Using Symbolism in the Yellow Wallpaper

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a short story first published in January 1892. The story covers themes such as gender roles, resting cure, freedom, society and class. The passage that I will be analyzing is “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?” (Gilman, 1892, page 38). This quotation is important because it sums up the whole theme of the book and the twentieth century, which is that women were second class citizen. Although the female narrator gained the most attention, the gender roles are prevalent in demonstrating the themes because while the narrator suffers postpartum depression, her disease is made worse by her husband. I will be analyzing this by looking at the history of mistreatment of women as well as the mental health after giving birth.

To understand this passage, I think it’s important to understand the literary devices that appear in the story. Probably the most prominent literary device in this short story is the use of symbolism. The narrator treats the wallpaper like it’s a text that needs to be analyzed. One of the things that I realized with the way she describes the wall paper was the description changes as her illness became worse. At first the wallpaper was just an “repellant, almost revolting,” (Gilman, 1892, page 39). The worst part, as she described it, was the obnoxious pattern and it fascinates the narrator as she attempts to figure it out. The narrator then continues to describe the wallpaper as there was a woman behind the patterns.

Eventually, as the patterns comes into focus as a desperate woman looking for an escape, the audience realizes that this is symbolism for the narrator looking for an escape from the room, marriage, and life. Paying attention to how the story progresses, the narrator sees a cage with the heads of many women, all who were trying to escape. Clearly, the wallpaper represents the structure of family, medicine, and tradition in which the narrator finds herself trapped. Wallpaper is domestic and humble, and Gilman skillfully uses this nightmarish, hideous paper as a symbol of the domestic life that traps so many women

Mental illness has played a role in the lives of millions of women long before official diagnoses were named. One prime example of acknowledgement of mental illness is found in this short story. Although this literary piece was written over 100 years ago, it boldly expresses the oppression of women mentally and professionally. The narrator is trapped in her mental disorder and a toxic relationship, but unlike the patterns of the wallpaper, the narrator is stuck in the pattern of being a woman in the 19th century.

The yellow wallpaper symbolizes the structure and tradition of that time period which the narrator finds herself trapped in. The story follows as a woman spirals into what is seemingly a pit of psychosis. The woman, after giving birth, battles what we know as post-partum depression. Given the time (1892), this woman’s symptoms were simply diagnosed as a slight hysterical tendency. The physician’s cure for this “slight hysterical tendency” was rest, fresh air and absolutely no work or social gatherings. It is clear as the story progresses what harm this isolation does to the main character. The Yellow Wallpaper gave insight into what life was like for women during this time period, with women often depicted as weak and mentally fragile. The cure for bouts of depression was isolation and rest which in turn often caused more harm than good.

Within the given phrase, there is a lot of repetition at the end, “What is one to do,” the narrator first says this on page 37 and she talks about it in the context of her husband, John, not believing that she is sick. Then she says it again 2 times on page 38 in the first and third paragraph in the context of John not believing that by her working it could actually do her some good. I believe the repetition used in that specific line is used to emphasize the significance of the text which is that she has no say over her life. The narrator’s tone is hopeless, especially when she says, “what is one to do,” in this specific line put in the passage that I chose and the rest of the story.

This passage is just an example of the way john talks to his wife, showing the gender roles of that time. The short story was written during the 1800, during that time women were considered second class citizens, they were not prompted to pursue a career of education, and after marriage they were considered property to their husbands. Clearly, the passage is a representation of the society during the time she wrote this.

The passage illustrates how her disease is made worse by her husband because it shows that no matter what, no one would believe that she knew what was best for her. In other words, it was what women experienced with post-partum disease on a daily basis during that time period. I choose that passage because it demonstrates the main theme of the story which is the oppressive nature of gender roles during the 1800. Today, women dealing with mental illness still battle the negative connotations stemming from the stereotypes of long ago. The myth that women battling mental illness are crazy, eccentric, hollow or out of control is completely untrue and one of the reasons many women don’t seek help. Seeking help, rather than being seen as a weakness should in fact be seen as a power move. Seeking help will not only benefit the person in question, but it can also increase that person’s quality of life.