In her work, The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Gilman presents a feminist piece of literature. Through a female narrator, Gilman describes the struggle women go through in search of self and freedom from the roles the society assigned to them, as domestic workers especially in the 1800s. Gilman portrays the cruelty of the opinions that men held about women and the decisions they made on matters that affected them. In The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman uses a narrator who has nervous depression and acts in a way that shows lose of her self-identity and the real world. In this story, Gilman clearly shows the struggle of women in search of identity without being viewed as sick.
The narrator of the Yellow Wallpaper starts her journal by describing the contempt she had for the rest therapy and the room she is placed in. She says, “So I take the phosphates or phosphates; whichever it is, and tonics and am absolutely forbidden to work until I am well again. Personally I disagree with their ideas” (Gilman 1). This statement clearly shows her dissatisfaction for the manner in which her husband treats her. The story is set in a period where women have started the search for self-identity and self recognition. In addition, through the narrator it is clear that women’s opinions and views were not considered, in the society.
The story is not just about the manner in which men treat women unfairly, but is also about the view that women have about themselves in a society dominated by sexist ideals. The narrator is trapped in the house while her husband is in a professional job working as a doctor. Even when a woman is courageous enough to escape the societal cage, they can only enjoy a short-lived freedom, which should be enjoyed in secret. This is seen when the narrator states that she will have to get behind the pattern once at the fall of the night (14).
She feels that there is something queer going on about the situation she finds herself in, which makes her go into discussions about her illness with nervous depression and the issues surrounding her marriage (Gilman 35).
In her narrative, she brings out the domineering role accorded to men, by the society especially in the decision on how women should live and behave. Her husband does not give her a chance to make any decision because she should behave in ways that please him. Her husband is a complete contrast to her in the sense that he is practical and rationalistic while she is imaginative. Her husband demands that she does not engage in any active work or activity. However, she feels that engaging in active work will help her ease her mind. That is why she decides to write her secret journals. She starts with a positive description of her house. However, she is disturbed by the things and rings that are in her bedroom including the yellow wallpaper that has a strange and irregular color and pattern, which she describes as revolting.
In comparison to the rest therapy that has an unconstructive influence towards the improvement of the narrator’s health, the yellow wallpaper in her restroom serves as a distracting force that works against the mental health of the narrator. The wallpaper, in the story, works like a cage that traps the woman inside the wall. The narrator notes that no one could be able to climb through the patterns in the wallpaper. The rest therapy also worked as a cage that confined the narrator in the small room. She could only get out depending on her husband’s judgment of her illness. This shows that women were confined in their houses by their husbands and were only allowed to get out after converting to the ideal types required by the society.
In the short story, Gilman makes a determined statement about individuality and feminism. The author has done this by taking the reader through the thoughts, concerns, and the terrors of the narrator’s neurotic condition. The wallpaper has been used to take the reader straight into the mind and thoughts of the narrator. The large part of the story is centred on the eerie descriptions that the narrator makes about the yellow wallpaper and the obsessive interactions she has with it. It is necessary to note that, despite the fact that the story centres on the illness of the narrator, its aim is to bring out a totally different message. Gilman uses the descriptions of the yellow wallpaper by the narrator to evoke individual expression through the progression of the illness.
In the story, it is clear that the narrator understands what is good for her; however, her inferiority to husband renders her helpless. John uses his profession of a doctor to give her special orders. For instance, he orders her to remain in bed, discontinue the writings of the journal which suppresses her imaginations. Despite the fact that she feels better when she writes, she does not expose this to her husband who is a doctor. She believes that when she does active work including writing her secret journals it helps her feel better compared to when she sits or stays in bed idle. She says, “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good; however, what is one to do?” (Gilman 160). Her question at the end of this statement clearly shows that she has no authority or courage to speak for herself. She must do everything that her husband orders her to do. She talks in a way that suggests that her opinions do not matter. All she does is to accept the condition she is in and also the orders that her husband gives her.
In the description of her life, she clearly brings out the view she has about herself and the relationship she has with her husband. She says, “…I am comparative burden already” (Gilman 162). In this statement, she shows her inferiority in a union that should consider all the parties equal. Her husband works as a physician so that he can cater for their family. He even advises her on what she should do, to feel better irrespective of the fact that the advice seems to be ill-informed. On the other hand, she stays caged at home waiting for her husband’s orders. In fact, everything she does depends entirely on what her husband tells her to do.
The descriptions of the yellow wallpaper are symbolic of the narrator’s illness. Her description states, “”¦dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough, to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide-plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (Gilman 161). This statement reveals the view that the narrator has about herself and the effects of the therapy that her husband has put her into. The descriptions show that she does not believe in the treatment that her husband confines her into.
Despite the fact that John advised the narrator to discourage and discontinue her imagination, she lets the imagination develop in secrecy. It is through the imagination that she begins to recollect her courage and confidence. It reaches a time when John tells her that her condition is improving. The writer says, “…turned it off with a laugh. I had no intention of telling him it was because of the wallpaper- he would make fun of me” (Gilman 168). This shows that the improvement in her condition did not arise from the therapy her husband provided for her. Instead, it was because of her willpower to get out of the situation. This is linked to the wallpaper where she says that she thinks that the woman in the paper gets out during the day and that she has never seen her privately (Gilman 169). It is clear that the woman in the paper is the narrator. It is only when her husband is out for work that she gets the courage to do what she pleases. The rest therapy and caging served to worsen the narrator’s illness. In the final moments, the narrator becomes insane and loses the ability she may have had to regain her sense of identity. John had failed to treat her.
The chilling finale of the story shows the unforgettable preoccupation that John faces because of his failure to treat his wife. John broke the door of the room as the last effort to treat her, but became unconscious when he knew that he had failed to treat his wife (Gilman 189).
In conclusion, Gilman has clearly shown the inferior treatment of women in a sexist society through a narrator who travels through her nervous depression in search of self-confidence. Gilman has successfully showed the struggles of women in a society that made them believe and act to conform to womanhood ideals, in the early twentieth century. The yellow wallpaper has been used to display the concept of domesticity.