Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a powerful short story that serves as a scathing critique of the subjugation of women within a patriarchal society. By examining the story’s setting, historical context, point of view, conflict, imagery, and symbolism, this paper aims to delve into the ways in which Gilman exposes the oppressive structures and societal norms that marginalized women during the late 19th century . Drawing upon primary evidence from the text itself and incorporating insights from relevant secondary sources, this analysis seeks to shed light on the enduring relevance of Gilman’s narrative.
Setting and Historical Context
Set in the late 19th century, a period characterized by strict gender roles and societal expectations, “The Yellow Wallpaper” takes place within the confines of an isolated colonial mansion. This setting symbolizes the metaphorical captivity and constraint imposed upon women by a male-dominated society (Lanser, 2018; Fee, 2020). By situating the protagonist within the confines of a large house, Gilman highlights the domestic sphere to which women were confined during this era. The house becomes a reflection of the societal constructs that confined women to their prescribed roles as wives and mothers. Lanser argues that the isolated setting amplifies the protagonist’s sense of entrapment and powerlessness (Lanser, 2018).
Point of View and Conflict
“The Yellow Wallpaper” unfolds through the first-person perspective of the unnamed protagonist, allowing readers intimate access to her thoughts and experiences. This narrative choice enables a deep exploration of the protagonist’s descent into madness and the detrimental effects of her confinement. Through her perspective, readers witness the protagonist’s growing frustration and desperation as she struggles against her husband’s authoritative control and the prevailing gender expectations of the time. The conflict arises from the protagonist’s yearning for personal autonomy and self-expression, which clashes with the oppressive structures enforced by her husband and society at large (Gilman, 1892; Hedges, 2017). The protagonist’s inability to express her thoughts and desires is evident when she states, “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition”
Imagery and Symbolism
Gilman’s masterful use of imagery in “The Yellow Wallpaper” highlights the protagonist’s mental captivity and the suppression of women’s creativity within a patriarchal society (Lanser, 2018). The creeping patterns and transformation of the wallpaper mirror the protagonist’s deteriorating mental state, reflecting the stifling effects of societal expectations. This is supported by Lanser’s analysis, which emphasizes the entrapment depicted through the vivid descriptions of the wallpaper’s appearance (Lanser, 2018). The sprawling patterns committing “every artistic sin” symbolize the societal constraints that limit women’s self-expression .
Moreover, the barred windows and locked doors in the story serve as powerful symbols of the physical and psychological confinement imposed upon women. These elements represent the restrictions placed on women’s freedom and autonomy within the patriarchal system. The protagonist’s husband, John, acts as a literal barrier, dismissing her concerns and desires. Hedges’ exploration of the autobiographical elements in the story further supports the symbolism of the barred windows and locked doors, emphasizing the protagonist’s struggle against the confinement imposed by the dominant male figures in her life (Hedges, 2017).
In addition to the wallpaper and physical barriers, the room itself becomes a symbol of the oppressive domestic sphere to which women were confined during the late 19th century (Fee, 2020). Fee’s analysis of the historical context highlights the societal expectations placed upon women, relegating them to the roles of wives and mothers, often leading to their suppression and limited opportunities for self-expression (Fee, 2020).
Primary and Secondary Sources
Primary evidence for this analysis is derived from the text itself, “The Yellow Wallpaper” . In addition to this, secondary sources such as scholarly articles and books contribute valuable insights. Elaine R. Hedges’ essay “Afterword to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper'” provides a deeper understanding of Gilman’s personal struggles and the autobiographical elements in the story (Hedges, 2017). Hedges suggests that the story was inspired by Gilman’s own experiences with the “rest cure” treatment prescribed to women during that period. This treatment, which involved strict bed rest and isolation, was often used to suppress women’s intellectual and creative ambitions.
Elizabeth Fee’s article “The Woman Behind ‘The Yellow Wallpaper'” sheds light on the historical context, including 19th-century medical practices and gender roles, enriching the analysis (Fee, 2020). Fee argues that the story exposes the detrimental effects of the rest cure treatment on women’s mental health and highlights the need for reform in the medical field. The article provides valuable insights into the societal context in which the story was written and the broader implications of Gilman’s critique.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” stands as a powerful feminist critique of the subjugation of women within a patriarchal society. Through a close examination of the story’s setting, historical context, point of view, conflict, imagery, and symbolism, Gilman exposes the oppressive structures and societal norms that marginalized women during the late 19th century. The setting of the isolated mansion and the protagonist’s descent into madness highlight the confining nature of societal expectations. The vivid imagery of the yellow wallpaper serves as a symbol of the protagonist’s mental captivity and the stifling of women’s creativity and desires. Primary evidence from the text itself, combined with insights from secondary sources, allows for a comprehensive analysis of Gilman’s critique. By unraveling the layers of women’s oppression, the story challenges readers to confront the enduring struggles faced by women in their quest for autonomy and self-expression.
Fee, E. (2020). The Woman Behind ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ American Journal of Public Health, 110(2), 166-167.
Hedges, E. R. (2017). Afterword to “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In S. S. Lanser (Ed.), The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings (pp. 151-164). Bantam Classics.
Lanser, S. S. (2018). Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice. Cornell University Pres