The Yellow Wallpaper: A Woman’s Struggle
The Yellow Wallpaper: A Woman’s Struggle
Pregnancy and childbirth are very emotional times in a woman’s life and many
women suffer from the “baby blues.” The innocent nickname for postpartum
depression is deceptive because it down plays the severity of this condition.
Although she was not formally diagnosed with postpartum depression, Charlotte
Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) developed a severe depression after the birth of
her only child (Kennedy et. al. 424). Unfortunately, she was treated by Dr. S.
Weir Mitchell, who forbade her to write and prescribed only bed rest and quiet
for recovery (Kennedy et al. 424). Her condition only worsened and
ultimately resulted in divorce (Kennedy and Gioia 424). Gilman’s literary
indictment of Dr. Mitchell’s ineffective treatment came to life in the story
“The Yellow Wallpaper.” On the surface, this gothic tale seems only to relate
one woman’s struggle with mental illness, but because Guilman was a prominent
feminist and social thinker she incorporated themes of women’s rights and the
poor relationships between husbands and wives (Kennedy and Gioia 424).
Guilman cleverly manipulates the setting to support her themes and set the eerie
Upon first reading “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the reader may see the relationship
between the narrator and her husband John as caring, but with examination one
will find that the narrator is repeatedly belittled and demeaned by her
husband. On first arriving at the vacation home John chooses the old attic
nursery against his wife’s wishes and laughs at her when she complains about
the wallpaper (Kennedy et al. 424,425). In Charlotte Bronte’s novel }plain
ul Jane Eyre}plain , Mr. Rodchester uses his attic to keep his insane wife
hidden from the rest of the world. John’s actions can easily be interpreted
with the same malice. The narrator’s insistence that John is a caring and
loving husband draws special attention to the true meanings behind his word’s
and actions. Would a man deeply concerned for his wife’s mental state
constantly leave her alone to tend after patients with “serious” conditions
(Kennedy et al. 426)? Any time John speaks to his wife, he uses the third
person voice or refers to her as “little girl” or some other term of endearment
(Kennedy and Gioia 430,431). He never uses her name, therefore he never really
recognizes her as a person nor an equal. This dialog can easily be compares to
one between a parent and his child. Because the room was an old nursery this
idea is strongly enforced. Hance, there is no oddity in the fact that the
narrator comes to think of herself as a child (Twentieth 111). She comments
on the fact that the children tore the wallpaper and later admits to doing it
herself (Kennedy et al. 426,428). Her regression is also demonstrated by her
comparison of her present room with the bedroom of her childhood (Kennedy and
The underlying theme of woman’s rights emanates from every part of “The Yellow
Wallpaper.” In an essay by Elaine R. Hedges, she points out how the wallpaper
symbolized the gross lack of women’ rights (Short 119). The yellow “smooches”
that Jennie finds on the clothes of the narrator and her husband, symbolize the
stain that this social situation leaves on everything it touches (Short 120).
Though she tries to break free of the overwhelming oppression she suffers, she
says the pattern, “slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples on you
(Kennedy et al. 431).” The intensity of frustration the narrator feels is
further described when she describes the designs in the pattern: “(They)
suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves
in unheard-of contradictions (Kennedy et al. 429).” Hedges also suggests that
the wallpaper symbolizes the way men view women (Short 120). The “absurd,
unblinking eyes” in the wallpaper indicate the lack of intelligence women have
in the perception of men (Kennedy et al. 427). The hallucination of the
creeping woman that the narrator sees symbolizes the domination that women bear.
As the creeping woman violently shakes the bars of the pattern, so too does the
author struggle to gain her own identity and break free of the imprisonment of
her domination (Short 120). Jennie, the contended and quiet sister who wishes
for no “better profession,” is the epitome of what the narrator is struggling
against. Though ultimately she is broken by insanity, the narrator never gives
up and triumphantly creeps over her husband at the end.
The setting of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is vital to uncovering the meanings
hidden underneath the surface. Because she is being forced to stay in the attic
of the old house, she is also being kept, figuratively, in the “attic” of her
mind (Twentieth 111). The distance in the relationship of the narrator and
her husband is portrayed in the necessity for two beds (Kennedy et al. 425).
Bechelard goes so far as to say that the house can be seen as a small version of
the world and the social problems that burden it (Twentieth 110). Upon close
scrutiny of the setting and small detail that the narrator relates, one begins
to question the innocence of the quaint “vacation home.” While describing her
room and surroundings, she makes the reader suspicious when she mentions barred
windows and nailed down beds, but the gate at the top of the stairs and rings on
the wall go beyond suspicion (Kennedy and Gioia 426,429). Could the rings
possibly be manacle rings, like the kind doctors used to chain mental patients?
Could that “yellow” smell be the foul smell of urine? The mental institutions
of old where not very sanitary. These facts make one wonder if the narrator’s
“loving” husband institutionalized her.
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was written to protest the
treatments of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, but contains much more than one expects.
The short story not only studies the complications within a marital
relationship, it examines a woman’s struggle with mental illness and the
hardships of inequality between the sexes. The setting plays an important role
to strengthen the themes and also makes the reader question the innocence and
simplicity of what is related to him.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Signet Classic, 1960 Kennedy, X.J.
and Dan Gioia. Literature: an Introduction to Fiction, poetry, and Drama.
Sixth Edition. New York: Harper Collins College Publishers Inc., 1995.
Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale Research Inc.,
1983. Hodges, Elaine R. Short Story Criticism}. Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale
Research Inc., 1993.