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Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman Analysis
Within her short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman illustrates women’s everlasting struggle in American society. Gilman focuses on the constant oppression which women face within a patriarchal society. The narrator's obsession with the horrid, yellow wallpaper in her room is parallel to the author's disgust and anger toward a society in which a woman is treated with less respect than the men around her. Gilman's inspiration stems from Dr. Weir Mitchell, who she mentions within the story. He was Gilman's doctor, who had a tendency to diagnose women who were unhappy with their lifestyles as depressed, prescribing to them what he called a “rest cure.” Gilman's narrator is sent to “rest” within a new home, which ultimately results in angst and mental instability.
From the first time she walks into her room, the narrator notices the ugly, yellow wallpaper and does not want to sleep there: “...the windows are barred for children, and there are rings and things in the walls” (3). The room is described like a dungeon; Gilman wants the reader to notice that the narrator is being imprisoned—and not only by her emotions. What is keeping the narrator, and all women, imprisoned is the patriarchal structure of our society. Dr. Weir Mitchell's “rest cure” requires the patient to lay in bed until they’re “well”; Gilman shows her narrator use this time to reflect on her oppression. Gilman's narrator constantly states that what she needs in order to be "cured" (or feel purpose in society) is more human interaction—not isolation: “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good...I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad” (2). The narrator's husband, John, is a physician like Dr. Weir Mitchell and promotes the idea that his wife simply needs to rest.
John represents a subconscious, traditional mindset, which places women below men on a social scale; because of this, John is oblivious to a woman's oppression. This mindset is the same of many men in the early nineteen hundreds. At that time, there was fear of women gaining power and freedom because they were of a lower social status. Some men felt that if they gave women more freedom in one area, women would constantly push for more equality, and this, to them, was threatening to their patriarchal society. Gilman writes, “He knows no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him....He said that after the wall-paper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs and so on” (4). John named parts of the house which are meant to enclose and keep out certain individuals. Gilman is illustrating the power that John has over his wife.
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John rejects the narrator's creativity and desire to write: “He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try” (5). John's constant control of his wife makes her question the morality of his actions. She begins to be enticed by the yellow wallpaper that covers the room where she stays. This wallpaper is partially torn, and she can see an image lurking underneath, “and it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern....The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out” (9). Gilman writes that this image does escape the wallpaper. During the daytime, the narrator writes that she can see women “creeping” around outside. These women are real, hiding their true selves during the day, because they are constantly being watched: “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. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard” (13). When men are not watching, women in society are free to shake their bars in protest, but not in the daylight, when they will be viewed as fragile, mad, or fickle.
When John returns to the house, the narrator has torn down the wallpaper and is crawling around the room with her shoulder on the baseboard; John faints because he is so shocked by her behavior. She asks, “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so I had to creep over him every time!” (17). This action symbolizes that before women will ever achieve equality (or break through the wallpaper), men must fall from their pedestal at the top of our social hierarchy.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman demands the feminist reader to break free from the confining bounds of society's patriarchal traditions. Through the narrator's depression and dissatisfaction with life, she went mad; even suicide was not an option, because no one would see the true meaning behind her death. Gilman attempts to illustrate that if our only escape is insanity, what do we have to lose?