Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is a story of a woman in the early twentieth century who suffers from a nervous depression disorder and is forced to succumb to her husband, John’s, therapeutic treatment only to lose herself to insanity. More generally, the story represents the controlling role that males can have over women in society and how the inability of women to overcome this control can have negative impacts on themselves. The narrator is seen as a symbol for all women who have involuntarily fallen as prisoners in a male-dominated society.
Gilman expresses a feminist approach to the mental effects of a woman’s oppression, but with further interpretation, it is the combination of both the narrator’s physical confinement due to her husband’s control and her weakness against fighting this suppression which forces her to insanity. John’s decision to keep his wife in isolation as a treatment for her depression is the primary cause that contributes to the narrator’s impending mental demise.
The narrator tries voicing her opposition for a more esthetically pleasing room that “opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window” but does not prevail (61). The room she is confined in, and the wallpaper specifically, becomes less of a decorative piece and more like an object of obsession to her. Perhaps due to her lack of social interaction and growing illness, the narrator realizes what that “thing was that showed behind, that dim sub pattern, and is sure it is a woman” (66). This vision of an person within the inanimate wallpaper is clearly an indication of the mental effects of her solidarity.
The idea the narrator describes when she sees the woman “take hold of the bars and shakes them hard” is one that symbolizes all of women’s suppression in a male-dominated society (68). As the narrator becomes more involved with this woman, the more she realizes the dangers of her own oppression. Her obsession with and the several attempts at freeing the woman from the wallpaper, mirror her descent into her own madness and separation from reality. The inability of the narrator to break free from the psychological and emotional suppression made by her husband’s dominance, causes her to be vulnerable to his orders.
John is a very scientific, logical and rational human being because he is considered to be a “physician of high standing” which exemplifies the powerful position he has over his wife (60). The narrator clearly states her indifference to her husband’s advisable efforts to help stabilize her when she says, “I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good” demonstrating that she has her own opinions on her treatment (60).
However, she asks herself three times “what is one to do? which illustrates that the narrator is aware that she is stuck in her female oppressed role in society and it is indeed her husband who controls her (60). Vocal examples of the imbalance of control in their relationship are also evident in this story. The way that the narrator is belittled by John when he uses nick-names to refer to her as his “blessed little goose” and “little girl” shows the extent of their male dominated relationship (62,65). This level of control on the narrator by her husband creates psychological issues for her, which are evidently her weaknesses that she struggles to fight.
The narrator’s mental state becomes more unstable as her weaknesses in fighting for her intellectual freedom grow. “I must say what I feel and think in some way – it is such a relief! ” is an example how the narrator finds writing a therapeutic cure for her depression (64). But due to the oppressive surroundings and the feelings of guilt she is pained by, she is forced to write in secrecy. It is almost as if the narrator allows herself to let society win by keeping her writings a secret, thus allowing the patriarchal notion to dominate.
She also has difficulties in being able to communicate effectively and voice her opposition to John. When she wants to go visit her family and tries to ask John for permission she “did not make out a very good case, and was crying before she had finished” (65). The action of crying represents vulnerability and powerlessness in society and is thought to be common among only women. The tears themselves symbolize the narrator’s womanhood and also her weakness and realization that she cannot win against her husband’s control, leading her to fall further into her suppression.
It is the self identification the narrator has with the woman in the wallpaper near the end of the story, when she says “I’ve got out at last in spite of you and Jane! ” which characterizes her mental collapse (70). The moment is bittersweet because as she finally breaks away from suppression and conquers her weaknesses by creating an identity for herself, she does so by succumbing to insanity. When she is found by John, she shares the idea that she intends to “creep over him” much like an animal would do, which implies she has lost her humanity and descends into a much more detrimental state of mind (70).
So, even though the narrator’s husband stresses the importance of her isolation as a cure, it is ultimately what causes her to realize her weakness in gaining self-control and her failure to fight it is what causes her mental anguish in the end. “The Yellow Wallpaper” presents an interesting feminist perspective on the effects of patriarchy, or more specifically, the effects of a husband’s control and suppression on the impending insanity of women. Without the ability to make her own decisions or voice her opinions in regards to John’s therapeutic treatment and social isolation, comes a heavier mental consequence for the narrator.
The domination of a male figure is shown to be more powerful in more ways than one because it can cause the destruction a woman’s self-esteem, inhibiting self-expression along with causing inner psychological or emotional conflicts. So, not only does societal control play a big role, but also the woman’s own personal weaknesses and struggles to combat this can contribute to their suppression, leaving women without any say in regards to their own personal interests and desires. It is without this self-control that women of a patriarchal society suffer from which leads to possible deeper psychological, emotional and physical negative outcomes.