“The Yellow Wallpaper” is the short fictional story by Gilman which uses the medium of psychological horror fiction to critique the predominant women’s position within marriage as prevalent during nineteenth century. Gilman, through this story defines the second-class status of women in marriage because of the rigid distinction between the dominant status of the male with active work profile and servile status of women limiting themselves to domestic functions. This story represents the male dominance in society through societal norms and accepted female imprisonment in the household. The story reveals the psychological positioning of the women in domestic structure and the patriarchal authority.
The gender distinction is severely pronounced in the story and is expressed through the acts of John in the story. John prefers the narrator to remain in state of ignorance and suppresses her intellectual development. She’s being infantilized by her husband who treats her like child and considers her immature. As reflected by John’s conversation with his wife “What is it, little girl?" he said. "Don't go walking about like that -- you'll get cold”, he behave with her like a child all the time, thus thinking her incapable of rational thinking and intellect. His preconceived notion of his being superior to his wife intellectually and rationally makes him patronize, misjudge and control his wife. Narrator is driven to the stage of insanity because of lack of freedom of expression and display of active mind. Any action of narrator portraying intelligence could be considered as being disloyal or unreasonable. The narrator has accepted the fact that she is subordinate in position to her husband as reflected in her statement “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage”.
Application of mind and powers was not expected from and permitted to narrator as decision-taking is the domain of men in household. This ushers narrator to the realm of her fantasies where she can be the master of her life and can exercise some power. The definition of happy marriage in nineteenth century can be comprehended, through this literature to be a mentally inactive wife and a dominant husband. This tranquility of marriage is disturbed if wife would display thinking capabilities, thus threatening the husband’s position.
Psychologically, women are trained to acquire the submissive position in household and the mental constraints on the narrator because of the societal set-up and requirements compel her to keep her thoughts and intellectual actions restrained. These things drive her crazy with the things getting worst with the ‘resting cure’ that devoid narrator of any activity and enable her mind to retreat to fantasy. The psychological suppression of her intellect and emotions couldn’t find any outlet, until narrator starts keeping a secret journal which provides her some relief “But must say what I feel and think in some way -- it is such a relief”. Despite the journal, her thoughts were gradually being filled by the yellow wallpaper.
Yellow wallpaper, initially described as ‘revolting’ with its formless strange patters slowly grows on narrator’s imagination and she starts hiding her immense interest in it from others. Gilman from the first day in house expressed it being queer and subconsciously associated it with supernatural elements with the possibility of house being haunted. This imagination fuels her interest in yellow wallpaper, “Perhaps because of the wall-paper” which she gradually imagines to be a gateway of some secret. She decides to unravel the secret and gazes at her for long hours. She soon discovers a women stooping and crawling behind the main pattern of wallpaper who is trying to escape from wallpaper’s main pattern which act as bars. The wallpaper symbolizes the structure of tradition, family and a medicinal therapy in which narrator is trapped. Yellow wallpaper represents domestic life of women which cages several women in it.
The Yellow Wallpaper is an intriguing story which subtly states the irony of women’s situation in nineteenth century and describes the plight of women with creative mind and an intellect. The story establishes the psychological positioning of women along with the patriarchal authority of men over women.