Our perspective of settings, conflicts, and themes of stories depend on how the story is narrated. An effective point of view helps us to experience the meaning of the actual writing. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," the unreliable narrator speaks to us in first person point of view, which helps us to understand her experience as she slips into madness. The first person narration in Gilman's story also helps us to become aware of the symbolism in the stories major theme of entrapment. After reading "The Yellow Wallpaper," one should conclude that the wallpaper itself symbolizes female imprisonment in the nineteenth century.
We learn that the narrator of this story is most likely suffering from postpartum depression after she gives birth to her baby. We can conclude that she is an unreliable narrator after reading the story. At first, it seems as if the narrator is reliable and that her condition will improve. The narrator states, "If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression--a slight hysterical tendency--what is one to do? My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing" (721). Her mental state slowly begins to worsen throughout the rest of the story. We learn that she is not even allowed to be with her baby anymore because he makes her too anxious. She begins to spend the majority of her time staying in her upstairs room and starring at the wallpaper. We know the narrator loses her sanity when she states, "Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch. I really do eat better, and am more quiet than I was" (728). The narrator thought she was beginning to get better; on the other hand, her family began to notice strange things occurring in the upstairs room. The unnamed narrator has a huge effect on the story because if it would have been told by her families' point of view, it would differ greatly.
In the beginning of "The Yellow Wallpaper," the anonymous narrator simply desired to be free. She wanted to do things such as visit her family members and write as much as she pleased; however, she was no longer allowed to do any of these things. She was basically trapped inside of the vacation home and had to follow her families' orders, similar to women of earlier time periods. The home itself was secluded from the rest of society. The narrator explained in the story, "The most beautiful place! It is quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people" (721). Her family assumed she would get better quicker if they kept her away from everything and everyone else. After enough time passes the narrator asks her husband, John, several times if they can leave the vacation home, but John always lets her down by refusing to leave just yet. The unnamed narrator states, "Dear John! He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. But he said I wasn't able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there: and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished" (725). All she had left to do was remain in the room and hope to be able to get out soon.
The unnamed narrator soon begins to believe that she is not the only one feeling trapped within the house. She states, "Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern-it strangles so: I think that is why it has so many heads" (729). Before she realizes that the woman she thinks she sees is actually herself, she believes that the woman is trapped behind the wallpaper trying desperately to get out. She felt a sense of comfort thinking that she was no longer the only one trapped inside of the house. She also states, "That was clever, for really I wasn't alone a bit! As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her" (730). The narrator did not feel lonely at all anymore. She felt as though she and the figure behind the wallpaper had something in common, which was the feeling of entrapment.
One may object that the actual wallpaper and the narrator did not symbolize the entrapment of females in the nineteenth century. It is often supposed that women in that time period were to stay in their homes to care for their children, keep a clean house, and prepare meals, but the unnamed narrator in Gilman's story did none of these tasks. She did not tend to her new born baby and was not allowed to keep the house up. One could easily believe that the narrator was simply in a severe state of depression and did not relate to earlier roles of women in any way. What this argument overlooks is the narrator's strong feeling of being trapped in her own temporary vacation home after she falls sick. This view seems convincing at first, but it does not acknowledge that the narrator was imprisoned and had similar roles as females did in earlier civilization before the birth of her child. This position also does not support the fact that the anonymous narrator is secluded from the outdoor society and forced to stay home while her husband comes and goes as he pleases, which is similar to female imprisonment in the nineteenth century and the entrapment involved with the wallpaper.
Because this short story was told in first person point of view, we were able to better understand the narrator's feelings of entrapment. The first person narration had a huge impact on Gilman's story. If it were told from a different point of view, we as readers would have most likely had a dissimilar perception of the story and its theme. After reading "The Yellow Wallpaper," one should easily recognize from the details of the wallpaper that it symbolizes female imprisonment in the nineteenth century. The narrator's feelings of being trapped inside the home and the entrapment of the woman she thought she saw behind the wallpaper both relate to the imprisoned women from earlier time periods. They were all essentially trapped against their will while they shared the simple desire to be free.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "The Yellow Wallpaper." Exploring Literature: Writing and Arguing about Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and the Essay. Ed. Frank Madden. 4th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. 720-732.