The concept of a social norm has been very rigid for quite a while, numerous compelling authors to express their indignation in the form of social satire, hyperbolized representations of social interactions, etc. The Yellow Wallpaper is, perhaps, the epitome of the phenomenon since it subverts the social standards, in general, and gender normativity, in particular. By creating the surreal environment in which every image becomes a part of a giant metaphor for the oppression that women were experiencing at the time in the patriarchal society, The Yellow Wallpaper dehumanizes the social values that were standard at the time, therefore, making a very harsh yet rather legitimate point.
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Although the novel is packed with metaphors, the treatment of social values in it is far for being subtle – in fact, it is quite emotional and, therefore, somewhat subjective. The slow descent into madness, which the novel portrays, can be interpreted as the metaphor of women’s deplorable state in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century. Yet, it may also be the representation of the social norms. The madness that consumes the protagonist can be rendered as the insanity of the social normativity, which compels Jane to go insane. Indeed, the author continues to stress throughout the novel that the insanity, which engulfs the protagonist, comes from the outside and cannot possibly be avoided: “I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman” (Gilman 484).
Thus, the portrayal of the societal norms and values is hyperbolized in The Yellow Wallpaper. While the insanity of the situation allows the author to make a very legitimate point, it makes the novel rather heavy as its emotional impact is concerned. A significant amount of irony that Gilman introduces into the narration, however, balanced out the emotionally impactful elements, at the same time making the point that the author makes even more obvious. One might argue that the idea of a woman descending into madness as the representation of the wrongfulness of social values is already ironic due to the element of absurdity and even phantasmagoria in it; however, Gilman also adds a sheer amount of verbal irony. For instance, Jane, the lead character, speaks ironically quite a lot in the novel:
John is a physician, and perhaps – (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind) – perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster. (Gilman 478)
Therefore, the irony is used extensively throughout the novel. Yet, it does not serve to point out the wrongs of society as a misogynist world in which women experience severe oppression. Instead, it becomes a means of introducing the elements of humor into the novel to ease the tension.
However, one could argue that the on-the-surface elements of irony only foreshadow the reveal of a much deeper and more tragic ironic statement prepared by the author. Indeed, the very plot, in which the protagonist gains personal freedom by losing her mind, is a perfect example of irony. The words with which the novel ends, “I had to creep over him every time!” (Gilman 489) can be interpreted as the manifestation of one’s freedom, the fact that the narrator has finally thrown off the shackles that the society put on her. At the same time, however, it also indicates that Jane has lost her mind completely and that she will no longer regain sanity. The absurd scenario in which Jane gains freedom by destroying her personality is a bitter yet ironic portrayal of the late-19th-century society.
The treatment of the social values and norms that were characteristic of the era also becomes visible when considering the epithets’ emotional coloring that the author uses to describe the room. For instance, the author continues placing very heavy stress on the disgust that the yellow color evokes in the lead character whenever she casts a glance at it: “The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight” (Gilman 479). Gilman does not need even mention the character when describing the color; the latter has an agency of its own, becoming the force that makes Jane give into the madness and unleash the insanity that has been building up inside her. Therefore, societal values, especially patriarchal ones, are treated in an explicitly negative manner in the novel. Gilman argues that they do not cause madness but are madness on their own because of the assumption that gender roles should remain intact and that gender normativity should define the personal development of a person, in general, and a woman, in particular.
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Therefore, social values are subjected to severe criticism in the novel. The Yellow Wallpaper is a tragic story of women of the 19th century and the oppression that they were experiencing. While being ironic and self-aware, the novel renders the tragedy of gender-related conflicts in the most real and disturbing way. Gilman calls for social change, making it clear that social justice is worth the fight.
Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 11th ed., edited by Alison Booth and Kelly J. Mays, W.W. Norton and Company, 2013, pp. 478-489.