This the story of one woman in the 19th century, enduring an illness where the “cure” leads to her demise. Yet, this is a tale rich with sweeping commentary on the plight of women, then and now, where their emotional state and what it will take to support them is devised and controlled by a patriarchal society. Whether meant to be or not, treatment of women’s issues was and always has been focused on silencing the malady-stunting the assertion of need. Understanding the life and times of the author, Charlotte Gilman of The Yellow Wallpaper informs us as to the very nature of the main character’s state of mind.
Women are seen as melodramatic and frail, therefore leading to a treatment of rest and inactivity. Her “illness” is an excuse for the men in her life and society to be even more repressive. A woman’s place was believed to be in the home and this is reflected in the way she is told not to work or write. This is an interesting dilemma because while the author’s husband might be able to control her comings and goings, her level of activity, he cannot control her mind. And in this way, Gilman provides a means for the main character to control her own circumstances, her own destiny. On first pass, you could view this story as simply a woman losing her mind yet it is actually an allegory of success and triumph when fighting the power of a society bent on keeping women under men’s control.
The main character keeps a journal and this is where we discover another presence in her life. Due to her loneliness, she claims she sees a woman in the wallpaper she hates so much. It is ironic that the very thing that is driving her crazy, becomes a friend and form of comfort. The doppelganger in the paper becomes someone the main character identifies herself with and what seems so normal and acceptable from her perspective is in reality the gradual loss of sanity and stability in reality. Our main character struggles between these two worlds for a while-asking for ways to keep her gripe on reality-participating in an upcoming 4th of July celebration, entertaining visitors that she enjoys, seeking her husbands company and validation-yet all of these attempts to connect to her captor and maintain in this mental world are shot down. These are last ditch efforts on her part to stay in the “real” world and when she finally succumbs to insanity, her world is connected to the wallpaper and the 4 walls her world consists of. When she is discovered on all fours, crawling around the room, the symbolism of her debasement and the intensity of her infantizing world is revealed, her husband cannot help but judge the situation as full insanity. However, in her mind and as a symbol of women’s issues, Gilman’s representation of the main character crawling out of the room, over her prostrate husband, is a triumphant ending to a woman seeking to “bust out” of her shell and do that while climbing over the repressive society of husbands and men who control her.
The main character in The Yellow Wallpaper was brought to an island by her husband to heal her, but in reality, to hide her from the public. He rejects her desire to write and her natural tendencies toward analysis and this is the driving force leading to her insanity. Gilman’s portrayal of the husband is quite revealing. While her representation of his intentions and actions may be conventional and may even be considered kind, Gilman’s commentary on 19th century society, in particular men, allows us to have a bird’s eye view at just how miserable and constrained life was. Add in that, the main character had artistic tendencies and Gilman can then really focus on the control and repression women were subjected to at the hands of men. In many ways, representing a woman as having gone insane over such trivial concessions is ludicrous-the husband’s intention to provide good care, give his wife a chance to heal and rest and wouldn’t he be applauded for his caring actions. However, it is the behind the curtains analysis that gives us a chance to understand the inner life of a conventional husband and wife and how women, thoughtful women, must have felt. It would drive you insane and then the response of society and the lack of support for asserting ones needs would drive you doubly insane.
The idea that she talks of herself in the 3rd person is a remarkable and perhaps the ultimate revelation as to the underlying intent of this Gothic story. She has held her true self down and can only see who she is once she is detached from the person she is when sane. We realize that she had to lose herself in order to understand herself and although she did that, she has ruined herself in the process. Now she is “free” of the constraints of her marriage, her society, and her own efforts to repress her mind.