end of the story the narrator believes she has won, “I’ve got out at last” by setting the woman free from behind the main pattern of the wallpaper. By setting the woman free from behind the wallpaper it can also suggest to the narrator is being set free as well.
The narrator made a huge sacrifice in escaping and as a result, at the end of the story, we see that she has lost her narrative; her writing has become less fluent and fragmented, with no structured pattern. This can be seen on the last two pages with the extensive use of exclamation marks. There would be many social consequences of the narrator’s actions. By setting free the woman, it implies that the narrator and the woman are very much the same, as they are both trapped; the yellow wallpaper is trapping the woman, but the barred windows and society are trapping the narrator.