The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman that explains the sad story of a woman suffering from acute postpartum depression. Written during the dying years of the 19th century, The Yellow Wallpaper is characteristic of the mental and emotional treatment that women were subjected to during this period. Indeed, Gilman uses this short story as her “reaction” to this sort of treatment.
Given the weight that Gilman gives The Yellow Wallpaper and considering her own life, one would be tempted to conclude that she was indeed using the story as a reference to her life. Through reading the story, one is able to see a clear desire for the women in this period to entangle themselves from domination. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, there is a clear theme of domination of women and the society seems to be unanimous in support of it.
From the surface, the story seems to be addressing the narrator’s sickness but a deeper analysis reveals that it is indeed talking of the condition of the women folk in general. In fact, the society seems to have assigned roles for women, which they are supposed to adhere to.
In the story, John is used symbolically to represent the male folk while the narrator represents the women. Throughout the story, the narrator together with the rest of the women trapped in the wallpaper are desperately trying to break loose from the function that the society has assigned for them.
Although these women are trying as hard as they can, their courage always seems to fail them especially at night when their husbands and the rest of the family are at home. However, their courage finally gives way and this is why John who is used to represent men faints upon realizing that his wife has finally broken free from his control.
Although this observation is debatable, there is clear evidence from the story to prove this point. Right from the start, there seems to be specific duties that wives and mothers have to fulfill. These duties seem to have been so oppressive such that the women tend to get depressed after giving birth to their first child. This depression leads them to take the rest cure during which time they are supposed to do nothing but to eat and remain in seclusion.
The rest is so extreme such that one is even forbidden from writing anything since this would be tantamount to overworking their brains something that would hinder their recovery. This is despite the fact that the narrator knows that “congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.” (Gilman)
In fact, the oppression of women seems to have been so great such that John and the narrator’s brother who are both physicians believe that the narrator is not sick despite her thinking otherwise. This happens despite the fact that they both love the narrator dearly.
What is surprising is that despite this form of medication, the narrator does not seem to get any better. In fact, she wishes that she could get well faster just to escape this form of regimen. It is obvious that the narrator views the treatment as an unnecessary interruption in her life that should not have occurred in the first place.
Despite this, she is aware of the repercussions that could possibly follow her refusal to adhere to the terms of the medication. Instead of looking in to the reasons why her recovery is slow, John believes that her wife is to blame something that seems to scare the narrator a great deal.
This is seen when she says, “If I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.” (Gilman) Although we are not told what kind of a place Weir Mitchell was, there is no doubt that it was a place that instilled fear on the narrator and this makes us to wonder what kind of an husband would want to take his wife in such a place. In fact, Gilman seems to have put this statement for effect just to show us the extreme end that these men were willing to go to keep their women under control.
Although the couple rents a colonial mansion for the wife to recuperate, it is ironical how she is not allowed any say in the matter. Throughout the story, John seems to know what is best for his wife and he does not accept her output in the matter. Of all the things, the husband does not even allow her to choose her bedroom from the many rooms but instead he forces her to occupy the room with the ugly wallpaper.
The narrator wants to do so many things but as it was characteristic in that period, the marriage institution that she is committed to compromises her freedom and happiness. In addition to the bedroom containing the ugly wallpaper, the room has no windows and even the bed is bolted to prevent her from moving it to any other position. This is a clear sign of control and domination by the husband.
By analyzing the lives of the women behind the wallpaper, it is obvious that they are trying to look for their freedom. On her part, the narrator is looking for freedom from her husband and the rest cure that she has been subjected to. Throughout the story, the narrator tries hard to free women from the gender bias that had seeped in the society. However, this is not easy because just like the wallpaper these societal changes had become “ridged and yellow with age.” (Gilman)
Despite John’s domination, the narrator slowly begins to take control of her life. Although she had loathed the yellow wallpaper at first, she begins gaining some mental strength just by watching it. As her mind begins to churn, she forces herself to think and this is something that her husband does not like. Deep down her heart, she knows that her husband does not necessarily know everything but she does not say anything for fear of reprisals. Although John has told her not to bother herself with anything, she begins analyzing the wallpaper and that is when she notices the figure of women trying to free themselves.
For once, the narrator feels that she knows something that her husband or any other person for that matter does not have an idea about. This is presented when she says, “there are things in that paper that nobody knows but me.” For once, the narrator is elated since she feels that she possesses first hand knowledge that is not yet evident to her husband.
For once in her life, she seems to have concluded that she has a functional mind that is entirely hers and one that she can use as she wills. Even to John, her wife is like a mystery that he is unable to solve and that is why he keeps he locked in the bedroom just to keep her under control. However, what he fails to realize is that by doing so he is actually helping her to solve her own mystery.
As the story nears climax, John seems bewildered and he even seems to be noticing a change of attitude on the narrator. In fact, he commends her for putting an effort to get better but she knows that she is getting well for other reasons. Although he does not admit it, John has realized that the wallpaper is a representation of his wife and that is why he reprimands her wherever he catches her staring at it. Just with a day to go before they leave the house, the narrator masters her courage and tears down the wallpaper.
The narrator’s feelings of freedom peak when she manages to pull down the yellow wallpaper from the walls where it had hanged for many years. In order to accomplish this, she uses much will power and patience but she finally manages to get the work done. She is convinced that John would reprimand her for tearing down the wallpaper but for once, she is not bothered. To her, taking control of anything even if it is the “odious wallpaper” is better than just sitting and doing nothing.
Indeed, tearing down the wallpaper seems to only be the first step toward her freedom. To her, she seems to have concluded that her life was in her own hands and not on Johns or any other male for that matter. Within a short time, she seems to have developed mentally as a woman. The narrator’s final victory comes when John arrives home and realizes what she has done.
To begin with, he is shocked when he realizes that she has locked the door something that she had never done before. However, the climax arrives when he enters the room and realizes that she has torn down the wallpaper. There is no doubt in John’s mind that his wife has finally developed mentally and regained the freedom that he had for so long denied her. In fact, the shock is so much for John such that he faints.
The proof that the narrator has gained mental control comes shortly after when she says that “now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall so that I had to creep over him every time.” (Gilman) At this point, she is not perturbed by what he thinks and his fainting does not even surprise her. To her, tearing the wallpaper out of the walls is a sign of showing that she is willing to take matters into her own hands and this is what scares the husband and makes him faint.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a clear representation of life in the 19th century. During this period, women seem to have been under male domination and the society seems to have accepted this fact. Throughout the story, the narrator seems to be fighting to get a voice of her own.
However, her husband decides that he knows what is best for her and he does not even give her the freedom of choosing what she wants. Instead, he embarks on making all the decisions for her even on matters that directly affect her well-being. At the end of the story, the narrator regains control of her life and this scares her husband to a point where he even faints.
Gilman Charlotte. The Yellow Wallpaper, 1899. Web. <http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/home>