Literary Analysis: The Yellow Wallpaper
The short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman discusses the narrator’s struggle with mental illness without any support from her husband. The narrator and her husband went to a holiday home so that the narrator could get enough rest and improve her health. In reading the short story, readers can see that the narrator is an oppressed woman who has little or no say in what happens to her. Her husband makes all the decisions, and he often dismisses everything that she wants to do or say. In the nineteenth century, women suffered from many types of oppression, and the narrator in the short story embodies many of their struggles. With time, women gained the courage to speak out against oppression, especially through the media. As a writer, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote the short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ as a way to expose her own struggle through the literary media by employing different themes and literary styles.
The main character in the story is the narrator, who in this case, is the author of the short story. She is suffering from depression and struggles with how to overcome it. Her husband, John, is a doctor who has dismissed her illness as nothing more than ‘temporary nervous depression’ (Maitun 12).Despite this diagnosis, the author feels that there is something more profound, but her opinion is drowned under the learned opinion of both her brother and husband, who are professionals in the medical field. Weir Mitchell is the doctor who treats the narrator, and his recommendation is the resting cure. He thinks that a lot of rest will eventually help to cure the sick woman. For this reason, John takes the narrator to a holiday home from which she writes ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ The narrator explains, “He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get.” (Gilman 648)John does not want the narrator to exert herself in any way, and she has to keep her writing a secret though it makes her feel better. The short story is based on Gilman’s personal struggle with depression and futile attempts at getting treatment. Having been treated by Dr Mitchell, she wrote the story to elaborate on the evils of the resting cure.
One of the major themes in the short story is the oppression of women in marriage. The narrator’s husband makes all the decisions regarding her life, leaving her no option to follow his every lead. He does not care what she thinks or wants; he just does what he feels is good for her. She writes, “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.” (Gilman 648) For example, she is not allowed to write or do any other work despite the fact that she knows some type of exertion would make her better. Instead of confronting her husband about this, she is reduced to hiding her journal whenever her husband approaches. John refuses to let the narrator see her cousins because he thinks they are too stimulating for her delicate condition. Another prominent theme in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is self-expression. The narrator in the story is not allowed to express herself in any way, especially through writing. She has to keep her thoughts and opinions to herself, and this eventually drives her into a nervous breakdown. The diary is the only way for her to express her stifled thoughts and opinions.
The main premise that Gilman passes across in the short story is the dangers of the resting cure. Many doctors, especially in the nineteenth century, prescribed the resting cure for women suffering from mental illness. Having gone through the trauma of the resting cure herself, Gilman tries to fight against the use of this technique. She shows that the resting cure is ineffective because it does not take into account the narrator’s need for mental occupation (Dennis 23). Her mind is already plagued by thoughts and anxiety, and extended periods of idleness only make it worse. She becomes obsessed with the wallpaper and conjures up many images in her mind because her mind has no other occupation. She mentions her own doctor in the short story, and he eventually discarded the resting cure as a means of treating mental illness (Stiles 41). John, the narrator’s husband, threatens that if she doesn’t get better, he will return her to Dr Mitchell, and the thought of that terrifies the narrator. John and Dr Mitchell might have had the narrator’s best interests at heart, but they infantilize her and treat her like a passive object.
The short story employs several literary devices to make its point clear to the readers. The first person narration makes the whole story more credible. Gilman is the narrator in the story who speaks from her personal experience. Because of this, the narrator explains things as she sees them, making readers get her primary point of view. She explains how she feels, her thoughts and her desires which have been repressed by her husband (Stiles 14). Her unhappiness and dissatisfaction are evident in the way she writes, yet she must do her best to get better for the sake of her husband. The reader can empathize with her. Symbolism is a prominent feature in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ After observing the wallpaper for many days, the narrator begins to see the figure of a woman inside it. The woman is trapped behind bars and constantly tries to get out. the narrator says ,” Then in the very ‘bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.” (Gilman 654) As the days go by, the narrator becomes fixated on this woman till the day of her nervous breakdown. The woman in the wallpaper finally escapes, and the narrator thinks that she too escaped from the wallpaper. The struggles of the woman in the wallpaper symbolize the narrator’s own struggle to escape from the confinement of her mental state and marriage, where she is not allowed to do anything but rest.
Situational irony in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is also another literary device. This refers to a situation in which a character does something that results in the opposite of the intended result. In the short story, all John wants is for the narrator to get better. He takes her on holiday into the countryside so that she can get all the rest and air she can get. John actually thinks that she is doing a lot better after some days, with the narrator writing “John is so pleased to see me improve!” (Gilman 653). However, their stay in the house only makes things for the narrator. She learns to keep her obsession with the wallpaper a secret, but it eventually drives her into a breakdown. Dramatic irony is also used in the short story where the reader knows something that the characters do not. John chooses a specific bedroom for the narrator and himself in their holiday home, and the narrator notices some strange things in the room such as the fact that the bed is fixed to the floor. She muses, “It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge, for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.” (Gilman 648) She concludes the room must have been a nursery, but this is evidently not the case. The fittings in the room suggest that it was used to confine an insane person.
When Gilman first published the short story, it received a tense reception. Women could relate to many of the things the author wrote about, yet others said it would encourage people to feel as insane and depressed as the writer. Even before this, many publishers refused to publish it because it had very dark themes. Another issue is that the story left people confused as to what eventually happened to the narrator in the story. Gilman made sure to hand a copy to Dr Mitchell, who later acknowledged the destructive effects of the resting cure and abandoned the treatment. Gilman’s efforts to shed light on the issue of mental illness and its treatment among women finally bore fruit.
In conclusion, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is the story of a woman trying to get treatment for depression. The story is set in the nineteenth century where mental illness was dismissed as something minor and temporary, and John shows this in suggesting that rest would be the best cure. The main themes in the story include oppression of women in marriage, self-expression and the resting cure. The author uses literary devices such as irony, symbolism, and first-person narration to bring out the meaning of the story. Although the story received mixed reactions upon publishing, it still played an important role in challenging the benefits of the resting cure and creating awareness of mental illness.
Dennis, Clarissa E. “Creativity and Madness: The Misunderstandings Behind Mental Health.” (2019).
Gale, Cengage Learning. A Study Guide for Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s” Yellow Wallpaper”. Gale Cengage Learning, 2016.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, 1860-1935. The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader: The Yellow Wallpaper, and Other Fiction. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.
Maitun, Maitun. The wife’s depression in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s the yellow wallpaper. Diss. UIN Sunan Ampel Surabaya, 2018.
Stiles, Anne. “The Rest Cure, 1873-1925.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web.