One thinks of yellow as a lively and vibrant color, but to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the color represents a morose feeling, in her short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. Critics dispute whether Gilman gives a clear explanation to what the yellow wallpaper symbolizes. At the first glance, it is merely a part of the character’s physical surrounding; yet the narrator’s troubled mind perceives this wallpaper as something more significant.
At the beginning of the story, the narrator is simply puzzled and slightly irritated by the wallpaper, yet towards the end of the story the wallpaper becomes her inescapable fixation. From being a part of the physical surroundings, the wallpaper progresses to being another fully-fledged character of the story. The wallpaper is effectively anthropomorphized by the narrator’s vivid imagination: ‘I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have!’ (Gilman, 1998, p. 5).
The narrator’s study of the patterns on the wallpaper and their change in different light are an allegory for her quest for self-determination and understanding of her inner world. She starts to realize that there is a trapped woman in the pattern, but at first she does not identify with her: ‘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’ (Gilman, 1998, p. 13).
Eventually, the narrator starts identifying with the creeping woman and tries to help her break the bars. However, in reality, she tries to free her own mind from the restrictions set by the society and her husband. At the moment of full identification with the woman on the wallpaper, the narrator looses her own self. While it obviously means a descent into insanity, it also signifies liberation and acceptance of the narrator’s true identity.
The narrator’s mental disorder has been long perceived as insignificant by her husband and sister-in-law. Instead of paying attention to the root causes of her mental problems and their development over time, the two impose an even more restrictive regime on the narrator, which turns out to be so detrimental for her feeble mental health.
The narrator is advised to sleep as much as she can and avoid any intellectual activity which her bright imagination so desperately craves. Thus, she has no way to express her emotions, which gradually leads her into insanity.
The reason why the narrator is prohibited from engaging in intellectual activity has a lot to do with the story’s social settings. It is obvious that the characters belong to the upper class; at those times, women were regarded as inferior beings that should be kept away from complicated and intellectual matters, for their own good. Cold and masculine rationality was believed to be the only acceptable way of approaching the world, while such qualities as femininity and emotional intelligence were looked down upon.
The narrator does not have anyone to share her concerns and thoughts with. She constantly asks for a ‘stimulating company,’ such as Cousin Henry and Julia, yet her husband reckons it might be harmful for her: ‘[H]e says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now’ (Gilman, 1998, p. 5).
While the intention of John is to help her wife, his inattentiveness to her inner life and preoccupation with traditional gender roles only makes the situation worse. The story emphasizes the importance of communication and true understanding on the part of our nearest and dearest.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wall-paper and Other Stories. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.