ocietyThe Yellow Wallpaper: Male Opression of Women in Society
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a commentary on the
male oppression of women in a patriarchal society. However, the story itself
presents an interesting look at one woman’s struggle to deal with both physical
and mental confinement. This theme is particularly thought-provoking when read
in today’s context where individual freedom is one of our most cherished rights.
This analysis will focus on two primary issues: 1) the many vivid images Gilman
uses to illustrate the physical and symbolic confinement the narrator endures
during her illness; and 2) the overall effect of, and her reaction to, this
The Yellow Wallpaper begins with the narrator’s description of the
physically confining elements surrounding her. The story is cast in an isolated
hereditary estate, set back from the road and located three miles from town.
The property boasts protective hedges that surround the garden, walls that
surround the estate, and locked gates which guarantee seclusion. Even the
connecting garden represents confinement, with box-bordered paths and grape-
covered arbors. This isolation motif continues within the mansion itself.
Although she preferred the downstairs room with roses all over the windows that
opened on the piazza, the narrator finds herself relegated to an out of the way
dungeon-like nursery on the second floor, appropriately equipped with “rings and
things” in the walls. Windows in each direction provide glimpses of the garden,
arbors, bushes, and trees. The bay is visible, as is a private wharf that
adjoins the estate. These views reinforce isolationism; they can be seen from
the room, but not touched or experienced. There is a gate at the head of the
stairs, presumably to keep the children contained in their play area.
Additionally, the bed is immovable as it has been nailed to the floor. It is
here that the narrator secretly describes her slow decent into madness.
Although the physical confinement drains the narrator’s strength and will,
the mental and emotional confinement symbolized in the story play an important
role in her ultimate fall into dementia. By being forced to be her own company,
she is confined within her mind. Likewise, part of the narrator’s mental
confinement stems from her recognition of her physical confinement. The
depression the narrator has experienced associated with child bearing is
mentally confining as well. Specifically, she cannot control her emotions or
manage her guilt over her inability to care for her child. These structures of
confinement contribute to the rapid degeneration of her faculties.
As the wife of a prominent physician in the late nineteenth century, the
narrator’s assumption of the typical female role illustrates one aspect of the
symbolic confinement present within both the story and the society. She is
subservient and deferential to her husband John who enjoys the power
traditionally associated with his sex and additional authority afforded him by
his status as a doctor. Jean Kennard notes, “By keeping her underemployed and
isolated, John effectively ensures his wife’s dependence on him” (81). John’s
control over his wife is typical of the control most men had over women in the
late nineteenth century. He decides everything on her behalf, including what
room she will stay in and who she will be allowed to see. He diagnoses her
postpartum depression as a “temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical
tendency” and in doing so, diminishes her complaints and demeans her
individuality. His prescribed treatment is worse than the disease; every hour
is scheduled, she is forbidden to write, told what to think, and prohibited from
acting as mother to her child.
John’s behavior illustrates his covert efforts to control his wife as
well. He looks to the narrator’s brother, who is also a physician, to validate
his diagnosis and prescribed cure, making it even more difficult for the
narrator to challenge the prescription herself. He repeatedly diminishes her by
laughing at her and not taking her grievances seriously. The narrator complains
“John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to
suffer, and that satisfies him.” John’s contempt for his wife’s ideas is
blatant; he refers to her as a “little girl,” and when she requests that she be
moved to a different room downstairs, he “took [her] in his arms and called
[her] a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if [she]
wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain.” That he is only willing to
move her into the basement, instead of allowing her a room of her choice,
epitomizes his domineering personality.
As the woman descends into madness, she notices that the pattern in the
wallpaper “becomes bars” in the moonlight and that “the woman behind it is as
plain as can be.” Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar assert that the woman behind
the wallpaper is the narrator’s doppelg nger (10). This woman is symbolic of the
narrator’s own confinement by the patriarchal society she lives in. Moreover,
we see that the wallpaper is a metaphor of her fractured mental state. She
describes the chaotic pattern that will follow “. . . the lame uncertain curves
for a little distance. . . suddenly committing suicide–plunging off at
outrageous angles, destroying themselves in unheard of contradictions,” alluding
to her own, and society’s, eventual destruction in the absence of enlightened
change. Furthermore, the narrator acknowledges that she is representative of
most women of her time with the statement “I think there are a great many women
[behind the paper].”
The effect of John’s oppression on the narrator is severe. At the
climax of her insanity she writes that she can see the woman from behind the
wallpaper pattern “out of every one of my windows!” The narrator continues:
It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do
not creep by daylight. I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping
along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines. I don’t
blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight!
That evening the narrator noticed the woman in the pattern begin to crawl and
shake the wallpaper in an effort to break free from it, just as she would like
to break free from the confines and restrictions imposed on her by society and
her husband John. In her diary she describes helping the woman tear down the
paper: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled . . . .” Most of the
paper was removed the next day while the narrator watched many women creeping
around in the street. At the end of the story the narrator has surprised John,
who has come home from work to find her creeping around the room. She proclaims
“I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of
the paper, so you can’t put me back!”
Although the reader might pity the narrator’s inability to challenge
John’s authority, one must view the events of the story within the context of
the 1860’s. At this time, socitey would not tolerate such assertiveness from
women. Moreover, the tragic story ends with a paradox. By definition, one who
is mentally ill is not healthy. However, the narrator finds freedom, and
apparently health, by rejecting an insane society and loosing her identity to
the wallpaper. In contrast, the reader concludes the narrator is now confined
by her insanity, and cannot be free.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” English 2307. Comp. Jane
Bell. n.p.,c.1996. 3-7.
Kennard, Jean. “Convention Coverage or How to Read Your Own Life.”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work. Ed. Sheryl Meyering.
Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989. 75-94.