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Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story tells a tale of a woman who is most likely suffering from post-partum depression but with the way women were expected to live in the 19th century slowly that simple depression turns into full blown insanity. The use of the yellow wallpaper and the designs in the paper reveal to the reader how the protagonist feels along with the description of the room allowing the reader to feel as if they are there themselves. One may be able to easily come to the conclusion that this story was written before the feminist act based on the way the protagonist is treated. In her article "Feminist Criticism, 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' and the Politics of Color in America," Susan S. Lanser states that "Feminists could argue convincingly that Gilman's contemporaries, schooled on the 'terrible' and 'wholly dire' tales of Poe, were surely balking at something more particular: the 'graphic' representation of 'raving lunacy' in middle- class mother and wife that revealed the rage of the woman on the pedestal" (Lanser 418). The use of symbols such as the yellow wallpaper, the bared windows and the bed being bolted to the ground adds the feeling of being trapped which could also be said to be the theme of the story.
When the story begins the narrator, who is also the protagonists, starts off by explaining the setting. She and her husband, who is a physician, are staying at what she believes is a vacation house, but as she narrates the reader realizes soon that this is not an ordinary vacation home. The room she is in is described as an old nursery, the room is described by the narrator as" a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was a nursery first, and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge, for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls" (Gilman 722). The room itself is a picture of what a prison might have been like in the 19th century. The bars on the window like that of prison cells and the rings in the walls could easily symbolize the way they kept prisoners trapped or held hostage in the cells. If a person is placed in this type of environment, it does not matter if they are ill or not, they could easily go insane. The protagonist of this story may have been suffering from post-partum depression since due to the having just undergone child birth. On topic of her son, the narrator claims, "It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous" (722). One may believe that if she had been able to continue to take care of her child and do the duties required of a woman in that time, she may have quickly gotten over her depression, but instead she was isolated in a room that could easily have been a prison and she begins to go slowly insane. The most distinct feature of this room is the wallpaper which is a faded yellow and torn in some places.
The yellow wallpaper that covers the narrator's room from corner to corner has become an obsession of the protagonist. She writes, "The paint and paper look as if a boy's school had used it. It is stripped off-the paper- in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin" (722). The yellow of the paper can be said to symbolize her illness and the feeling of being trapped. The paper is dull and she describes the color as a "repellent, revolting, smouldering unclean yellow" (722). This paper is extremely ugly. The way she describes the pattern of the paper may make the reader wonder if she was planning to commit suicide. She says "they curve plunge off at outrageous angles; destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions" (722). One might assume that at the moment she is considering getting herself out of the trap the easy way, but she does not. It seems the only way she is able to keep sane during this time is by writing her feelings and thoughts down on paper. She hides her writings from her husband, John, as well as the other characters of this story, knowing if she was to be found out she would lose it all.
The protagonist's obsession with the yellow wallpaper begins to transform itself into something much deeper than just a hatred of the paper. She, soon after being in the room alone with nothing but her writing and the walls to keep her company, sees figures in the paper. The one that stands out the most and follows her throughout the story is that of a woman being trapped in the wall, creeping along at night. The reader knows that the woman behind the paper is really just the protagonist's shadow or reflection, but the narrator truly believes that she needs to let this woman out. She begins to tear at the wallpaper slowly taking it off the wall and soon becomes covered with it and she creeps along the wall. She does this day and night, trying to free the woman in the wall, but really she is trying to free herself. The housekeeper sees her tearing at the paper and announces that she would not have mind doing it herself, but of course, also says the narrator should not tire herself too much by doing it. The narrator, toward the end of the story, went completely insane. She locked herself in the room, trapping herself in so that the lady could not escape. When her husband comes knocking at the door begging her to open it whilst being worried for his wife's life, she simply told him that the key is down the hall go get it. When he walked in, the woman he sees was nothing like his wife. She does not recognize him and he faints, but she just continues to creep around the room stripping, the walls bare. With the trace of the yellow paper covering her, she continued to entrap herself as she crept around the room, almost unknowingly. She found freedom at last. One may assume that the freedom she found is that of reality. She became a different person. One might say she has become the woman she thought she saw in the paper trapped by the walls. She is still trapped and will continue to be.
Some might argue that the protagonist of this story was not trapped in the room, considering the room was never locked except at the end when she locked herself inside. They may also say that with her illness her writings are extremely unreliable; she may have exaggerated the true look of the room and how things were. When she begins to mention the patterns and people she sees in the paper, it just reinstates what they would be trying to say. From the beginning, the woman could see things in the paper that reflected the state of her mind. They could also say the theme is not that of entrapment, but that of the unstable mind of woman and how they cannot be trusted. Her writings they would concur are untrustworthy because women were not allowed to write during this time. Although some may say that the theme is not necessarily that of entrapment, the use of prison like symbols throughout the story is too noticeable to be ignored. Women during this time were trapped, in a way, by society, only allowed to keep house and watch the babies, not allowed to have any say. Gilman, being a woman of this time, understood what the latter statement implies. She was one of the few women from this time whose works survived to be published.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story full of symbols and a theme that displays the life of women in the 19th century. The yellow wallpaper of this story reemphasizes the entrapment and illness of the protagonist. Gilman's use of description and narration allow the reader to escape to this house and experience what she had. The reader can easily see what being left alone with nothing but ugly walls to look at can do to a person. Although she did not escape or free herself from the binds of depression, and her sanity was lost she still felt as if she had accomplished something, simply because she was not herself anymore and the person she had become was free, free from the body that withheld it. One can take from this story the realization that, when left alone with nothing to do and already suffering from depression one can go insane.