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Wallpaper as Metaphor: Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Societal Change

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"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Subjugation of Women

Misuse, abuse, strangulation, stagnation, failure to thrive, repression, regression, repulsion, expulsion. This is the spine of events that Charlotte Gilmore presents in The Yellow Wallpaper, her story of social ostracism, female complacency, male domination, and societal failure. Each of these vertebrae is so deftly maneuvered that there is little evidence of the major driving factor until the story is fleshed out against the backdrop of late 19th century America. With the historical turbulence of the time, this story was very important as a catalytic argument. It is a direct attack on the authority of men and the conventional wisdom of this time period. This effective attack is laid out in a disturbingly vivid and gutturally wrenching first-hand account of a psychotic breakdown of the individual. The argument: The treatment of women by society is directly opposed to the well-being of the women, more like prisoners than citizens, and in that effect also detrimental to the advancement of society as a whole.

Understanding the Societal Situation

To see the deep-seated argument that this story presents we must first understand the concepts that are directly attacked within. The basic plot follows a woman who has been prescribed a treatment of social rest, the cure for nervous depression. This social rest includes hourly medications, forced feedings, and above all else extremely limited interactions with other people. In The Yellow Wallpaper, the nameless protagonist is allowed only to speak with her husband and her sister. Also, she is allowed only limited movement, being confined to the top floor of a large estate for the majority of the story. She is made to feel like she has limited knowledge and should be grateful for her husband, who is the doctor who prescribed this regiment, taking the time and effort necessary to make her better. We see the narrator pitted against several factions representing cultural norms; Husband vs. Wife in John vs. Narrator, Doctor vs. Patient in John vs. Narrator, Socially acceptable woman vs. New Woman in Mary vs. Narrator, Passive New Woman vs. Active New Woman in Jennie vs. Narrator. Society vs. The New Woman is inherent throughout each of these conflicts and is, at root, the topic being attacked. These conflicts are embedded so deftly into the text that we must take care to pry them out by use of the delicate language we have been provided.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Challenging the Status Quo

The culture itself is challenged and challenged with such absurdity that it becomes only evident in the subtext and double meaning conveyed in the language, and the argument becomes Social Stagnation vs. Social Advance. The ideology of the characters pitted against the protagonist is that of the standard culture of the time. Men are the superior and women the inferior, men the masters and women the servants, men the knowledgeable and women the emotional, men the rational and women the irrational. From the very first lines, we are established in a rather unique place that beckons back to an earlier time in which the place of men and women in the social world was much more solid. This estate has fallen to shambles because of “legal trouble” between heirs and coheirs. This type of family conflict is the basis for the disruption in the lives of John and our protagonist as well. With the introduction of this trouble, we can begin to follow the underlying symbolism conveyed in the text. Our protagonist is going to embark on a journey in which the institution is directly changing the family structure. Since she is being secluded from society, her ostracism treatment is then the institutional vehicle for change. The change will involve the family power structure.

The Opening Volley

At the beginning of the story, we are told that the narrator is a writer and she has been forbidden to work as part of her treatment. She has been diagnosed as having “nervous depression” and is allotted a great many medications. She does her societal duty and conforms to her expected role by not outwardly questioning the authorities of her brother and husband, both doctors. We are also privy to the knowledge that she considers him practical and that in her assessment “he has no patience with faith.” She is aligned with superstition, nature, and faith while he is aligned with “only those things that can be felt, seen, and put down in figures.” This is a cardinal trait in realist and new woman fiction. The protagonist is directly opposed to her treatments and admits this to us through the text. In the beginning, we are seeing the protagonist as the traditional woman, having thoughts of change but not acting on them. Even when she begins to protest her placement in a nursery room on the top floor of the estate she does so in such a manner as to be considered socially correct. Her husband uses a medical (institutional) argument to assert his choice of her room and she again conforms. At this point we are introduced to the room that she will inhabit for the rest of the story:

It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls. 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.

The room reads like that of an asylum, but when she presents it, the single most intrusive character is the wallpaper. This treatment of the benign element as the most disturbing foreshadows the great effect this vehicle will have on her. The yellow wallpaper in the nursery becomes a complex metaphor for society, and in so doing becomes the vehicle for the assertion of the New Woman.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a proponent of the New Woman movement.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a proponent of the New Woman movement.

Entering the Land of Metaphor

Our first introduction to the social metaphor comes in the next line as she describes the pattern on the wallpaper:

"It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions."

If read as a statement on society, the views of the author become quite clear: The theory of current society is pleasant and practical on the outside but if we take a moment to question it and pursue it to the point of implementation then there become serious problems. This story, brought to its conclusion, is one such problem.

If we continue to look at the wallpaper as a metaphor we can then align the characters by their reactions to it. When considering the wallpaper John makes comments that can be taken to the argument against social change:

At first he meant to repaper the room, but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies. He said that after the wall-paper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on.

Once we give in to one demand there will be another and another until there is nothing left of the original thing at all. John is thus aligned with keeping society from changing. Interestingly enough there is an acknowledgement of this by Gilman a few lines down when she says, “But he is right enough about the beds and windows and things.” It is most obvious here that the writer, through the symbols in the narrative, is commenting on social change.

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An Interesting Twist

In Jennie we find a completely different reaction to the wallpaper, this one seen through the eyes of the narrator:

"I caught Jennie with her hand on it once. She didn't know I was in the room, and when I asked her in a quiet, a very quiet voice, with the most restrained manner possible, what she was doing with the paper—she turned around as if she had been caught stealing, and looked quite angry—asked me why I should frighten her so! Then she said that the paper stained everything it touched, that she had found yellow smooches on all my clothes and John's, and she wished we would be more careful!"

Jennie, from the narrator's perspective, is in competition with her. She wants to learn the secrets of the wallpaper for herself. This makes her sympathetic in terms of social change but she is still an opponent in the eyes of the narrator. Here we see Gilman putting a secondary female character in alignment with the values of the narrator to justify the position as not insane.

The Wallpaper as Society

Following the metaphor of the wallpaper we can see it begin to change the longer that the protagonist is without social interaction. This could be seen as taking a view from a non-culturally influenced standpoint. If so, the longer she is without society the clearer her perception of the world is. In metaphor, the longer she is isolated with that wallpaper the clearer she will see it. If this is true, what she sees is deafening:

"There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down. I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere There is one place where two breaths didn't match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other."

Here we can read the wallpaper as being a representation of the institutions of society, all the unblinking eyes that are everlasting. The fact that they are not matching, that one eye is just above another leads one to believe that this is a corollary to the way that government is set up with so many different levels. Each level looks directly up or down to the next. So the wallpaper, on the surface, is a representation of society and the standard institutions. Then what do we make of this next section:

"This wall-paper has a kind of sub-pattern in a, different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then. But in the places where it isn't faded and where the sun is just so—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design."

There is a sub-section to society implicit in this reading. This is an irritation to the upper level of society, the top layer of the wallpaper. The intriguing thing here is that the figure is skulking in the background, not taking up prominence because, of course, this figure is not empowered by the upper layer of the paper.

Insanity in Trying to Understand Society

In further descriptions of the wallpaper, Gilman starts to describe the current state of society and the undercurrents inherent in this structure. In each description, the form beneath the main pattern becomes more vivid, more alive. This image haunts the narrator for quite some time and begins to wear away at her sanity. This parallel is so well impressed in the layers of the text that when an extrapolation is attempted there is little recourse but to cite the entirety of the text as an example. The course of dwindling sanity is matched by the course of growing self-awareness. The socially exiled individual is now left on her own to make judgements on her situation without the aid of societal crutches. She does so by making this unconscious connection between the symbolic meaning of the dual-layered wallpaper and placing herself in the place of the individual in the second layer.

Gilman uses this affiliation to further her social commentary:

"At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be. I didn't realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman. By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour."

The woman is a prisoner of this society. She is this woman. She is a prisoner. These parallels are not coincidental. She further explains that this is only known, and seen, at night, in the dark. These factors in American culture are hidden by the patterns of daily life. These patterns allow men to dominate culture by eliminating women from the loop and confining them to the household duties prescribed by centuries of authority. Directly after the aforementioned quote, the narrator states that she spends a great deal of time in bed and that John had started this habit by making her lie down for an hour after each meal. From something innocent, such as a nap after a meal, can grow a great deal of imprisonment. By slowly elongating the resting period, John has confined his wife not only to a single room within the house but to the bed within that room.

Even in this strangulated life, or perhaps because of it, the narrator becomes much more in tune with her discomfort and turns it to a passionate, if illogical, obsession. Here we begin to see the social narrative hidden by the dementia of the surface story. If we separate the two a cunning thing happens; the social commentary becomes a focused attack on social norms. Here is a moment of revelation, a turning point in the narrative:

"The front pattern does move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads."

Here is the realization that this is happening to many more women and they are fighting back but only in the darkness, only in the areas where they cannot be seen. When they are put in the spotlight they stop and pretend to be placid, but when the light is gone they shake the bars of their prison heartily. She is trying to climb through but the pattern, the society, the institutions are too powerful. Then there is a line that is often misread; “I think that is why it has so many heads.” This line does not mean that the subordinate pattern has many heads it means that the pattern, the upper level has so many heads to keep these women and their ideas from escaping out into society! Gilman then postscripts this with, “If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad.”

“If only that top pattern could be gotten off from the under one! I mean to try it, little by little.” Here the narrator has decided to fight the power that is in that pattern. She is going to make a stand and do what she can, little by little. Gilman is showing us that there can be social change, and if there is the will to do it, even little by little, the change will come. This is said with an exclamation at the end of the story when the narrator (who is not Jane, but rather a new woman who was formerly Jane):

"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!" Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!

The narrator has taken the position of power and the former master of the house is portrayed as a damsel, fainting. The changing of the structure has occurred and although John would try to stop it she would still creep over him every time. Gilman asserts the position of this new, powerful woman, while at the same time conceding that the fight would be continuous.

Stepping Through the Wallpaper to the Other Side

Obviously, Charlotte Gilman was a proponent of the New Woman movement and through her characters and their various associations with elements of society invited criticism of the current standards and practices through actions communicated in the story. The unique blend of John as both the husband and doctor allows Gilman the ability to attack an institution on a personal level. We have a blending of the male sector of society and institutions of the state. Idealizing the maid with the name Mary gives credence to the other female characters in the story by not proclaiming all women to be of this new ideology. Gilman’s narrator, although she could be read as a classic case of insanity, provides a compelling case for overturning the social practice of strict rest as a prescription. But in a unique twist, she also presents a case for the new woman in a new and emerging society that has been developing beneath the constraints of the society of men. She then can be classified as not insane but rather as a genius. Often times the lines of genius and insanity cross and perhaps this is the case in “The Yellow Wallpaper” as the narrator progresses from Jane to a new, more independent and self-assertive woman: A new woman both literally and figuratively.

Helpful Note

Here's what Gilman, herself, had to say about the story: Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.

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