Social Repression in The Yellow Wallpaper
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a symbolic tale of one woman’s struggle to break free from her mental prison. Charlotte Perkins Gilman shows the reader how quickly insanity takes hold when a person is taken out of context and completely isolated from the rest of the world. The narrator is a depressed woman who cannot handle being alone and retreats into her own delusions as opposed to accepting her reality. This mental prison is a symbol for the actual repression of women’s rights in society and we see the consequences when a woman tries to free herself from this social slavery.
The story unfolds as the nameless narrator’s condition is revealed. She is a common woman suffering from “slight hysterical tendencies.” As a result, her husband, John (a respected physician), has taken her to an isolated country estate in an attempt to help her recuperate and recover. From the outset it becomes apparent that she is an unreliable narrator due to her state of mind. The paragraphs of the story are short and choppy, indicating an inability to concentrate and possession of a mind that jumps from one random topic to the next. The narrator talks about her imaginings that the house is haunted, " . . . There is something strange about the house - I can feel it." She also relates how every exertion completely exhausts her. These symptoms, as well as the numerous referrals by the narrator to the baby, indicate depression and paranoia. While an ordinary mother feels an intense bond and a desire to be with her child, this is not so with the narrator. With reference to the baby, the narrator states "I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous."
In order to treat this "temporary nervous depression," John isolates his lover from society and orders her to do nothing but rest. He even becomes upset when she wishes to write, causing this story to be "composed" of writings she manages to do in secret. John places her in the attic of the mansion, like a dirty secret, in what she believes to be a former nursery. There is, however, strong evidence that the narrator is not the first mental patient to occupy the room - there are bars on the windows and gouges in the floor and walls; the bed is bolted down and has been gnawed on and the wallpaper has been torn off in patches.
Confined to this room day after day, the narrator begins to study the wallpaper: ". . . I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of conclusion." That “pointless pattern" refers to the rigid pattern of complete subjugation to men that women of Gilman's day were expected to follow. A woman of that era was the "property" of her father until she married. She then became subject to her husband’s will with no legal rights and no authority to determine what was best for her.
The narrator begins to see things in the...