The Role of the Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” showcases the female narrator’s seclusion from society while attempting to come to terms with her rather horrifying dementia. It takes the form of a horrific tale, detailing the hidden internal struggles of domestic abuse. What’s more, it is a flat-out rejection of the role Gilman believes women are forcibly pushed into isolation at the hands of patriarchal abuse. Her psychological pain is diagnosed as a sort of nervous disorder by none other than her own husband, who is a physician himself. To help speed her recovery, he moved himself and his wife to a summer mansion, remaining isolated from the outside community. As time passed briskly, the wallpaper encompassing their bedroom became the fixation of the narrator, causing her mental state to spiral downward further and enveloping her with distraught. Upon reading the story for the first time, the reader can assume the story is nothing more than a reflection on mental illness, and can almost draw upon parallels to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” by Edgar Allan Poe. However, upon a scrutinized analysis of the text, this reflection of mental illness begins to fade. In addition, the mere fixation of the wallpaper itself goes beyond being an obsession. What comes to mind instead is a message of rebellion that female readers can identify with.
The story of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is less that of losing one’s sense of humanity under the grip of psychological depression. To understand the role of the yellow wallpaper was crucial to understanding the theme of patriarchal abuse in the story. Gilman draws parallels between the nature of her unnamed narrator and her feelings regarding her husband, John. Because of the narrator’s ever-growing insanity overtaking her mind, she came to the conclusion the paper holds a “vicious influence” over her character. A strong example is the way she drew her feelings toward the wallpaper and John, was by mentioning her happiness lies in her child, stating, the baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy this nursery with the horrid wallpaper.” Her statement pushed forward John’s little stronghold and poor care he had over his own newborn, as never is the child seen under his care, and according to the narrator, does not have to be occupied by the nursery or John himself. In addition to his refusal of recognition of his own wife’s sickness, is his creative, albeit sickening treatment of her. This behavior is noticeable when he stated, “Bless her little heart; she shall be as sick as she pleases.” However, this nursing, in spite of it’s intolerance, is not at all uncommon in the story.
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During any attempt for the narrator to convey an important idea, John dismissed her almost immediately. He calls her childish pet names, as if to treat her as a little toddler and not a spouse. Title such as “darling,” or, “my little goose,” appear to undermine the narrator’s character and credibility as reliable. What’s more, even though the word “little,” is clearly mean to depict the narrator’s heart, it relates more to the idea of John treating her as an unknowledgeable child. A reflection of the narrator as a child could be seen inside of John, who pictures her as having a small body that contains an even smaller heart. This description connects to John’s following statement, “she shall be as sick as she pleases.” Once more, it was where the images of a small child enter the frame of analysis. When John said his wife will be “as sick as she pleases” in the context of a child’s actions, it reduces the narrator’s reliability even further. Children, in their desperation to avoid will work, will pretend to be sick at all costs. Be it to avoid going to school, refusing a commitment to do homework, or avoiding chores, a child does what they can to turn away what they deem extraneous work. This scrutiny also goes hand in hand with John’s diagnosis of his wife’s condition as being that of “temporary nervous depression,” as he was attempting to downplay the condition of her mental state, and manipulate her into thinking she is reacting disproportionately about her thoughts. Here, John was seen as a manipulator and an abuser of his spouse, not a carefree husband oblivious to any sort of danger his wife claims to feel. He was intent to making his wife feel far lesser of a human unable to feel free from his grip. Another parallel concerning the wallpaper lies on the very pattern that compromised it.
As the narrator stared scrupulously and this pattern, she noticed something odd regarding it, stating, The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out. She proceeds to then say: Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around very fast, and her crawling shakes all over.” Here it was a symbol of the narrator herself, the declining state of her marriage, and how greatly she was suffering as a result. Her purpose for looking hard into these intimate details on the wallpaper was to not just show her own struggle, but to speak on behalf of women experiencing similar troubles as well. She speaks up for various women in society who struggle to make an attempt to change the state of their marriage, or break free of it. Here, she represents a woman who is in a constant state of war, battling against the wallpaper and the fixation it holds over her. She battled without ever actually stating the form by which men created women into the caricature that they wanted, and that society stands back and lets such actions occur. In addition to representing her mental state, the wallpaper represented the persona of John himself. Because the narrator chooses to keep her mental health subjugated to written passages instead of open conversations, it suggests the current state of her marriage to John is that of patriarchal abuse, both in the form of ridicule and silencing. As this mistreatment has built up around her for quite some time, she has treated it as being more habitual in nature, even to the point where she expects it to happen naturally. She believes she cannot rise above her feelings, nor even have good faith in John, because she is of the opposite sex. To her mind, her opinion is equally as fruitless, for the exact same reason as before; because he is a man and she is a woman. Additionally, his role as a physician brings a higher degree of knowledge to his mind as opposed to hers, making her feeling useless even more.
As the story continues, Gilman reveals even more feelings of ill treatment through more examples, such as deep irony and highlighting certain aspects of terminology. Gilman uses slight elements of fiction to continuously highlight the torment of the narrator in her compacted feeling of abuse. Certain words and phrases make up these such elements to illustrate. A certain example is when John tried to describe his wife’s disturbed feelings, calling it a temporary nervous depression a slight hysterical tendency.” Quite noticeably in this description are the words temporary, slight, and tendency, which indicated John’s seeming lack of knowledge to classify what has become of his spouse. In a sense, he also appeared to refuse to acknowledge his wife had any sort of illness at all. Gilman shows women’s societal limitations by utilizing the relationships between the characters, as well as giving an intense emphasis on the description of the wallpaper itself. This helps to bring the focus of feeling constricted in a marriage to the limelight of analysis. The unsteady alliance between the narrator and her physician husband, John, helps open a window for the reader to see these negative attributes in their relationship. As such, the narrator focuses on this imbalance both directly and indirectly in her journal entries. One such example is the fact that the narrator never directly states to John her thoughts, one of which is that she believes she is being treated unfairly living in isolation. Supposedly, this is for the sake of her treatment. However, she only records this as part of her journal entries, and never in verbal speech towards her husband. As an explanation for her silence, she states in her writing, John is a physician, and — perhaps (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.” However, within the very next sentence she states, “But what is one to do?” suggesting that she feels powerless inside to produce another solution. Here, Gilman overall suggests at some sort of bitter past between the two that has produced copious amounts of inner turmoil.
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” in the end, felt less like an actual story and more so a unique work of art. It is a fight for women seeking freedom against neglectful spousal abuse during the late 19th century. This is seen through the usage of symbolism lying in diction and the wallpaper itself. On one side, the story remains fixed on the narrator’s battles alone. However, using this same symbolism in both word choice and feeling of the wallpaper help to represent the hardships of not just one woman, but a nation of many.