The Yellow Wallpaper: Themes In Story

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In Charlotte Gilman Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” Gilman introduces the audience to a woman who enjoys writing. In the beginning of the story we find out she is diagnosed with postpartum depression. In this story Gilman uses the narrator’s postpartum depression to narrate the story. It is about a woman who narrates her journey of being treated for postpartum depression. John her husband, who is a physician, tries to cure his wife’s “nervous condition”. John tries to prescribe the “rest cure” treatment for her. She is advised to quit all form of activities. She is not allowed to read, write, or do anything, the only thing she can do is sleep and stay in the room. John manages to make her think she does not have the ability to make her own decisions. Gilman’s narrator struggles against depression and male dominance, which was common in the 19th century. The narrator is locked away from the outside world because John believes this is a cure to make her well. The narrator describes the room as a “ nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium.” (Gilman P.40). She is constantly watched and controlled by John. “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.”(Gilman P.40). While she is trapped in her room, the narrator gets extremely focused on the yellow wallpaper found in the room where she spends majority of the story. “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.”(Gilman P.40). The narrator’s house for the summer is a countryside estate. “A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house and reach the height of romantic felicity-but that would be asking too much of fate!”(Gilman P.38) The estate is isolated and is really far away from the main road. There are gates, locks, other small houses surrounding it. Despite the narrators progression into insanity, the wallpaper and the room become her source of strength, giving her the courage and confidence to leave her husband John.

In the beginning of the story, it is obvious that the narrator allows herself to be controlled by John. “John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.” (Gilman P. 39). The narrator does not completely agree with her husband John’s way of trying to cure her, but does not say a word to speak against him. “John is a physician, and perhaps-(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind–) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.” (Gilman P.39). She then starts to make journal entries, of her treatment, which must be kept away from John. Trapped in this room day after day, the narrator begins to study the wallpaper. The narrator creates an image of a woman behind the yellow wallpaper in the room, where she is being held captive. The narrator is fascinated with this illusion of a woman being held captive behind the wallpaper. She almost becomes obsessed with this illusion. She continues to watch this woman behind the yellow wallpaper day in and day out. “Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out. The front pattern does move-and no wonder! The woman behind it shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.” (Gilman P.49 ).

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In the end, the narrator tries to free herself and the woman trapped by tearing down the yellow wallpaper. John orders her to stay in bed, and not to allow her into her creativity, and discontinue her writings. “So I take phosphates and phosphites- whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good” (Gilman P.39). “But what is one to do?” (Gilman P.39). At that point, she is being inferior to John and having a low self esteem and confidence in herself. John knows his wife on a superficial layer only and he sees the outer part, but misses the woman trapped screaming to be set free. John’s ignorance blinds him from fully understanding his wife. To this point in the story, John has yet to fully know his wife. John’s solution was to use Weir Mitchell’s rest regimen to cure his wife, not knowing he was going to actually drive her insane. At times, John referred to the narrator in third person “Bless her little heart!” (Gilman P.46) “She shall be as sick as she pleases!” (Gilman P.46). John treated her as such that made her really think she was in fact, insane.

Due to Isolation and boredom the narrator is pretty much forced to use the room as a playroom where her mind begins to wonder and she begins to find comfort in the yellow wallpaper. She gradually begins to see the patterns in the wallpaper, which is “a woman stooping down and creeping around behind that pattern.” (Gilman P.45) The narrator becomes obsessed with the women in the wallpaper that she forgets that she wants to be the perfect wife and mother. The narrator begins to focus only on the pattern during the nighttime and sleeping in the day. During the nighttime hours the narrator believes the woman becomes alive and tries to free herself from captivity. “I see her in that long shaded lane, creeping up and down. I see her in those dark grape arbors, creeping all around the garden. I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines.”(Gilman P.49). In spite of her fixation on the yellow wallpaper, the narrator begins to grow in strength. She begins to not listen to John anymore, not look for his approval in decision making, and begins the growing process of her self confidence. “Why there’s John at the door!”(Gilman P. 52). “It is no use, young man, you can’t open it!”(Gilman P.52). “John dear!” said the narrator in the gentlest voice.”(Gilman P.52). These are examples of the narrator has had a role reversal with John, she is the authoritative person now, instead of John. The narrator has taken ownership of her and could stand on her two feet without being inferior to John. The narrator realizes she is the person that can make her own decisions without waiting for permission from John. The narrator is beginning to find her true identity in the story. “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.” (Gilman P.50). The narrator has locked the room, while John is away and begins to peel off the layers of the wallpaper. Also the narrator begins creeping around the room as the wallpaper trapped woman does when she comes out at nighttime. John finally opens the door and sees what the narrator has done and faints. “I’ve got out at last, said the narrator, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman P.52). As John faints, the narrator proceeds to creep over him to continue with her work. The creeping over him symbolizes that the narrator has obtained control of her own life.

A major theme that recurs throughout the story is sexism. The narrator states that John makes all of their decisions.It is not surprising that there is a lot of sexism, in this short story. The short story was written in the 19tn century. During this time men and women were definitely not equal. Women only had two jobs, to be a mother and a wife. They had just got earned their rights to vote. During this period of time, men definitely controlled women. Women had to listen to men, that is why the narrator obeys John so much in this story. The sexism is very clear to the audience in this story. The most obvious use of symbolism within the short story is the yellow wallpaper. It represents the narrator’s mindset during her time resting as treatment for her depression. The wallpaper becomes the narrators enemy and best friend. The narrator remains obsessed with the yellow wallpaper until the end when she tears it down. The wallpaper reflects the narrator’s emotions, but most of all the suffering she had to take.

Works Cited

  1. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader: The Yellow Wallpaper, New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. Print.                  


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