Many authors have written significant and fascinating works about people in isolation; this isolation is often used to showcase their alienation from society (and subsequent subjugation). In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a timid housewife is prescribed a rest cure by her physician husband, involving her sequestering herself away from the rest of the world, diving into inaction. She experiences both tremendous psychotic episodes and incredible feministic tendencies and desires, echoing the frustrations that women in the 19th century had given their restricted autonomy and the forcefulness of their husbands. Meanwhile, Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis tells the horrific tale of dehumanization and philosophical malaise. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, suddenly finds himself having turned into a bug-like creature, the very nature of his self having been irrevocably altered. The setting of the Metamorphosis, Samsa's room in his home, becomes particularly symbolic for his deep and significant ennui about his own life and his feelings of entrapment. These protagonists and their environments are symbols for the prisons that they are trapped in – Gilman’s woman is trapped by patriarchy, while Gregor is trapped by the expectations of his family and society at large.
The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is trapped in a room by her husband, John, who represents the oppressiveness of women’s treatment at the time, particularly in terms of medicine (Haney-Peritz 113). Despite the protagonist’s protests as to the effectiveness of (or desire for) the resting cure, John persists, stating that he knows what is best for her. “Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear, and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time” (Gilman 3). All this rest cure serves to do is bring her further away from everything that still keeps her sane, like her art and painting. Meanwhile, Gregor Samsa is a lonely, depressed, modern man at the whim of the ebb and flow of industrialized life – an alienating place that affords him little support or reason to live; even his family seems to barely tolerate him. Therefore, once he turns into a bug, he chooses to hide in his room, as it offers him the only solace he can find: isolation.
“The Yellow Wallpaper”s protagonist is very much affected by her environment, as she starts to interact with her room as it starts to take a life of its own. The woman in the wallpaper could be seen as the wife, reflecting her own feelings at the time; some time after she first starts seeing the woman, she notices that the light changing makes the wallpaper seem like bars (Gilman, 1892). She is also trapped behind the wallpaper, and the protagonist feels she needs her help to get out. Along with the woman are the heads of others who attempted to escape from this very same prison (thought to be a commentary on the fact that other women are in similar situations with their husbands). This is evidence of her frustration at her own situation, as well as a feeling of helplessness on her part.
In the case of “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor's connection to the place around him shows a dramatic disconnect between mind and body, extending that metaphor to show how the room is completely separate and not at all representative of the real world. When Grete starts to take away some of the furniture, she is doing it to benefit Gregor, but Gregor is immensely disturbed by this change. He does not want his room changed. To do so would strip him of the rest of his humanity, which he resists despite his growing accustomed to walking on the walls and ceiling.
Gregor's attempts to escape the room are ostensibly attempts to regain his humanity; every time, however, he manages to fail, or something else stops him. The first time, he cannot unlock the door, which is symbolic for his inability to feel human and empower himself. The second time, he gets out but is stymied by his father, who gravely injures him with an apple that becomes lodged in his back, showing that the rest of society wants him sequestered away. He is not wanted by anyone else, and so the room becomes both his home and his prison. Gilman’s protagonist does not lose her will as much as her mind; she starts to believe that there are people in the yellow wallpaper, and thinks of little but the world inside the room.
The effects of the room on Gregor's countenance are significant, most notably in the recurring occasions of resting and sleeping. Gregor's transformation happens to him while he sleeps, and afterwards he spends most of his time sleeping. In fact, death comes for Gregor because of his inability (or refusal) to go to sleep due to his illness. Sleep is shown to be an oppressive force, and a consequence of the dreariness of his life; Gregor would rather sleep it away in his dark room than make positive changes (Webster 361). This is somewhat different from “The Yellow Wallpaper”’s narrator, who feels she has no choice but to stay in the room due to her husband’s instructions; she is being emotionally manipulated, unlike Gregor who simply gives in to fatalism and nihilism. In the end, what the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” hallucinates about and what ends up plaguing her most is the violation of her own rights and privileges as a person and woman. John is domineering and unkind, believing erroneously that he knows exactly what is wrong with her and how to fix it. “John is a physician and PERHAPS.that is one reason I do not get well faster” (Gilman, p. 1). Her subordinate status as the woman in the marriage forces her to follow her husband’s lead, especially when he has such a prestigious education and standing in life at the time as a doctor. Things like the rest cure were meant to also demoralize her and make her more docile – her condition merely made it easier to be manipulated. This flies in the face of many feminist ideals, and the story often provides feminism as a solution to the problems the protagonist is experiencing (Haney-Peritz 127). In conclusion, both the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Gregor Samsa are people trapped by various societal forces, made manifest in their obsession with the rooms they live in. While Gregor feels he cannot leave because he has changed, the yellow wallpaper is what Gilman’s character perceives to have changed. While Gilman’s woman is abused and effectively tortured by an archaic, patriarchal medical practice, the complexity of modern life is what leads Gregor to go mad and lose hope in life. Kafka's Metamorphosis and Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” depend just as much on their settings to define their characters.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper”. in The Norton Anthology of
American Literature (7th ed). W.W. Norton & Co. 2007. Print.
Haney-Peritz, Janice. “Monumental Feminism and Literature’s Ancestral House:
Another Look at ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Women’s Studies 12 (1986): 113-128. Print.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1915. Print.
Webster, Peter, Dow. "Franz Kafka's “Metamorphosis” as death and resurrection
fantasy." American Imago 16.4 (1959): 349-365.