The Use and Elements of Symbolism in The Yellow Wallpaper

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

In one of his most significant essays “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, H. P. Lovecraft analyses the history of weird fiction and the horror genre itself. In this essay, he dictates about the literary genre, claiming that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form” (Lovecraft). What Lovecraft is referring to, is that the fear of the unknown is the most primal sort of terror and fear we can experience, and for this matter, as time went on, humans began to develop xenophobia, in the sense of fearing anyone and anything they lacked knowledge of. The dignity which Lovecraft speaks of, is that weird tales are not satisfied with giving us a tale of our mundane existence; weird tales are genius in that they look past that staleness, they look towards the grand scope of things and attempt to unbind them for just a brief moment, give you a peak into what is, before closing up again. Hence, when Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote the short horror story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the late 1800’s, she gave a peak into what really is, by constructing a tale of horror which gave her readers a feeling of despair, making the readers empathize with the darkness and emotional turmoil of the narrator. Women’s mental problems have always been dismissed as hysteria, from the beginning of time. It is this overwhelming contraction of mental problems that led to so many being institutionalized in the past, and it is the reason why the repressed Victorian woman was such a tremendous symbol of the age. Therefore, Gilman uses the symbolism in this short story, as an exceptionally fine example of how a woman, neglected, belittled, and dismissed, descends into insanity in order to regain her freedom.

The first appearance of the use of symbolism is found in little details which Gilman ingeniously embedded in the story, and every single one of them is crucial to the overall imagery the author conveys in order to express the issues of medical negligence and the social inferiority of women in the 1800’s. The mere names and occupations of the characters in the story are crucial for the symbolism they carry. “Jane” and “John” Doe are the typical names assigned to unknown patients, especially in psychiatric wards, which is an addition to the horror genre of the story. The fact that Jane is the perceivably insane main character of the story, and patient of her own husband, is a symbol for the representation of all women who were oppressed by the society and men in a patriarchal society, and a symbol for all the women who were wrongfully treated with the “Rest Cure”, prescribed for post-partum and clinical depression, only leading to insanity and suicide in most cases. “Jennie” is the housekeeper for our narrator and her husband, but also another lighter-sounding, more female version of the name Jane. Jennie symbolizes the ‘perfect woman’; One who does what she’s told, and fills the role of a basic housewife. Jennie’s character is used to emphasize that the narrator, Jane, doesn’t fulfil the gender roles set by society at the time, and with the quotes ‘Of course I didn’t do anything. Jennie sees to everything now’, ‘Jennie wanted to sleep with me—the sly thing!’ Jennie is portrayed a threat to the narrator, since she becomes a symbol for everything the narrator tries to escape; social standards and oppression for women. Similarly, “Mary” is the babysitter of the narrator’s child, and an allusion to the Virgin Mary, a biblical mother-like figure. Like Jennie, she reinforces the idea that Jane does not fit into the basic female role of the time, symbolising the roles that Gilman criticises. In addition, the two male characters in the story are both physicians, revealing that those with respectful and important jobs were almost always male. With the question ‘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? My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing’ the two male characters in the story become a symbol for patriarchy, in the sense that have the respectable jobs and should not be questioned by women, only obeyed blindly, which is another way of Gilman showing her readers the harsh reality of the social standings of their era.

Apart from the symbolism in small details in the story, Gilman also symbolises crucial issues in the setting of “The Yellow Wallpaper”. ‘It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children […]’ By creating a setting where there is a bed bolted to the floor, the wallpaper is peeling off, and the windows are barred, the author turns a nursery into a prison cell, in order to symbolise how the main character feels imprisoned in her role as a wife and mother, and how much she struggles with post- partum depression. The narrator describes her bed as the “great immovable bed”, for it is nailed to the floor. The bed serves as a symbol of the Narrator’s nineteenth century male-dominated culture, and is traditionally associated with the female/domestic realm, but its role in the story perverts its meaning and symbolically turns it into an aspect of the narrator’s imprisonment. Moreover, as the location of intimacy and male-sexual dominance, the bed acquires the additional symbolic power of the physical suppression of the narrator by her husband. Gilman embeds an additional symbolism regarding the setting of the story, although it is more subdued. Daytime in the story symbolises the supressed woman’s role as a housewife, forced to hide her true self, quoting ‘On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind. By daylight she is subdued, quiet.”, and the night becomes a transitional face for the narrator, becoming a symbol of freedom, since she no longer hides her true self, no longer needing to “lock the door” when she “creep(s)”. Also, moonlight has multiple attachments to womanhood, including the moon cycle’s relation to a woman’s menstrual cycle, and the Greek moon goddess, Artemis. The author therefore embellishes symbolism behind the settings of the story, in order to express the themes of depression, female oppression, and patriarchal dominance during Gilman’s lifetime, successfully describing her experience with post-partum depression.

However, the most impressive use of symbolism that Gilman uses, is with the wall paper itself, and the several elements it represents. The narrator describes the wallpaper as having ‘One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin”, and ‘The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.’ The sickly yellow colour is used to symbolise the narrator’s mental illness, as well as her disgust and desperation for her oppression as a woman. Apart from its appalling colour, the wallpaper is described to consist of a distinctive pattern; ‘There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down’ and ‘It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.’ By creating death imagery in the description of the wallpaper’s pattern, Gilman uses it as a symbol for those that are content to live out the lives outlined for them, never truly seeing the potential of women, and the ridiculousness of gender roles. Inclined to live a domesticated life, so robotic and repetitive that it’s almost zombie-like, essentially dead to the world. The pattern of the wallpaper also symbolizes the pattern of oppression of women society follows, and the possible suicides by women of the time period after a failed attempt of the “Rest cure”.

The true essence of this short story, however, lies in the climax; perhaps the most important form of symbolism Gilman uses, is the woman trapped in the wallpaper. Towards the end of the story it is revealed that the narrator has identified herself as the woman behind the wallpaper, and her desperate tearing and clawing at the paper is her attempt to free herself, from her marriage, her illness, her child, and the role that society imposed on herself as a woman. ‘I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper.’ The tearing of the wallpaper symbolises tearing away the specific gender roles and judgement Jane received, and the oppression put on women. The woman represents Jane, as well as woman in general. Those who want to be set free from gender norms; those who want to be able to express themselves freely. ‘As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her’ As the story comes to a close the readers stumble upon the truth; the narrator has been peeling the paper, chewing on the bed posts, and carving into the walls. This act of “freeing” the woman behind the wallpaper and destroying her prison of a room shows that the narrator has taken her life into her own hands. “The Yellow Wallpaper” and its symbolism illustrate a successful commentary on the treatment of women in the 1890’s and how some, if not many, of those women took the situation into their own hands by whatever means possible. Using symbolism has allowed Charlotte Perkins Gilman to convey her message in a way that is both entertaining and educational, creating a wonderfully successful piece of writing.

In her explanation of why she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Gilman confesses that “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.” (Gilman C.P.) Therefore, Gilman ingeniously used her short story of horror fiction, in order to compel her readers, and hence the medical society, and the society in general during her time period, to come to terms with the reality of post- partum depression, and successfully putting an end to the “Rest Cure” used as treatment. As an autobiographical story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” served as a key historical text for the perception of women, and for the medical world, by giving a raw peek into the reality of the female author’s battle with depression. However, the important social and medical issues regarding gender roles and how women where perceived, are carefully hidden behind the symbolism that Gilman uses in her short story.


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