Wednesday, 16 January 2013

“The Yellow Wallpaper”: Self-imprisonment and Self-liberation

“The Yellow Wallpaper”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s most famous work, details the mental breakdown of the female narrator, who is confined by her husband to an attic room. Her husband, John, believes “there is really nothing the matter with [her] but temporary nervous depression” (Charlotte Perkins Gilman 1684) and thinks all she needs is a “rest cure”. As her husband goes to work every day leaving her alone in the room with her own thoughts and the yellow wallpaper, it is natural that she spends all the time looking at the wallpaper and lets it gradually dominate her and control her mind. This essay is a feminist interpretation of the story, especially of the yellow wallpaper, and I will argue that, more than a criticism of the patriarchal society, it is a story about a woman’s self-imprisonment and self-liberation.
            The narrator is presented not as an individual, but as someone’s wife, John’s wife. Who is she? What is her name? Why is she not well? How sick is she? We do not know. We begin reading the story knowing nothing about the narrator except that she is unstable and has a physician husband named John and has to stay for three months in a “haunted house” (Gilman 1684).
            The narrator seems to be a happy and privileged woman, who does not have to do anything from earning money to running a household. Everything is taken care of by her husband, who seems to love her, care for her and want to do what is best for her. He always calls her “dear”, “darling”, “my darling”, “little girl”, “a blessed little goose”... However, that is merely the surface.
“I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition.” (Gilman 1684)
            Everything that stimulates her is taken away. She is not allowed to work and have a social life.
“I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. 
But he said I wasn't able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished.” (Gilman 1689)
            She is not allowed to meet people.  
            “Such a dear baby!
            And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous.” (Gilman 1686)
            She is not allowed to be close to her child.
“... he hates to have me write a word.” (Gilman 1685)
She is not even allowed to express herself in writing, either, and has to do it secretly. Not only is she confined to a life of torturous silence, complete isolation, idleness and inactivity, which she does not believe will be of any help to her condition, but she also has to stay in a “queer” house.
            “That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid, but I don’t care—there is something strange about the house—I can feel it.
            I even said so to John one moonlight evening, but he said what I felt was a draught, and shut the window.” (Gilman 1685)
             With the wallpaper she dislikes.
            “He laughs at me so about this wallpaper!
            At first he meant to repaper the room, but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient to give way to such fancies.
            He said that after the wallpaper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the states, and so on.” (Gilman 1686)
He treats her like a child, a doll, using sugary words to force her to conform and never taking into consideration her thoughts and feelings. “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.” (Gilman 1686) From this conflict we can see the inequality between the husband and the wife, the man and the woman. In this society, the woman is considered inferior to the man, and is often associated with domesticity, wifehood and motherhood. At one point, she confusedly writes “I take phosphates or phospites- whichever it is” (Gilman 1684), showing that women are overlooked in education, that science is assigned to men and that she does not have to worry about it. It is even worse for her that her husband is a physician, who has the power to define her, who thinks he knows what is good for her and what she should do, making it harder to break free. On one occasion, for example, he says “... you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know.” (Gilman 1690) Furthermore, it is important to note that, not only is she confined to an attic room, but the windows are also barred (Gilman 1685), so she is physically, literally locked up.
However, while John does not care what she thinks and how she feels, she does not, either. The whole time she keeps talking about her husband, his thoughts and opinions: he says, he hates, John says, John thinks, John does not want, John may laugh, John laughs, John forbids, etc. The narrator, at the beginning, is naive and obedient- a typical woman in the American society in the nineteenth century. She disagrees with the idea of a “rest cure”, of being completely isolated and idle, but does not protest. She hates the house, the room, especially the wallpaper, but does not protest, either. She simply writes her opinions mildly, with the word “personally”. We can also see that at the beginning she looks up to him, thinks he is always right, and blames herself or her condition.
“I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition.” (Gilman 1685)
“I meant to be such a great help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!” (Gilman 1686)
“But he is right enough about the beds and windows and things.” (Gilman 1686)
And so on.
Nevertheless, she starts to change, as her perception of the wallpaper changes. At first she dislikes the wallpaper: “I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. [...] 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 others...” (Gilman 1685) At this point the wallpaper is an innocent annoyance. Even though she keeps saying “It makes me tired to follow it” (Gilman 1688), she cannot stop, and she describes in detail the patterns and their ‘movements’. Then she starts to see “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure” that seems to skulk behind it (Gilman 1687). Slowly the wallpaper takes on a personality of its own and she develops a delight in the secrets of the wallpaper’s patterns “I’m getting fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper. [...] I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion” (Gilman 1688). She writes “It’s like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind the pattern” (Gilman 1689). Afterwards, “I am quite sure it is a woman” (Gilman 1691), and eventually, “the front pattern does move”, “the woman behind shakes it” (Gilman 1692), “trying to climb through” (Gilman 1693). The wallpaper gradually controls her mind, dominates her and contributes to her mental breakdown. In the end, she turns mad. Trapped temporarily in a room for three months and trapped in the social role assigned to her, she eventually ‘chooses’ even a higher level of imprisonment- insanity. Now, she thinks, “I don’t want to go outside, even if Jennie asks me to” (Gilman 1695), and goes on creeping on the floor.
The reader perceives that throughout the story she is descending into madness, yet, as “behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day” (Gilman 1689), so does her understanding of herself, her husband and situation, especially when she becomes certain of the existence of the woman behind the wallpaper. The narrator is trapped in the room, in the wallpaper, in the social role assigned to her. The woman she sees behind the wallpaper is herself, or, in other words, the narrator and the woman in the wallpaper are two sides of the same person. The narrator as we see from the beginning is a typical woman in a patriarchal society, obedient and submissive, the other is her rebellious self, trying to climb through, trying to break free. In the end, as the I-person refers to herself as the woman behind the wallpaper, when saying “I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?” and “I’ve got out at last” (Gilman 1695), she becomes her, becomes rebellious, independent and free, and at the same time, talks of her old self, the submissive woman, as another person, when saying to John “in spite of you and Jane” (Gilman 1695). The ending can be interpreted in another way- in a sense, she finally triumphs and is free at last. As John lies on the floor unconscious, “she crawls over him, symbolically rising over him” (Wikipedia). At last, at the expense of her sanity, she achieves freedom and independence.
The symbolic meaning of the wallpaper has various layers. It might symbolise John, confusing the narrator, tiring her, dominating her and pushing her over the edge, the way John does. John himself is also a symbol- we can believe that he does love her and care for her, but he considers himself wiser, more powerful and superior and treats her as a child or a doll, thinking he is doing good for her but in fact not taking her thoughts into account, the way other men treat their wives. The choice of the common name John is therefore deliberate and very meaningful. The wallpaper, especially “the yellow smell” of the wallpaper, may be a symbol of the suffocating atmosphere, of the narrator’s physical and mental imprisonment, of the social role assigned to the woman in a patriarchal society. According to Deborah Thomas, the “yellow wallpaper is symbolic of the Cult of Womanhood, which binds women to the home and family. As in the case of Charlotte Gilman, women were constricted to the set parameters that men determined. Women were conditioned to accept these boundaries and remain in place, in the private sphere. [...] Getting beyond the wallpaper, women defied the corrupted power that men wielded over women, escaped their confinement, and created for themselves a new ideological role, one that included entry into the public sphere, or the market place.” The act of tearing off the wallpaper, accordingly, means breaking free, getting out of the trap.
There can be another interpretation. The short story does not stop at being a criticism of gender inequality. In the end, the narrator says, “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman 1695) This causes me to think that the wallpaper is also a symbol of Jane, or more precisely, her conformity and submissiveness, which imprisons her and leads to her madness. She writes “Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.” (Gilman 1692) And “there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast.” (Gilman 1695) Jennie epitomises women who happily and unquestioningly accept their social roles, accept the life of domesticity and think other women should feel and live the same way, Jane is not much better. The wallpaper is yellow, the colour that is often associated with cowardice- the adjective “yellow” means “cowardly” (Wikipedia). The woman, at the beginning, is not really cowardly, but she is weak, obedient and passive, not protesting and not standing up for herself, her opinions and feelings. Jane, on the other hand, is another common English name, so the character Jane is not a certain Jane but a representative of women in general. In addition to her, there are many other women also stuck and imprisoned. In the end, the narrator realises that a woman is less dominated by her husband than she allows herself loss of control. Society constrains her and suffocates her in the prison of rules, principles, traditions, conventions... The man controls her and gives her no freedom, tells her what to do and what to think and how to feel, forbids her from doing what she likes that does not fit in his system. But she also creates barriers and bars for herself. Tearing off the wallpaper, thus, means breaking those bars and becoming free. Eventually, when she comes to this realisation, it is too late- she is now labelled as crazy. This can also be interpreted that, symbolically speaking, her becoming crazy at the end of the story may imply that women who reject what society wants them to be are abnormal.
With a relatively simple plot and vivid descriptions, “The Yellow Wallpaper” perfectly depicts the gender inequality and the Cult of Womanhood in the American society in the nineteenth century. Charlotte Perkins Gilman also shows that it is the woman’s attitude that matters- a woman is less dominated by her husband than she allows herself loss of control.

Ames, William. “On Feminism and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman”, The Poets’ Forum,
Garcia, Viola. “The text of “The Yellow Wallpaper” with links for primary symbols and images”, 3
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper”. In The Norton Anthology: American Literature, edited by Nina Baym. The United States: W. W. Norton& Company, Inc, 2008. 1684- 1695.
Podungge, Nana. “”The Yellow Wallpaper”- A Mirror of Upper-middle Class Women’s Condition in the Nineteenth Century America”, Nana Podungge’s simple thought,
“The Yellow Wallpaper”, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
Thomas, Deborah. “The Changing Role of Womanhood: From True Woman to New Woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper””, 1
 “Yellow”, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,
Written by me for course Eng1304 (American literature: an introduction) and finished in November 2012. 

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