Symbolism in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is the journal of a woman plagued with severe depression and the inability to recover due to her role as a submissive woman. At the time of publication, "The Yellow Wallpaper" was seen as a story merely about the perils of insanity. Even Gilman was proud to say it provided a wake-up call for the medical field and the families of women stricken with mental illness who believed solely in the "rest and ignore the problem cure." However, the short story was also an attack on the role of women in society at the time.Women, cast into the prison of acquiescence, were trapped between the rock and the hard place of doing what they were told was best for them and those around them and doing what they felt was best.
The characters who surround the narrator throughout the story symbolize the ideals of women and their roles that at the time, the late eighteen hundreds. For instance, her husband, John, represents the male role of superiority over the weaker wife. His inability to recognize the true problem of his wife's sickness and to deal with it accordingly is much like the inability of men to recognize a woman's capabilities to function in the public sector. His simplistic solution of plenty of rest and an abundance of vitamins to heal his wife shows the fantastical impression and lack of reality when it came to dealing with women. Bed rest, cod liver oil, and phosphates won't help a mental illness any more than patronization and arrogance would help sexual oppression. As doctors, both her husband and her brother represent, "the power that men possess over women...to prescribe what they may or may not do [and]...to diagnose-to name what is sickness and health, abnormal and normal."(King 27) As superior males, these men are able to tell the narrator what is wrong with her and what to do to fix it, just as they are in the position to tell her what is an acceptable for her to be and do as a woman. Similarly, the doctor, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, mentioned in the story represents the social mores held upon women. He holds true to the simplistic view of mental illness of women and it's treatment, just as society holds true to the simplistic, domestic view of women's roles.
Gilman uses female characters to symbolize the beliefs of the times as well. Mary, the nursemaid to the narrator's newborn baby, represents the typical domestic duty of women. The fact that the narrator's sickness keeps her from fulfilling that duty shows that she is enable to accept the traditional role of mother and caretaker. John's sister, Jennie, who has accompanied the couple to keep an eye on the narrator while John is at work, represents the majority of women who accepted their place in society. She is there to make sure the narrator stays in her place, pressuring her to keep within the boundaries that John has set for her.
The yellow wallpaper is also a...