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Literary Analysis of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Essay Example

Pages: 1

Words: 1977

Essay

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a seemingly personal account of female oppression during the 19th century. At that time in history women were commonly seen as possessions or property, rather than an equal partner to their spouse. The story details the narrator’s journey as she explains many details about the people and places that surround her, which are very symbolic for a number of themes. Not only are relationships and society restrictive, but she also finds that her house and bedroom are particularly repressive to her physical being as well as her emotional growth. This paper will explore the various symbolic meanings found in Gilman’s story and also relate that to the oppressive nature of women during that time in history. The narrator identifies her feelings of oppression and imprisonment in her marriage just as the “woman behind the wallpaper” does; both women are looking for a way out, but unable to escape the physical restraints placed on them.

A Summer Retreat For Nervous Depression

The story begins with the account of both the house and grounds that the narrator and her husband will be staying at for a summer retreat. She is very expressive with her descriptions, but she spends much of her time explaining how she believes that there is something off or “queer” about the house and grounds. Once inside the house she begins to imagine and even describes the patterns in the wallpaper and walls of the home. The negative energy that she uses to explain could be from her being diagnosed with “nervous depression” by her husband, who is also a doctor. She states that she is prescribed “phosphates and tonics….and absolutely forbidden to work until I am well again (Gilman 1). In order to better understand the narrator and her feelings, one must understand the viewpoint and beliefs about women during this time. At this point in history, women that suffered from mood swings or other emotions were often to be said to be crazy or have depression that should be treated with rest and restricted activity. This is exactly what the narrator is supposed to do, rest, stay in her bedroom and is explicitly forbidden to write or express her thoughts. Her creative expression kept in her journal is considered badly John and she is forced to hide her journal from him as well as and others that enter the home.

Symbolism

One of the most symbolic meanings of the story is the restriction of the narrator’s ability to write in her journal or express her thoughts. This suggests that her thoughts and feelings are not important to her husband, John or anyone for that matter. She relates to the reader that John suggests that her writing is simply neurotic worry and that it is not good for her treatment. Her treatment of course is rest and staying out of the way of her husband for the most part, which causes her to see herself as a burden (Gilman 3). At this time in history mental illness was poorly understood and those afflicted were often locked away or isolated from others. It was believed, just like the narrator states that the afflicted individual must take control of their emotions and make the necessary changes. Women were often treated like children in the respect that they needed to be guided and were unable to make decisions for themselves. To further this train of thought, John commonly referred to his wife in the story as a “blessed little goose” and even a little girl (Gilman 7). While it seems that John is giving his wife pet names, these are more symbolic of a person that is unable to care for themselves or is childlike, which was consistent with the beliefs of the time.

Not only was he attempting to control his wife through their marriage, but he was also a doctor that could prescribe “treatment” for her, which further restricted her.

Bars on the Windows

The narrator was locked away on the second floor and her husband and sister in law, Jennie and a nanny were her caregivers. Her food is brought to her and the nanny tends to her child, while Jennie is said to be the perfect housekeeper. There is no reason for her to leave her room, as she is to rest and not engage in any work. The room that she is placed in is described as being lit by the sun and spacious, but she details that it may have been where children stayed.  The manner by which she describes leads the reader to believe that it is a nursery, as the windows are barred and there are rings and things in the wall (Gilman 2). She explains that there are bars on the windows, which likely were placed there because of the children that the room was used for. The symbolic bars on the window noted by the narrator represent the feeling of being held against her will with no escape. On one side she was faced with a repressive husband that refuses to hear her concerns and the only other way out was secured with bars. She sees her marriage and surroundings as a prison, bars on the windows and being confined to a room where her actions are dictated by others. She is not free to move about or engage in any activity under the pretext that it would worsen her condition. Ironically, depression is said to improve with a persons increased activity level, which is another form of symbolic oppression in the story and in society in general during that time period.

Women’s Oppression

At one point in the story she states that she likes to fantasize about people walking on the walkway or grounds of the estate, however is discouraged by her husband. This represents the disregard for her imagination or creative thought process. This can also be seen in his disregard for her writing as she states, “he hates to have me write a word” (Gilman 2).  A woman’s ability or right to work is an expression of herself and this story represents the way that it was stunted. Instead the only job that a woman was capable of was taking care of her family, and in this story that had even been taken from the narrator. It was the woman’s job to engage in domestic care of both the children and spouse, not work outside the home or have income of her own. Society placed many restrictive beliefs on females, giving them little freedom or rights as a citizen. During this time in history, women that divorced their husbands or did not obey them were considered second class citizens. In some cases they were not allowed to engage in society as they had broken the sacred code of marriage. In a sense the narrators physical being is trapped in her room, however her emotional being is trapped through the inability to write, work, care for her children or even explain her medical condition.

The Patterned Wallpaper

The narrator describes the wallpaper as yellow with a revolting and hideous pattern (Gilman 2). She sees bulbous images and what she describes as broken necks in the papers design. She asks her husband to change rooms; however he says that it is the best room for her recovery. Drawing from the fact that it was a child’s nursery one could make the comparison again that she is being treated like a child. Some of the wallpaper according to the narrator is already been picked or torn. Through the story, she begins to see figures behind the wallpaper that she believes is a woman who is trapped. This shadow or trapped woman is described as, “dim shapes that get clearer every day” (Gilman 10).

In the beginning, the narrator, was only able to see odd patterns, however not the females that she believes to be trapped. She says that the woman stays behind the bars as they bind her. The woman is silent or still during the day, however when night comes the woman rattles the bars that entrap her inside the wall or behind the wallpaper itself. Her beliefs about this woman can be seen as her own mental illness or struggle with being oppressed by her husband and society as well. She claims that this woman creeps and greatly desires to be set free from the constraints of the wallpaper.

Just as the narrator is hiding her journal and inner thoughts from her husband, the woman behind the wallpaper hides in the sunlight, but moves under the moonlight. This signifies the hiding of the female presence, but only expressing herself when no one is looking. Throughout the story, the narrator becomes more obsessed with the wallpaper, the figures and movement of the pattern. This is her only source of entertainment and she begins to identify with the woman that is trapped. As the story moves along and she becomes even more depressed, she begins to make plans to free the woman. Her goal is to do so within two days, which is their scheduled departure date from the house. She begins picking and tearing at the wallpaper to not only free the woman she sees, but also as a source of taking her own control (Gilman 11). She is defying her husband, as he certainly would not approve of her actions or thoughts. As she tears the wallpaper she hears shrieks, but is intent on allowing the woman to go free. During the time that she is peeling the paper, she contemplates jumping out the window, but is unable to because there are bars on the windows. She also notes that she is afraid of all the other women creeping outside. Some may feel that the narrator has been driven mad by the wallpaper at this point, however it seems that the meaning is that of her final decision not to care what her husband thinks. She is following what she feels and standing up for her own freedom by releasing the woman behind the wallpaper. When her husband learns of her actions, he breaks his way into the room and then faints at the sight of what she has done. He, of course believes that she has gone completely mad and faints. The story ends with the narrator creeping around the perimeter of the room, even stepping over his body in the process (Gilman 12). Again her stepping over his body is symbolic that she is no longer under his control, even though she has likely suffered a nervous breakdown and has lost her mind.

In conclusion, Gilman’s story is that of a personal account from a female’s perspective. The narrator comes to identify with the women in the wallpaper that she imagines. Of course these delusions are due to her illness, which is most likely related to depression and post-partum, as there is a baby referenced in the story. Medical conditions were not understood and the general consensus of the time was to use natural remedies coupled with rest. Those that suffered from depression or other mental disorders would likely be separated from the general community as they simply didn’t know what else to do with them. Along with the narrator suffering from depression, she was also a victim of historical oppression. During this time, women were seen as less than equal and not allowed to express opinions or take an active role in decision making. Their place was in a domestic role and nothing more. While some might say that the wallpaper drove the narrator crazy, others might see it as an escape from an oppressive reality in the only manner that she could control; her own thoughts and bizarre actions!

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; The Yellow Wallpaper Page 1.” Page By Page Books. Read Classic Books Online, Free.. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2011. <http://www.pagebypagebooks

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