It’s 2:00am and I cannot sleep. I toss and turn while the question, “Why didn’t you stand up for yourself? ” keeps playing over and over in my mind. The picture in my mind of a subjugated woman who feebly attempts to fight against feminine oppression and her impending insanity is vivid and disturbing and continues to slap against the recesses of my mind with an angry hand. What was Charlotte Perkins Gilman attempting to convey to her readers when she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” and created the characters of the narrator, her husband John, Mary and her sister-in-law Jennie?
Obviously, in an exaggerated version of her own experience with post-partum depression and its prescribed “rest cure”, Gilman speaks of a world in which the female is forced into a role of the submissive counterpart to male dominance. In the following pages, I will describe how Gilman has effectively created characters that draw us into their view of control, dominance and frustrated silence against imprisonment in a paternalistic society, and how we are given a view into a perfectly healthy mind that goes awry.
To begin with, Gilman created the narrator as a nearly anonymous identity; we know her only as John’s wife. This power imbalance extends to other areas of their relationship. John dominates her in a progressively patronizing manner. His character is displayed as strong, practical and stereotypically masculine and he seems skeptical of her seemingly weak, feminine condition. John diagnoses her problem, and prescribes the “rest cure” he believes she needs.
The narrator has no say in her condition, and when she attempts to speak her mind, he treats her like a child and makes light of her voice. “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that” (An Introduction to Fiction 572) which illustrates the role women are expected to play and accept in a marriage. Another main function Gilman gave of John’s control over the narrator is his inhibiting of her writing. Although she believes writing would help her condition, as I’m sure Gilman did, John insists it would only debilitate her ailment further.
He stifles her creativity and intellect, forcing her into the role of the submissive wife. She is forced to hide her writings, which frustrate her more “I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good dealhaving to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition” (572). Gilman writes of the narrator as imprisoned, unable to exercise dominion over her own mind. Furthermore, her role as a mother and wife are subverted, which allows for further repression and diminished self-worth.
We know the narrator and John have a baby, but the baby, as a character, is quite flat and doesn’t play a significant role in the story, if only to clarify the narrator’s feeling of inadequacy over her wifely and maternal duties. Mary (a likely allusion to the perfect mother, the Virgin Mary) has replaced her as the caretaker of the baby, and Jennie plays the model of a perfectly submissive and happily domesticated wife.
In an attempt to retreat from her inability to be a good mother and wife, she focuses on her immediate surroundings and allows her mind to get drawn into delusions and fantasies revolving around the house, and more specifically, the room she is imprisoned in. The structure of the house and its surroundings bear out the suppression of the narrator’s mind “there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and peopleI never saw such a garden, large and shady, full of box-bordered paths” (572). Everything seems separated and boxed in, like a prison, and she is held captive in her room.
Interestingly enough, I was under the impression that Gilman wrote of the house much like that of a man: larger than life, full of aggression and competitiveness. Even the fact that it was a “hereditary estate” (572) reminds us that it was probably passed down to the men in the family. The fact that John ordered the narrator to reside in the large nursery on the second floor is further evidence of his control over her. She voiced her opposition and her desire to be able to choose one of the rooms downstairs with a view of the garden, but to no avail.
Notice here, Gilman has described the narrator as desiring a more stereotypically feminine room, one that “opened to the piazza and had roses all over the window” (573). But predictably, John would not hear of it and she is forced to rest in the nursery with no visitors, no writing and only the wallpaper to stare at. The nursery also has bars on the windows, another symbol of imprisonment. Of course the narrator hates the wallpaper most of all, almost as a parody of how she hates that room, and furthermore, her suppressed life.
She describes the wallpaper and its design “when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicideplunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of-contradictions” (573). Gilman, here, describes what is to comea foreshadowing of the delicate nature of the narrator’s mind. Her sanity is in turmoil and conflict, she is fighting a determination to be heard, and, not being able to in her society, retreats into herself, committing social suicide as a way to escape her imprisonment.
In another subtle hint, Gilman addresses the significance of sunshine and moonlight as a direct caricature of man and woman. Sunshine dominates the nursery for most of the day, much like John dominates the narrator as he gives her “a scheduled prescription for each hour of the day” (573), and, subsequently, the narrator begins to sleep most of the day. The moon, however, symbolizes female intuition and sensitivity and appears to liberate the narrator in some form. The sunshine is also equated with the yellow wallpaper, which is “faded by the slow turning sunlighta sickly sulphur tint” (573), which is symbolic of the narrator’s illness.
Gilman provides additional evidence that the narrator’s mind is growing more chaotic as time passes. The garden becomes less appealing to her with its “riotuous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees” (574). These words seem to mirror the narrator’s state of mind, which grows less fluent and more irregular in her writing. The wallpaper becomes a centralized focus for the narrator and its effects are spookily apparent as the narrator spends more and more time attempting to decipher the wallpapers contents.
The narrator begins to feel watched over by the wallpaper, much like John and Jennie watch over her, adding to her sense of imprisonment. The sunlight motif appears again when she claims she can see a figure in the wallpaper “a strange, provoking formless sort of figure that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design” (575). All of a sudden, the wallpaper becomes an all-consuming focus of the narrator and she begins to feel a connection with its contents, perhaps a hope for her own identity since in her current state, she lives through John’s identity.
It is John’s paternalistic actions toward the narrator that are driving her toward the wallpaper. He controls her every action, and Gilman even makes a reference to her former doctor Mitchell, who prescribed her a similar “rest cure”, and who is “just like John and my brother, only more so! ” (574). The figure behind the wallpaper begins to take shape and the narrator describes her as a woman “And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. ” (577). The motif of moonlight and sunshine really develop here.
It is during this time, at night, that the narrator gains the courage to request that John take her away from this place, although her plea is unsuccessful. Then, the wallpaper’s pattern emerges by moonlight. The woman behind the wallpaper symbolizes the oppression of female domestication: she is barred from exiting the wallpaper. The narrator is only subconsciously aware of this oppression at night, when her mind is allowed to roam.
During the day, the narrator is repressed, like the wallpaper “In the daytime it is tiresome and perplexing. (580) Here the narrator’s writing becomes more and more choppier and paranoid. She believes everyone is trying to figure out the meaning of the wallpaper which she vehemently wants to do herself “I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself! ” (580). The woman behind the wallpaper become more evident and in her domesticated prison of the wallpaper, she shakes the bars to try to escape “The woman behind it shakes it! ” (581) Eventually, the narrator assists in the escape plan as her insanity climaxes and she identifies completely with the woman in the wallpaper.
She now believes she is that woman coming out of the wallpaper. Again, the symbolic meaning is that she has finally liberated herself from masculine oppression by tearing down the domesticated prison of the wallpaper. This moment of revelation again occurs by moonlight when, according to the theme Gilman has suggested, women have a break from the oppression of masculine sunshine. The narrator’s statement “I’ve got out at lastin spite of you and Jane! ” (584) is a final attempt to give herself, the narrator, an identity. We, as the readers, are finally given a name for her.
It is ironic then, as John rushed into the room, that he should faint, which is typically a stereotypical feminine show of weakness. Gilman is an incredibly courageous woman to express her feministic views during her era. It is evident that, through her own experiences with oppression, she attempted to horrify women into thinking for themselves, using their own minds, fighting against oppression. She has created characters women could identify with, with the same point of views. Gilman was not afraid of being caught acting her feministic ways by expressing her ideas, as the narrator was with her creeping about.
The narrator clearly drew us a picture of the effects of suppression of the mind and impending insanity. Gilman may have wanted us, as readers, to look beyond the yellow wallpaper toward feministic freedom; to tear down the wall of oppression; to not continue to creep about. This view of “creeping” may specify that early feminism needed to creep about silently in the shadows until it could stand tall. The large mass of women the narrator sees are these early practitioners of feminism, as Gilman was, who draw strength in their numbers and have crept out of the wallpaper of repression and now creep outside.