The Trapped Woman in The Yellow Wallpaper, a Short Story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, tells the story of a woman trapped in her own life. Set in the 1800s, a time when women and mens roles were strictly defined by society, the woman reveals her true to desire to break free from the confines of her marriage and her life. All the while, she experiences an extreme sense of guilt and shame for her negative view of her life, consciously repressing her innermost desires and joys. Her feelings are revealed through her bizarre relationship with the wallpaper in her room in the house she and her husband are renting for the summer. She develops an illogical perception of the wallpaper, ugly though it may be, symbolically putting her own views of herself onto it.
Eventually, the woman loses all ability to distinguish reality from illusion and completely loses her mind. Gilman suggests to the reader that by accepting the norms and roles of society and thus repressing ones true desires and feelings can only lead to a loss of identity and sanity. This attitude is brought to light in the readers mind through observance of the womans increasing mental instability as she gives more and more life to the wallpaper each time she resumes writing.
At the beginning of her story, the woman reveals much about herself and the life she lives. She has a husband, John, who is a physician and seems to be more of a father than a companion. It is also learned that she suffers from a problem with depression, deemed a slight hysterical tendency by her husband and accepted by her (425). Her secret opinion that the reason why she is sick and cannot get better is because her husband does not believe she is sick gives the reader the first insight into the womans true self. Almost ashamed to even think that it is her husbands inability to accept her illness, the woman turns the problem back on herself. She proceeds to say that she gets unreasonably angry with her husband and is basely ungrateful, and that she must take pains to control her emotions. Leaving much to be questioned in the readers mind as to the health of her marriage, she abandons the topic and instead describes the house.
All is well until she gets to the room where she and her husband are staying. This rooms wallpaper evokes a sense of anger and passion from the woman as she calls it sprawling, flamboyant, dull, lame, and uncertain (426). Such strongly emotive words to describe such an inanimate object draw the reader to wonder if it is really the wallpaper which she feels about so deeply. One can see the correlation between the words describing the wallpaper and the feelings she seems to imply about herself earlier in her story. She quickly abandons her writings as she hears her husband approaching for fear he will be angry, introducing the reader to a sense of how extensively she represses her needs and desires to do what her husband wants.
The next time the woman writes, the reader senses a slight change in her. She does not focus on her wants and thoughts, instead, she talks mostly of how bothersome and helpless she is. The reader is told that she feels herself a burden on John and the rest of the household. It is also learned for the first time that she has a child, but only in passing. She simply states, It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! (426). There are no other implications of having a child before this, nor are there any in the rest of this entry, striking the reader as odd that a mother would not have any concern for or interaction with her own child. It is also apparent that her focus has shifted primarily to the wallpaper, and her feelings about it have intensified. She calls the paper atrocious and horrid, and begins giving it a life of its own. Her comment, This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had! strikes the reader with how preoccupied she must be. She also gives it, a broken neck and two bulbous eyes… causing the reader to wonder what this wallpaper really looks like.
The woman says she gets positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. All of this personification and emotion gives serious cause to the reader to question the accuracy of the narrator’s perceptions of the wallpaper and the stability of her mental state. It is apparent at this time that it may be wavering. Another disturbing description emerges at the very end of this section as the woman describes something she sees within the paper. But in the places where it isnt faded and where the sun is just so I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design (427). The reader does not know what she sees behind the pattern but can see the woman starting to lose her mind.
With her third and fourth entries, the reader is doubtful as to the reality of what the woman is describing as truth. She speaks briefly of the wallpaper and her determination to follow the pointless pattern to some sort of conclusion. . . (429), but tells how tired she gets from thinking about it and studying it. Moving on, she tells more of her relationship with John. It is absurd to the reader how fatherly and controlling John is, and perhaps even more absurd that she accepts his control and internalizes his attitude about her and her illness. One feels sorry for her because neither husband nor wife is unaware of the quickly diminishing stability of her sanity. Both dismiss it as a temporary nervous condition when in reality, the reader sees it as a serious and possibly permanent condition of insanity. The woman simply states, It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight, an ironic understatement of the gravity of her declining abilities. With full awareness of her mental state, the reader is now told what is behind the paper: And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about…
The woman sees another woman trapped behind the ridiculous, infuriating and horrid wallpaper just as she is trapped in her horribly repressive marriage and life. She also reveals that the woman in the wallpaper seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out (430). She sees herself in the wallpaper, desperately shaking the pattern that is trapping her, trying to get out. After this significant revelation, she further describes the wallpaper once more as defiant, irritating, hideous, and unreliable, all of which draw more meaning with the trapped woman in the wallpaper. She speaks of seeing the woman outside creeping through the garden, and reveals she does the same. The reader senses how urgent her condition is, yet knows that nothing can stop the imminent loss of self.
Her final entry shows her in a giddy and childlike sort of excitement as she reveals how she will help the woman. With John away for their final evening in the home, the woman helps her trapped friend tear off as much of the wallpaper as possible. Then she giddily tells of her plan of getting the woman out once and for all. She throws away the key to the room so no one can get in and begins to rip off the paper she could not get to before. All the while, she waits with a rope to tie the woman up if she tries to run away.
She wonders if all the women she sees creeping outside her window came out of the paper like she did, her first blatant revelation that she perceives herself as the woman she has seen trapped behind the wallpaper shaking it to get out. Her husband comes home and finds her with the rope tied around her own waist, creeping around the room along the worn smooch she noticed long before. She happily shouts, Ive got out at last. . . in spite of you and Jane. And Ive pulled off most of the paper, sop you cant put me back! The woman is out of her trap, only to be lost to insanity. She breaks through the repression and stored passions, but loses her mind because of it.
Gilman shows the reader how dangerous it could be to abandon your own wants and passions to settle for what others want for you, regardless how innocent or caring their intentions may be. The woman does not even see herself spiraling down so rapidly into insanity. The reader watches helplessly as she represses herself, putting more and more onto the wallpaper until she becomes what she sees in it. The woman goes mad, all because she gave into the idea that her husband knows what is best for her even though she really did not think so at first. Gilman reveals the ironic tragedy that repressing ones true self results in the loss of self.