Symbolism in The Yellow Wallpaper


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Women in the field of literature have been looked down on as subordinates and belittled for a very long period of time. Before the 19th century, women were placed in the opinion of the cult of domesticity, where women were to stay at home and be submissive to the husband. Despite this, Charlotte Perkins Gilman brought out her radical views in her work, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a short story written in 1890. The woman, Jane, in the story undergoes the feeling of being imprisoned by trying to live up to the high hopes of her husband and to have individuality. The story consists of the journal entries by the narrator that deal with the way she was treated by her husband to gain back her mental stability. Although the story relates to the treatment of women in the late 1800s this story was a way through which Gilman raised awareness of the struggles faced by women in that time period. “The Yellow Wallpaper” contains various symbolic elements that connect to events that women encountered. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses the symbolism of the wallpaper, the narrator’s journal, and the nursery to represent the suppression and confinement of women in society in the late 1800s. The wallpaper is interpreted in various ways and can have two meanings, her controlling husband and how society controls women. Gilman expresses that, “At night in any kind of light, in the twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be” (Gilman 653). The narrator distinguishes with the woman that is trapped behind the wallpaper and her innermost self knows that she is confined but her consciousness has the mindset that what her husband, John, does is best for her. The narrator comes in reason with her frustration and the condition as she is forced to be in bed for “recovery” and sees the “bars” which are the ones like in prison cells. The woman that is seen trapped behind the wallpaper is actually the narrator herself that expresses the narrator’s own feelings of frustration and helplessness towards the idea of being trapped and imprisoned by the bars of a patriarchal society (‘Feminist Gothic In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper). Gilman also expresses that, “I don’t like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wallpapers I did?” (Gilman 652). The woman has been trapped in the room with the wallpaper where she cannot do the things she wants and only has to follow her husband’s instructions. When she tries to find her way out and is so frustrated that she has freed the woman behind the wallpaper she sees how she was drawn away from her own identity and the connection that she has been keeping away from. The realization that there are other women like her in this world who are oppressed makes her frightened to even look at them. The wallpaper has become such a big part of her life that she is in love with it but as the story progresses she starts to be disgusted by it because of its effect on her mental state (Peritz). The moment when she destroys the wallpaper serves how she breaks free from the system of patriarchy and repression. It shows how she does not have to follow these values and can do what appeases her. The writer of the article states that “….symbol of the story which not only represents the narrator’s state of mind but becomes that state of mind” (MacPike). The narrator becomes so attached to the wallpaper that she becomes one with it, relates to the trapped woman, and treats it as a living thing. The wallpaper also represents the deteriorating condition of the narrator and how it has become part of her life (Herrero). The destructive patterns on the wallpaper are all out of order which represents the narrator’s state of mind, how she lacks the enlightenment to order her thoughts, and later on, finding tranquillity by destroying the wallpaper. Symbolically, the wallpaper is a way of showing how it represented the domestic life the women were placed to abide by in the late 19th century in the United States.

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The journal of the narrator is symbolic that of a woman’s escape from the norms of society and the lack of self-expression. The writer of “The Yellow Wallpaper” states that “I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me” (Gilman, 649). The one main obstacle in her life that prevents her from doing what she likes and makes her feel better, which is writing, is her husband John. He restricts her from improving and living a satisfying life by controlling every aspect of her being. The only way the woman can express her frustration and get rid of depressing thoughts is by writing, which she is not allowed to. John restricts her from having an outlet to express her creativity, thus leading her to be mad and frustrated. The journal is an insight into her deteriorating mind and shows how John treats her as a subordinate to him. It represents the patriarchal society and the norms that literally tie women to subordinate roles in the domestic sphere. The journal can be a way of seeing it as an opposition to her husband and the dominance of the men in the existing reality. The mindset of fixed roles in society has led to male dominance and the systematic roles in the community where the women are meant to be dutiful at home and the men are the brain in the society. Gilman also says, “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 647). While the husband is someone who has a respectable and professional job it is expected for the woman to be a housewife and suppressed from gaining any form of education. The story being in the format of a journal lets the reader know all the deep thoughts of the narrator. Although she knows that she is getting worse she can do nothing but be submissive to her husband. Therefore, she is unable to express her distress and instead complains over the respect she does not get through writing in her journal. Korb expresses that, “Unfortunately, because the text is her only place of true self-expression, it becomes as oppressive as the room, as oppressive as her husband” (Korb). The journal is the only place she can be herself and the only thing that she can rely upon at this point. Writing the journal gives the narrator a sense of assurance and stability throughout her struggles by keeping her sane. The journal becomes another example of oppression because that is the only place she can express herself which she is not allowed to but still writes refusing to follow her husband’s orders.

The place the woman is confined in is a very isolated nursery, which shows how the husband tries to intercept from her engaging to the outside world and taking away her identity. In another light, the room can also be seen as a secure place where she can do what she wants, which is writing. Gilman describes the room by saying, “It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls” (Gilman 648). The room is described in a way that she is not familiar with because it is her husband’s choice, she can do nothing but listen and follow his orders. The description of the various details in the room like the window and the patches in the walls suggests that the room is some sort of prison cell. The room or the nursery is the clear representation of confinement and her misery makes her mind portray the images of the room in an unfamiliar way. The writer of this article states that “Because John believes that he is supposed to function as the thinking partner in his marriage, he won’t let his wife think for herself” (Carey). The woman in the story is so oppressed that she is in dilemma with herself, her thoughts are filled and consumed by her husband’s instructions and his orders that she thinks of himself before her. In the story, the husband locks his wife in the room as a way of showing his power over her. The woman feels guilty for thinking about herself and her condition which is about her depression and her relationship with her husband in an oppressive marriage. The writer of the article emphasizes, “The woman is legally a child; socially, economically, and philosophically she must be led by an adult–her husband; and therefore the nursery is an appropriate place to house her” (MacPike). The nursery is a way of indicating her status in society. The nursery has windows that are blocked with bars which makes the room look like a prison instead of a happy place for children. The narrator is eternally held captive from becoming an adult and is held back from being free. The bars prevent her from being active and working to be a successful woman. The idea of confinement related to the symbol can be seen as how women are not capable enough to perform roles out of the household as good as men. Hence, women were denied the opportunity to exhibit their capacity to do works outside of their domestic life.

The idea of repression and the captivity of women are portrayed through the wallpaper, the journal, and the nursery mentioned above in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The story is indulged with various symbols that all connect and can create many conclusions and ideas depending on the reader. The key symbol, the wallpaper, demonstrates the male dominance and the fixed role in society which led to the frustration and maddening emotions of the narrator which can be related to women in general. Secondly, the journal is a symbol that shows the unavailability to express oneself and breaking free from the typical behavior expected from a woman. Finally, the nursery is a way of showing how she is being stripped of having her own values and being imprisoned by her husband, John. This short story shows how people need to start thinking about the fixed roles seriously and to bring women’s oppression visible to society. Overall Gilman expresses her radical views and portrays that people should learn to change the oppressive mentality before being absorbed by it and to disregard the social norms.

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