“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a story that takes place in the 19th century about a woman driven insane by postpartum depression and a “treatment” that only makes the mental illness worse. However, an examination of the narrator’s characterization portrays that the story is partly about identity. The narrator sees an imaginary woman against the bars of the wallpaper’s pattern which pieces together her identity, internalizing the conflict she’s going through with her depression and eventually leading to the breakdown of the barriers of her identity. The unnamed protagonist is suffering from postpartum depression which is an effect of giving birth to a child that was not well known around the time. Her husband, John, was a physician and for some reason did not notice how bad her symptoms were. If she had been treated properly instead of being trapped inside the house, which caused the depression to become crippling, she would have gotten better. In the 19th century they believed that isolation was the proper solution to these mental problems but in reality it made the disorder worse. The imagery portrayed in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by the physical isolations from the real world, mirror the feelings of the narrator’s mental isolations which causes the narrator to have crippling postpartum depression.
The narrator’s postpartum depression gradually gets worse throughout the story. Her husband, John, who is also her doctor, sent her away over the summer to a “haunted house” that was far from the road and a few miles from the nearest town (Gilman 378). Isolation was believed to be the cure to depression during the time period. Ironically, the room with the yellow wallpaper that she is isolated into, is a nursery which makes her symptoms worse because her depression was caused by having a child and being trapped in a place that reminded her of her baby only made things worse. The narrator also claims that she is “absolutely forbidden to work” until she gets better (378). Jennie, John’s sister, is a housekeeper for the couple at the summer home. Jennie’s presence intensifies the narrator’s feelings of guilt over her inability to act as the traditional wife and mother that she wants to be. The narrator remains unnamed throughout “The Yellow Wallpaper” due to her depression which caused her to lose her identity. Her identity is finally restored when she breaks through the barriers of her depression, freeing herself from feeling isolated.
Symbolism and imagery play a major role in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. This story takes place in the 19th century so around this time, people did not have much knowledge on mental illness. When a person had mental problems, they were told by the doctor to isolate themselves from others and take certain medicines. The narrator’s brother and husband, who are both physicians, tell her that she needs to be physically isolated, but she disagrees and believes “that congenial work, with excitement and change would do me good” (379). This symbolization portrays an image that the narrator represents all women in this time period and how they were mistreated and had little to no rights. The narrator had no choice, so she was forced by her husband to go to the house that was believed to cure her illness. The house was isolated from all reality by being miles away from the nearest person, town, and road. The narrator says “I take phosphates or phosphites-whichever it is” for her illness which almost seems like she is unsure what medicine she is taking and if it even works when ironically, her husband is the doctor and should know which medicine to give her (378). This portrays that physicians had very little knowledge on the medicine for mental illnesses in this era compared to modern times. While living in this isolated house, the narrator was physically isolated by being trapped in the nursery room with the yellow wallpaper with nothing to do other than write in her diary and look at the wallpaper. The narrator’s physical isolation throughout the story is what lead to her mental isolation from sanity. While trapped in the room, she creates a second self, that she sees as a shadow of a woman in the yellow wallpaper, in order to satisfy her loneliness and desire to regain control of her own life. The woman that she imagines in the wallpaper, mirrors how the narrator is physically and mentally trapped and how she is gradually becoming more insane due to her isolation from the real world. Finally, she feels like her normal self towards the end of the story after she becomes so insane that she rips off the wallpaper symbolizing the release of her mental burden and the end of her suffering.
Any reader might assume that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is simply about a woman driven insane by postpartum depression and physical isolation from the real world, but it is so much more than just that. It is the illusion of the narrator’s shadow on the wall that makes it seem so realistic, which drives her completely insane and eventually into believing she and the women in the wallpaper have traded places making her rip down the wallpaper to free herself from being trapped. In a way, the narrator represents all women during this time period because she cannot express herself the way she wants to. Also, she does not have the same rights as a man would which is expected in this era. But when she can finally have the same rights, she is shown as a crazy woman. The protagonist finally breaks free, as the women in the late nineteenth century would have loved to do at the time. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a wonderful and disturbing story at the same time. The content throughout the whole story is revolved around a very sinister and dark concept but is so well-written that it is intriguing to the reader.