Analysis of Symbols of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

March 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s literary work ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is often considered as an important early work of American feminist literature which illustrates common social and physiological attitudes towards women during the 19th century. A number of analysis have been done on this literary text and varies interpretations have been suggested. In this essay, I want to adopt a new critical approach by arguing and examining how symbols of the text describe and emphasize the persecution of women during the period of time significantly. While effects of numerous symbols have indeed been argued from the text to show such fact, interpretations of some of the predominated ones have been controversial. I have chosen three of those, i.e., the wallpaper itself, the color yellow and the two windows, which serve as important elements in brining out the theme of women’s suffrage during 19th century effectively and efficiently as my main scope of discussion.

I will begin with the analysis of the wallpaper itself. Undoubtedly, it is the most obvious symbol in this story which also acts as a major element of the text. In general, the wallpaper represents the protagonist’s mind set. Further symbolic effects can be observed by its effect in signifying how women generally were perceived during 19th century. These can be further argued in physical and mental aspects. Physically, the wallpaper is a kind of physical entrapment to the protagonist. Due to the mandatory rest-cure treatment reinforced by her husband, she was locked in a room in which the wallpaper apparently blocked her access to the outside world. This argument is supported by line “I never saw a worse paper in my life” which suggested her hatred to the wallpaper and to the physical restriction brought by. With the progression of the story, she had a feeling that she could not get better in that room as the wallpaper was to a certain extent distracting her rest. Except the wallpaper, indeed she could do nothing at room so she had no way but to constantly stare on the wallpaper to ‘study’ the detailed pattern of it unwillingly. Another clue can be further argued is that the physical changes of the wallpaper could be seen as directly related to the main character’s sanity. When the character of the wallpaper changed or progressed, the main character had a similar change. The contradictory patterns, angles, and curves could effectively reflect the protagonist’s emotions. Besides, the wallpaper can also be argued as a kind of psychological entrapment for the protagonist. Towards the end of the text, when her sickness came to the worst, she tears down the wallpaper to release the ‘woman’ behind the paper. It is symbolic as it does not truly reveal that what she saw was not only imaginative, but indeed the ‘her’ behind the wallpaper was also herself. Her emotion was indeed trapped by the entire social atmosphere as symbolized by the wallpaper. She had no way but to adopt to it. Indeed, what we can see is that the wallpaper was leading her to create her own madness rather than other factors. As she says in the story, “There are things in the wallpaper that nobody knows about but me, or ever will”. John was also found unable to understand what was happening as he was always working and never dared to take of her wife and her feeling, which further implied their relationship and how the intentionally ‘good’ man-centered rest-cure brought another tragedy.

The detailed selection of the color ‘yellow’ also brings another major symbolic effect. Long in history, the color yellow is regarded as the color of sickness and weakness, which to a certain extent correlates with the madness that the protagonist suffers. It also tells us how hard women had to face under oppression and struggle in their every day’s lives. More descriptions about the color were made by the protagonist “The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing”. Acting as a symbolic metaphor suggesting how women are restricted, adjectives describing the color indeed say indirectly how the inequality of women brought by men can be “hideous”. What men did on women can also be “unreliable”. Other adjectives like “infuriating” and “torturing” can also be seen as reflecting feeling of women in 19th century, especially given the tight relationship between the color and the wallpaper. The reasons why such descriptions were made are directly related to her being forbidden to do anything by the atmosphere. As such kind of stance was rare during the 19th century, use of symbols can alleviate the apparentness of her opinion but at the same time spread the feminism message to the public. The yellow color also worked well with other two sub-symbols, sunlight and moonlight, showing the conflicts between men and women. In the text, it can be seen that sunlight indeed represents actions made by John, e.g., his dominating schedule and the male-dominated nature of the family. Each and every morning, John only prescribed drugs for the protagonist without any other extra cares. Instead, he went for his daily routines, in turn causing the protagonist to follow each and every schedule which was set by John. This was also when the significance of ‘yellow’ plays not well given the sunlight. But at night, the balance shifts. Women in turn can achieve a more equal status with their husbands at night when the ‘daylight’ routines were not followed. While John was sleeping, he was incapable to monitor each and every action of the protagonist and this was when the protagonist acquired a real sense of freedom. This is further emphasized by the protagonist’s flexible subconscious free roams like in during dreams. The captioned moments are all brought by moonlight which serves as a traditional symbol of femininity. This is also when the protagonist understands more about the women trapped in the wallpaper given the apparent ‘yellow’ color. During daytime as portrayed by sunlight, the protagonist cannot see the figure under excessive sunlight in her room causing her overwhelming by its pattern. At night, she was able to grab the woman’s plight and understand her imprisonment and confinement brought by the society.

Apart from the captioned symbols, the barred windows also serve as symbols of the confinement of women further suggesting the social perception on women’s roles. Windows has long been representing a view of possibilities in different literary texts but in this text, it however became a gateway for her to access the world. Through the windows all possibilities were revealed, but as she said “I don’t like to look out of the windows even – there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast.” She understands that even chances were given; she has no way but to ignore them. Besides, her self personality has to be given up in order to be accepted by the community. Her reluctance to see the other women as they indeed resembled the protagonist’s life which she was unwilling to follow. Another line “Most women do not creep by daylight,” further suggested women’s need to hide behind men as portrayed by the symbol “shadows”. They may be seriously discriminated if they voiced out the opinions directly. The window’s symbolic meaning here is different as windows are not gateways but blocks as the society will not allow her to cross the bars of the windows to gain freedom. Even though she may be able to escape, the society may not accept her and she may still be asked to hide. This implies how the society was like during 19th century. Further lines are suggested to be related to the symbol windows. From the windows, she said “I can see the garden, those mysterious deep-shaded arbor, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees.” The “garden” that she saw from the windows can be considered as symbolizing society but her description of it as “mysterious” shows that women could never understand the world. Descriptions like “lovely view of the bay” and a “private wharf belonging to the estate” are also significant as the bay can refer to the undeveloped women’s capabilities. The “private estate” further implies the parts of society which are restricted to women. Moreover, the description of “people walking in the numerous paths and arbors” tells us how women portray men, and in turn realizing that those tasks are capable for them too. But as “John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least”, this became the bar of the windows which restricted women doing the roles of men. She could do many things but just because of the ‘bars’ of the windows, everything was unfairly restricted.

From the captioned symbols, it can be suggested that Gilman made use of such symbols to show how women were severely restricted during the 19th century. The symbols are directly related to each other with strong significance of each. The writer indeed suggested a few main ideas including the equality of women and men in the society, and her call for a stop to the male-dominated society. Entirely, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” can be proved as a feminist text opposing the society during 19th century.  

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