This lesson will examine the symbolism at work in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story ”The Yellow Wallpaper.” We will see how these symbols combine to form a powerful statement about the repression of women in a traditional patriarchal society.
More Than Meets the Eye
On the surface level, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ”The Yellow Wallpaper” is creepy enough. A woman becomes obsessed with an ugly pattern on the wallpaper of her room, to the point where she is driven insane. But the wallpaper is much more than just an unattractive design choice.
Upon closer reading, it is revealed to be a symbol for much more sinister forces on this woman’s life. What the wallpaper and other symbols represent take the story deeper and reveal the true horror of her position.
The entire text of the story is presented as the woman narrator’s diary. Left alone for long stretches in a room covered in ugly – you guessed it – yellow wallpaper; the woman has little to occupy her brain, so she writes. We learn that she has been prescribed a sort of resting cure for her ”temporary nervous depression” and ”slight hysterical tendency.
” The woman’s husband, John, who is also a doctor, has his wife under strict orders not to engage her brain or do work of any kind.The diary is much more than just a record of the woman’s thoughts. In keeping it, she is defying her husband’s orders, and so the diary becomes a symbol of her rebellion. It also represents her inner voice and true self as she struggles to express what is happening to her. Getting her thoughts and feelings on the page gives her ”relief”.
The Room Where it Happens
Ultimately, however, the rebellion and self-expression are not enough to save the woman.
As the diary continues, we witness the slow crumbling of her mental state. This is symbolized by the room the woman inhabits. It gives off an impression of decay, from the ”scratched and gouged and splintered” floor, to the ”plaster” full of holes, to the foul wallpaper. The wallpaper is torn in random spots, and the color reminds the woman of ”old, foul, bad yellow things.” If that weren’t bad enough, a disgusting smell emanates from the wallpaper and lingers everywhere. The overall decay is a powerful symbol for the woman’s mental capacities, which seem to rot further with the turn of every page.
One obvious symbol is that of the room’s prison -like setting. There are iron bars on the windows and a gate atop the stairs. These things bring to mind a literal prison, but they also represent the figurative prison the woman is in. She has been forced to rest nonstop against her will (”Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.”). She is a victim of her husband/physician’s patronizing decision to ”protect” her from using her brain and engaging with the world. John, who calls his wife ”blessed little goose” and ”little girl,” fits into the role of warden – a really smarmy, condescending one at that.
Patterns, Patterns, Everywhere
Back to that pesky wallpaper. Not only is it smelly and rotten, it also contains a complex pattern that drives this poor woman nuts. Try as she might; she cannot figure it out. When she tries to follow the swirls and curves to make sense out of them, they suddenly ”plunge off at outrageous angles” and ”destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
”This maddening pattern symbolizes the patterns of society responsible for women’s repression. The woman narrator belongs to a time and place (turn of the 19th-century Western civilization) when women didn’t have a say. The patriarchy is a strong societal pattern, difficult to break through. John represents the attitude of many men at the time. We see this pattern in the medical establishment, as well, with its ideas of a ”rest cure” for women who have ”imaginative power” like our narrator. Too much imagination and mental stimulation are not good at all for our little ladies!Like the pattern on the wallpaper, these social patterns can’t be escaped. When the narrator looks upon the wallpaper, she gets angry ”with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness.
” Her frustration with the wallpaper reflects women’s frustration with patriarchal society as a whole. As the woman notes, ”nobody could climb through that pattern – it strangles so.”
Who’s That Girl?
As the woman studies it, she begins to notice a ”mysterious figure” behind the wallpaper’s pattern – one ”that seems to skulk about.” At first, the figure is shapeless. Slowly but surely, though, the figure reveals itself – or rather, herself. It is a ”woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern.
” Sometimes the woman appears to try to ”shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.”Eventually, the narrator sees this woman, and sometimes multiple women, racing around, clearly shaking the pattern and trying to break free. Now, it is clear for the reader as well. The mysterious figure symbolizes the woman narrator, who is also struggling to get out of an oppressive situation. By the end, the narrator has completely identified with the figure and has begun a little ”creeping” of her own.
The story ends with her dear hubby fainting dead away when he discovers his dear little goose crawling in circles around the room, for all intents and purposes out of her mind.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ”The Yellow Wallpaper” may be a very short story but is chock-full of symbolism. The woman narrator’s diary represents a rebellion against her husband, as well as an expression of her true self.
The room that she inhabits is falling apart, symbolizing the impending decay of the woman’s mental state. The prison-like features of the room symbolize the figurative prison the woman narrator is in. This prison stems from the complex patterns of patriarchal society, which are also symbolized by the frustrating and suffocating pattern of the wallpaper. Finally, the shadowy figure the woman sees behind this pattern comes to symbolize the woman herself, when we realize the figure is a woman desperate to get out from behind the oppressive pattern.