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“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is, on its surface, about a woman who suffers postpartum depression, which is the ultimate factor leading to her insanity; however, a closer examination of the protagonist’s portrayal and description reveals that the story is primarily about her struggle with identity. The protagonist’s illustration of an imaginary woman– which at first is categorized as her shadow–rattling against the bars of the wallpaper fragments her identity, embodying the conflict she experiences and leads to the breakdown of the boundaries of both her identity and that of her projected shadow.
By being isolated from others and not given permission to leave her room, the protagonist who lacks something to occupy her time becomes delusional. With “barred windows for little children and rings and things in the walls” the room is like her prison (Gilman 648). Even the pattern on the wallpaper “at night in any kind of light, twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all moonlight, becomes bars” as if she is caged (Gilman 653). In both instances, she refers to the features of the room as bars. As she starts to feel imprisoned in her room the protagonist protrudes her emotions into the wallpaper; however, the idea of the room acting as her prison goes from having a figurative meaning to a more literal one as her confinement deepens her desire to escape. Towards the end of the story the woman behind the wallpaper becomes an elaborate hallucination in comparison to the shadowy figure at the beginning. At first the woman is simply a “formless figure sulking about behind the silly and conspicuous front design,” much like the shadows possessed by all matter (Gilman 652).
The significance of the word “formless” suggests that this being has evolved since the protagonist later claims to clearly see a woman; similarly, describing the wall as “silly and conspicuous” hints that the pattern of the wallpaper is quite noticeable and loud but not menacing. This also changes by the end of story when the wallpaper tries to plague her. Therefore, her eventual personality shift is a phenomenon that seems to happen steadily as her isolation in the yellow room takes hold of her mind. It is only when her depression takes a stronger hold on her that the form of the shadow takes a distinctive shape. With the constant loneliness that the protagonist endures and her obsession over her surroundings, the mirage begins to contour. In her journal she writes, “I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman” (Gilman 653). Instead of seeing the shadow as just another human form, she specifically deems it a female.
The reason being that the silhouette of the form is not only that of her shadow, but also of what she wishes it to be. Calling this “thing” a woman gives her an outlet now that the two are considered of the same kind. The “dim sub pattern” functions as the bars that give way to the illusion of her shadow–which takes on the identity of a human–being entrapped behind it. This change in appearance from formless shadow to hidden woman gives yield to her shifting identity. Initially, the shadows of objects and everything around the protagonist appear to be the woman trapped behind the wallpaper. In her journal, she claims to see the woman in the garden “on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines” (Gilman 654). These figures could be the shadows of the animals or plants growing in the garden in which she has morphed, in her mind, into the shape of the artificial woman. Since she imagines the woman being able to escape during the day, this assertion most likely reflect her own desires to escape and socialize with those outside.
In other words, the protagonist lives vicariously through the woman. Evidence of her envy toward the woman is shown in the sections where she begins to mirror the woman’s actions like creeping in her room during the day (Gilman 655). The hallucination serves as an avenue for her to be free of the nursery she is occupying. Although the figure appears to be behind the wallpaper, from the perspective of someone looking inside, the protagonist would be the one that is behind the bars. The room with the yellow wallpaper is her prison, and each night the woman taunts her with her freedom until the protagonist finally rips the paper away.
The end of the story reflects the complete breakdown of the protagonist’s identity all in its own, and that is evident when she writes: “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!” (Gilman 656). At first glance, it’s not something that is easy to catch possibly because of her sister-in-law’s name Jennie, but we have never heard the name Jane before. Throughout the entire story the narrator is giving her personal account of what’s going on so not once is her name stated, at least until the very end when John finds her creeping around the room. The only logical explanation for this to have occurred would be that the person speaking now is the hallucination; which of course is also Jane. It would seem that Jane and the shadow woman have switched places where the woman behind the wallpaper is now Jane’s new frame of mind, and the old imprisoned Jane is now looking in from the outside.
To all appearances, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is about a woman driven insane by postpartum depression and isolation, but it is more than that. It is the illusion of the protagonist’s shadow against the bars of the wallpaper’s pattern that drive her to insanity and eventually into believing that she and the so called woman have swapped places. This story is beautifully disturbing in that the content is revolving around something sinister, yet the writing and plot are quite intriguing. The story has much to say about the mistreatment of women in the 19th century and how far the human mind can go before it snaps.
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