Symbolism Found In Charlotte Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the author Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses symbolism throughout the story, which gives the story a deeper meaning. After recently giving birth to her child, the narrator, a writer, happens to find herself more and more depressed, as well as undefinably fatigued and ill. Her husband John (a physician) has rented a large, ornate house in the country for the summer, so that she can get “complete rest and a cessation of her work” (MacPike), to recover from a “slight hysterical tendency” he thinks she is suffering from (Gilman 544). The narrator however, thinks she is more ill than her husband thinks, but does not think she should stop her work. In the story, the narrator mentions, “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good” (Gilman 545). The narrator is referring to how she thinks her work would do her good rather than make her more ill in response to her husband’s decision. Throughout the story, the narrator feels that her husband John doesn’t listen to her concerns about her condition and feels that he treats her like a child. From the start of the story, the sick wife is treated by her husband who makes her take supplements and makes her adhere to a strict schedule every day. John thinks her work is unhealthy for her, which is his reason for forbidding her to work on her writing, but the real danger for him is if she is not confined to the nursery, that will then remove her from his control. The yellow wallpaper itself and the specific characteristics of the room she is living in are the symbols that are used to give this story a deeper meaning.

To start with, the deeper meaning in the patterns of the yellow wallpaper symbolize the narrator’s state of mind as well as what her state of mind gradually becomes. At first, the narrator tells how she doesn’t like her new room and describes how she wants a room downstairs rather than upstairs: “I don’t like our room a bit. I wanted one downstairs that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window” (Gilman 544). But she is instead placed in a bedroom upstairs which is a former nursery by her husband’s choice, that way she can get better air to help recover more quickly. Right away, the narrator notices the wallpaper and expresses how much she despises it. “The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it…. I never saw a worse paper in my life” (Gilman 545). This represents her state of mind at the time and shows how she is not happy. Then as the story progresses her opinion changes: “As she grows increasingly fond of the wallpaper, the narrator realizes that it may well be the only part of her life she can control. She learns to use it on an intellectual level to replace the adult intellectual activity forbidden her” (MacPike). As she spends more time looking at the wallpaper, she becomes more involved in that and less with reality. Soon enough, the wallpaper starts becoming more than merely just an object and she starts seeing figures and a “lady” in the wallpaper. The deeper meaning of the lady she begins to see symbolizes herself and how she is trapped in this state of mind her husband is putting her in, which is represented as the yellow wallpaper. Over time, the narrator starts peeling off strips of the wallpaper with a goal of stripping the wall of the yellow wallpaper and finally releasing the woman who she thinks is trapped behind the wallpaper, which is really herself. As her madness increases, The wallpaper symbolizes her confinement of freedom to her husband and her one goal becomes the rescue of that woman behind the wallpaper.

Furthermore, the characteristics of the narrator’s room like specifically the fact that it’s a former nursery, has barred windows, and has a nailed down bedstead are all symbols that reveal a deeper meaning throughout this story. The first symbol that comes up is how the upstairs room that she is now confined to has once been a former child’s nursery that has been stripped of all furniture and anything decorative other than the ancient, yellow wallpaper that she doesn’t like. The former child’s nursery and prison-like characteristics of the narrator’s room “indicate her status in society” and how she is treated and looked at like a prisoner and child in her home (MacPike). In Kasmer’s article, “Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Symptomatic Reading,” it states, “In his actions toward his wife, John reinforces the idea that she is the child, forcing her to sleep in the room that used to be a nursery, making her take naps, reading to her before bed-time, and calling her his ‘little girl’.” Also, the nursery room has windows that have bars over them, just like those seen in a jail cell. MacPike claims in his analysis “Environment as Psychopathological Symbolism in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” “The nursery’s windows are barred, making the setting not only a retreat into childhood but a prison.” This makes the setting of her room more like a prison cell than anything else and represents that she is trapped. In this story, this symbol has a deeper meaning which is that “the narrator is to be forever imprisoned,” in this childhood fantasy and is forbidden to escape into reality or adulthood (MacPike). Next, the bedstead that is nailed to the floor is another symbol that is shown in the narrator’s situation and is “a representation of her sexuality” (MacPike). The bedstead is probably nailed down to prevent the previous young or unstable occupants of the room from pushing it all over the place, but really represents something deeper: “As the nursery imprisons her in a state of childhood, so the bedstead prevents her from moving ‘off center’ sensually–not merely sexually– in any sort of physical contact with another human being” (MacPike). The nailed down bed depicts the unchanging state of her sexuality, stopping her ability to express her need for human touch, also the bars on the windows indicate her lack of physical freedom, and the nursery represents her lack of capacity to live in the adult world. The former nursery and prison like room, bars on the windows, and nailed down bedstead overall give the story a deeper meaning and represent the narrator’s mind as well as the world that has formed her mind (MacPike).

Overall, the symbols used by the author represent the narrator’s imprisonment as well as her unstable state of mind. Her husband’s way of dealing with her illness is not succeeding in improving her health, but instead appears to do the opposite. The yellow wallpaper itself and the specific characteristics of the room she is living in are the symbols I found that reveal a deeper meaning overall in this story. Charlotte Gilman uses her short story to give voice to women facing this same ailment and to criticise the practice of shutting the patient away, expecting this “rest cure” to relieve the symptoms (Kasmer).

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Literature: A World of Writing, edited by David Pike and Ana Acosta, Pearson, 2011, 543-551

Kasmer, Lisa. ‘Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Symptomatic Reading.’ Short Story Criticism, edited by Jelena O. Krstovic, vol. 146, Gale, 2011. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 8 Nov. 2019. Originally published in Literature and Psychology, vol. 36, no. 3, 1990, pp. 1-15.

MacPike, Loralee. ‘Environment as Psychopathological Symbolism in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’.’ Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Thomas J. Schoenberg, vol. 201, Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 8 Nov. 2019. Originally published in American Literary Realism 1870-1910, vol. 8, no. 3, Summer 1975, pp. 286-288.


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