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In earlier times, women were always seen as inferior to men. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator suffers from a disease known as manic depression. Due to her dominant husband forcing her to halt the use her imagination, while being cooped up in an atrocious yellow nursery, it was up to the anonymous protagonist to find a cure to her contentment. Gilman's use of symbolism, diction, and setting of the story show the reader that expressing ones individuality is important to maintain sanity.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" is an out of the ordinary short story Charlotte Gilman created to portray a stage in her life when she was undergoing her own personal mental breakdown. She suffered from sever melancholia, in other words was a "condition characterized by great depression of spirits" (dictionary.com). Taking the advised treatment from the doctors, instead of her own knowledge of herself, she stopped using her intellectual knowledge and imagination for a total of three months in hopes of recovery.
In the story the character had been given specific instructions from her husband, John, to "never touch a pen, brush, or pencil" (Gilman 1). In the passage it states, "I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care of me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it anymore" (568). After being controlled for so long by her family, she finally couldn't tolerate it anymore. Eventually realizing having them seclude her from a social life was not doing her justice; she had to take matters into her own hands. Throughout the story, Gilman uses the character to show her attitude towards men treating women unequally. For instance, she uses the way the narrators' husband, John, makes her feel inferior by telling her what she needs to do to get well to represent how the pressure from her doctors made her feel. Gilman used descriptive words and phrases such as, "strong" and "gathered me up in his arms", to indicate the masculinity or dominance the man has, in regards to the woman (571).
Although the husband from the story reassures the narrator many times that she in fact is not ill, he still orders her to be on bed rest and encounter little to no activity as her medical treatment. Instead of seeking out her feelings, he takes her to an unfamiliar house that gives her the creeps, were he believes alone time will aid her into getting over her manic depression. "Being a physician, he has special order for her: To stay in bed, suppress her imagination, and most importantly to discontinue her writing" (Voth 1). Just like the doctors told Gilman to live domestically all while avoiding daily thinking. For the narrator, writing is what brings her happiness and keep her sanity, allowing her to let her emotions spill out on paper. "Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good" (Gilman 567). The storyteller knew what treatment she needed for herself in order to bring her happiness. Letting her conscience get the best of her, she felt as if she should obey her, old fashioned, husband's wishes.
John holds himself to a higher standard leading him to believe that he knows what is best for his wife, considering he is the trained physician. At one point of the short story the lady even becomes easily set off by her husband's authoritative order, instead of blaming him she faults her "nervous condition" (Gilman 568). As a result of taking the blame for her short fuse, it allows the reader to see that she is shy and doubting her abilities to express the opinions she has with her own husband. Instead of explaining what she really whishes to do, she often finds herself having to sneak around, just so she can feel in control of her own actions. " She does not believe his cure is making her better, but feels compelled, because of John's fluctuating and patronizing attitude" (Hume). The vibe the narrator retrieves from her family, makes her feel worthless. In the story she is demeaning to herself, insinuating that her illness is a load on the whole family. "I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already" (Gilman 568).
Charlotte Gilman's use of symbolism sent a secret message to the reader that the wallpaper was really a reflection of the protagonist's evolving character throughout the short story. Towards the beginning, the wallpaper's being was dull, and its appearance irked her. While sentenced to the room for recovery, she seemed to adapt to the wallpaper's horrendousness. The speaker had to concentrate on using her vivid imagination in a useful way without having evidence of it to her controlling husband. " I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal-having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy oppositions" (Gilman 567). Due to this obstacle, the narrator uses the different shades and characteristics of the wallpaper to bring her mind's eye to life again.
Letting her captured thoughts run wild, she soon creates this character that lives within the wallpaper, who shares similar characteristics the narrator holds inside her. "This paragraph is extremely important to the story, portraying not only how the woman feels about herself, but also what her husbands therapy is doing to her" (Voth 2). The symbolism between the two, only amplifies the way she truly feels inferior and helpless to the situation. She is locked up, and the only way she feels she can have social contact is to create an imagined friend out of the characteristics the wallpaper contains. Also this scene signifies that she is mentally distressed and lonely at this point with delusional hallucinations.
In the short story she describes the created woman in the wallpaper, as often seen more off in the distance, hidden behind the rest of the images she sees in the paper. It relates to her in a sense that she is timid, maybe feeling like she is less of a human being, and mischievously sneaking to keep from going fanatical. "Eventually, as she lets her imaginations wander, she begins to display a building confidence in herself" (Voth 3), both the narrator and her imagined friend's personality and self confidence evolve together throughout the passage. As her confidence starts to rise, she little by little destroys the yellow wallpaper. The one thing that makes her feel so limited. The mad destruction of the wallpaper could symbolize the fact that she is gaining some of her sanity back and is ready to move on. She has come to her senses and is ready to take that step to feel valuable and needed again. The story teller questions if all the women she sees beyond the walls undergo the same struggle she encountered, "I wonder if they all came out of the wallpaper as I did" (Gilman 575)?
The setting proved its importance by showing evidence that it was related to women suffrage. Even getting this short story published was a challenge for Gilman. "For when we consider that the story was probably accepted for publication and printed without Gilman's being given the opportunity to correct proof" (Jean). The story takes place in the era that Gilman grew up in, the late 1800's. This was a time when women were still thought of as unequal to men. Being a woman you were primarily described as the nurturers of the household. Men being the main income providers to the family enabled the woman to become thought as the authority figure.
Some people suggest that the way the room was presented in the story was symbolically related to women's suffrage. One way view it is to connect the wallpaper to a woman herself. According to Wolf, "The yellow wall-paper itself is symbolic of the mental screen that men attempted to place on woman during the 1800's" (1). Since the wall paper was described as a nasty yellow color that irks you to look at, "The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in other" (Gilman 568). It represents not only the disease she has but the way women were treated. For instance, if a woman represents the wallpaper then the disgustingness of it could stand for a man's reaction to a woman being thought of as equivalent to their gender. Men carried this ego that made them feel as if they were of more importance then that of a woman.
Being locked up in the room the narrator often gazed out these two barred windows. " The two windows from which the writer often peers out of, observing the world apart from it, is representative of the possibilities of women if seen as equals by the opposite sex" ( Wolfe 1). Even though she is limited inside the hideous room, the scenic view outside her window stands for the endless opportunities out there for woman. Just beyond one of the windows she gets a view of the town's people living there colloquial life. Though she is forbidden to wander around outside the residence, the speaker finds ways to venture outside of the yellow walls. She would find her way out to the garden, which she found to be beautiful and peaceful, where there were vast trees and numerous flowers. The window and garden together symbolize the future women back then only dreamed of. Such as the ideal that women would someday be recognized as equals to men. Blinded by the abilities women posses, males could not accept the idea that woman might be capable of doing the same labored activities they can, in some situations even better than they could.
Critics have so many opinions as to what the story's main idea/purpose was all about. There are few that believe it's about women's struggle to overcome male dominance. Beverly Hume states that the story, "appears to be text that simultaneously mirrors Gilman's ideological limitations as a feminist reformer and symbolically moves beyond those limitations" (6).Then there are others who suppose the story was simply written just to drive the reader insane. "Such a story ought not to be written, he said it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it," says a Boston Physician (Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper). One even thought it to be the best pshycologically based short story he had ever read, even making him question his own mental status. For those people who question what the stories true meaning is Gilman herself states, "It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save being from being driven crazy, and it worked."
Weather or not Gilman's intended reason was to help people stand up for what they believe in, or if women suffrage was the hidden meaning behind it, this unusual short story certainly had some impact on writing styles and people around the world. With her strong use is symbolism and emotions used with the characters, Gilman was able to send out different messages to her various readers.