Recently I have begun a mission to read as many ‘so-called’ classics as I can before I leave for college. I looked up several lists of the most influential works of fiction and while doing so came across The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
While not a novel, I saw the name pop up again and again, being labeled often as a seminal work of feminist literature. So I started to read the short story. I expected the themes of feminism found throughout the novel, but what I did not expect was for the story to be a masterful work of horror; a work that captures a specific fear for women – the fear of being trapped and suffocated by societal expectations.
Throughout the story, the narrator, a young woman, is confined to a room with yellow wallpaper as a form of treatment for her “nervous condition.” As she becomes obsessed with the wallpaper, however, it becomes clear that the real source of her distress is the oppressive and controlling behavior of her husband, John, a physician who refuses to listen to her thoughts and feelings.
One of the most striking aspects of The Yellow Wallpaper is the way it exposes the damaging effects of the patriarchy on women. One of the most chilling quotes for me comes very early in the novel when the narrator writes that her husband “perhaps […] is one reason [the narrator] [does] not get well faster. You see he does not believe [the narrator] [is] sick!”
This passage reveals just how trapped women in the late 19th century were; they were not taken as seriously as men and there was surely no contradicting a man’s word. The narrator’s frustration at being constantly invalidated by her husband, who refuses to acknowledge her perception of her illness, will never be taken seriously.
The wallpaper itself can be seen as a symbol of the narrator’s own internal turmoil and the restrictive nature of her circumstances. She describes it as having “sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin” and “unspeakable wickedness,” suggesting that the wallpaper is a reflection of the suffocating and oppressive nature of her situation.
The ending of the story is particularly chilling, as the narrator descends into madness and ultimately becomes the woman trapped behind the wallpaper herself. A warning about the dangers of ignoring and suppressing women’s mental health and agency.
References: Gilman, C. P. (1892). The Yellow Wallpaper. The New England Magazine, 5(2), 161-165.
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