One’s freedom is a privilege that is highly regarded, but in most cases one takes it for granted. Throughout history, men have had this right handed to them, while in contrast, women either had to fight and risk all they had or accept their meek rank in society due to their sex. This disadvantage drives women to lengths they normally would not succumb to feel free of the shortcomings that history has given them. In Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the dominance of a patriarchal society is exposed. The verisimilitude of Gilman’s imagery of the setting lengthily describes the isolation and confinement of the narrator and their effects on her. The house she is staying in is her own prison, and is a symbol of her isolation from society.
Her room with the yellow wallpaper is another representation of the narrator’s oppression and her ambition to break free from society’s unattainable standards. Gilman’s message is that if women are acknowledged as fully actualized human beings, then there would be no need for “rest cures” or any other ridiculous measures to supposedly fix any problems of theirs. The undertones of the cult of domesticity are utilized to emphasize how belittled and ignored women are. She demonstrates how the restriction the narrator undergoes causes her to lose her sanity because of measures society deems normal. What is meant to make the narrator better ultimately is what drives her insane, and through this Gilman advocates feminism and a sense of gender equality.
One’s house, no matter if it is temporary or permanent, should always feel like a home when one is surrounded by people one loves. However, in this case the house is an enabler for the narrator’s isolation which leads to her mental demise. The house that the narrator’s husband, John, chooses for their family, for her sake, is, “quite alone” and “three miles from the village” (Gilman 1); as a physical representation of her separation from society, John exerts his male dominance and right as a man of that time period to “correct” his wife who has strayed from what society deems acceptable for a woman to do. No one, not even her husband calls her by name, which displays how disconnected she is from the people around her, but also to take what others impose upon her at face value. The significance expands as the narrator herself has a difficult time coming to terms with defining her identity between what she is told is right and what she feels is right. It is the narrator’s isolation that causes her to go insane, not her so-called sickness.
The downstairs room has “roses all over the window” with “pretty old fashioned chintz hangings” (Gilman 1), and represents the possibility of what could be in her marriage, which seems about as farfetched as John actually treating her in a non-patronizing way. Nonetheless, if the narrator were properly nurtured by her husband their marriage would flourish just as the roses do, and be vivacious like the chintz hangings. Roses are symbolic of femininity and John is dismissing the option of staying in the nicer bedroom and his wife’s femininity purely because it does not fulfill his own needs saying that it only had “one window” and not enough space for “two beds” (Gilman 1-2). As physician and her husband, John is supposed to do what is best for his wife, yet, he is putting his own wishes before her own; he is asserting his dominance over her, but also sacrificing her mental stability to do so.
The room she prefers is downstairs, and the location symbolizes a more connected vibe with the rest of the family. The downstairs bedroom represents the outside layer of their relationship, to a visiting family member or a friend, that person would view the marriage between the narrator and John as normal, beautiful even. In contrast with the downstairs bedroom, the upstairs room where the narrator is kept displays the reality of their relationship. Keeping her upstairs away from others is John’s brilliant solution of ignoring the problem in hopes that it disappears. The house symbolizes isolation from society, and the upstairs bedroom represents further separation from her family and the people who are supposed to care for her. The narrator’s isolation saps her vitality, as well as her womanhood. The narrator would have no “temporary nervous depression” or “slight hysterical tendency” (Gilman 1) in the eyes of men, if men would accept that women are capable of being equal to them. Rather than disregarding or belittling the issue at hand, marriages would be less strained if the irrational standards for women in a patriarchal society were omitted. In order for a relationship to thrive, each partner needs to be able to thrive just as equally as the other.
Just like the house facilitates the narrator’s isolation which contributes to the loss of her sanity, her room’s confining environment also expedites this process. The room chosen for her is described with eerie imagery, “The windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls… [The paper] is stripped off in great patches all around the head of my bed… I never saw worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin” (Gilman 2). Although allegedly meant to be a nursery, what Gilman describes seems more portending to the like of an insane asylum. While the nursery idea is patronizing to her character, an insane asylum is the epitome of her freedom being taken away. It is like being a prisoner, except on top of the “crime” committed, the narrator’s mental capacity is also being called into question. Her husband wants her to get better because he claims he loves her; however, one’s room is a place where one should be able to feel secure, but in this case she is caged like an animal.
Her room is not home, but rather a form of solitary. Regarding “rings and things in the wall,” this entrapment of the narrator is dehumanizing to her character because it degrades her to the level of a wild animal that needs to be tamed. Gilman brings up the idea that women embracing their womanhood are a dangerous threat to men. With their misguided superiority complex, Gilman highlights the issue of how John, and men in general, cannot handle the idea of women having the same rights to act as men do. The need men feel to subdue and progression from the opposite sex is because men have convinced themselves wholly that women are inferior, and it blinds them from perceiving that they are also part of the dilemma. The magnitude of the issue would be reduced if women had the opportunity to have a rational, intelligent conversation with men. It could be possible if men weighted the possibility of the proposition with the same views as they would if the conversation were to take place between two men.
Gilman wants men to be unafraid of woman who are comfortable with sex. The only reason to be fearful is if the men actually feel inferior to the prospect of strong women. This observation is furthered when the narrator comments on the wallpaper saying that, “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 2). The drop ends of the pattern in the wallpaper exemplify the constrictions of the narrator’s rigid society, and her attempts to be free of it are eventually are stopped by her own persuasion, as her mind projects that restriction into the wallpaper. This is the beginning of her identification with the wallpaper, despite her resistance. To the narrator it is repugnant because she cannot come to terms with her own reality, which what everyone believes to be right, regarding her “condition,” is actually false.
Ironically, the wallpaper does not exactly have a pattern as most do, but it is labeled as such because it is the easier thing to do rather than come up with another word for it, just as society comes up with easy solutions to their predicaments without entirely thinking it through. As the wallpaper represents the unattainable and stifling standards of the time period, such as the cult of domesticity, they do not entirely make sense like the chaos in the wallpaper. The “unheard of contradictions” pertain to how the treatment is supposed to make the narrator better for her family, but it does the opposite. Left without any outlet that John permits her, the narrator’s mental insanity increasingly worsens, “There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous.
And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern” (Gilman 5). Her insanity progresses causing her to subconsciously project that she is in some way part of the wallpaper, and she is the woman confined behind there because the woman’s predicament reflects her own. Again, the wallpaper is symbolic of the social stigmas in her society, and unbeknownst to her, she is becoming more aware of how imprisoning those stigmas are. It is ironic because she describes the wallpaper as getting “clearer each day” as she grows to be more aware of how she is being wronged, but at the same time this clarity causes the narrator to lose her sanity. Unfortunately, as she is growing more aware of these issues, she disconnects herself from her audience. In saying “nobody knows but me,” the narrator selfishly isolates herself because she now has the power to overturn what has been imposed on her with the new found knowledge she has gained, but instead she chooses not to.
Gilman’s decision to stop the narrator from empowering herself and creating a blatant advocate for feminism displays how the ineffective idea society upholds of ignoring the root of the problem, and not realizing that they have just as much fault as anyone, succeeds in increasing the dominance of men. Although she has become insane, the narrator now sees the situation for what it truly is, a form of punishment simply for being a woman. Her struggle in the battle of gender equality is not in vain, however, as the other “numerous” shapes represent future generations of women. Gilman’s character has freed herself from the power the wallpaper and the power of the patriarchal society she lives in, and her ability to do so alludes to other women who have the same opportunity to do as she has done.
The narrator’s suffering serves as a source of hope for an increased desire for feminism and gender equality to prevent situations akin to hers from reoccurring. As those “dim shapes” get “clearer,” Gilman foreshadows that a redefining change in the ancient status quo will be inevitable. Gilman is suggesting that the more women are taught to stand up for themselves and stay true to who they are, rather than being assaulted with this information as the narrator has, the more likely women will be able to progress and develop a path to become equal with men.
Isolation and confinement drive the narrator insane because her husband is requiring her to hide who she is as a person, and to disregard how she feels. A change is necessary to provide balance because the problem could be resolved if John would acknowledge her as an equal rather than ignoring her. John’s indifference to his wife and neglect to nurture her allows her sickness to fester. Gilman’s short story is not one that encourages misandry, but it is a warning to both genders; men who abuse their privilege as males by imposing it unjustly on the opposite sex, and to women who allow the men in their lives to dictate how they live instead of striving to be whom they are as a unique individual. For future generations, in order for the two sexes to coexist peacefully there cannot be a hierarchy granting rights to one gender and denying it to the other. In order for this to happen, men need to first recognize the validity of women as worthy human beings in society, and embrace a feministic movement; women are not just objects for men to command to their fancy, and they are just as capable given the opportunity, if not more.
* Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” New York: The New
England Magazine, 1892. Print.