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Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman Analysis

Updated on May 3, 2013
The Yellow Wallpaper
The Yellow Wallpaper | Source

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.

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?


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    • Jenna Kunc profile image

      Jenna Kunc 5 years ago from Colorado

      I had to read this in my American Literature class, and it was one of the stories that had the most class participation. We loved it!

    • bamuscarella profile image

      Brittany 5 years ago from Buffalo, NY

      Nice review. It seems to me that patriarchy is more than subconscious: it's internalized, so that neither men nor women actually realize the tenets upon which they're operating—Gillman's narrator, in fact, feels guilty when she tries to compromise her situation as a prisoner.

      And it's not a mindset exclusive to the 19th century. Patriarchy figures prominently in oral and written traditions from ancient times to the present—Plato and Chaucer wrote about it, and so did Shakespeare (Othello and Hamlet, anyone?). In fact, patriarchy so underpins our society that even today the majority of candidates who leave academia are women who were seeking their PhDs.

      When we read the works of 19th-century female authors (and many other centuries, too, really), they often carry overtones of "depression" that afflicted their authors. I can't help but take a bleak view when I read a story like "The Yellow Wallpaper": women are more likely to go insane than topple the battlements of patriarchy. After all, even when the man falls, he has just fainted—he can get up again, he isn't dead.

    • brittanytodd profile image

      Brittany Kennedy 6 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      Thank you, Stephanie. I love this story and have been studying it for years. I could write a hub for every character! (John might take up three, though, he's so complex!) Thanks for reading.

      HillbillyZen, thank you so much! Gilman is amazing and I suggest you read this story. I'm sure you could find it online. Thanks so much for reading and I am a proud follower of you. Love your hubs!

      Mahalo to both of you for reading my work!

    • Hillbilly Zen profile image

      Hillbilly Zen 6 years ago from Kentucky

      Where the heck have I been that I've not heard of this author?? Wow, Ms. Brittany, excellent review, and thank you for turning me on to Charlotte Gilman! Voted up and interesting (because there isn't a "fascinating" button!)! Thanks for the follow, too :)

    • StephanieBCrosby profile image

      Stephanie Bradberry 6 years ago from New Jersey

      I love teaching this short story. It's great when students stumble across online explanations that bring to light that her "condition" is what we now call postpartum depression. I like anthologies that include the real-life writing of Gilman's explanation of the basis for her story.

      I always found John's character and stance interesting since he is also a doctor. Is he let off the hook for Gilman's/the narrator's end state because he was not his wife's doctor?

      Particularly fascinating for me is the Freudian undertones. For example, John does not want his wife to write because then she would be wielding the phallus, and thus power. I could go on for days about this story and what intrigues me, but I will bid my adieu here.