Condemnation of a Patriarchal Society in The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was crafty. Taken at face value, her short work, The Yellow Wallpaper, is simply the diary of a woman going through a mental breakdown. The wallpaper itself is the arbitrary object on which a troubled mind is obsessively fixated. The fact that Gilman herself suffered from a nervous breakdown makes this interpretation seem quite viable. This explanation is, however, dead wrong.
The wallpaper is not merely the object upon which she obsesses. The madness that overtakes the narrator is not rooted in any nervous disorder that her husband diagnoses. The wallpaper is actually meant to represent a mould into which all women are supposed to fit. The insanity is rooted in the narrator's inability to fall easily into that mould. Gilman's descriptions of the wallpaper are really eloquent delineations of the restrictions and constraints placed upon women. In short, the wallpaper is what all proper women are supposed to be; the narrator is one woman who is unable to adapt and, hence, she becomes a lunatic.
The narrator's first description of the wallpaper puts forth most plainly what the nature of women is believed to be: "dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they . . . destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions" (Gilman 4-5). Initially here, women are depicted as confusing objects; so confounding that they are always annoying and yet curious enough to demand "study" or scrutiny. Upon further examination, women are then found to be "lame uncertain curves" so full of contradictions they can't help but be self-destructive. This then infers that since women have no common sense or wits about them, they cannot be trusted to make decisions or fend for themselves. They must be strictly supervised and given detailed instructions, else they would end up who knows where due to their stupidity.
This is exactly what her husband, John, does. His wife writes that he "hardly lets me stir without special direction," and that she is given "a schedule of prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me" (4). He also speaks to her with a condescending tone, using demeaning names for her such as "blessed little goose," throughout the story. In fact, we never learn her proper name, which makes her seem even less of a human being.
Gilman's use of architectural and design terminology in describing the wallpaper creates a strange building within which the female mind is supposed to be housed. She first refers to the...