The Yellow Wallpaper Symbolism
The Yellow Wallpaper’, by Charlotte Perkins Gillman was written in the 19th-century, a period in history when women’s thoughts, imagination were not only suppressed by the male dominating society, but also by their beliefs that their only purpose was to follow traditional principles, to live a domestic life. Charlotte’s story reflects the negative effects of gender oppression and raises awareness against the dangers of the ‘rest cure’. The main character, a young woman that suffers from postpartum depression is offered by her husband, a renowned doctor and the antagonist of the story, this ‘rest cure’, a treatment which implies repressing one’s thoughts and emotions, by forbidding intense mental activity.
The story is an allegory, thus the main character symbolizes the need of women for fulfillment, for social affirmation and freedom suffocated by the patriarchal society, represented by the husband. By separating the text from its political and historical context, a new side of the story is unveiled. The main character can be regarded as a symbol for the artist, constantly constrained by the society to the norms.
Fortunately, the story ends with the main character’s symbolic victory, meaning the refusal to accept her social role and finding freedom within herself, by stepping over her husband. Gillman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a first person narrative. The narrator, a young woman whose name is not mentioned by the author, is diagnosed by her husband, John , a physician of high standing, with temporary nervous depression and given a treatment in which she is forbidden to work, that implied taking ‘phosphates or phosphites whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise’. They move to a colonial mansion for summer, where Jeannie, John’s sister takes care of the household and Mary of the couple’s baby. The narrator keeps a secret journal, the only activity allowing the young woman to express her feelings and thoughts. There, she describes the mansion and its surrounding, the husband’s attitude toward her, and the room she lives in. As the time passes by, the narrator becomes more and more obsessed about a particular element of the room: the yellow wallpaper, whose secret she was eager to discover. At first reading, this story seems to depict a young woman’s dive into madness and nothing more, but at further analysis, it becomes more complex. The setting and character are of colossal importance, because they express the author’s main idea of gender inequality. Not only is the woman subjected to , but also to isolation in the colonial mansion, in her room with bars on windows, where the only engaging activity is to observe the changes of the yellow wallpaper. The setting is described by the narrator, mainly the garden ‘large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them’ , ‘I can see the garden, those mysterious deep-shaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees.’, and her room: ‘a big, airy room the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.’ Then the floor is scratched’, ‘ I never saw such ravages as the children have made here’.
Although it had been a nursery, the couple’s bedroom leads the reader to believe it is rather a mental wardroom, having barred windows, the bed nailed to the floor and a gate at the head of the stairs. The most unsettling for the narrator is the yellow wallpaper, which she describes in great detail .At first considering it repulsive, ‘ I’m really getting quite fond of the big room, all but that horrid paper’, but afterwards becoming obsessed with it, the wallpaper becomes the central element of the narrative. Thereby the story is named ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. Not only does it reveal the degradation of the main character, as she becomes more and more obsessed with it, but also mirrors her unexpressed thoughts and emotions. This is the reason she starts seeing a woman imprisoned in the wallpaper. Symbolically, the wallpaper represents the limitation of women in a patriarchal society: ‘You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream’. Another way of interpretation is to perceive the nursery as the world of the artist, whereas the wallpaper represents social borders in which many women, symbol of imagination, creativity, are trapped.
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