Symbolism in The Yellow Wallpaper
Length: 1293 words (3.7 double-spaced pages)
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In the 19th century society was from different from what it is today. Women were not in the workforce, could not vote, or even have a say in anything. Women were not permitted to give evidence in court, nor, did they have the right to speak in public before an audience. When a woman married, her husband legally owned all she had (including her earnings, her clothes and jewelry, and her children). If he died, she was entitled to only a third of her husband’s estate. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wanted to change this. She wanted people to understand the plight of women in the 19th century. In her short story The Yellow Wallpaper she tries to convey this to the reader not just on a literal level, but through various symbols in the story. In The Yellow Wallpaper the author uses symbols to show restrictions on women, lack of public interaction, the struggle for equality, and the possibilities of the female sex during the 1800s.
The yellow wallpaper itself is one of the largest symbols in the story. It can be interpreted to symbolize many things about the narrator. The wallpaper symbolizes the mental block mean attempted to place on women during the 1800s. The color yellow is often associated with sickness or weakness, and the narrator’s mysterious illness is an example of the male oppression on the narrator. The wallpaper in fact makes the narrator more “sick” as the story progresses. The yellow wallpaper, of which the writer declares, “I never saw a worse paper in my life,” is a symbol of the mental screen that men attempted to enforce upon women. Gilman writes, “The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing” this is a symbolic metaphor for restrictions placed on women. The author is saying subliminally that the denial of equality for women by men is a “hideous” act, and that when men do seem to grant women some measure of that equality, it is often “unreliable.” The use of the words “infuriating” and “torturing” are also descriptions of the feelings of women in 19th century society.
Another large symbol is the narrator’s lack of public interaction. It symbolizes women being out of the public eye in the time period. Women were needed to stay inside and tend to the house and children. They didn’t belong in government, in the workplace, or outside at all.
They were to housekeep and can only wonder. Charlotte Perkins Gilman emphasizes this a lot in the story. In the story the writer states that she is almost strictly forbidden to do any type of “work” by both her husband and brother. Here the word work is put into parenthesis by the author, using work to symbolize any type of intellectual or independent interaction with the public. During the 1800s a woman alone and in public, no matter what her reason, was seen as a harlot. The writer then states that, “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good”. Here Gilman gives her personal opinion, saying that if women were considered equals and allowed to do the tasks that men did, the female sex would be better for it.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was obviously a supporter of women’s suffrage. She uses many symbols in the story to emphasis the women’s struggle for equality. She makes it look to be an uphill battle. The author writes of going to stay at a summer house with her husband, John, a physician, and that she is sick. While she feels there is an illness within her, her husband and brother, both physicians, assure her that there is nothing wrong. This is symbolic of women of the 1800s struggling for equality, while being ignored and oppressed by men. On the same page, the author states: “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus- but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.” Here the author is writing of men’s resistance of equality. “Less opposition and more society and stimulus” is clearly an indication of the aspirations of women’s suffrage. “But John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition” is the writer’s statement that when women attempt to free themselves from the restrictive bonds of society, men oppress them and enforce the idea that they are inferior, almost to the point of brainwashing. This “brainwashing” is reflected in the next statement, “I confess it always makes me feel bad.” Some women had been raised on the fact they were inferior to men and some accepted it. This seems to happen to the narrator of the story. This is a statement concerning the women who were against women’s suffrage, citing that men were the more intelligent species and that woman’s place was below that of man’s.
The possibilities of any human are endless. Charlotte Perkins Gilman knew this and wanted women to understand this. In the story the description of the two windows and the view from them by the writer is a representation of the possibilities of the female sex, and how those possibilities were limited and restricted by men during the 19th and into the 20th century. The first view is described as “I can see the garden, those mysterious deep-shaded arbor, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees.” The “garden” is a clear symbol of the earth, or society, and the use of “mysterious” shows that the possibilities that women have are undiscovered to them. In the next view the writer describes seeing a “lovely view of the bay” and a “private wharf belonging to the estate.” The bay is a reference to the uncharted territory of womankind’s abilities and the private estate is clearly indicating the sections of society forbidden to women. The description of seeing “people walking in the numerous paths and arbors” is the idea of women seeing the acts of men, and realizing that those tasks are not out of their capabilities. “John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least” is a very clear statement of the male opinion that women could not do the work of men, and that the attempt would be ridiculous. The use of “nervous weakness” as described by John concerning the writer is an addition to the previous mention of man’s opinion of women during this time, seeing women as frail and weak.
Throughout “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Gilman uses various symbols to show the oppression of women by men, and the continuing struggle to escape that oppression. The three main symbols that run throughout the story lend the most support to this. The yellow wallpaper is an indication of the mental restrictions that were placed upon women by men during the 1800s. As yellow is often considered the color of sickness or weakness, the sickness that the writer suffers from is the continuing oppression and struggle that continues to this very day by women. Gilman shows that the possibilities of women are as vast as those of man, and that during the 19th century those possibilities were severely restricted. This is shown through the descriptions of the two windows and the view from each. The writer sees other doing acts she could do herself, just as women saw acts of man that they could do with the same level of competency. Entirely, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a statement of the oppression of the female sex by mankind.