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In 1892, feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman published her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” describing an intense summer vacation for a woman recovering from mental illness. The story takes the reader through the narrator’s erratic journal entries of a three month stay in a rented estate while she is under the microscopic care of her physician husband. In order to regain her health for the sake of their child, her husband John prescribes “tonics, air and exercise”, thus making his wife stay in an upstairs bedroom full of sunlight and plenty of space despite being covered in a disturbing yellow wallpaper with barred windows, much to the narrator’s dismay. Although John adamantly protests his wife’s desire to write during her illness, the narrator continues to express herself in secret. Naturally, this story hints at the traditional expectations of a woman’s demeanor and values under the forceful hand of a patriarchal society. Throughout the development of the story, the narrator’s journal entries increasingly become centered around this intense fascination of the bedroom, establishing an eerie and baffling tone. By constructing the story exclusively through a female perspective, Gilman provides a key insight into the sexist treatment of women’s mental health, and the mystery of The Yellow Wallpaper. Through literary analysis of the story we will see how Gilman conveys her message using various literary and rhetorical devices.
To begin, the narrator frequently elaborates into how her husband perceives and treats her mental illness. Diagnosed as a “temporary nervous depression”, she rambles to the reader about how she is often doubted and misunderstood. The narrator seems exasperated by listing the various remedies saying, “I take phosphates…tonics, and air and exercise and journeys…” disbarred from performing any kind of physical “work” including her beloved hobby of writing. One of the first examples of John’s micromanagement a reader learns is exactly that: “I must put this journal away — he hates to have me write a word”. Although this sentence seems casual, with the other small nuances found throughout the story, it collectively represents how women’s internal expressions were subtly muted yet strongly discouraged. The narrator especially emphasizes that she must say what she thinks and disobeys John because writing is “such a relief”. In a more similar interaction, the reader can see the narrator’s separate frustrations over John’s seemingly comforting yet insensitive treatment for his wife’s abnormal mood swings that is expected with a mental illness. The narrator is quoted, “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes…but John says if I feel so I shall neglect proper self-control”. To solve her frustrations, John ensures the narrator consumes pain pills to diminish her petty complaints. Furthermore, readers pick up on John’s belittling dialogue with the narrator, despite being a loving husband and medical physician such as, “John knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him”. These first few expressive paragraphs stand as an early signal to readers about the main theme Gilman has incorporated through John’s character and foreshadows his continuing attitude.
Another key character involved in this story is Jennie, the sister of John, who comes to the summer house to help take care of the narrator when John is at work. Readers do not know much about Jennie — she’s a relatively static character that is inserted by Gilman for another outside perspective. To be clear, Jennie mostly expresses her frets about the narrator’s health and stability in the story, similar to John. It is even noticed by the narrator: “He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look”. Becoming increasingly worried like her brother, Jennie also starts to believe writing caused the narrator’s sickness. Perhaps this is a representation of a woman’s tarnished perspective on mothers’ and wives’ capabilities who are unable to care for their family and how easily influenced they are by men’s ideologies.
Although the summer stay was meant to benefit the narrator, she seems to become more distressed with increasing contact of the peculiar bedroom. John reasons that providing his wife with a bright, open bedroom will speed her recovery. However, the reader becomes wary of the terrifying torn yellow wallpaper and frightening barred windows. To provide more detail, the room is depicted as “big, airy…with sunshine galore” but later juxtaposed as “atrocious” with “horrid” wallpaper. When the narrator expresses to John she wants to leave, he negates her request by insisting it is only her wild imagination and simply not worth the effort. As nighttime falls, the narrator claims there is a movement within the pattern: “like a woman stooping down and creeping about…”. She is also described “taking hold of the bars and shaking them hard” in comparison to keeping still in the daytime. Thus, a reader can speculate if this is a nod to the traditional woman’s demeanor when a personal dilemma would arise; subdued in the daytime, distressed at night.
Similarly, other factors such as tone in this story could make a reader themselves even doubt the narrator’s sanity. For example, the author embodies her writing with the pessimistic and sometimes violently erratic journal entries. Statements such as, “It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight” tricks the reader to question her mental stability, similar to John. In a more extreme statement, as the narrator deciphers the curves of the wallpaper’s pattern, she describes them as “suddenly committing suicide – plunging off at outrageous angles”. As she progressively becomes enthralled by the woman in the yellow wallpaper, Gilman utilizes an intense, dark and descriptive vocabulary similar to personifying this mysterious woman as a demon “hanging over me” even claiming it has a certain smell. These concerning comments can be likened to those with psychosis, further throwing the reader back and forth between what to believe. A reader could then speculate if this “woman” is just a figure of her hysterical imagination.
Towards the end of the story, the narrator’s infatuation with the mystery boils over and the climax occurs when the narrator locks herself in the bedroom, tearing at the wallpaper to free the woman figure. Completely possessed by her liberation, the narrator locks the bedroom door to be uninterrupted as John forces his way in. By this point, the narrator has embodied the woman figure, freed from the constraints of the wallpaper saying, “I’ve got out at last in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”. While there has never been a “Jane” character mentioned, Gilman has suggested this figure and the narrator have become one by speaking to John about her enslavement of mental illness through the third person.
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