An Essay on The Yellow Wallpaper
During the middle to late 1800s, an industrial wave swept through the country sending men out into the world to work in factories and offices. Although lower class females joined their men in work, middle to upper class females sometimes became prisoners of their homes. Not only did society expect the women to be the caretakers of the home, society also expected them to do it with pleasant smiles on their faces. The stifled ambitions and imaginations of these women often caused mental problems based on unfulfilled needs and the guilt of wanting something more. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Charlotte Perkins Gilman depicts a woman driven to madness by the pervading attitude of society represented by her husband and the yellow wallpaper in her room.
The main character is unnamed for the duration of the short story. The reader can only identify her through her husband’s name. Her namelessness accentuates her subservient position and submissive nature. It also creates the possibility of her as a representation of every woman, especially since society dictates that women first take their fathers’ then their husbands’ surnames. This woman defines herself through her writing, which is also her work. She is a creative and artistic person. This puts her in direct contrast with her husband, John. "John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures." John is a physician. Where his wife is an artist, he is a man of science. His inability to relate to his wife and his general disregard for her thoughts will adversely affect her recovery.
The main character, at the beginning, has a "temporary nervous depression." She has just recently had a child and is very possibly experiencing post-partem depression. Although she feels unwell, her husband and brother, also a doctor, deny her illness. "If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?" By communicating all that information to the woman’s friends and family, John has begun to isolate his wife. In contradiction to their denial of illness, they treat her as if she is sick. John prescribes a rest cure, but the woman does not have faith in her husband’s advice. "Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change would do me good." However, no one considers her ideas because they think she is flighty but also because she is female.
In addition to creating a rift between his wife and possible sympathizers, John isolates his wife in a rented estate three miles from a village. "It is quite alone, standing well back from the road…" He controls her environment, diet, and medication. He forbids her from working, and John’s sister comes to take care of the housework and baby. She is no comrade for the main character. Jennie, John’s sister, is an extension of John and society’s view of propriety. "She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession." The narrator is truly alone, both in physical location and in empathy.
John also forbids his wife from her writing, but she disobeys him in this one thing. Writing is her only outlet, and it is the only aspect of her life that remains hers. "And I know John would think it absurd. But I must say what I feel and think in some way – it is such a relief!" Although she obeys her husband outwardly in everything else, she is able to express heretical thoughts through her writing. "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." Even though she has an outlet, she must hide her writing from her husband and sister-in-law. This furtive behavior tires her. "I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal – having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition." Because they make it so difficult for her, she is slowly losing her ease of expression.
John seems to care about his wife through his efforts to care for her, but he is more interested in changing his wife to think and behave more as he does. He believes that her imagination and creativity are childish traits. "He says no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me." Again, John speaks in contradiction. He has all the control, yet tries to convince her that it is completely in her hands. John does not allow her to distrust him, so she turns that distrust inward. He says to her, "…but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know." John creates in his wife a feeling of self-effacement. He also belittles her by using such endearments as "little girl" and "silly little goose."
In her solitude, the main character focuses on her immediate surroundings. There is little else for her to do. She is confined to a room which previous owners had used as a nursery, playroom, and gymnasium. The room is airy, yet the bars on the windows further emphasize her mental and emotional imprisonment. The main feature of her bedroom is the yellow wallpaper, which slowly infests the woman’s thoughts.
The yellow paper surrounds her, and she initially finds it quite horrible. "The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in other. … I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long." It stifles her, as does her husband and the pervading society. It is just as inescapable. John ignores her discomfort with the wallpaper and chalks it up as one of her fancies.
As her isolation continues, the yellow wallpaper becomes her primary focus. From her perspective, the paper is constantly changing. Although it still disgusts her, she finds it riveting. "The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing. You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well under way in following it, it turns a back-somersault and there you are." The paper is everywhere in that room. The smell travels all around the house. "I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs." The yellow dye stains everything. All these aspects of the yellow paper have permeated the mind of the main character. Like society’s mainstream view, the paper has made it indelible mark. After following the paper’s various patterns and inconsistencies in a variety of lighting, she believes that there is a moving woman underneath the paper. It is the narrator herself, caught under the stifling opinions of society.
As soon as the main character decides to tear the paper off the wall, she begins to distrust her husband. "He asked me all sorts of questions too, and pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn’t see through him." She wants the woman under the paper for herself. She wants to be under her own control. After the paper is torn off the wall, she and the woman behind the paper become one. She creeps around the room, but as her own person. "‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘ in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back.’" It is not a clean victory. Society’s viewpoints had already insidiously corrupted her mind. Therefore, renouncing those mainstream mores came at the expense of her sanity.
Just as the yellow paper smothers the woman, John smothers his wife. This account shows how society’s ways can make it easy to crush a human spirit. Gilman, herself, regained her sanity through a steady form of work and by renouncing her ties to the doctor. Not only did she deliberately disobey the doctor’s advice, but she also divorced her husband. By breaking the tie to those whom had her trapped, Gilman pulls off society’s stronghold as her character pulled the paper from the wall. Gilman had not only warned other women of her time period, but she has left evidence of how society can put a fortress against people and force them, literally, out of their minds.