Charlotte Gilman through “The Yellow Wallpaper” illustrates personalities connected with old American views. During this time in history, women were commonly observed as belongings. Although a number of specifics have been altered, there are similarities between Gilman and the narrator of the story. The short story revolves around a woman who has a newborn baby and is now struggling with an illness. As a result, her husband, baby, and sister-in-law accompany her to a summerhouse to acquire peace and rest, ultimately hoping to restore her health. Ironically, the very opposite effect appears to occur. By analyzing different themes in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it’s evident the characters surrounding the narrator aided in her creating a second self to satisfy her desolation and wish to regain power over her life.
Women’s historical responsibilities in society and in literature are often described in a position of submission. Women were commonly repressed and controlled by their husbands and other male figures. As Kathleen Wilson points out, the financial and public dependence of women on men was a common relationship during the time Gilman wrote this story. The narrator is going through a challenging time in her life, and she is seeking a method of solace. Instead, her husband proceeded by forbidding his wife from doing any work to the point of alienating her from her baby. Greg Johnson notes the narrator’s husband is portrayed as a powerful repressive male antagonist, and he enforces his will and power upon her. The everyday world of masculine order and domestic routine subjects the narrator to find comfort in an imaginative world. Linda Wagner-Martin cited that women who grew up in the 19th century wrestled with the status of being the family while maintaining lucidity. Eventually, the narrator chooses a life of madness over repression, refusing a life of unhappy silence. Her performance can be seen as a manifestation derived from long-suppressed anger, an anger that ultimately leads to a mental breakdown.
A clear example of a women’s role is demonstrated through the narrator’s sister-in-law Jennie. She is portrayed as a pure and avid housekeeper. Johnson states, during this time in history women were viewed as useful in the state of managing the house and the children. Jennie agrees with these thoughts and beliefs and followed these guidelines completely. Likewise, when the narrator is unable to care for her newborn child, Jennie without hesitation steps. Jennie is accepting of the rigid classified and imaginative pure repression of women. Similarly, Jennie agrees with the idea that mentally stimulating activities such as writing have the potential to aggravate a women’s health. Therefore, the acceptance of women's weakness is evident, while reinforcing the belief that men are more powerful and controlling than the opposite sex.
On the other hand, the narrator demonstrates a stance against the norms and establishes characteristics of rebellion. Wilson gives the notion; the unnamed protagonist is confined to a room that’s away from the rest of the family. Her husband has forbidden any type of mentally stimulating activities, to the point that she is unable to interact with her young child. Ironically, John is an individual who has the proper education and knows more than the average human being. However, he still finds belief in women being delicate creatures and that they have little to no capability outside the territory of the homemaking sphere. The new mother finds compatible comfort in her newfound fantasy world. As time passes, and she realizes that her voice is not being heard she becomes quieter each day, sinking into her anger and despair. Therefore, solitude becomes boring, and it encourages the narrator to find comfort in analyzing the yellow wallpaper that covers the walls in her room.
As a result, a common theme of mental illness is presented by the author, it is derived from the continuous restriction and confinement women had to endure. Rena Korb explains that John physically and spiritually traps the narrator. He decides which activities are acceptable and which are not; he simply knows what is best for his wife. As a result, the wife assumes her role as a submissive creature and asks permission to initiate the activity of writing. John responds by denying her request. Consequently, the narrator feels a need to escape, to do more with her life, and she begins to feel irate. She is aware of the limited control she has over her life and is desperate for a change, but there is little to nothing that she can do about it. Therefore, the narrator begins to imagine a figure that is trapped in the wallpaper. Ironically, the figure represents the protagonist’s build-up emotions and resentment, leading to an expression of insanity.
On the other hand, John, the protagonist’s husband, is portrayed to be a caring, well-educated individual who wants nothing more than for his wife to become healthy. Upon further examination of his actions, it is evident he is nothing but a villain. As Johnson declares, the husband depicts the typical male characteristics of power and repression. Every decision he makes demonstrates actions of masculine order. He demands domestic routine, as no action can be taken without his prior authorization. Furthermore, there is a psychological mind-twisting goal revolving around John's actions. He is cautious to talk to his wife in a careful and loving manner as distracting her from his true intentions. He justifies his tyrannical control over his wife by stating repeatedly that he only wants what’s best for her.
Moreover, the setting in “The Yellow Wallpaper” plays an essential aspect in the submission of the narrator’s state of mind. Wilson makes a detailed fact evident; originally, the place in which the characters are residing appears to be tranquil and soothing. In actuality this couldn’t be further from the truth, this is a place of confinement. In fact, the new mother expresses satisfaction in observing the land that surrounds them. The house resides in an isolated location away from other neighbors and society. Similarly, Korb comments the new mother is restricted in more than one-way. Aside from being trapped in her home and in her mind, she is unable to interact with the world around her. Another aspect to consider is the abnormal characteristics of the secured bed to the floor, and the bars on the baby’s room window; this demonstrates a state of imprisonment. The setting of the short story reinforces the mysterious feelings and attitudes expressed by the narrator.
Equally, the symbolism of the yellow wallpaper delivers a comparable report of the mental standing in which the narrator found herself. The most mentioned and described symbolism is the actual wallpaper. Johnson positions, the protagonist initially views the wallpaper as hideous and unappealing. As time passes, the new mother alters her perspective and starts to visualize the wallpaper as something she must interpret. The restricted-isolated woman finds comfort as well as entertainment in trailing around the rips and damages encompassing the wallpaper. Because of her confinement and little to no mental stimulation, the narrator starts to imagine a woman trapped in the midst of the wallpaper. Wilson elaborates that life-like characteristics begin to be associated with the wallpaper. Smells, eyes, and speech are all human-like features that begin to become relevant to isolated women. The wallpaper began to take on the restricting type of life the narrator herself was living.
Correspondingly, a supernatural-like theme is uncovered in the midst of the short story. It contributes to the mental collapse the narrator experiences. First Wilson acknowledges the house the family inhabits is three miles away from the closest city. This foreshadowing detail sets the tone of the story as the house represents loneliness and sadness. Likewise, many psychological influences presented in the text allude to the realism of mystic fiction. For example, the narrator journeys through a difficult nervous breakdown. Horror is apparent when she begins to visualize a woman trapped inside the wallpaper. Suspense is evident as she expresses her suspicions about John and Jenny and fears they might figure out what’s underneath the paper. Korb references that historically the narrator’s behavior was speculated to be peculiar and challenging conduct. Johnson adds the ghostly theme is further enhanced by the narrator’s conduct which was influenced by her confinement, one that is uncommon for women of this time.
After analyzing different topics in “The Yellow Wallpaper” it is evident the characters surrounding the narrator aided in her creating a second self in order to satisfy her emptiness and desire to regain control of her life. Gilman depicts this short story from experiences that she personally endured. Women were thought to be weak and sensitive. On the other hand, men were thought to be all-knowing and wise.