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The short story The Yellow Wallpaper describes problems of the middle-class women and the low status of women in society. The Yellow Wallpapers was first published in 1892 (Shawn, p. 237). In this short story, Gilman depicts a life of a common woman whose destiny is housekeeping. The protagonist suffers greatly because her role in life is limited and disregarded. Using different symbols, Gilman unveils hardship and grievances faced by a common woman, misunderstanding, and indifference towards her. For a long time, the husband does not take into account the psychical state of his wife supposing it is nothing more than a fake. Using unique symbols, Gilman symbolically depicts the low role of women in society and in the family, misunderstanding, and apathy of family members towards possible illnesses and emotional problems faced by women.
The yellow wallpaper is the main symbol of the story. This symbol represents the lunatic asylum where the main character is put. It becomes a prison for the protagonist limited her social life and physical activity. “The narrator describes the yellow wallpaper, the central symbol of this triumphantly suffocating domesticity, with elaborate and self-conscious artistic precision” (Hume, p. 3). Gilman uses such important details as the smell of the wallpaper and shades of color to depict her feelings: “the only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell” (Gilman n.d.). The yellow wallpaper is used as a symbol of depression and loneliness. It uncovers the inner state of the heroin and her psychological distress. Literary critics (Hume, p. 3) explain that the choice of this unique symbol is not accidental, because many doctors of those times used yellow wallpapers as a treatment for mental illnesses. Although, because the social role of the wife is predetermined, Gilman underlines that the woman feels miserable and depressed. She states: “It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper!” (Gilman n.d.). This symbolic meaning helps readers to grasp the idea at once and shapes the atmospheres of loneliness and insanity. Also, this symbol contemplates nature, both the natural world around the narrator and her own inner nature. The protagonist is depicted as a sympathetic and compassionate wife and mother, but she lacks the inner strength essential for survival (Delashmit and Long, p. 32).
The yellow color itself is a symbol of insanity and mental illness. Personal feelings and experiences have a great influence on the narrator and her associations and allow readers to interpret the symbol (Fleissner, p. 79). Gilman gives a detailed analysis of this ‘unique’ color: “The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulfur tint in others” (Gilman n.d.). Also, the story records the changes of the heroin nature and her desire to overcome male oppression and become free from social norms and stereotypes. Also, a specific detailed description of the color and feel of the narrator forces readers to go beneath the surface and interpret this symbol. Probably, “insanity” is an indicator of what happens to people’s thinking about themselves when they can no longer hold on to the old beliefs (Hume, p. 4). The narrator seems to have approved of the burning of them, not on the ground that they made people go on crazy movements, but because they were idealistically poor. “The exasperating effect of pattern wallpaper on invalids was a medical commonplace of Gilman’s time” (Roth 145). Using the effect of “yellow” on the mind, Gilman shows that this color occupies and expands readers’ interpretation and perception of the plot. With this emphasis on the irrational, Gilman creates social conflicts between the gentility of old values and the brute force of new: “Charlotte Perkins Gilman states she did not intend to drive readers “crazy” with the Yellow Wall-Paper but only to expose a serious and extreme lapse in medical judgment, or wisdom, regarding the “treatment of neurasthenia”. Gilman uses the theme of “the yellow wallpaper” to demonstrate the hopelessness and futility of women’s dreams and hopes.
Through the symbol of the family mansion, Gilman describes family relations and atmosphere, relations between spouses, and their marriage life. Through this symbol, Gilman unveils complicated relations between a husband and wife, feeling of indifference and apathy. For instance, the woman feels there is something strange about the house associated with loneliness. Gilman writes: “a colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house and reach the height of romantic felicity but that would be asking too much of fate! Still, I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it” (Gilman n.d.). This symbol unveils poor family relations between husband and wife, and the inability to understand and support each other in difficult life situations. Hume explains that “Gilman’s narrator posits an indirect alternative to the psychologically discomfiting ambivalence she displays not only toward herself but for others (including both her husband and her child). On the other hand, doubt and anger are inappropriate responses to the narrator. But there are times when these things are almost inevitable.
The profession of a husband (a physician) can be interpreted as an important symbol of family problems and a lack of mutual trust. Gilman ironically portrays that a physician is unable to recognize mental illnesses and psychological disorders limited by social stereotypes. “John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition” (Gilman n.d.). From the very beginning, the woman describes that her husband, John, does not take into account her complaints and emotional distress supposing that it is nothing more than “temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency” (Gilman, n.d.). The attitude of the husband reveals the strong views on the role of women in society and their weaknesses. This symbol underlines that the physician does not treat his wife as other patients supposing that psychological illness is just an imaginary illness of his wife used to attract his attention. The woman explains: “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him” (Gilman, n.d.). It is possible to say that the position of women during the period depicted by Gilman was too low. They lived as housewives with no rights and property. In the story, Gilman describes that it is nothing but the courage of the woman to fight against oppression and social norms. Delashmit and Long comment: “The wife in “The Yellow Wallpaper” escapes by denying one self and merging with another–physically safe, but insane, at least for the moment, in her nursery-prison” (Delashmit, Long 32). This message sustains a special atmosphere in the story. It unveils contractions between old and new things, values, and ideas. This means that the author is endorsing doubt and challenging the hero. It seems to endorse being honest about personal doubts, rather than accepting trite answers.
The symbol of a flight can be interpreted as a symbol of freedom and independence. “To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try” (Gilman n.d.). It is possible to assume that the main character wants to step out into a wider world and becomes independent and free from family oppression and apathy. This symbol reflects the inner state of the woman and gives some hints to readers to imagine her feelings and emotional state. Through this symbol, the short story suggests something of the historical loss for women and their relationships with men. Using this symbol, Gilman prepares readers for something unacceptable. The woman says: “I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. “I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane” (Gilman n.d.). The symbol of a flight supports a conflict in the story and helps the author to give only some hints to readers to comprehend the meaning of the plot.
In sum, Gilman skillfully uses different symbols to inspire the interest and imagination of readers and creates a unique atmosphere of suffering and mental illness. The symbol of the Yellow Wallpaper creates a space for freedom and allows a wide range of interpretations based on the experience of readers and their imagination. Gilman symbolically portrays that the woman could never convince her husband about her emotional sufferings and mental illness, and in this case, the depression slowly pulls her to madness. The secondary role and low status of the woman make her a victim of social norms and stereotypes, values, and prejudices dominated in the society. Illness and mental disorder allow her to escape from the realities of life that she cannot change.
- Delashmit, M., Long, Ch. Gilman’s the Yellow Wallpaper. The Explicator 50, (1991), 32
- Fleissner, J.L. The Work of Womanhood in American Naturalism. Differences 8, (1996), 57-96.
- Gilman, C. P. n.d. Yellow Wallpapers. University of Virginia Library.
- Hume, B.A. Managing Madness in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” Studies in American Fiction 30, (2002), 3.
- Roth, M. Gilman’s Arabesque Wallpaper. Mosaic 34, (2001), 145.
- Shawn, J. An Updated Publication History of “The Yellow Wall-Paper”. Studies in Short Fiction 34, (1997), 237.