Regarded as one of the most important works of American feminist literature, “The Yellow Wallpaper” follows a woman’s descent into madness, as she falls victim to sexist oppression. Charlotte Perkins Gilman employs symbolism and imagery throughout her portrayal of the woman’s journey, as she suffers from postpartum depression and eventually has a psychotic breakdown. During the nineteenth century, the time during which the short story is set, physicians were well-respected and regarded as highly reputable and trustworthy. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator’s husband and brother were both physicians. They diagnosed the narrator with a mental illness and forcibly confined her to a single room for solitary treatment. Because of their status as not only physicians but also males, no one questioned their inhumane tactics, or even considered them as inhumane. Through her characters’ interactions in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman highlights the stark inequality of gender roles by illustrating their negative effects on the mental health of oppressed women in order to critique society’s standards for women.
During the late nineteenth century, patriarchy predominated in American society. No matter the circumstance, people weighted the word of a man far more than a woman’s. Gilman demonstrates the unfairness of gender roles through the marriage of the narrator, possibly named Jane, and her husband, John. Gilman makes it apparent that Jane is suffering from postpartum depression, as Jane states that she “cannot be with [her child], [as] it makes [her] so nervous” (Gilman 4). Because John is a physician, he imposes his own treatment on her, which involves isolating her from the rest of the world. To others, John downplays it and describes Jane’s condition as a “temporary nervous depression,” which is ironic in itself because he regards it as a mild illness yet forces her to take medications and stay in solitary confinement (Gilman 2). Jane does not agree with this treatment and describes her medications as “phosphates or phosphites,” illustrating that she does not care for it and simply does what she is told (Gilman 2). This serves as a prime example of how John’s word is regarded as more significant than Jane’s, demonstrating the lack of authority she has in this situation. It is evident that John and Jane do not have a healthy relationship, as “John laughs at [her]” and disregards her opinion frequently (Gilman 2).
“This house is surely haunted.” “Yes? And how did you arrive at that conclusion?” (“The Yellow Wallpaper”).
Jane believes this is normal and that “one expects that in marriage,” implying that John has always neglected her opinions even before she was diagnosed with postpartum depression. The superiority complex of men, as well as the esteem of physicians, during the late nineteenth century, convinced John that he knew what was best for her, causing him to shut her down anytime she brought up her concerns. Because of his ignorance, he fails to recognize her spiral into hysteria, until it is too late to treat.
Due to the oppressive nature of John and Jane’s marriage, Jane constantly feels the need to hide her feelings and opinions. Therefore, she owns a secret journal that John is not aware of because “he hates to have [her] write a word” (Gilman 3). The purpose of the journal was an attempt at self-expression, since the patriarchal society she lived in practically inhibited her from doing that elsewhere. She constantly sneaks around and writes her thoughts down with caution, demonstrated by the fact that each sentence in her journal is written in a different line. This writing style not only shows how rushed she feels when writing down her thoughts, but also how choppy, discombobulated, and chaotic her thoughts are. As her journal entries progress, she sounds increasingly agitated and delirious, signifying that her mental health is declining. She begins to lose her initial motivation of expressing herself, mentioning how “[she doesn’t] know why [she] should write” in the journal and how she “[doesn’t] want to” and “[doesn’t] feel able” (Gilman 7). The longer she was locked in that one room and forced to hide her true emotions, the more she gradually spiraled into madness.
As Jane’s sanity progressively deteriorated, there was one symbol that was constantly being associated with her mental health—the yellow wallpaper. As soon as Jane is confined in that room, the first thing she noticed is the appalling yellow color of the wallpaper in the room. She describes the rest of the house with excitement, mentioning how it is “the most beautiful place” with a “delicious garden” (Gilman 2). However, when it came to describing the room she was in, she said she had “never [seen] a worse paper in [her] life” because it had a “sprawling flamboyant pattern [that commits] every artistic sin” (Gilman 3).
“This horrid wallpaper gives me a headache.” “Darling, it’s only wallpaper” (“The Yellow Wallpaper”).
The more time she spent in that room, the more disgusted she became by that wallpaper. Eventually, as her mental illness worsened, she developed a sense of paranoia. She began to see shapes move behind the wallpaper and grew to believe a woman was trapped behind. Jane was heavily disturbed by the moving shapes and became fixated on freeing the caged figure. However, the moving shapes were just a figment of her imagination, as the trapped woman symbolized how trapped Jane felt not only in that room but in the patriarchal society as well.
“I’ve gotten out in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the wallpaper so you can’t put me back” (“The Yellow Wallpaper”).
The wallpaper in itself symbolized female oppression, as it is a decoration covering up the normal wall, similar to how women were silenced and their true opinions were covered up. Jane endured numerous sleepless nights studying the wallpaper’s patterns and eventually, she had a psychotic breakdown and frantically tore it off the wall. She finally felt a sense of freedom but was also unhinged at the point of no repair. Suppressing emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness, grief or frustration, can lead to stress on one’s body, which demonstrates the catastrophic effects the lack of self-expression can cause within an individual (Cousins).
Through John and Jane’s relationship, Gilman highlights the unfair gender norms during the late nineteenth century. John was a physician and because of the egotistical nature of men, he believed he knew what the best treatment was for Jane and disregarded her opinion. The inability to express her opinions took a toll on Jane’s mental health, as the constant need to hide her emotions caused her to gradually develop a sense of paranoia and eventually endure a psychotic breakdown. She was forcibly confined in a room with a hideous wallpaper that disturbed her to the point of seeing a woman trapped behind it, representing how trapped women felt within a patriarchal society. By describing the mental deterioration of Jane, Gilman hoped to highlight the implications of oppressive gender roles. Jane was a representation of how the entire female population in the late nineteenth century felt, as the inability to express themselves caused lots of stress and illness among them. Gilman’s critique on traditional gender roles should be used as a model of what society should avoid, as everyone should receive the same opportunities no matter what gender they identify as to prevent the deterioration of their mental health.
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