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Uncovering the Wallpaper in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Introduction

Being a wife and a mother at the same time can bestow a lot of stress to a woman who is just starting up to fill those shoes. Doing a balancing act of being a mother and wife is sometimes too much too handle for a woman, what more if she is being prevented from expressing herself through writing? This is exactly what the unnamed woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (2002) is experiencing in the story. Aside from the postpartum depression she is battling with, the yellow wallpaper in this story serves as a symbol of a feminist oppression experienced by most women during her time, as she feels that her creativity has been limited by the mores of society in the 19th century. Unlike women today who are given more freedom to become self-actualized individuals, women in the 19th century have not yet attained the same status as they have today and the wallpaper evokes her being caught up, beyond resistance, in her role as a wife and mother during those times.

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At present, it has been already scientifically discussed that many, perhaps even most, new mothers experience mood changes, periods of tearfulness, and irritability following the birth of a child. Commonly called the “maternity blues,” “postpartum blues,” or “baby blues”, women who gave birth recently are said to be hormonally stressed and they can suffer a period of depression usually lasting for a couple of days. Given these turbulent hormonal shifts, it would be “abnormal” for most women not to experience some changes in feeling states shortly following childbirth. In Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, readers can immediately realize the shifts of emotions felt by the woman who is narrating the story. At the beginning of the story, for example, the narrator states that: “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer” (Gilman 902). However, after that sentence, a feeling of dissatisfaction overcomes the happiness of the narrator: “A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity–but that would be asking too much of fate” (Gilman 902). In the next parts of the story, the woman is digressing how her husband, John, is laughing at her because she believes that she is sick. That is why she just opts to talk about the house because she does not want to worry much about her condition. In this part, we can feel her unrelenting depression about how matters are being dealt with around her. It seems she does not want to be at the mercy of others in convincing them that she is not feeling good. Everyone becomes negligent to her needs and what she thinks. Everyone is expecting her, to the point of pressuring her, to fill in the shoes of being a mother right away.

Although the house itself does not seem to bother her much, as she even describes it as “the most beautiful place” because “it is quite alone standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village” (Gilman 904). Amidst all the descriptions, however, we can observe again that she always goes back at her frustrations about her husband and her isolation from the world around her. Besides her frustration against her husband and being isolated, she observes the garish yellow wallpaper that is draped all around their room. She then shifts all her frustration at the wallpaper: “I never saw a worse paper in my life” because it is dull and it has “sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin” (Gilman 905). Later in the story, after two weeks, she informs that everything seems like the same during their first day at the house. It seems her depression has not faded yet and she increasingly hates the yellow wallpaper. She becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper that she sees every day. Although she obviously hates how the wallpaper was designed, she felt that she is left with no choice but to look at it obsessively to the point of often getting stressed out by its dizzying patterns: “Round and round and round–round and round and round–it makes me dizzy!” (Gilman 905).

Later on, the narrator begins to have weird imaginations that the yellow wallpaper has another woman trapped inside it:

Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out. The front pattern does move–and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! (Gilman 907).

Readers can now take a hint that the narrator is having delusions already and it seems her condition is worsening each time. Although the intention of her husband of taking her to that house is to recuperate from giving birth, it seems she is not capable of taking care of her child anymore because she is suffering from this sickness that the people around her ignores at first. The yellow wallpaper becomes a tool to vent out her frustrations and a symbol of being oppressed by her husband who often ignores what she really wanted to do. She is often observing the woman inside the yellow wallpaper and she seems to understand that they have the same fate all along.

Korb (1998) explains that the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is evidently “physically and spiritually trapped” by her husband from the beginning of the story. Her choices are constantly being trumped out by what her husband chooses for her. We could see this in the part of the story that though she “wanted [a room] downstairs that opened on the piazza… John would not hear of it” (Gilman 906). The narrator wanted to choose some space of her own in the house, but her husband John did agree with her because the room she wishes to occupy will not fit two beds and has no other bedroom for him, nearby. Instead, John has put his wife on the top floor, away from the rest of the household (their baby, the nurse, and John’s sister) that intensifies the isolation of the wife. Though she recognizes her captivity—John “hardly lets me stir without special direction” (Gilman 907)— Korb (1998) noticed that the narrator “overlooks other more ominous signs of her confinement: the bars at the window, the gate at the top of the stairs, steel rings on the wall, and the nailed-down bedstead”. But it is the yellow wallpaper that makes her uneasy towards the conditions around her.

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Readers can then commiserate between the lines that she is a prisoner — although she is supposed to be recuperating, everything around her seems to prevent her from making decisions for herself. All these conditions have worsened the postpartum depression that she is experiencing. During the 18th century, postpartum depression is still not fully understood that it is a form of major depression in which the onset of the depressive episode begins within 4 weeks after childbirth. Worse, some suicides are linked to postpartum depression. Having postpartum depression also increases the risk that the woman will suffer future depressive episodes. Fortunately, effective treatments are now available, including various forms of psychotherapy and use of antidepressant drugs. Unluckily for the narrator, her depressive syndromes are ignored and this is why we can see she is debilitating with it each day.

We realize later in story that Gilman’s writing is not merely about postpartum depression itself or being oppressed by the husband as represented by the yellow wallpaper. It symbolizes what most women may have experienced during those times. The story has feminist undertones because it implicates how the narrator was prevented to express her creativity and passion. Korb (1998) explains that “Gilman’s narrator is so cruelly trapped both by the conventions of nineteenth-century American society, which says that a woman’s function is to bear and raise children, and by her husband’s inflexible belief in this code”. We can realize this when John has attempted rob her of the few things that bring her consistent pleasure — her writing: “He hates to have me write a word, she says, and notes his determination to correct her imaginative power and habit of story-making” (Gilman 908). Unfortunately for Gilman’s narrator as well as other creative women, these sentiments are shared by others in society. John’s sister, a woman who occupies her proper place in the domestic sphere by being “so good with the baby” and a “perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper,” seems to believe “it is the writing which made [the narrator] sick!” (Gilman 909). Thus, Gilman’s story is way beyond the postpartum depression issue, because it secretly tells us how women were treated during those days. They are expected to be only mothers and wives – they are not allowed to express themselves creatively through the use of their great talents. In the end, the woman tears up the yellow wallpaper and this symbolizes her freedom from the oppression that she despises most. When her husband unlocks the door and finds his wife and the room in that condition, he is appalled. “I’ve got out at last,” she explains, “And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman, 913). As the husband faints, the narrator continues to creep around the room, crawling over her husband as he lies unconscious on the floor. Ultimately, the woman has succumbed at being a “mad woman” because she has released herself from the stereotypical roles that women are trapped in during those times.

Conclusion

Although the ending is quite shocking that the narrator becomes insane, it was the author’s intense representation that it is possible to breakdown like that given the situation. Women and mothers are people too and they should be allowed to express themselves. Although mothers and wives have obligations to their families and husbands, they need to be given a space for themselves in following their desires and passions.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper”. In Scott, Jon C., Jones, Raymond E. and Bowers, Rick (eds.). The Harbrace Anthology of Literature. Canada: Nelson Thomas Learning, 2002. 902-913.

Korb, Rena. An Overview of The Yellow Wallpaper. Gale Online Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale, Literature Resource Center. Gale. 2008. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 25). Uncovering the Wallpaper in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/uncovering-the-wallpaper-in-gilmans-the-yellow-wallpaper/

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 25). Uncovering the Wallpaper in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. https://studycorgi.com/uncovering-the-wallpaper-in-gilmans-the-yellow-wallpaper/

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