Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, published in 1899, is a semi-autobiographical short story depicting a young woman’s struggle with depression that is virtually untreated and her subsequent descent into madness. Although the story is centered on the protagonist’s obsessive description of the yellow wallpaper and her neurosis, the story serves a higher purpose as a testament to the feminist struggle and their efforts to break out of their domestic prison.
With reference to the works of Janice Haney-Peritz’s, “Monumental Feminism and Literature’s Ancestral House: Another Look at “The Yellow Wallpaper, and Anita Duneer’s, “On the Verge of a Breakthrough: Projections of Escape from the Attic and the Thwarted Tower in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Susan Glaspell’s “The Verge”, I will explore the themes of female imprisonment and inequality in association to gender relations using the story’s setting, symbols and characters.
The story is framed as a journal entry written by the main protagonist. She begins by writing about the estate that her and her husband are staying at for the summer so that she can recuperate from “. . .a slight hysterical tendency. . .” (Gilman). Her husband, John, a physician, has prescribed a “rest cure” treatment, confining her to bed, forbidden to work or write. Restricted to a former nursery room with yellow wallpaper, she describes it as “. . .committing every artistic sin.” (Gilman). She detests the wallpaper but John refuses to change rooms.
As the story progresses, the protagonist grows increasingly depressed and anxious. With John’s constant observation of her, making her unable to write, her only stimulation is manifested in the intense scrutiny of the yellow wallpaper. She begins to notice a woman “. . .stooping down and creeping.” (Gilman), behind the main pattern. The wallpaper starts to dominate the protagonist’s imagination with visions of this imaginary woman “. . .trying to climb through.” (Gilman), the pattern.
Convinced that this woman is trapped inside, the narrator resolves to peel the wallpaper off in order to free her. By the end, the narrator, completely insane, has transferred herself as one of the women creeping inside the wallpaper. John, seeing her creeping around the room endlessly and smudging the wallpaper, faints in the doorway and the narrator has “. . .to creep over him every time!” (Gilman).
The setting in this story mirrors the narrator’s inner emotions which in turn helps to develop the theme of female imprisonment. At first the narrator marvels at the building, romanticizing it and soon after it is portrayed to the reader that she thinks, and almost hopes, that the house is “haunted” and that there is “. . .something queer about it.” (Gilman). Janice Haney-Peritz points out that “According to the narrator, a haunted house would be the “. . .height of romantic felicity. . .” a place more promising that that which “fate” normally assigns to “mere ordinary people like John and [herself]” (115). The house stands back away from the road, “. . .quite three miles from the village.” (GIlman) and is completely isolated and restricted from society, just as the narrator is. Her emotional position is reflected in the physical set-up of the house.
Within the house, the narrator is confined to a “. . .nursery at the top of the house.” (Gilman). Gilman describes it saying that “It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.”
The nursery itself is a constant and oppressive reminder of the narrator’s duty as a mother and a wife to take care of her child and keep the house in order. Another connection in relation to theme of isolation and restriction can be drawn between the narrator and her setting. The big, airy windows are barred shut preventing the narrator from escaping. She can see out of the room but is unable to participate in any of the outside events.
However, the most important aspect of this room is the yellow wallpaper. The narrator despises it, loathing the colour and it’s pattern. She writes 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 suicide–plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.” (Gilman). This description of the wallpaper serves the purpose to show the reader the unjust restrictions of society that the narrator is subjected to; “. . .commentators have seen in this description of the wallpaper a general representation of “the oppressive structures of society in which [the narrator] finds herself” (Madwoman 90), . . .” (Haney-Peritz 116).
The statement of “dull enough to confuse the eye” and “constantly irritating and provoking study” are alluding to the narrator’s sense of inferiority and burden while the “lame and uncertain curves” are referencing the absurd suggestions that her husband is providing. Finally the “suicide” is the unfortunate fate that is destined to occur if his counsel is followed. When describing the wallpaper the narrator writes that “The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.” (Gilman). This wallpaper, meek and domestic, begins to symbolize the domesticated life that traps so many women.
The main characters, the narrator and her husband, John, and their relationship provide a direct look into the theme of inequality in association to gender relations. John is a practicing physician who suggests that in order for his wife to get better, a “rest cure” must be prescribed; he “. . .forbids her the stimulation of family contact and the creative outlet of her writing.” (Duneer 38). From the beginning, the reader can see the complete domination and control that John has over his wife. The narrator trusts and obeys him completely even though she feels that social stimulation and writing would do her good.
Duneer points out that “John’s attitude toward his wife is more paternal than spousal: . . .” (38). He patronizingly calls her “. . .a blessed little goose . . .” (Gilman) and vetoes her smallest requests without question such as her plea to switch rooms so as not to indulge her “fancies”. The narrator reinforces this patriarchal relationship because she is seemingly “Powerless to openly defy her husbands orders, . . .” (Duneer 39). This relationship speaks volumes of the time period and antiquated gender roles where women were required to submit to their husband’s will without the option to voice their own thoughts or opinions, doomed to spend their life in the domestic sphere.
John, however, cannot be thought of as the villain of this story. His actions and his “rest cure” prescription were not intending to harm the narrator but to help. The problem though lies in his ignorance and the all-encompassing power he holds in the relationship as the husband and physician. He is so sure that what he knows is best for his wife that he disregards her own opinion, forcing her to hide her true feelings. He truly does care for his wife but their unequal relationship prevents him from completely understanding the problem at hand.
The most important symbol of this story is of course the yellow wallpaper. It begins to symbolize the evolution of the narrator’s illness throughout the course of the story. As the story progresses, the narrator begins to identify with a figure of a woman “trapped” behind the pattern of the wallpaper and it shifts from being symbolic to the imaginary; “From this point on, the narrator sees things otherwise; now the wallpaper’s “outside pattern” is perceived to be bars, while it’s sub-pattern is perceived to be a woman rather than something “like a woman” (p 26)” (Haney-Peritz 119). This woman held captive behind the “bars” of the wallpaper is essentially in the same position as the narrator–unable to escape the expectations of a domesticated woman’s role in society.
As the narrator descends into madness, her main focus becomes apparent. “. . .she must free the shadow-woman from the paper-pattern that bars her full self-realization and through identification, bind that woman to herself.” (120). The narrator has transferred her identity to the woman’s in the wallpaper and has resolved to free “herself” from the bars of social expectation and “. . .the male construction of her identity.” (Duneer 42).
As she rips the wallpaper off the wall, symbolically liberating herself, and “creeping” around the perimeter of the room, John enters, and she exclaims “ “I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back! ” ” (Gilman). John faints and the narrator continues to “creep” around the room stating that she “. . .had to creep over him every time!” (Gilman). This final event is meant to show the celebration of self and the emancipation of the narrator from her husband’s dominance. She is finally in control and “. . .she frees herself through her imagination.” (Duneer 42).
Although the narrator has lost her grip on reality and has “. . .firmly installed herself in the realm of the imaginary, . . .” (Haney-Peritz 120), this story is still an empowering story of feminism. Allowing her feelings to be expressed and acting completely uninhibited, the narrator feels as though she has freed herself from the prison of domesticity. Unfortunately, her journey of identification through liberation is not complete because as she crept over her husband each time, she refused to leave the boundaries of the room even though he had fainted and, presumably, was unable to keep her locked up physically.
She was so thoroughly subjugated to the expected role of patient and captive female that she was unable to grasp the hand of freedom even when it beckoned at the doorway. This begs the question as to whether this female fight for freedom is an enduring struggle. All of the formal elements of this narrative, such as symbols, characters and setting, work together to illustrate to the reader the constraints placed on the narrator in such a male-dominated society as well as the narrator’s need for freedom.
Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Electronic Text Center. University of Virginia Library. 1997. Web. 16 Nov. 2012. Haney-Peritz, Janice. “Monumental Feminism And Literature’s Ancestral House: Another Look At ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Women’s Studies 12.2 (1986): 113. Literary Reference Center. Web. 16 Nov. 2012. Duneer, Anita. “On the Verge of a Breakthrough: Projections of Escape from the Attic and the Thwarted Tower in Charoltte Perkins Gilman’s “the Yellow Wallpaper” and Susan Glaspell’s “the Verge”.” The Journal of American Drama and Theatre 18.1 (2006): 34-53.
International Index to Performing Arts Full Text. Web. 16 Nov. 2012. Annotated Bibliography
Haney-Peritz, Janice. “Monumental Feminism And Literature’s Ancestral House: Another Look At ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Women’s Studies 12.2 (1986): 113. Literary Reference Center. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.
Janice Haney-Peritz’s essay is a critique of the “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the field of feminist literature. Her main idea of this critique is “. . .pointing out some of the more troubling implications of a literary critisicm in which Gilman’s story functions as a feminist monument, . . .” (114). The discussion in the text is the suggestion that the “. . .specific oppressive structure at issue is discourse.” (116). Haney-Peritz states that the structure at issue is a man’s prescriptive discourse about a woman or John’s oppressive discourse to the narrator. She uses the term “imaginary feminism” claiming that just as the narrator is freed from patriarchal domination because of her identification with her double, real women could also be freed through “identification” with what could be called a feminine literary critical canon. However, she also raises the possibility that one could read “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a “story of John’s demands and desires rather than something distinctively female.” This is a direct contradiction then to her idea of feminine freedom through identification. In the end Haney-Peritz suggests that “. . .we look to Gilman rather than to the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” for the inspiration we seek.” (124) and I wholeheartedly agree with this thought. Gilman has made the narrator in the story “mad” which provokes feelings of pity and sympathy rather than feelings of empowerment and identification for the feminist struggle.