The “Yellow Wallpaper” Allegory
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The “Yellow Wallpaper” is a vivid, partly autobiographical tale of clinical depression and the struggle for selfhood, written by an early feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Her life was concerned with her troubled and loveless relationships: with her mother, her father, and her daughter. The story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an allegory of the subjugation of women in the late 19th century.
The story is told by means of a journal, which the narrator secretly keeps against the orders of her doctor-husband, who believes this intellectual effort is contributing to his wife-patient’s nervous condition. This journal serves as an allegory of the resistance to feminine subjugation. It is more difficult to in today’s world to understand the message of oppression that is presented, but there is still a tremendous amount of relevance in regards to the glass ceiling that is present in the progress that women can experience. Despite the relevance reader’s must work to completely understand the extremely difficult life of oppression that Gilman led from 1860 to 1935.
Gilman’s story, though perhaps not her original intent, serves as an allegory of the discovery of truth. Gilman’s original intent in writing the story was to gain personal satisfaction from the knowledge that Dr. S. Weir Mitchell might, after reading the story, change his treatment. But more importantly Gilman says in her article in The Forerunner “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked” (20).
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator, a new mother already slightly mentally distressed has been brought to a country house for a “rest-cure” by her husband. Confined to a depressing top floor dormitory where the “windows are barred for little children” and deprived of most social contact and occupation by her physician husband who is too blind to realize that the mental issues of her wife are mostly provoked by his attitude towards her. The obvious understanding here is that the sick room represents the societal confinement that women were subjected to.
While in this prison, the narrator rarely receives visits, only her cousin Henry and Julia come to see her. These visits are rare and her husband prohibits her to write on her journal but she proceeds because it is the only outlet that she has. The woman finds solace and companionship with the wallpaper. This connection turns into an obsession with the yellow wallpaper that covers the empty and lonely room’s walls. At the beginning, the wallpaper is a source of entertainment but it progresses to become a source of insight, and becomes her worst enemy. The mental state of the narrator is constantly described through the wallpaper. The wall paper helps to develop the allegory of subjugation by acting as a mirror of the narrator’s mental state. All views are looking in on the woman, she has no outlet.
The obsession with the wallpaper develops to the point that the woman sees frightful patterns and an imprisoned female figure trying to emerge. Clearly, this supports the idea that the wallpaper is simply a mirror of the inner turmoil experienced by the narrator. The narrator, who we receive this inner view, is not only representative of the author, but also of all women in society.
The narrator experiences changes throughout the story; she starts by being submissive to her husband and ends up by rebelling against the system personalized in John. The narrator, like Gilman, is a rebellious person for her times, the nineteen-century. She is tired of the oppression that women suffer and wants things to change this problem in the overall society. The narrator is clearly an courageous person because she continues writing in her journal after her husband prohibits her.
The narrator’s experience serves as an allegory of the liberation of women in society by breaking the rules set by the misogynistic society. Within the story her husband stipulates these rules. John serves as the personification of the masculine branch of society and a classic man of the nineteenth century. His decision to be cold is not because he lacks compassion, as a symbol of society it cannot be this simple.
The reason why he appears cold is because of the views that exist in the actual society. As a man he is also a scientist he obeys the understanding that he has received through books and his position as a doctor is only a representation of the power that men adopt in making all the decisions involving the good of the wife and family. This power is granted by his social status and allows him to control oppress his wife to the point of being the source that is responsible of her craziness.
“A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity–but that would be asking too much of fate! Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it…. John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage…John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures…”
As seen in this passage there are multiple points of view of the narrator when she describes the house, with nothing except a feeling, a discomfort using a simple language. Her husband laughs at her opinions on the house and her feelings towards the area. John does not approve these feelings or beliefs, because he is not a superstitious person but a scientist and medical doctor that normally believe anything unless it has been documented and proved.
The allegory of societal subjugation continues throughout the story. We find that the subtle resistance to the subjugation serves as a recognition of its existence. Through the writing of the journal and the finality of the situation in the end of the story we see the results of this resistance. The remarkable results show a type of progression in the realm of recognizing feminine subjugation.
The focus of the story moves continuously inward, describing the narrator’s absorption into the world of chaos. Gilman controls the heroine by the use of repetition, humor, irony and continual representations of allegory. Despite all the subjugation that is set against her she decides to rebel by choosing to suffer. Rather than surrendering, the narrator has a rebirth into a new stage of being, as she crawls on the floor of the nursery on all fours, exploring her new world as does a child.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper?” The
Forerunner. (Oct. 1913): 19-20
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper” Feminist Press, 1996.