The Yellow Wallpaper: Feminist Criticism

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It is a wonder how some stories with seemingly obvious meanings can be misconceived. The short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is a story that, for years, was read as just another normal story. However, the reason for which Gilman wrote the story is clear as day. Gilman wrote this story because she wanted to make the need for gender equality known. Through the reader response method one can view this story through the feminist perspective. It can be proven that, through character analysis, setting analysis, and symbolism, the female perspective is taken. The story is filled with hints and symbols of what the average woman of her time period had to deal with, and how through perseverance women could one day be equal.


The characters in “The Yellow Wallpaper” are symbols for people in society. The narrator’s husband, John, represents the typical male of the time period. He continually and subtly degrades his wife. He pretentiously acts like he really cares about the narrator. He says things that make the narrator feel uneducated. He uses his words to try and keep the narrator, who represents all women, from feeling equal. For instance when the narrator walks around their new home at night he says, “What is it little girl? Don’t go walking about like that – you’ll get cold.”(Gilman). Just like the males of society before women’s rights he tries to maintain control over the narrator. The narrator is a symbol for women searching desperately for liberation. Her husband who thinks he knows what is best for her constantly keeps her from thinking. She can not get free from what society expects from her and she just wants to be taken seriously. When she starts to grow more courageous she begins to see through her husband’s act. She writes, “He asked me all sorts of questions, too, and pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn’t see through him!”(Gilman). This represents when women began to wake up to the fact that they were being controlled.

The setting in this book can truly tell a story all its own. The house, which the narrator and her husband move into, can be seen as something different than just a house. It is a symbol for the fortress many men made to keep women from getting educated. Throughout the house there are bars on the windows, but on the outside of the house is the beautiful wilderness awaits the narrator. The problem is the fortress keeps her in the house, and symbolically in the dark. The narrator makes the security of the house apparent by stating, “It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little house for the gardeners and people.”(Gilman). The other piece of setting that could be perceived as symbolic is of course the yellow wallpaper. It represents the vastness and ugliness of the male need to control society’s women. She shows her displeasure with this standard of living by talking of the wallpaper’s smell. She states, “But there is something else about that paper – the smell! I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad. Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here.”(Gilman). This is symbolic for the ego of the males in society and the way it is beginning to anger the women of society.

There are also symbols inside the story itself. For example, the narrator’s illness is a symbol for women’s tolerance for the behavior of males in society at this time. It hints at the fact that women need to change their unhealthy ways of rolling over when faced with opposition. The narrator treats the illness as if no one else really feels there is anything wrong with the way society works. The narrator states of her husband’s ignorance, “You see he does not believe I am sick!”(Gilman). Another symbol in the text is the woman the narrator sees outside of her window and behind the wallpaper. The woman is a symbol of the narrator if she were to act as an individual. She “creeps” during the daytime instead of at night like the rest of the women. She is outside the fortress in which the men can control her. The narrator states of the imaginary woman behind the wallpaper, “And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern – it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.”(Gilman). This is a representation of the struggle women had with getting equality in a man run world.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” was just another piece of the puzzle in the female struggle for equality. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote this story for the house wives who all had thoughts but could not think them out loud and the evidence of this is written inside the text. It can be proven through the reader response method that there is a clear connection in the text between the fight for female liberation, and the narrators struggle with the yellow wallpaper. The text was read as just another story by men, but by women it was read as the common female struggle for equality.





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