The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman) Review
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a parable of women’s oppression and a narrative of one woman’s descent into madness under patriarchy. In this narrative, Charlotte Perkins Gilman highlights the oppression of women in the 1890’s and the complexity of mental illness using symbolism, extended metaphors, realist expression, Gothic elements, and synesthesia. Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” draws on historical settings and personal experience. As women’s rights organizations such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union emerged in the 19th century, women’s rights became a more prominent issue. Women questioned their roles in society. The increasingly public endorsement of women’s rights by iconoclasts, such as Angelina Grimke, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and William Lloyd Garrison, led to a heightened sense of importance and empowerment among women.
However, 19th century society remained predominantly patriarchal. Nevertheless, social codes and gender stereotypes restricted women’s opportunities for independence from male figures. Following the birth of her daughter Katherine and her experience with severe postpartum depression in 1884, Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”. During this time, the famous “nerve specialist” Dr. Weir Mitchell prescribed the “rest cure,” a forced treatment of complete inactivity and rest. However, Dr.
Mitchell’s rest cure exacerbated Gilman’s condition and ultimately, her dismissal of his treatment led to her recovery. In “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Gilman suggests that stereotypes of women contributed to men’s misunderstanding and dismissal of mental illness in women. Historically, 19th century doctors believed that the synchronization of women’s reproductive organs caused illness. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman illustrates the detrimental effects of these stereotypes of women and misconception of mental illness. Gilman uses extensive symbolism throughout “The Yellow Wallpaper” to demonstrate the mental and physical confinement of women in 19th century society. The wallpaper represents mental illness and the narrator’s only form of self-expression.
Initially, the narrator characterizes the wallpaper pattern as “complex, pointless, only visible in certain lights, dull enough to confuse the eye,” and “pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study” due to its “lame uncertain curves”. The word “lame” draws a parallel between the lameness of the wall’s curves and the narrator’s own lameness and impaired thinking abilities. Furthermore, like the wallpaper, the narrator conceals her worsening mental condition from her peers during the daytime but becomes restless at night. However, she has little hope for mental improvement. Male physicians of the time did not understand illness in women.
As a result, the severity of the narrator’s condition was underestimated. In “Environment as Psychopathological Symbolism,” Loralee MacPike states that the wallpaper is a representation of the narrator’s state of mind, the only aspect of her life she controls. In fact, her husband John controls every other part of her life. He even dictates how she feels. For example, he calls her request for a different room a “false and foolish fancy”. Like the narrator’s mind, the wallpaper follows “only its own logic”.
In other words, neither her mind nor the wallpaper follows the preconceived tenets of the male medical world. Her desire to rescue the woman behind the wallpaper symbolizes her desire to escape male dominance and rescue herself from confinement. In addition, other objects in the narrator’s house embody the oppression of women. For example, the bars on the windows and the “walls and gates that lock” resemble a prison environment and epitomize the social restrictions placed on women. Gilman’s use of the phrases “alone,” “separate,” and “standing well back from the road” imply that the narrator, a woman, is isolated from society. Males, such as her husband, disregard her opinion in politics, literature, and even in her own ill condition.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is also a narrative that incorporates realist expression to convey a deeper meaning. Carol Scheidenhelm, an English director at Loyola University, defines realism as an unbiased interpretation of any aspect of life. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Gilman accurately portrays enduring mental illness, the consequences of mandatory inactivity on one’s mind, and the effects of male dominance on the outcome of the narrator’s condition. The narrator, like Gilman under the rest cure, becomes restless and upset by the ineffective remedy. Initially, the narrator states that she “believes that congenial work..
. would do me [her] good”. However, every male character disregards her symptoms and her condition, which ultimately leads to her full descent into madness and demonstrates that oppression in any form is detrimental. Gilman also uses the extended metaphor of the narrator as a child to underline the inferiority of women in 19th century society. Her own husband refers to her as a “blessed little goose” and a “little girl”. In other words, he likens her to an animal and a child that cannot take care of itself.
Throughout “The Yellow Wallpaper,” John controls nearly all aspects of his wife’s life, such as who she sees, which room she sleeps in, and which furniture surrounds her. In addition, he continuously dictates what the narrator should and should not feel, based on the male understanding of the female mind. He tells her not to succumb to her materialistic fancies when she asks if she can move from the disturbing nursery room with the yellow wallpaper to a more peaceful room downstairs. However, his patronizing ignorance is fatal because the yellow wallpaper ultimately contributes to the narrator’s complete mental ruin. Additionally, John dismisses symptoms of the narrator’s declining condition as characteristics of an overly active imagination. He even carries her to bed like a child, silencing her voice multiple times throughout the narrative.
Gothic elements in “The Yellow Wallpaper” set an eerie mood and enhance the reader’s understanding of mental deterioration. Lisa Gallulo associates the Gothic genre with “overall feelings of madness” and with “death, evil, and mystery.” Evidently, in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” references to a “broken neck and two bulbous eyes [that] stare at you upside down…
absurd, unblinking eyes” allude to death. In addition, the detailed description of madness and the chilling conclusion contribute to a sense of shock and horror characteristic of Gothic literature. Furthermore, similarities exist between “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Edgar Allen Poe’s Gothic story, “The Black Cat.” Both short stories contain elements of self-sabotage, self-hatred, and the capacity for murderous. Gilman’s narrator demonstrates these qualities when she imagines broken necks and death in the pattern of the wallpaper. As Hume explains, this characterization is the narrator’s self-murder of childhood innocence, and contributes to the horrifying tone of “The Yellow Wallpaper.
” Gilman also uses synesthesia to illustrate the all-encompassing quality of mental illness in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” As the narrator’s mental condition steadily declines, she notices a “yellow” smell from the yellow wallpaper that hovers in every room. In fact, the smell seems to follow the narrator’s presence, in the same way the narrator’s mental illness affects all aspects of her life. Consequently, the yellow smell pervades the narrator’s mind and senses. Finally, the narrator seriously considers “burning the house to reach the smell”.
Like mental illness, the yellow smell is difficult to resolve, uncontrollable, nearly impossible to understand, and all-encompassing. Although Beverly A. Hume may argue that the narrator is insane from the start of the story, the orderly diction in the beginning of “The Yellow Wallpaper” suggests otherwise. The opening line, “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer,” is both elaborate and controlled in diction. By the end of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman uses short, choppy sentences.
These single-sentence paragraphs at the end of the narrative illustrate the clashing thoughts of the narrator and her inability to form coherent ideas. Additionally, the narrator refers to John as “that man,” indicating that she does not recognize her husband anymore. Clearly, at the beginning of this short story, the narrator is aware of who John is and has not fully descended into madness yet. Therefore, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is an account of the narrator’s gradual descent into insanity and the oppressive conditions that contribute to that descent. Ultimately, Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a narrative of one woman’s unfortunate descent into insanity because of male dominance over women, ignorance of mental illness, and a misunderstanding of the female mind. Gilman uses symbolism, extended metaphors, realist expression, Gothic elements, and synesthesia to convey the sense of oppression she felt while undergoing a treatment of mandatory inactivity.
Ultimately, “The Yellow Wallpaper” serves to demonstrate that often, one knows what is best for oneself.