Gilman used her own personal experiences in her first marriage and postpartum depression as the inspiration for The Yellow Wallpaper, a story that details the deterioration of a woman’s mental health when she is a rest cure on a summer estate with her family. The unnamed narrator’s obsession with the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom is the beginning of her plunge into psychosis from her postpartum depression (Özyon, pg 116). The Yellow Wallpaper publication is a masterpiece, particularly because of how the author uses literary devices such as cacophony, repetition, metaphors, and antithesis to create depth into issues on mental health, feminism and gender relations in the 19th century.
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In her secret journal, the narrator repeats the phrase ‘what is one to do?’ to characterize herself as confused and helpless. One might even go further as to say that this question shows that the narrator felt oppressed by her doctor’s husband. ‘If a physician …assures that there is nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression- a slight hysterical tendency-what is one to do?’ (Gilman, pg 1). ‘Personally I disagree with their ideas. But what is one to do?’(Gilman, pg 1). In the repetition of this question, the narrator depicts herself as a woman like any other in the 19th century since she is unable to have a voice and stand up to her doctor and husband’s seemingly negligent and unfair treatment.
While the color yellow is normally associated with attributes like clarity, positivity and freshness, the author uses an antithesis to illustrate the chaotic nature of the wallpaper as the narrator perceives it. ‘It is dull enough to confuse the eye in the following…and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide…plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions’ (Gilman, pg 2). She describes the lines as ‘dull’ yet immediately says that ‘they plunge off at outrageous angles’ and ‘destroy themselves.’ These juxtaposed descriptions only facilitate accurately communicating to the reader the story of the narrator’s perspective. In this phrase, the narrator begins to reveal her relationship with the yellow wallpaper and, in so doing, endorse her husband’s opinion that she is mentally unwell. Interestingly, this antithesis also announces the narrator as an eccentric with keen feminine sensibilities.
The woman behind the yellow wallpaper is the biggest metaphor in the story. The woman is a representation of the narrator and her mental struggles in dealing with the loss of her autonomy and her husband’s oppressive nature. ‘At night, in any kind of light, in the twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worse of all, moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be (Gilman, pg 7). The woman behind the wallpaper draws a parallel to the narrator, who feels confined due to isolation in the room with the yellow wallpaper.
In The Yellow Wallpaper, cacophony is used to develop tone and mood in the story and create imagery. ‘The color is repellent, almost revolting a smoldering unclean yellow’ (Gilman, pg 2). ‘It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulfur tint in others’ (Gilman, pg 2). ‘The outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding me of a fungus’ (Gilman, pg 6). The author’s choice of strong descriptive words depicts a tone of disgust and devastation toward the wallpaper. Words like revolting, fungus, repellent and sickly are cacophony that prompt the reader to comprehend how the narrator sees and feels about the wallpaper while at the same time contributing to imagery established in the story. In creating strong visuals using these words, Gilman portrays the wallpaper’s distastefulness and disgust and the narrator’s dissatisfaction in the room.
In The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman uses literary elements of cacophony, metaphors, antithesis and repetition to emphasize the narrator’s horror in her shifting understanding of her reality and emphasize themes of mental health, gender relations and feminism (Özyon, 118). As much as the narrator is trapped in her own home, this epistolary story posits the danger of how adhering to patriarchal expectations of women prevents women’s personal and artistic growth.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The yellow wallpaper and other writings. Gibbs Smith, 2019.
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Özyon, A. “A journey of feminist rebellion through Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper and her novel Herland.” International Journal of Language Academy 8.5 (2020): 115-124.