In the grips of depression and the restrictions prescribed by her physician husband a woman struggles with maintaining her sanity and purpose. As a new mother and a writer, and she is denied the responsibility and intellectual stimulation of these elements in her life as part of her rest cure. Her world is reduced to prison-like enforcement on her diet, exercise, sleep and intellectual activities until she is “well again”. As she gives in to the restrictions and falls deeper into depression, she focuses on the wallpaper and slides towards insanity. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a story written from a first-person perspective about a young woman’s mental deterioration during the 1800’s and the adverse affects of the restriction place on her. The setting of the story is a colonial mansion in the country rented for the summer by the narrator’s husband while she is treated for her “nervous condition”. As the story progresses and the narrator describes her surroundings the setting focuses from the mansion and surrounding gardens to a bedroom in the mansion and finally on the wallpaper in the bedroom. This narrowing focus of the setting directly parallels the narrator’s mental deterioration. Gilman’s emphasis on the complex symbolism of the wallpaper illustrates the narrator’s depression and the adverse affects of limited intellectual activity which, in this case, leads to insanity.
At the beginning of the story, the narrator confides that she may not be well, but she disagrees with the prescribed treatment for her “nervous depression” when she states:
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
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Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
Clearly the narrator is opposed to the restrictions placed on her, but feels powerless to do anything about it. During this period (late 1800 – early 1900’s) it was common for physicians to treat depression with the “rest cure” of complete bed rest and limited intellectual activity. Therefore, despite her opposition to the treatment the narrator adheres to the restrictions with the exception of covertly writing in a journal about her feelings, daily routine and the mansion. Her initial focus is on the mansion, the surrounding gardens and the bedroom chosen for her during her stay.
When her focus eventually settles on the wallpaper in the bedroom and she states, “I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling, flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin” (Gilman 260). As the narrator resigns herself to her intellectual confinement, she begins to see more details in the wallpaper pattern. This can be seen as the slow shift from the connection to her family, friends and colleagues to her focus inward as she sinks deeper into depression. She describes that “—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design” (Gilman 262). As she focuses inward, sinking deeper into her depression the figure in the wallpaper takes shape and she states that, “There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will” (Gilman 264). And she begins to describe the form of a woman behind the wallpaper pattern, “Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and some times only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over” (Gilman 268).
Gilman guides the reader deeper into the narrowed focus of the narrator as she begins to lose her sanity and her life becomes obscure while the wallpaper form becomes animated. The narrator associates herself with the wallpaper form towards the story’s end and is driven to rid herself of the confines of the “top pattern” so that she is free to “creep around as I please” (Gilman270). At this point in the story the narrator has lost her sanity, and is living in the wallpaper-world she is imagining. Ironically, the wallpaper that she hates at the beginning of the story finally becomes the perimeter of her existence. The “bar” like pattern serves to keep her in when she fears going outside, but also confines her when she wants to “creep” around the bedroom. The narrators secures her perceived freedom when she successfully removes the wallpaper from most of the room and says, “I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jennie. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman 271).
The correlation in this story between the narrator and the wallpaper is that as the narrator loses her sanity and intellectual connection to her world she becomes more conscious of, and connected to, the wallpaper. The focus of her surroundings is narrowed to the point that she exists only in the bedroom, fearing the outdoors and limiting her contact with other people. The wallpaper provides the foundation for her fantasy world and represents breaking away from the confinement of her prescribed treatment and the loss of her sanity. The narrator is unable to fulfill her intellectual needs, whether it is by writing, interacting with friends and family, or experiencing changes in her prescribed daily routine. The wallpaper develops details and animation as the story progresses and symbolizes the confinement, struggle and acceptance of one woman’s struggle with debilitating depression.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. In Heath Literature for Composition. Toronto: D.C. Heath and Company, 1990.