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In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents readers with the theme of a woman restrained by her more powerful husband. When a woman being treated for hysteria by her domineering spouse is forced to stay in a room with maddening yellow wallpaper, she is eventually driven insane, imagining a woman is trapped inside the pattern. She herself is trapped in a world where women are not taken seriously and are dismissed as hysterical. Gilman’s choice of a first person point of view – more specifically one of a woman writing in a diary – helps to emphasize the frightening situation of the woman in the story. The unique point of view allows readers to see not only the internal feelings of a woman essentially imprisoned, but also the implications of writing such a diary and the moments when the woman is holding back (or being held back).
It must be admitted that there is a problem with having a first person narrator in a work of fiction. A certain degree of reliability is lost when readers only hear one side of the story, especially when it’s impossible to tell if that one side of the story is even true. Gilman certainly sets up the narrator of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” to be less than perfectly truthful. Soon after the story opens, the narrator says of her husband John, “You see he does not believe I am sick!” (Gilman 1670) Later she is described as a woman with an “imaginative power and habit of story-making” (1672). And by the end of the story when the narrator believes there is a woman inside the wallpaper, the reader knows she is not speaking from an objective point of view. However, Gilman actually uses this unreliability of the narrator to her advantage. A key part of this story is the fact that this woman is trapped in this situation because her husband won’t listen to her – she’s hysterical, and moreover, a woman in 1892. She begs him to move to a different room without the yellow wall-paper, but he tells her not to “give way to such fancies” (1672). Gilman takes this concept and turns it on its head, plunging the reader into a story told by someone who nobody listens to. The reader is forced to listen. Even as she descends into madness, the reader stays with her and listens to her internal thoughts. She might not be reliable, but she becomes relatable when the reader hears her point of view. Through her telling of things, the antagonist John becomes the more unreliable one in the story, the one who is feeding his wife lies, even though in the world the story takes place in, John is a “physician of high standing” (1670) and his word is the one that matters! But Gilman expertly causes readers to believe the hallucinating woman over her doctor husband, simply through point of view.
To fully understand the importance of perspective in this story, a reader must consider the medium through which it is being told: in a diary. Not only that, but a secret diary. There are implications to having such a diary, because the woman’s husband will not allow her to write. When he or his sister comes into the room, the narrator must hide it. This aspect of the point of view is important because what the narrator is telling the reader is something she cannot say aloud. “I would not say it to a living soul, of course,” she writes, “but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind” (Gilman 1670). These words are trapped within the pages of a diary – “dead paper” – just as the woman is trapped in the wallpaper, and just as the narrator is trapped in her marriage.This diary format also allows readers little glimpses into the way genders were viewed at this time, but from a woman’s perspective. There are subtleties in the things she writes that portray men as the dominant (and domineering) members of society. For example, the narrator observes that “The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it” (Gilman 1671). She says this because it is “stripped off in great patches” (1671) and looking tattered and abused. The narrator does not consciously realize she is doing so, but mentioning this offers readers insight into the way she views the opposite sex: as destructive. She sees something destroyed and automatically assumes boys did it – and by the end of the story, her mental health is destroyed because of the man in her life.
Another subtle clue into the gender roles in this story is in the fact that the woman’s name is never mentioned. Usually in a story, the more important characters are given names. Because it’s told from her point of view, hers is never discovered. Yet John’s name is mentioned 45 times in this short story. It is scattered everywhere, emphasizing his importance and his hold on her life. In fact, this constant talk of John contributes greatly to the voice of the speaker. Her train of thought is often interrupted with but John this and but John that. A perfect example of this follows: “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 to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad” (Gilman 1670). This single sentence illustrates the relationship between the two. In the first part are the woman’s thoughts. But these thoughts are always subdued by her husband’s prescriptions and advice. Ultimately, in this father-knows-best society, they affect the way she perceives her own opinions. She values his above her own, and adopts them, thinking perhaps he is right, as shown in the final clause of that sentence.
In this story (at least in the beginning of it before she goes insane), the first person perspective shows the restraint of the woman, reflecting the way she is restrained by her husband. Going even further than all the but Johns in the narrative, the woman writes with a style that is reticent and self-conscious; she keeps herself in check and reflects on any “rebellion” she might feel, like when she says, “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition” (Gilman 1671). She dismisses her own thoughts as unimportant, making excuses for them, because in her life she has become accustomed to being dismissed. She thinks there is no way to justify her feelings other than blaming it on her illness. After all, that’s what her husband does. Another part that highlights this dismissiveness is when she says, “I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim” (1672), referring to wanting to move to a room that would make her less uncomfortable. John is constantly referred to as “dear,” while she is the “unreasonable” and “silly” one. “It is so hard to talk with John about my case,” she says, “because he is so wise, and because he loves me so” (1675). The reader can tell he is the antagonist in the story, but the irony is that she portrays him as the “good guy.” Later in the story, however, the perspective shows that the woman is becoming less restrained in her writing, having grown bold with insanity. She starts to portray John as the tyrant he is. She admits she is “a little afraid of [him]” (1677). And at the very end, she no longer thinks of him as the wise, dear husband at all. She even refers to him in a diminutive manner as she creeps around the room in the climax – “It is no use, young man, you can’t open it!” she declares (1680).
Had the story been told from a third person perspective, the reader would not be able to gain such insight into the subtleties of the woman’s view of her situation. Her restrained voice would not be apparent, and the story would lack the dramatic implications of the secret diary. Had it been told from the point of view of another character – John’s or his sister’s – the woman’s insanity would be the central theme, as opposed to her being subdued by her spouse. The first person point of view is crucial to developing this theme. In “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Gilman uses perspective to create an important feminist work that examines women’s issues from a woman’s point of view.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter Eighth Edition. Baym, Nina, et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013. 1669-1681. Print.
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