The Yellow Wallpaper

November 1, 2011
By , Oak Lawn, IL
Using feminist criticism, the reader can analyze Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper through character, symbols, and setting. The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story told through the journal entries of an anonymous female narrator who appears to suffer from anxiety. The narrator’s husband, John, arranges for his wife to spend the summer in an upstairs nursery in their vacation home. It is his hope that a summer of rest will cure his wife’s anxiety. The narrator’s transition from a soft-spoken, timid housewife to an independent thinker portrays the early struggles of feminism.
The Yellow Wallpaper conveys many feminist messages that female authors during this time period had to keep hidden from their male counterparts. The narrator, at the beginning of the story, is very timid and reserved. In the very first line of the story she says, “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer” (1). She refers to herself as “ordinary” and “myself” rather than “I”. She is also very careful to avoid getting caught writing in her journal due to the fact that, “he [John] hates to have me write a word” (1). Women during this time period were expected to think in the same way that their husband thought. In addition, they were expected to know their place and not contradict or question their husband’s judgment. This is one of the reasons why John gets mad when the narrator questions his methods for treating her anxiety. “’Better in body perhaps—‘I began, and stopped short, for he…looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word” (5). For most of the story the narrator remains in line with her husband’s wishes, even if his decisions are not actually helping her.
It is this pattern of conformity and unquestioning submission that is symbolically attacked in the story. This pattern of society is represented by the yellow wallpaper that blankets the narrator’s room. Women were limited to being housewives, and were unable to be independent or have opinions that contrasted with their husbands. Those women who wanted to be something more viewed this conformity as ugly and undesirable, much like the narrator resents the hideous yellow wallpaper. “The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight” (2). The narrator, also says, “…and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! ...and the woman behind it is as plain as can be” (5). The woman behind the “bars” of the wallpaper represents the narrator. Symbolically the narrator is trapped into being what society, and especially her husband, expects her to be. “By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still” (8). The narrator is sick and tired of pretending to be something she does not want to be. She is unable to flourish without the ability to express herself. By the end of the story, when the narrator has torn of the wallpaper from her room, she has symbolically broken free of the bars. She has made the decision to think for herself. “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (9.) Now that the narrator has decided to think for herself, there is nothing that her husband or society can do to make her go back to the old way of thinking.
Most women who even dared make public their new feminist outlook on life were thought of by men as crazy. It is no coincidence that the nursery that the narrator is forced to live in has a strong resemblance to an asylum. The windows, in the words of the narrator, “are barred” and the bed is, “immovable—it is nailed down” (3). As women grew more and more vocal in their feminist cause, society was finally forced to re-evaluate the traditional role of women.
The Yellow Wallpaper provides the reader with a fresh perspective on early feminism. Women were growing tired of being limited by the norms of society and wanted a change. Their movement slowly gained momentum and eventually re-wrote the cultural norm.





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