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The Yellow Wallpaper: a Twist on Typical Symbols

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of the most prominent feminists and social thinkers at the turn of the century. Her best fiction, The Yellow Wallpaper, is also her least typical. It is about a young wife and mother’s mental deterioration as recorded in journal by the main character. As read beside Gilman’s own breakdown, it is a terrifying portrayal. Originally, it was interpreted as a horror story, as seen in William Dean Howells’ essay in his 1920 anthology. Howell writes, “I shiver over it as much as I did when I first read it in manuscript, though I agree with the editor of The Atlantic of the time, that it was too terribly good to be printed”(pp. vii-xiv). It was this misinterpretation, which allowed The Yellow Wallpaper to be overlooked for almost fifty years, until it was rediscovered by the budding feminist movement. The movement found that The Yellow Wallpaper was one of the rare pieces of literature, which directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship. There are two symbolic aspects the Gilman uses to bring these sexual politic to light. The aspects are (1) the nursery and all its furnishings, and (2) the imaginary woman behind the pattern.

The Yellow Wallpaper reads as a psychological horror story of madness in a young woman, but running as an undercurrent throughout the story, is a feminist document. It was this connection, between the insanity and sexual role of the victim, which slowly unfolds before the reader, and the domineering role of the male-husband takes on an almost evil aspect. One of the first male domineering traits seen in The Yellow Wallpaper is the husband’s treatment of his wife as a child. There is never any equality in their relationship; instead, our main character is treated as if she is unable to think rationally for herself. Gilman writes that the main character’s husband sees her as his “little girl”(pg. 732). So as a child he chooses a room that most fit her condition. Gilman describes the room as, “The nursery at the top of the stairs. It was 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”(pg. 727). First, we are struck by the open, lighted space that the narrator tells of the room. This is Gilman’s comment on the lack of privacy afforded woman in society. There is no place to hide, no secrets left sacred to the woman. Next, we can see, this physical aspect of the room is symbolic for the three roles women held in society. In this male dominated time, women were thought of as child bearers (nursery), sex toys (playroom), and workhorses (gymnasium). Conrad Shumaker writes, “With the images of the barred windows, sinister bedspreads, rings on the floor, and domineering men, the story does indeed raise the issue of sex roles in a effective way, and anticipates later feminist literature”(pg. 590). It is these sexual roles that the narrator seems to be rebelling against as she writes her journal, but cannot change. The only overt action against her prison taken by the narrator is to ask her husband to change the wallpaper. Gilman describes it as, “One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. 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 angels, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions”(pg. 727). The paper is symbolizes a woman’s situation as seen by men, and hence woman’s situation as seen by women, the one domineering the other. The wallpaper consists of “uncertain curves” that “commit suicide destroy themselves.” It is these pointless patterns that represent the search for identity, some independent self that when almost found disappears. Gilman’s narrator wishes to change this situation, but her husband tells her not to give way to her “fancies”(pg. 728). Further, he claims that change would only lead to more change. “After the wallpaper was changed it would be the heavy bedspread, and then the barred windows, and then the gate at the head of the stairs”(pg. 728). We can easily see that the true change Gilman has the husband referring to the change in equality in women. The husband (man) says that any change will lead to the “gate at the head of the stairs,” or freedom for women from their sexual prisons. The next symbolic aspect that Gilman uses to show the domineering nature of man in society is the narrator’s delusion of a woman trapped in the wall.

The woman in the wallpaper slowly takes shape, when the narrator’s husband refuses to leave the house or change the wallpaper. The narrator is trapped, and can find no solace in her situation. Elaine R. Hedges writes, “Inevitably, therefore, the narrator, imprisoned within the room, thinks she discerns the figure of a woman behind the paper. The paper is barred, and the woman is trapped behind the bars, trying to get free”(pg. 52). The narrator and the woman behind the bars of wallpaper are symbolic for the sexual repression of woman in a patriarchal society. They are trapped, and desperately attempting to define the world around them, but her insights are poor weapons against the male certainty of his superiority. The narrator’s mad-sane way is to see the situation for what it is. She has wanted to strangle the woman behind the wallpaper, for that way she might reject the imprisoned woman within herself. This is in some ways self-murder, because the woman in the wallpaper is a projection of herself and situation. The only alternative is madness. Hedges writes, “The heroine in The Yellow Wallpaper is destroyed. She has fought her best against husband, brother, doctor, and even against women friends (her husband’s sister, for example, is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession”).

She has tried, in defiance of all the social and medical codes of her time, to retain her sanity and her individuality. But the odds are against her and she fails”(pg. 55). The codes of society are to binding, and engrained for the narrator (women) to survive the trial for freedom. Man once again has held his grip at the throat of his prey, and slowly drains the life breath from it. Gilman is tired of the iron wall that bars equality. Therefore, as in any hopeless situation there is only two alternatives, madness, or perseverance. Gilman’s narrator finds her freedom in madness, and as The Yellow Wallpaper concludes, her husband finds her creeping along the walls of the room. “I’ve got out at last,” she tells him triumphantly, “And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back”(pg. 737). Her husband faints, and she is obliged to step over him each time she circles the room. This ending is a contradiction of defeat and victory. The narrator finds her victory as she steps over her fainted husband, yet she is defeated by never escaping the prison of her room. Gilman, by ending The Yellow Wallpaper in this fashion, believed that though women may one day may find some loophole out of man’s dominance over them, they would always be trapped in the constrains formed by men. In this, she was right, for though woman have made many leaps in equality, a male dominated society still ultimately makes the rules and style by which women live.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman outdoes herself as a feminist writer as she designs the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper. She is a unique, vivid character, who struggles with the perfect-shaped box that her male companion has forced her to live in, but the box itself (the nursery) is what really allows The Yellow Wallpaper to come alive for the reader. The narrator’s symbolic paper-house crumbles before our eyes, and Gilman’s true meaning is revealed in heart-stopping glory. The narrator is no longer a prisoner; her madness has given her wings.

Work Cited

Hedges, Elaine R. “Afterwards” The Feminist Press 1973.

Howells, William D. “A Reminiscent Introduction in The Great Modern American Stories” Boni and Liveright Inc. 1920

Ed. Lauter, Paul. “The Heath Anthology of American Literature” Houghton Mifflin Company 1998

Shumaker, Conrad. “‘Too Terribly Good To Be Printed’: Charlotte Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper'” American Literature Vol. 57 1985

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