Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, entitled “The Yellow Wallpaper” depicts the psychological deterioration of a young mother, based on the author’s own experiences with the resting cure. It shows a society which treated women who endeavored to become writers, which was considered a strictly male profession, as psychologically unwell and would infantilize them, in an effort to cure them. Thus, read as a feminist text, this story is an acute portrayal of the restrained and infantilized position women were subjected to at the turn of the century, where the woman had a strict position inside the household, where her word was a little more than silence, and where the only means of escaping this dictatorial regime was to go insane.
First and foremost, the story depicts an image of a divided household, which was the key notion of male control over women. This is where the woman is the submissive one, whose role is to be the passive, domesticated angel of the house. As it becomes noticeable in the story, the narrator is trying to transgress these boundaries of what society deems to be proper female behavior, and thus, she is perceived as psychologically unbalanced and in need of rest and relaxation, so that her spirits can return, and with them, her desire to return to proper female duties around the house. The narrator, however, knows what she wants, but is simultaneously reluctant to be consciously disobedient and is listening to what her husband, who is also her doctor, is prescribing to be the best course of action for her condition.
The narrator is an artistic soul, which immediately sets her apart from the other women and makes her transgress the boundaries of male control. She creates in mind, where men have no power. She is a writer, something that society would not allow a woman to be, which is why she is perceived as an outcast, a woman who prefers her own wishes to the wishes of her family and more importantly, her husband. In addition, this creative urge in her is what John believes is making her sick, and he thus, forbids her any kind of mental activity. What everyone around her fails to comprehend is that it is exactly this refusal to allow her to do what her heart tells her to do, which is write, is making her more and more ill, until she finally manages to find an escape.
The world of Gilman’s narrator is a female world, where she is forced from “total withdrawal, and isolation into madness” (Kolodny 464). She cannot function in this male world, and thus creates one of her own. This makes her extremely dangerous as it undermines the patriarchal society men have been building for centuries. Occasionally, she ponders on the idea what it would be like if she had the support from both her husband and society to do what she wants to do: “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus – but John says the very worst thing I can do is think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad. So I will let it alone and talk about the house” (Gilman 2). Her husband is perpetually misjudging his wife, infantilizing and dominating her, with the excuse that it is all for her own good. He does this up to such an extent that she herself starts feeling bad when she is doing what she desires. Thus, all she can do is obey, like a petulant child confined to her room for having been bad, and talking, that is writing, about the only thing she is allowed: the house.
For the narrator, self-expression is an undeniable part of her own self, as she is forced to keep up the marital charade she is trapped in, while concealing all the anxieties and worries she has. What her husband does not realize is that she is slowly becoming more and more depressed, the only outlet to her sorrow being her secret journal. John warns her, more than once, that in order to get better she must not, under any circumstances, resort to any kind of stimulation of the mind, as this will prolong the illness. She utilizes all the strength of her self-control to obey, but her imagination is too powerful. Thus, her final lunatic exclamations about the woman trapped inside the wallpaper proves to be her only means of escaping the cruel regime she was subjected to. Being forbidden to express herself and to write, being commanded to keep her mind in a constant state of stagnation, leads to her complete psychological self-destruction.
In the end, ironically, the only means of escape seems to be completely losing one’s mind, as the story depicts. The wallpaper is the symbolic text that the narrator must interpret, as she discovers sub-patterns, only perceived in certain kind of light, revealing cages of trapped women, until finally, the narrator recognizes herself as one of them. She views all of these women as being trapped by the patriarchal institution of marriage, in the same position she is, being forced into a life of domesticity and servitude, instead of living a life true to oneself. Finally, she manages to escape from this bleak life of domesticity, but this escape bears great cost, as she loses her mind. The only way of breaking free is escaping into one’s own imagination and staying there.
As this story was based on Gilman’s own experience with the resting cure, where she, just like the narrator of her story, was forced into a state of being bed-ridden and forbidden from any mental strain, such as reading and writing, this makes the story all the more frightening. The state of women at the turn of the century was one of servitude and obedience, where there was a strict line between who a man was and who a woman was. By endeavoring to escape, the narrator, like so many women before her, sees no other means than to simply lose herself in a reverie where she holds the key to her own existence.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories. Unabridged. New York: Dover Publications, 1997. Print.
Kolodny, A. “A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts.” New Literary History 11.3 (1980): 451–467. Print.