Symbolism and Repression in The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is as a wonderful example of the gothic horror genre. It was not until the rediscovery of the story in the early 1970’s that “The Yellow Wallpaper” was recognized as a feminist indictment of a male dominated society. The story contains many typical gothic trappings, but beneath the conventional façade hides a tale of repression and freedom told in intricate symbolism as seen through the eyes of a mad narrator.
It is difficult to discuss the meaning in this story without first examining the author’s own personal experience. “The Yellow Wallpaper” gives an account of a woman driven to madness as a result of the Victorian “rest-cure,” a once frequently prescribed period of inactivity thought to cure hysteria and nervous conditions in women. As Gary Scharnhorst points out, this treatment originated with Dr. Weir Mitchell, who personally prescribed this “cure” to Gilman herself. She was in fact driven to near madness and later claimed to have written “The Yellow Wallpaper” to protest this treatment of women like herself, and specifically to address Dr. Weir Mitchell with a “propaganda piece.” A copy of the story was actually sent to Mitchell, and although he never replied to Gilman personally, he is said to have confessed to a friend that he had changed his treatment of hysterics after reading the story (15-19).
Although the autobiographical aspects of “The Yellow Wallpaper” are compelling, it is the symbolism and the underlying feminist connotations that lead best to discussion. First is John, the narrator’s husband. He could be viewed as the patriarchy itself, as Beverly Hume says, with his dismissal of all but the tangible and his constant condescension to his wife, but some critics have viewed this character as near-caricature (478). Many of the passages concerning the husband can be interpreted as containing sarcasm, a great many contain irony, and several border on parody (Johnson 528). It is true that the husband’s language is exaggerated at times, but dismissing the husband’s character as caricature seems extreme. He is instead the natural complement to the narrator’s madness and uncontrolled fancy: the character of John is control and “sanity” as defined by Victorian culture and is therefore the narrator’s opposite. Greg Johnson notes that John exhibits a near-obsession with “reason,” even as his wife grows mad. He is the narrator’s necessary counterpart, without whose stifling influence her eventual freedom would not be gained. And he is also transformed at the end of the tale—in a reversal of traditional gothic roles—because it is he, not a female, who faints when confronted with madness (529).
Central to the story is the wallpaper itself. It is within the wallpaper that the narrator finds her hidden self and her eventual damnation/freedom. Her obsession with the paper begins subtly and then consumes both the...