Women and Fiction in The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a deceptively simple story. It is easy to follow the thirteen pages of narrative and conclude the protagonist as insane. This is a fair judgement, after all no healthy minded individual becomes so caught up with "hideous" and "infuriating" wallpaper to lose sleep over it, much less lock herself in a room to tear the wallpaper down. To be able to imagine such things as "broken necks" and "bulbous eyes" in the wallpaper is understandable, irrational and erratic designs can form rational patterns in our minds, but to see a woman locked inside of the "bars" of the wallpaper and attempt to rescue her seems altogether crazy. Her fascination with the wallpaper does seem odd to us, but it easy to focus on the eccentricity of her interest with paper and lose sight of what the wallpaper institutes: her writing. It is her writing that keeps her sane, the wallpaper that makes her insane, and from these two very symbolic poles the short story rotates. Gilman's short story is not simply about a lonely woman's descent into madness, but is symbolic of previous and contemporary women writer's attempt to overcome the "madness" and bias of the established, male dominated literary society that surrounds them.
From the very beginning of the narrator's vacation, the surroundings seem not right. There is "something queer" about the mansion where she resides it becomes obvious that her attempt to rest from her untold illness will not follow as planned. The house is an "ancestral" and "hereditary estate...long untenanted" invoking fanciful gothic images of a "haunted house" (3). The house they choose to reside in for the three summer months is described with hostile imagery of restraint. "Walls" and "gates" and "locks" surround her. The windows are barred, preventing not only entrance but any type of escape. The heavy and presumably immovable bedstead is needlessly nailed to the floor. The wallpaper, perhaps the most overtly symbolic image in the story, is introduced as hostile as well. From a "recurrent spot" in the wall "the bulbous eyes" stare out with "vicious" intent (7). She is surrounded by objects that symbolize women writers place in a male dominated society: restrained. Women authors have been troubled by male refusal to let them into their circles. Female writers have had to assume pseudonyms, publish anonymously, or simply wait until someone finds their genius and decides to publish it. Even publication included heavy criticism and faultfinding. Like previous women authors, she lives in a society of obstructions for female writers.
If the house is symbolically a metaphor for the biased literary world, her husband John is one of the oppressors. John is not effeminate in the least, rather he is an archetypal male: "practical in the extreme," he has "no patience with faith," and does not believe in...