The Yellow Wallpaper
If walls could speak, what would they say? This is a question that several people have pondered and perhaps even feared. The reason to this is quite simple, every wall has a secret. The walls of a cheap motel will testify to the affairs of a cheating spouse. The walls of a neighbor would testify of domestic violence, or perhaps even child abuse. For years, walls have been like tombstones, holding within them ageing secrets that will never be told. Some have painted them over and over again with various shades of color, so much that the original color would take years to decipher. Others have covered them up with wallpaper. Charlotte Gilman once wrote a tale in which she described a room whose walls were entirely covered by yellow wallpaper. With a phenomenal use of symbolism, Gilman brings forth a story that captivates the imagination and teaches an indispensable lesson: the wallpaper itself was not enough to cover up the secret this wall held within.
Gilmans story is narrated by a newly wed mother who has just arrived to the location of her summer vacation. The woman appears to be marveled at the place her husband has chosen and begins to wonder how they could have afforded it to begin with. It is interesting to note that right from the start the narrator lets her readers know that her husband had chosen the destination without any prior input from her. This sets the tone for the story, and with a hint of resentment she begins to describe the mansion as both haunted and cheaply. The narrator quickly proceeds to describe her relationship with her husband by saying that he is a doctor who often laughs at her and does not believe she is sick when she says she is. In a relatively sarcastic manner, she states: John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage. In these brief opening lines, one is able to note that something is just not right with this relationship. Gilman is introducing us to a marriage in which the woman feels that she is not equally matched with her partner. It becomes evident that John considers himself an important and dominating figure, whereas the woman appears to be a passive and repressed companion.
Assuming both the roles of husband and doctor to his wife comes rather easily. John is quick to diagnose her with nervous depression and sets bizarre treatment. Her stay at their summer vacation home would consist of no physical activity and more specifically no writing, so as not to give her wandering imagination a chance to escape and sicken her further. Little did he know that it was his own remedy that would do away with her mind completely. At first the woman in Gilmans story appears to be okay with the limits established by her husband. To relieve her mind, she keeps a secret journal in which she describes the house in great detail. She hides this journal every time her husband enters the room, and soon becomes writing about the yellow wallpaper which decorates the room in which she must live in daily.
Up until this point Gilman has given us much to analyze. The way John creates a sudden fear in his wife which provokes her to startle and hide her journal speaks volumes of his influence over her life. Gilmans use of symbolism first begins to take flight when the woman in her story suddenly begins to notice the wallpaper. It becomes evident only through her use of symbolism that controlling men trap women from all of their potential. The wallpaper in her story symbolizes women who have long been repressed by such men, and by society. Gilman demonstrates this very notion in the slightest ways, such as when the woman first describes the wallpaper as if it had been used by a room of boys: The paint and paper look as if a boys school had used it. It is stripped off the paper in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life. This first impression of the room is obviously a negative one. Yet hidden within this description lay distressing truths. The fact that the woman describes the wallpaper as used up by boys gives us a notion that she is implying that for years women have been used by men. This has resulted in years of low standards of self worth. A womans self conception of herself has been diminished when compared to that of men. Gilman seeks to illustrate this point even as she describes the appearance of the wallpaper: The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. Here, it might appear that Gilman is stating that women have been long faded out by men, and uses the terminology slow turning sunlight to illustrate the long days of which such repression has been endured. Keeping this in mind, her point is more vividly made as the wife also suggests: No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long. There comes John, and I must put this away,--he hates to have me write a word.
Gilmans story is saturated with symbolism which keeps the reader engaged throughout its entirety. The wife mentions the hideous wallpaper to her husband and he refuses to change it. He tells her that changing the wallpaper will only give in to her nervous desires, and will result in her wanting to change other things around the house as well. It is this very refusal by her husband to change the wallpaper that sparks her interest to it even more. Suddenly the wallpaper had lost its ugliness. Little by little it became fascinating to her. John had refused to change it, and this caused her to take great curiosity in it. She spent hours looking at it, and considered it a mystery that only she could figure out, she quotes: There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. Using her imagination, the woman is able to figure out just what it is that she is seeing. In her worship of the wallpaper she finds the only source of control she has. The wallpaper is the only thing that John cannot interfere with. He does not understand its complexities, and therefore cannot control it as he has controlled her. She feels both satisfied and relieved that she is the sole solver of this puzzle and is astonished by her results.
The woman that she sees in the wallpaper is trapped. Gilman uses the wall as her trap of domestic standards by which women are often forced into. She challenges these conventional standards with her characters madness to somehow free this woman in the wallpaper along with herself. She desperately begins to tare off the pieces, until at last she is finally free. When this occurs, the woman stands in awe at the realization that she was in fact the woman in the wall all along. Needless to say, John was in for a terrible surprise! He walks in on his wife whom he finds creeping along the wall speaking things that appear to be incoherencies. She tells him: Ive got out at last, and Ive pulled off most of the paper, so you cant put me back in! After hearing these words John fainted out of disbelief. How could he not have seen this coming? How could he not have known? It was his very treatment of her illness that drove her completely insane and over the edge. He had wanted to protect her, and help her recover but he did quite the opposite. By limiting her ability to socialize and secluding her from others, he helped her become fixated on the wallpaper. Only with the wallpaper could her suppressed thoughts run freely. He had persisted in her not working or doing physical activity, which lead to her brain doing all the activity that her body would not do. She also could very well have been suffering from post-partum depression after the birth of her son, and by John not allowing her to see him it caused her more harm than good.
Gilmans story is typical to what many women felt before the first wave of feminism struck America. Towards the end of the story, the narrator states: I dont like to look out of the windows eventhere are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all came out of the wallpaper as I did? With this question Gilman poises a fascinating fact. There are several women who have undergone the same suppression by men in their lives. Sadly, even today women continue to be forced to live in what appear to be domestic prisons and are never given the chance to escape. This struggle has been a tough one to be in, yet after the feminist movement more and more women were coming out from within the walls. The walls that surrounded the woman in Gilmans story did in fact hold a secret. A secret only she knew, that women were being held against their will by domestics. If those walls could in fact speak, what would they say? Those walls did speak. They said enough is enough.