By: Mary Catherine Ellington
During the late nineteenth century, women experienced adversity in various aspects of their life. Women were viewed purely as homemakers and pillars of familial life and suffered from the constraints of their marriage and proper societal etiquette. These strict, imprisoning forms of identity influenced women to suffer in silence. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was published in 1892 and details the perspective of a woman suffering from postpartum depression while in the care of her husband. However, as the story progresses, the true condition of the woman in the room with the yellow wallpaper is revealed to stem from depression and the oppressiveness of gender roles during this time period. The short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, uses the materialistic object of the yellow wallpaper and its encompassing dreary symbolism, to signify the oppressive stigma and lack of women’s mental stability and freedom in all aspects of life due to their limited freedom-based alternatives. These limitations bolster the narrator’s lack of complexity and hardships in achieving self-expression and fulfillment, as a result of the oppressive gender roles and restrictions of women.
The narrator within “The Yellow Wallpaper” struggles to come to terms with her condition and crushing loneliness. She resigns to follow the oppressive instructions of her physician husband regarding her health and wellbeing. However, despite her compliance to these orders regarding her health, the narrator unconsciously begins to associate the dreary appearance of the yellow wallpaper with her condition and the constraints of her marriage and life. Gilman utilizes the narrator’s unconscious association to the wallpaper and the narrator’s suffering, as a result of the oppression of gender roles. For example, the narrator’s repetition of saying “Personally, I…” reiterates the sole thought process of the narrator. The repetition of this phrase and the constant opposition that the narrator faces, showcases how her insight and thought processes are viewed as opinions that are insignificant and inferior to her husband, similar to the insignificance and deterioration of the wallpaper (Gilman 2). What the narrator has to say is considered to be mere opinion in contrast with her husband’s supposed “facts” and expertise. Moreover, this repetition reiterates how women had to repeat themselves to be heard, even though their opinions or thought processes may be dismissed immediately. The narrator’s personal opinions exhibit uncertainty and appear as mere background noise, due to their inability to lack any power or substance in the changing of her condition. The syntax of the narrator’s diction is relatively short and is written as a journal entry detailing her life within the room containing the yellow wallpaper. The significance of this syntax and small form of self-expression in the form of journal entries, reiterates the woman’s lack of marital freedom and ability to express herself without ridicule or opposition. These small, personal reflections evolve throughout the story and become increasingly frantic and short as she struggles to write in opposition of her husband. She emphasizes how covert she has to be in the unleashing of her private thoughts to paper with the phrase, “I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition” (Gilman 2). These journal entries serving as an alternative to the freedom to express herself or integrate herself into society as she pleases, emphasizes the burden of the narrator’s experiencing oppression of gender roles during this time period.
The narrator appears to lack sufficient self-fulfillment and complexity in her thoughts due to her lack of social stimulus and interaction. She is purely confined to the mansion, the room with the yellow wallpaper, and on occasion her journal. Her resignation to the “facts” of her husband is seen in the phrase “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad” (Gilman 2). The narrator does not attempt to challenge her husband due to the engrained ideals of gender roles and the words of her husband being deemed as equivalent to the law. Henceforth, she enables herself to even interrupt and demean her own personal thoughts with a dash, in the same way her husband does to her in regard to the relevance of her ideas. The narrator’s limiting alternative routes to self-expression and the interruptions of herself that she hastily includes in the form of dashes, signifies the oppressive stigma and lack of freedom that the narrator experiences due to her secretive journal entries and caged thoughts, which prevent her from comprehending the complexity of her thoughts and feelings.
Furthermore, the author’s punctuation within her journal entries and within her thoughts is relatively normal and does not stand out much, due to her time constraints which prevent her from being more complex and expressing herself. However, she does ask the rhetorical question of “But what is one to do?” that reveals her initial resignation to her inability to shape her decisions or actions regarding her happiness and wellbeing (Gilman 2). This passage fits into the theme of the short story by representing the underlying gender restrictions and boundaries that the narrator experiences from being a woman during this time period. As the story progresses, the rhetorical question begins to formulate into an idea supported by the wallpaper and her journal entries, by motivating her to take control of her life and the restrictions that prevent her from thriving. She does this by choosing to write with more frequency and urgency as her thought process, which initially lacked complexity and substance, evolves as well. The rhetorical question and associations of the wallpaper and her lack of freedom-based alternatives regarding the freedom of self-expression, reaches a peak with her decision to defy her oppressors and write in spite of them, eventually influencing her decision to tear apart the wallpaper and take control of her own life. The act of tearing the wallpaper serves as an indicator of the narrator’s own self-actualization and liberation from restricting gender roles.
Therefore, the author’s recurrent theme of the short story regarding the oppression of women and gender roles, and its relation to the neglected, deterioration of the yellow wallpaper correlates to the lack of fulfillment and freedom that the narrator experiences. Like the wallpaper, she initially deteriorates within herself due to her resignation and compliance with the gender-based stigma that she experiences on a daily basis. However, the narrator unconsciously undergoes a change through her alternative methods of self-expression which ultimately influences her newfound perception of the wallpaper and its symbolic aura of stifling oppression, which motivates her to shake free of the restricting bonds of being a woman and view the wallpaper as a motivator for change. The underlying theme of this short story regarding oppression, newfound actualization, and liberation correlates to our society today due to its depiction of how far women have progressed, and the empowerment that has resulted from the freedom from oppressive gender roles and restrictions. It also serves as a subtle reminder that women are not meant to be viewed as mere silent creatures, but as equals and individuals worthy of acknowledgement in all pursuits.
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