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Using Mythological Criticism to Interpret "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Updated on March 14, 2018

About Myths

First off, it is important to understand that myths are not just ancient fables. According to the famous psychologist Carl Jung, myths are narratives that work in all of our minds, both consciously and unconsciously. Myths are cultural and personal and when expressed through imagery or writing they display common themes, archetypes and symbols which express common concerns for humanity and existence. We all share similar topics of concern as humans, and for this reason, common themes arise in myths which make them recognizable to us no matter the time or place of the narrative.

Humans carry their own personal myths which are a complex mix of their personal beliefs, values, cultures and their society's norms. This complex explains our behaviors. Our personal myths can be functional or they can become outdated and become dysfunctional as time goes on (Kippner & Feinstein, 2008). It is in this way Gilman displays to us the myths in society that need to be disposed of for the sake of humanity and our well-being.

Identifying The Myths in Gilman's Society

Jane is a character created by Gilman who has traveled by boat with her husband to a colonial mansion for the summer.There, she undergoes a "rest cure" reinforced by her physician husband to treat her postpartum depression.Though she abides with the treatment, she grows weary of it. It seems there is no alternative for her because the "rest cure" is a common treatment for mental ailments used by all the doctors in her society, most particularly, for women.

When we consider the short story was written before the women's rights movement was gaining considerable strides, we can automatically understand that this "rest cure" was also tied into sexism. It was a way to enforce the assigned roles of women in society. Moreover, the treatment was an attempt to keep women from progressing or developing their skills outside the home.

We can connect this invalid medical treatment to the myth of "The Wandering Uterus". It was thought women who were expressing mental stress and even women who were not, were suffering from a sexual craving of male semen. The diagnosis of hysteria goes back to ancient times and has undergone different variations over time. Hysteria became a prevalent diagnosis for women in the 19th century for women suffering mental ailments and for women who were not sick at all (Kapsalis, 2017).

S. Weir Mitchell, was a physician that treated women for this diagnosis. In reality, Mitchell was actually Gilman's physician (Knight, 2006). His name is mentioned in the story when Jane is discussing with a friend that her husband contemplates sending Jane to Dr. Mitchell for treatment. Gilman suffered from depression in her actual life and we can see the medical "treatment" for women included immobilizing them.


The Myth Leading Society's Behavior

SYMBOLS

The Nursery

Jane serves as the narrator of the story. As she undergoes her "rest cure" she is bound inside a room that once served as a nursery. It has a flamboyant yellow wallpaper she despises. The windows are barred and the bed is nailed to the ground. The nursery is filled with symbolism:

Barred Windows

The barred windows symbolize the world in which women are kept from entering. This is because we can all identify what the image of bars commonly represent. Prison comes to mind. We see the common theme of captivity through this image. Jane can only write her story when she is alone in the room, out of view from her husband.

How Jane is Viewed by her Husband

How women were portrayed in society.
How women were portrayed in society.

The room she is placed in symbolizes the way she and women are looked upon in society. More specifically, the way her husband portrays her, is no different from how he portrays a child. She must be looked after. For it is viewed that women in her society, do not know what is best for themselves, they are not intelligent, they are inexperienced and silly. They are the intellectual equivalent of a child and simply just don't know their place in the world. Her husband states the place is "doing her good". When Jane asks to stay in another room, he calls her "a blessed little goose".

Heavy Bedstead Nailed to The Floor

A symbol of "sexual crucifixion" to display society's view of a woman's primary purpose-  to please their husbands and bear their children.
A symbol of "sexual crucifixion" to display society's view of a woman's primary purpose- to please their husbands and bear their children.

The heavy bedstead nailed to the ground symbolizes an archetypical image to us. Crucifixion comes to mind because of the imagery of heavy wood and nails. This is resemblant of the figure Jesus Christ. He was created to be crucified not for doing anything wrong, but to die for peoples' sins so they may have eternal life.

In the story, the heavy bedstead nailed to the ground symbolizes "sexual crucifixion", since it is a bed which is nailed and not a cross. The bed is also nailed to the floor of the nursery which allows the reader to see another aspect of society's view of women. Though living a life outside of society's sexist norms is no crime, women were punished for it. We can see women's souls were not allowed to belong to them. It was viewed their purpose for existence was to please their husbands and to bring life to the world, but only by reproducing children.


Wall-paper

Symbolism of The Yellow Wall-paper

One thing I noticed is the title of the story is written with a hyphen between 'wall' and 'paper'-written as, 'Wall-paper'. The word 'wallpaper' can simply be spelled as one word. Is this Gilman's way of signaling us? An intended implication? Does she want us to look at the words separately, read them together, or do both?

I believe this was Gilman's way of signaling the reader to look at all layers of the wall carefully and to see its symbolism as a whole as well. It was her signaling to us to take a closer look at society and to take a closer look at what it meant for the morality of human life. Thus she used symbols and archetypes in her short story to not only tell the story but to portray her message to the reader.

In addition the word written as 'Wall-paper' could also be a linguistic metaphor through the use of actual words where she is indicating the wall that is separating her from the paper. This is because Jane has to hide the act of writing from her husband.


The Pattern

The Right of Passage is symbolized by the wallpaper. This is similar to the purpose of  hieroglyphics in the tombs of ancient Egypt.
The Right of Passage is symbolized by the wallpaper. This is similar to the purpose of hieroglyphics in the tombs of ancient Egypt.

The wallpaper has a pattern that is confusing to Jane. "I exhaust myself trying to distinguish the order". The sub-pattern represents the suppressed womanly role as "stooping" figures emerge, while the top pattern represents the nameless laws of society and man, which she is influenced to follow in the domesticated womanly role. But the pattern also serves as secret message for her. It is similar to hieroglyphics.In ancient times hieroglyphics were written on the underground walls of temples instructing the dead on how to reach other worlds.

Right of Passage

-"There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day."

The Sun God Ra's Journey to The Netherworld

The Sun God Ra on his boat trip to the Netherworld. Jane too traveled to the estate by boat where she undergoes her journey.
The Sun God Ra on his boat trip to the Netherworld. Jane too traveled to the estate by boat where she undergoes her journey. | Source

Often times these hieroglyphics depicted the daily journey of the Sun God Ra, in which he travels by boat into the underworld where he encounters the dead and his corpse, Osiris. It was thought he did this journey daily to begin again each day. The Portal of the East, also known as sun-rise, could begin again. It was thought if Egyptians could mimic the Sun God's journey to the Netherworld, they could be protected and return to life and thus be reborn or progress (Schweizer & ot. 2010). They would use the hieroglyphics on the walls in tombs as their secret instruction.

Jane projecting her shadow is another form of an attempt to create order from disorder or death. Jane too is "dead" because she is undergoing her "rest cure" at this "ancestral hall". She is blocked from the world by this wall and she will not be able to gain access to a new life unless she makes sense of the pattern and unlocks it first. By reading the pattern she projects her shadow which is symbolic of her entering the Netherworld and her journey. The pattern on the wall similarly to the Egyptians, is a map for Jane to know her way around the gates.


The Color of The Wall-paper

War

-revolting

-unclean

-smoldering

-lurid

-sick

The Color

The color of the wallpaper is described by Jane as a yellow that is "revolting, a smoldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight." a, "lurid orange" and a tint of "sickly sulphur". Sulphur is associated in mythology as well. It is associated the with the energy of hell in christianity and it is associated with destroying dysfunctional places so they will be reborn. In Greek mythology it is associated with producing fire and lighting. Many know of the Greek god Zeus who would send thunderbolts from the sky. He was the God of sky and the God of air often throwing bolts to the ground during war (Papamarinopoulos, 2016).

We know sulphur today for being in volcanos and for being deep under the earths surface, but it is also as a common element existing in agriculture. It is capable of explosions like war, but it is also capable of healing and growth. Therefor the color symbolizes a signal to Jane that society's rules over women's behaviors are sickening and harsh and she is at war with them. In this way the color also symbolizes a subconscious energy for Jane to revolt or emerge from suppressive patriarchal society. In this way, the color or energy of the wallpaper has two sides symbolizing war or revolution.

Lightning and Fire

portrayed through Gilman's imagery are common images associated with war especially in ancient Greek mythology
portrayed through Gilman's imagery are common images associated with war especially in ancient Greek mythology

The Scent

The wallpaper also has a horrible scent which Jane determines smells like the color of the wall paper. Sulphur gives off a scent. Lightning bolts give off a scent of sulphur as well (Papamarinopoulos, 2016). For Jane It never seems to go away. It watches her, waits for her, spies on her, hangs over her and hovers over her no matter where she goes. This odor is symbolic of the anima/animus archetype. Again, two sides. In this case the symbolism of the color specifies the persistent dynamics of relationships between two groups of people in society-the male and female.

The Anima/Animus

"It is not bad at first, and very gentle, but quite the subtlest, most enduring odor I have ever met".

"It follows me everywhere"

Toadstools

Fairy Ring
Fairy Ring | Source

An Interminable String of Toadstools

Jane describes the wallpaper pattern having fungus-like-projections, An "interminable string of toadstools". When we think of mushrooms we think of them being poisonous or not poisonous and about their potential to change us. Again, two sides and one common theme. They have also been included in myths since our ancestors.

Toadstool rings were thought to come from lightning bolts from the Gods in the sky to signal they are not pleased with the world. Some thought they were sent so people on earth could enter an alternate realm by stepping into a fairy ring which gave people a new perspective. They were seen in a positive light in some cultures or in a negative light by others who thought entering a ring was dangerous (Jay, 2008) Either way, no matter the culture-the toadstool is an archetypal image for us which symbolizes change in perspective.

In many cultures it has been thought that fairy rings were marked evidence of fairies dancing in the moonlight (Kusby 2017). In a similar way Jane notices "new shoots of fungus" each day, which is symbolic of the women under the pattern creeping at night. But each day Jane also notices "new shades of yellow all over it" which is symbolic of what the color of the wallpaper represents-both the suppression of women from patriarchal society and the fuel to women's fire-the simultaneous energies on both sides of the wall.

We can actually visually see the formation of fairy rings today. You can see a fairy ring is going to form when there is a dark circle that forms in the grass, but sometimes we don't even see it because it can be faint. In the morning you walk outside, and then all of a sudden there could be a ring of mushrooms on the grass. It's almost as though they came out of nowhere! Jane sees a smudge on the wall that runs all around the room in a circle except over her bed. She wonders, "how it was done, and who did it and what they did it for".

Well, I can only assume it was done for her, to join the other women in the wall and recognize a perspective and then to dig deep down to her personal myth-that is her collection of myths and make some adjustments to it. Society's myths are dominating her personal beliefs and it is creating inner conflict.

When Jane is going to join her shadow through the opening of the ring, we can anticipate her having a new perception. From the new perception, she will possibly create a new universe for herself or women in general. We recognize her mind is a missing piece to bring about a change in society which cannot be done until she perceives what can be different. No matter how we interpret it, through Gilman's use of the toadstool in her story, we see a common symbolic theme of the change in perception and the possibility of changing one's being.

Bulbous eyes in the Wallpaper & Many Heads

Medusa took the form we know her as when she was punished for disobeying. Medusa could then turn anyone who looked at her to stone.It foreshadows the shock Jane's husband later experiences when he sees Jane.
Medusa took the form we know her as when she was punished for disobeying. Medusa could then turn anyone who looked at her to stone.It foreshadows the shock Jane's husband later experiences when he sees Jane.

The Wall

Walls are a known to us as an annoyance because they are a barrier or they are seen as protection. In the story they symbolize a domesticated prison. Walls are both something to rely on and something that blocks others or ourselves. Erecting walls is also something people do when they do not want to share what they have. Considering that walls have been around in both the real world, in ancient times and metaphorically in our actual lives we can all identify with this symbol.

The Berlin Wall for example was built to keep people from leaving to follow other aspirations. The Wall of China was made as a protective barrier. We build our own walls sometimes to keep people out of our lives or sometimes we even build them to procrastinate. Maybe we build them to hide or keep ourselves calm. The wall in the story symbolizes society keeping women out of the real world. They are a representation in history, societies, several myths and even a literal symbol of today.

However, walls also symbolize new purpose. When people are blocked by a wall, they call attention to it. It creates a new purpose for the blocked individual whether it was there before consciously or not. In this case Jane begins drawing her attention to seeing a new purpose. She knows she is not happy with her circumstances but she starts looking at the wall to figure out who or what the cause is. It may not have been common for all women to be completely aware that their society's myths are the culprit for their unhappiness. When you are born into a society and things are a specific way, you may have to find it's flaws which can be difficult. Once Jane is blocked by the wall she begins analyzing its representation unconsciously.

Gilman Sees Her Wall

Gilman actually painted an image of her hand against a wall years before writing The Yellow Wall-paper called, The Woman Against The Wall. Her husband described it as "a literal transcript of her mind"(Knight, 2006). This is the perfect example of how Gilman shares the same symbolic images in her mind as us when a myth it is drawn on paper. This is because walls have existed since our ancestors metaphorically and literally in present day.

Her husband also described the painting as " a woman creature who had transversed a desert, and came worn out, to an insurmountable wall which extended around the earth. It was powerful." However he adds it was, "not so artistic as it might be" (Knight,2006) - I guess he didn't really get the meaning of his wife's painting because he could not see her view from her side of the wall. Gilman was going to include the painting in her autobiography but she could not find it anywhere (Knight, 2006). Therefore this is another reason why I believe Gilman wrote The Yellow Wall-paper with archetypes and symbolism.

In Gilman's original painting, she did not consciously use a wall. It was a mere expression of herself. But by putting her personal myth on paper, a common symbol was seen. I believe she recognized this afterward. I don't think it was until after her painting that she decided to write The Yellow-Wallpaper with the purposeful use of universal symbols from myths. I think the painting truly inspired her that there could be a way to communicate to everyone.

Her short story was a method of communicating to us as readers how the boundaries in society are mapped often in a disguised manner but they are not always so hidden after all because we are living in it every day. We just may not see them until we are actually blocked off from something to the point that it causes us to lose touch with our selves or we experience inner turmoil. The wall symbolizes the conscious and unconscious conflict we experience from society. She also shows how the boundaries effect us. By using universally known images, her readers and herself can possibly understand what she is trying to say, while also not blatantly saying it. This was possibly so she could publish the story. She uses a narrative in a fictional story to try and show the non-fictional message, a true portrayal of herself and others.

Jane's Ritual Analysis of The Yellow Wall-paper

In the beginning of the story, longer intervals of time pass between her journal entries which lay out the short story. She has many moments of self doubt for being so tired all the time. In reality her tiredness is stemming from the "concoctions" and medicines she is prescribed.

The "rest cure" is an accepted myth in her society and in medicine. However as time goes on, she becomes more uncomfortable and feels worse. She writes more often and also grows more interested in the yellow wallpaper that surrounds her. She analyzes it everyday-despite it's ugliness and disordered patterns.

"It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide-plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions."

According to Jung, when our personal myths no longer serve us and become dysfunctional, we often begin rituals in which we take a closer look at our personal myths unconsciously (Kippner & Feinstein, 2008). This is exactly what the narrator does in the story as she looks deeper at the wallpaper on a regular basis. The more she looks at the wallpaper, the more she also begins to doubt her "rest cure" and her husband.

She believes that mental stimulation would do her better than doing nothing at all. However her husband does not allow it.

Shadows

Depending on how our families, cultures or societies will accept our changes to our personal myths we could suppress them. However when we do, we often develop counter-myths. We may see images, shadows or dreams that grab our attention further.The narrator starts seeing a shadow of a women in the wall who creeps at night and but eventually then starts to creep in daylight.

The narrator's personal myth is being dominated by myths in her culture and society. The fact she is to take on the sole roles of wife, mother and care-taker is conflicting to her. And her culture's myths regarding psychological treatment for women is creating even more conflict for her as well. It is common for people to join with their shadow or their other self according to Jung, and it is often done when our personal myths need to be altered (Kippner & Feinstein, 2008). This is what the narrator does. She begins seeing a shadow of a woman in the wallpaper. This is her counter-myth. It may not always be pleasant, but at times it is a necessary step in finding order.

The Shadow Archetype

A Mythological Manifestation of The Walls of Jericho

A biblical story can be manifested when Jane tears down the wallpaper. Joshua and the people of Israel journeyed to take over their enemies and enter The Promised Land, which was surrounded by a massive stone wall. God gave them a plan, instructing them to march around the wall for seven days silently. March? Silently? Yes, this was a fairly strange plan considering this isn't the average way people took over cities. But the people listened and did as they were told by God. On The seventh circuit of the seventh day they were to shout! They did as God said and the walls came tumbling down. They were no longer blocked by the enemy, they gained access and they entered The Promised Land (JW.org)

In Jane's last entry she says the word "creep" seven times. The woman in the wallpaper has been shaking the pattern to get out. Jane has listened to the woman in the wallpaper and released her because she has been shaking the pattern. The woman and Jane as a single entity must creep to do anything because like all the other women, they cannot be caught by men or society doing much of anything. They must remain silent. But now as one, Jane seems to have lost her mind. Jane locked John out of the bedroom and once he gains access, he is horrified by this new outward wild character she becomes. He faints and tumbles to the ground. We as the readers get a sense of his defeat taking place through this reaction.

Gilman's story and the story of Jericho both represent unforeseeable victory that occurs through loyalty to ones own beliefs even when undertaking missions in strange or unheard of ways-like marching silently around a city with a strange set of instructions, joining a fairy ring or joining your shadow to creep around a room with yellow-wall-paper. However it also represents defeat on the other side.


Gilman's Message

Our myths are complex. Sometimes we have to journey to our subconscious or another way of thinking to make ourselves aware of what is going on around us. It must be brought to our consciousness. It's the only way for us to find the solution or even begin to present it to our counterparts. Sometimes we have to peel back the layers and get back to our own basic foundation to recognize it. Hopefully then we can make ourselves mobile to serve what our purpose is. It can make us vulnerable, but the truth is we never know if we will carry out our purpose until we try to.

Gilman shows us sometimes others need to learn how to listen. When people do not listen or deprive us from making our own changes, our psychological will to live and to be ourselves is going to take over in defense. We can't look at the mentally ill or people who are different from us as though their cause of distress is because of themselves. We have to look at people who are mentally suffering as people who are battling a complexity of myths. We also must realize the mental battle is a mere result of this complexity formed by the walls and barriers produced by others and society. The best way to treat those who are different from us or those who are unhappy is to stop blocking them from their own purpose or help them find it. We must also look at our own. If we do not, the person will mentally continue to search for it and this could have damaging results on the person themselves or on others. It is the main cause for disaster and destruction.

We can see the barriers between us are not always so natural. Because they are so complex we have to be thrown into disorder sometimes to regain order if walls are not dismantled by those who build them. One of the best ways for us to progress is for all of us to look at the complexity of our personal myths or our stories and to get back to the common fundamentals of them. It's where we all naturally come from and where we can all understand one another. Ultimately it is the only way everyone can be free. I think that is what Gilman was trying to tell us.

Knight, Denise D."“I Could Paint Still Life as Well as any One on Earth”: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the World of Art." Women's Studies, vol. 35, no. 5, July 2006, pp. 475-49 EBSCOhost

Krippner, Stanley and David Feinstein. "A Mythological Approach to Transpersonal Psychotherapy." Revision, vol. 30, no. 1/2, Summer/Fall2008, pp. 18-31. EBSCOhost

Schweizer, Andreas, Lorton, David.; The Sungod's Journey Through the Netherworld :Reading the Ancient Egyptian Amduat. Sec: Immersion into Darkness & Book of The Hidden Chamber. 2010. EBSCOhost


© 2018 Kara Anderson

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