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Despite the publishing of The Yellow Wallpaper back in 1892, the discussions about the novel do not seem to stop. Literature experts and fiction admirers have been debating on the one true meaning of the story ever since. Nevertheless, everyone tends to estimate the situation depending on his or her own background and passions. From my perspective, the feministic tendencies are too clear not to see them. However, the ambiguity of the topic raised is how much despair can transform a person, and whether external circumstances can make him or her forget about personal freedoms. The theme and problem of woman’s rights looming over the society of that day is demonstrated as the main issue at the core of the story.
Background of the Story
Understanding the framework of The Yellow Wallpaper is crucial for both academic scholars and literature enthusiasts to shape their points of view on the novel. Owing to the fact that the book is frequently considered to be ambiguous and contentious, research is needed. Multiple interpretations intertwine and disprove one another, and it is significant to analyze the setting in order to arrive at reasonable conclusions.
The plot of the novel describes an average family living at the end of the 19th century. The narrator of the story lets the reader know at the beginning that “it is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer” (Gilman, p. 13). Hence, the situation demonstrated could have happened to anyone at that period of history. The events described in the novel are the illustration of the burning issues existing that day.
Secondly, the author says that women did not always use to get proper medical care. The first ambiguous nuance that may seem feral to a casual reader is the way the main character’s husband does not want to provide his wife with a medical treatment she needed. As the character writes in her journal, “John is a physician, and perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster” (Gilman, p. 13). As it becomes apparent later, many women of that time were claimed to have “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency” (Gilman, p. 14).
Lastly, the crucial thing to note is that John emerges as a victim of social stigma. He lacks awareness, which was a common issue of that period. Indeed, the character does not seem to be harmful to his wife intentionally. The man might love the narrator in his own way. Despite his being a physician who is oblivious to what his wife is suffering from for real, the reader is exposed to the scenes where his affection to the woman is unquestionable. Hence, the narrator’s husband is shown as a slave to the issues of the time when he lived.
In general, the novel reveals a regular reality for young American families and marriages during the last decades of the 19th century. There was a tendency to consider young women not bright enough to understand their bodies and their health conditions, both physical and mental. Society was yet to overcome the stigma around females’ intelligence and capabilities. Therefore, significant ambiguities in women’s rights and freedoms were observed.
Dominant Theme and Its Interpretation
As mentioned above, the story was not perceived by the audience identically. The author’s peculiar style may be considered the primary reason for this statement. Charlotte Perkins Gilman decided to select showing instead of telling as the primary technique in this piece of writing. The main character describes the events around her in the way that is similar to a stream of consciousness. What is more, her mental stability is sure to be damaged. Hence, the reader cannot entirely rely on the narrator regarding objectivity. Consequently, after getting acquainted with the novel, one is left with a trail of theories, presumptions, and questions. Gender discrimination may be interpreted as the main reason why the character acted as demented at the end, but this is just one interpretation.
Firstly, the character was not allowed to use her mental potential comprehensively. “He hates to have me write a word” – she writes in her personal journal that tries to keep in secret (Gilman, p. 15). The heroine is “absolutely forbidden to “work” until… well again” (Gilman, p. 15). Unequivocally, the only thing she has left to do to save herself from boredom is to examine the wallpaper. In the end, she starts losing her mind and going mad.
Secondly, since the main character was a woman, no one seems to bother to discover the real reasons she could not feel completely healthy. It was common among people to believe that being smart was harmful to a woman. As a result, a mental condition mentioned in a book as a “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency” was thought to be intelligent women’s destiny (Gilman, p. 15). As society tended to believe, a submissive and obedient woman was considered sane and healthy. Doctors presumed that an ambitious female had to face a jail-like routine to become tamed again. Thus, the character had no chance to get better instead of worse.
Thirdly, the heroine was not in control of her life. Being a married woman led her to the chains of having no choice. She knew what she needed in order to make herself feel better. Gilman writes: “Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?” (p. 15). The result of exerting power over women was everything but benefit. Consequently, a permanent feeling of hatred due to injustice impacted females’ mental health negatively.
Also, depriving the narrator of social connections took its toll on her as well. The character was aware she had to go outside, talk to people, and dive into the opulent world that might be open and available for a young woman. However, the patriarchal regimen of society happened to lock her cage and then clip her wings. Indisputably, communication helps a person stay happier and healthier, unlike loneliness. As a result, the lack of social life started to be destructive for the narrator of the story.
Moreover, after the main character started going insane, the phantom of a woman she saw appeared to raise the same feminist issues. The mysterious woman that was messing with the heroine’s mind symbolized the problems the narrator dealt with herself. The woman behind the wallpapers seemed trapped to the narrator. The main character believed her to be a prisoner, a thrall. However, she felt like she was in captivity herself and could not have a chance for rescue.
Lastly, feministic symbolism can be spotted at the end of the novel. John lost consciousness after seeing his wife became totally crazy. Such a plot twist with the scene of the female creeping over the male and, thus, being taller and more powerful than him may be symbolic. Hence, the ending of the novel may be a token of women’s triumph and victory oven the patriarchal order.
Alternative Ways of Interpretation
An interpretive problem of the novel has preoccupied readers’ minds since its publishing. As Hamilton states, the story was of great importance to its author since Gilman herself survived a stay in a medical ward, similar to the one described by her, during postpartum depression (p. 212). Thus, the autobiographical nature of The Yellow Wallpaper underlines the significance of those subtopics that are affected and may be interpreted as the writer’s personal opinion and not just the thoughts of her fictional heroine.
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As another interpretation option, the psychological background of human consciousness may be affected. According to Jing, the main character of the novel chose madness deliberately “to pursue her subjectivity and female voice submerged by the patriarchal world order” (p. 470). Such a desire testifies to the hidden needs of a person in achieving individual goals and overcoming pressure from the outside. Therefore, the criterion of self-identity is a significant aspect of the plot.
The topic of women’s rights and their violation may be regarded as the leitmotif of the story. However, it seems impossible to define the only one theme and interpretation for The Yellow Wallpaper. The style of the novel is too a strong and powerful, and the characters are real and lifelike. The first impression leaves readers with the need for filling in the blanks themselves. Furthermore, the story is open-ended, and one can interpret it individually. Therefore, The Yellow Wallpaper can be explained in many different ways.
- Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wall-Paper. The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1996.
- Hamilton, Carole L. “The Collegial Classroom: Teaching Threshold Concepts through Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”.” CEA Critic, vol. 77, no. 2, 2015, pp. 211-222.
- Jing, He. “Same Plight, Different Struggle: A Comparison of Female Protagonists in Hamlet and “The Yellow Wallpaper”.” Journal of Literature and Art Studies, vol. 6, no. 5, 2016, pp. 468-472.