The Yellow Wallpaper Essay
Ripping and Tearing the Path to Self-Realization
The story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” examines the role of women in the nineteenth century American society, especially the relationships between husbands and wives, and thus women’s dependence on their husbands. During the Victorian era, women were expected to behave modestly and remain obedient to their spouse. The narrator of the story is suffering from depression, most likely resulting from the birth of her son. Her husband and brother, both physicians recommend that she get complete bed rest. During the period of the story, an actual doctor, Weir Mitchell, made this “rest cure,” famous (Gilman 484). The “rest cure” advised women to refrain from writing or painting and prescribed bed rest. Weir Mitchell believed that intellectual pursuits were detrimental to women’s health (Gilman 484). The story chronicles the life of a woman forced to submit to the “rest cure.” “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a story about a woman, who despite being confined and suppressed, triumphs over her oppression. In the end, she attains a greater sense of self as she acts out her insanity. The narrator faces many small defeats at the hands of her husband that eventually culminate in psychosis. When they first arrive at the house, the narrator requests the small bedroom on the first floor, but John tells her they must use the upstairs nursery with the yellow wallpaper. She faces another defeat when John refuses to allow her to visit her cousins or have them visit her. John will not allow it, since he does not think she will be able to endure the trip or their company. Once she had resigned herself to the idea of living in the upstairs nursery, she asks to change the wallpaper.
Initially, John agrees, but after some thought dissents refusing to give in to her “fancies” about changing the wallpaper since following that, “it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on (Gilman, 477).” John’s unwillingness to compromise with his wife proves his dominance over her. In such a paternalistic relationship, she will always suffer oppression and defeat. The ending of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a victory for the narrator as she escapes the oppression of her subservient marriage and former self. In the conclusion of the story, the narrator tells her husband John that she has escaped, “in spite of you and Jane (Gilman 483).” Since the author never reveals the narrator’s name in the story, many assume that Jane is the narrator (Delashmit and Longcope). She had to escape the confinement of the nursery, her marriage, and the role expected of women during this period. In the end of the story, the narrator has rejected her former self and becomes the woman in the wallpaper. Finally, she escapes the wallpaper, never to be repressed by her husband, herself or society again.The narrator attempts to rebel against her husband several times throughout the story to overcome the defeat she is feeling. She writes in her journal despite knowing, “he hates to have me write a word (Gilman 474).” She also rebels against John by pretending to sleep. By rebelling in such ways, she is refusing to respond to his treatment. It seems that she is choosing to go mad rather than giving in and losing herself and her imagination. As the narrator identifies with the woman in the wallpaper, she realizes that the source of her own power is in her active imagination.
Many critics have called the wallpaper both representative of the oppressiveness of marriage and representative of freedom from the oppression (Evans, Little, and Wiedemann 68). As the narrators last act of rebellion, she rips and tears down the paper. She locks John out of the room and throws the key out of the window. When John enters the room, immediately shocked by the maniacal sight of his wife, he faints. The irony of the story is how the “rest cure” fails to cure her depression and instead drives her mad. Despite being driven to insanity, the narrator’s mind finally triumphed over the prescribed “rest cure” at the end of the story by escaping into her imagination. If she had succumbed to the “rest cure,” and it had succeeded, she would have allowed the cure to defeat her intellectually and imaginatively. In the following quote, the narrator tells her husband how she has overcome him: “I’ve got out at last, said I, in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back (Gilman 483).” She succeeds in ripping the wallpaper from the walls against her husband’s will, prevailing over her submissive role. Despite her lunacy, she defeats her husband, yet again, by causing him to faint (Gilbert and Gubar 489). Fainting is an action most commonly related to females and weakness. Once he faints, the narrator climbs over his body as she makes her way around the room.
Her husband becomes a surmountable obstacle unlike the insurmountable obstacle he posed throughout the rest of the story. As she loses her grip with reality, the narrator rebels in the greatest way possible. She has ripped, torn and bitten the wallpaper down to free herself and the woman in the paper. She has become almost animalistic as she crawls around the room on all fours. Ultimately she has proven to her husband that she is in fact, truly ill. Her insanity seems to be a symptom of the defeat that she is experiencing. In defeating the oppression and breaking free, she pays the ultimate price, her sanity. Since the story ends here, the reader never knows if the madness is temporary much like the author’s own depression. The narrator is triumphant over her oppression by finally overcoming the obstacle that was her husband and breaking free of her former self. She is no longer the complacent wife and mother but rather an animal climbing over her husband as she continues to do as she wishes, circling the room.
Delashmit, M., and C. Longcope. Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Explicator 50.1 (1991): 32. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Mar. 2013. Evans, Robert, Anne Little, and Barbara Wiedemann. Short Fiction: A Critical Companion. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill, 1997. 64-72. Print. Gilbert, Sandra M and Susan Gubar. “Imprisonmenat and Escape: The Psychology of Confinement.” Literature An Introduction to Fiction Poetry Drama and Writing. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 12th ed. New York: Pearson, 2013. 488-489. Print. Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Literature An Introduction to Fiction Poetry Drama and Writing. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 12th ed. New York: Pearson, 2013. 473-485. Print.