The Yellow Wallpaper Theme
How it works
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman is a short story of a young woman’s journal entries, who is seemingly mentally unstable. She shows symptoms of anxiety, depression, and “hysteria”. The narrator’s name is not definitive but is alluded to being Jane and for the sake of clarity in this essay, she will be mentioned as such. John, her husband, is a physician and believes she just needs to rest to be cured; he rents a mansion for 3 months in the summertime and puts her in the nursery.
This literary piece is also known to be an early work of feminist literature. Themes exhibited in this short story include female oppression, insanity, naturalism, and modernism. In its time, this was also considered a horror story, but later it was reviled as a feminist work. This story is considered a work of naturalism but often brings to light some modernism qualities.
This text portrays naturalism quite clearly; Jane, as the wife, completely lacks free agency. While the husband, John, has complete agency. Jane’s environment is controlled by exterior powers and she cannot do anything about it. We also “discover the human by stripping away from civilization”(1890-1900 ppt). The wife in the story is controlled by fate because of her supposed mental illness, which if she is truly mentally ill, is a biological factor.
Men had authority over woman at this point. Due to the futility of these unpleasant circumstances, she begins to focus on objects rather than her declining mental state. Jane writes in her journal that “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad (Gilman, 4).” Jane believes if she were allowed to have outside contact, she would not be going mad. She notes that she cannot control her condition nor her environment which makes this a naturalist work. She projects her supposed mental instability onto the yellow wallpaper, rather than to keep it in her mind. John tells her not to think of her condition. This, of course, makes her feel worse when she does think of it because of how brainwashed she is by John.
Jane believes that there is a woman in the wallpaper, but I believe it is her mind creating an image of the woman she wants to be. Jane, “[has] watched her sometimes away off in the open country, creeping as fast as a cloud shadow in a high wind (45).” The woman she sees is free to do what she wants. Jane fancies this woman because she has something she doesn’t: freedom. Creating this symbol in the story is key to show how men in this era oppressed women.
Jane develops an obsession with the nurseries wallpaper. The nursery room is old, unkempt, and located in the top of the mansion. The windows in the room are barred, which gives it a prison-like quality. The wallpaper “color is repellant almost revolting a smoldering unclean yellow strangely faded by the slow turning sunlight” (8, Gilman). Being locked inside a room and forced to stare at the wallpaper, for her only real stimulus throughout the day, has caused her to start to go insane. John believes her to be hysterical and forces her to remain in the room. She begins to believe the wallpaper is alive, seeing movement and eyes.
Jane claims to her husband that she sees women in the wallpaper. She believes that she has become one of the many women she now sees in the wallpaper. John, forbids his wife to leave the home due to her illness and states that all she needs to do is rest. This is an allusion to how the women of this era were allowed to do very little.
This short story also displays characteristics of modernism, as it was written at the beginning of this literary era. Jane is alienated by society due to her husband, environment, and mind. This is partly because John believes she is not sick. Instead, he thinks she needs to rest so he locks her in an attic of his mansion. Jane struggles with anxieties which are manifested from her supposed mental illness and the subsequent “house arrest” she is placed under.
Since Jane was sick, she felt her existence to be meaningless. Jane wants to find meaning in her life. She feels “that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do [her] good” (Gilman, 3). Jane is trapped inside her mind as well as an attic with no signs of escaping. Of course, this would drive any person to go mad! We must ask ourselves, as readers, if she was truly mentally unwell, to begin with or if the circumstances her husband placed her under have made her become mentally ill.
In this era, science was known as fragments of the truth and ‘relative’. Since science was distrusted and Jane suffered from a “mental illness”, there was no explanation for her thoughts and actions. This made it impossible for her to get better. Jane’s husband and brother, who were both physicians, did not believe she had a mental illness. “My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing” (Gilman, 3). Mental illness was unknown, and society believed you were just “crazy”.
At the end of the story, Jane still insists that there are women in the paper. She runs to the room and locks the door. While John tries to break in, she tells him exactly where the key is and simultaneously rips down the wallpaper. John finally breaks into the room and she says to him, ‘I’ve got out at last…And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’ The husband faints, even though she thought he should not and was “right across my path by the wall so that I had to creep over him every time!” (55, Gilman). John does not recognize the severity of the illness that he has created. Her hallucinations manifest in the situation he has created for her and he realizes he no longer has control over her. She feels no longer trapped and can now thrive as a young woman.