Symbolism and Repression in The Yellow Wallpaper

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Symbolism and Repression in The Yellow Wallpaper

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is as a wonderful example of the gothic horror genre. It was not until the rediscovery of the story in the early 1970’s that “The Yellow Wallpaper” was recognized as a feminist indictment of a male dominated society. The story contains many typical gothic trappings, but beneath the conventional façade hides a tale of repression and freedom told in intricate symbolism as seen through the eyes of a mad narrator.

It is difficult to discuss the meaning in this story without first examining the author’s own personal experience. “The Yellow Wallpaper” gives an account of a woman driven to madness as a result of the Victorian “rest-cure,” a once frequently prescribed period of inactivity thought to cure hysteria and nervous conditions in women. As Gary Scharnhorst points out, this treatment originated with Dr. Weir Mitchell, who personally prescribed this “cure” to Gilman herself. She was in fact driven to near madness and later claimed to have written “The Yellow Wallpaper” to protest this treatment of women like herself, and specifically to address Dr. Weir Mitchell with a “propaganda piece.” A copy of the story was actually sent to Mitchell, and although he never replied to Gilman personally, he is said to have confessed to a friend that he had changed his treatment of hysterics after reading the story (15-19).

Although the autobiographical aspects of “The Yellow Wallpaper” are compelling, it is the symbolism and the underlying feminist connotations that lead best to discussion. First is John, the narrator’s husband. He could be viewed as the patriarchy itself, as Beverly Hume says, with his dismissal of all...

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Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 6th ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. 424-36.

Hume, Beverly A. “Gilman’s Interminable Grotesque’: The Narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Studies in Short Fiction 28.4 (1991):477-84.

Johnson, Greg. “Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Studies in Short Fiction 26.4 (1989):521-30.

King, Jeannette and Pam Morris. “On Not Reading between the Lines: Models of Reading in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Studies in Short Fiction 26.1 (1989): 23-32.

Owens, E. Suzanne. “The Ghostly Double behind the Wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’”

Haunting the House of Fiction. Ed. Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991 64-79.

Scharnhorst, Gary. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Boston: Twayne, 1985. 15-20.
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