The Yellow Wallpaper

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“The Yellow Wallpaper” A feminist break though and interpretation of the symbolism
At the time of its publication in 1892, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was regarded primarily as a supernatural tale of horror and insanity in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe. Charlotte Perkins Gilman based the story on her own experience with a “rest cure” for mental illness. The “rest cure” inspired her to wright a critique of the medical treatment prescribed to women suffering from a condition then known as “neurasthenia” (Golden 145).

Gilman’s work was praised by many. Elaine R. Hedges, author of the afterword to the 1973 version, praised the work as “one of the rare pieces of literature we have by a nineteenth-century woman who directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship.” Since that time, Gilman's story has been discussed by literary critics from a wide range of perspectives, including biographical, historical, psychological, feminist, semiotic, and sociocultural. Nearly all of these critics acknowledge the story as a feminist text written in protest of the negligent treatment of women by a patriarchal society.

I argue that the question of whether Gilman provides a feminist solution to the patriarchal oppression that is exposed in the story is evident. The yellow wallpaper is symbolic in the sense that it represents constraints women are held to, like the home and family. In the case of Charlotte Gilman, women were constricted to the set parameters that were determined by men.  Women were expected to accept these boundaries and remain in place. In todays society most of these constraints are shared by both parties and women have every opportunity a man has. Than women were cast as emotional servants whose lives were dedicated to the welfare of home and family in the perseverance of social stability (Crewe 10).  Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in the “Yellow Wallpaper,” depicted Gilman’s struggle to throw off the constraints of patriarchal society in order to be able to write. Getting beyond the yellow wallpaper, women defied the power that men held over women, escaped their confinement, and created for themselves a new ideological role.

After conducting a close reading it was easier to identify the primary symbols Gilman uses in her story. The first was when the narrator introduces “myself and John,” the narrator identifies her  awkward positioning in her sentence and society; she does not see herself as equal with “ordinary people like John.” One of the words the narrator uses repeatedly is “queer.” Gilman uses the word during a time of cultural change from  the meaning of “strange” and “peculiar” to the euphemisms associated with homosexuality. Some critics like Jonathan Crewe think she uses the word to make her readers “recognize same-sex desire as repressed, not absent, in normative heterosexuality” (Crewe 279). 

Another symbol used is the two physicians. The narrator’s husband and brother represent the power that men possess over women. One of the most stand out symbols is the color yellow. It is often used to symbolize “inferiority, strangeness, cowardice, ugliness, and backwardness”  (Hume 481). Her writing can also be seen as a symbol. The undated journal entries “can be seen as a spatial indication of the narrator’s own fragmented sense of self” (Golden 193).  Catherine Golden suggests that the writing is not “a place for self-expression or a safe domain” for the narrator’s newly emerging sense of self (Golden 194).  Through her writings the narrator “not only reveals her unconscious awareness of her fictive design, but also leads her readers toward an understanding both of the terror and dark  amusement she feels as she confronts herself-a prisoner inside the yellow wall-paper an unsavory social text created and sustained not only by men like John, but by women like Jennie, and, most horribly, herself” (Hume 480).

Mary the nanny represents perfection in the...
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