The Careful Use Of Symbolism In The Yellow Wallpaper
The Yellow Wallpaper written by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman was published in January 1892. The story begins with the narrator describing her marvelous summer home she shares with her husband John. While the narrator hopes to enjoy her summer, she begins to explain her “nervous depression” and the ways in which John takes care of her. He belittles the illness, and forces her to isolate from others, leading her to write about her room and thoughts, but most importantly the “revolting” yellow wallpaper. The wallpaper begins to take over her every thought, so much so that she sees a woman within the paper, hopelessly trying to get out from within.
After her obsession grows too far, the narrator decides it would be best to rip out the entire wallpaper to set the women free, as well as herself. The narrator hopes that by helping the women escape, she too can escape the tradition, illness and family she has endured. This short story depicts the consequences of gender roles and warns readers of the domestic home life, so many women feel trapped in. The Yellow Wallpaper, is a story known by many, due to the symbolism and characters within it. These aspects have led to a in depth discussion about mental illness, feminism, and the other themes found in the story. However, before having that discussion it is important to understand the story and setting itself. This story takes place in the late 1800’s during the victorian era. During that time, many doctors looked at mental health as a disease, especially when it came to women. When the narrator finds herself with a mental health issue, her husband naturally believes the best treatment is for her to stay in her room and rest. The narrator supports his claim saying “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?” It is then we begin to see that doctors were not equipped to help women’s mental health during this time, often misdiagnosing these issues as hysteria.
Having the understanding of the issues the narrator is facing, we can now study the character’s and how they reacted to this situation. The most important character in this story is John, the narrator’s husband. A writer for Lone Star College describes John as “as the patriarchy itself, with his dismissal of all but the tangible and his constant condescension to his wife.” We are first introduced to John as the man who prescribed the narrator with isolation to “cure” her mental issue. John forces the narrator to not work, take journeys, or receive fresh air. He forces his wife to stay in the dark bedroom and even attempts to take away her writing, the one thing that keeps the her sane. While John is strict to his wife, he is painted as the rational “caregiver” and respected doctor, who is always taken seriously. The narrator on the other hand, as described by Elizabeth Carey, is shown as “overemotional; someone who is never taken seriously. She is described as being imaginative – a term seen as femine and weak ” Carey writes for an undergraduate journal and explained how even the narrator painted herself as the villain. The next two characters don’t carry the weight as John, however, they are worth noting as they both are complicit with him. Jennie is described as a “dear girl” and a “perfect housekeeper” by the narrator. Her personality isn’t visible within the story, but Jennie is someone the narrator fears will find her writings, which shows she only takes orders from John. Mary is described as “so good with the baby.” While the narrator’s child is taken care of, Mary is another force that cuts the narrator off from stimulation. The central part of the story is the yellow wallpaper itself.
The writer at Lone Star College states “It is within the wallpaper that the narrator finds her hidden self and her eventual damnation/freedom.” Her obsession with the paper begins subtly and then consumes both the narrator and the story. The narrator spends every waking moment examining the wallpaper and the color, creases, and bumps within it, in order to understand why it bothers her so much. After a few weeks, she begins to see a woman within the paper, fighting to get out and earn her freedom. This woman becomes the narrator’s double, as she too is trying to escape all her issues. As we begin to see the relationship between the narrator and the women form, we start to see the consequences of gender roles, one of the biggest themes within this story. Carey argues that “This story shows that in a patriarchal society we are all doomed; no one can survive the rigid gender expectations placed upon them.” The narrator cannot challenge her husband and is therefore driven insane by her loneliness, and if John wasn’t so overconfident, he might have been able to truly help his wife.
The narrator believes she shouldn’t question her husband as he “loves her so” and she naturally assumes that every he does is with the best intent, which is simply not true. Her condition worsens because they both believe that John knows best. In the end, both husband and wife lose because they are trapped in fixed gender roles. The Yellow Wallpaper provides readers with a prospective into domestic life women had to endure within the Victorian ages. By reading this story, we learn to be more understanding and to avoid future gender stereotypes and toxic masculinity. While this story is described as gothic and freighting, it will “continue to be thought of in feminist terms—and probably rightly so.”
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