The yellow wallpaper story
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Though John seems like the obvious villain of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the story does not allow us to see him as wholly evil. John’s treatment of the narrator’s depression goes terribly wrong, but in all likelihood he was trying to help her, not make her worse. The real problem with John is the all-encompassing authority he has in his combined role as the narrator’s husband and doctor. John is so sure that he knows what’s best for his wife that he disregards her own opinion of the matter, forcing her to hide her true feelings. He consistently patronizes her. He calls her “a blessed little goose” and vetoes her smallest wishes, such as when he refuses to switch bedrooms so as not to overindulge her “fancies.” Further, his dry, clinical rationality renders him uniquely unsuited to understand his imaginative wife. He does not intend to harm her, but his ignorance about what she really needs ultimately proves dangerous.
John knows his wife only superficially. He sees the “outer pattern” but misses the trapped, struggling woman inside. This ignorance is why John is no mere cardboard villain. He cares for his wife, but the unequal relationship in which they find themselves prevents him from truly understanding her and her problems. By treating her as a “case” or a “wife” and not as a person with a will of her own, he helps destroy her, which is the last thing he wants. That John has been destroyed by this imprisoning relationship is made clear by the story’s chilling finale. After breaking in on his insane wife, John faints in shock and goes unrecognized by his wife, who calls him “that man” and complains about having to “creep over him” as she makes her way along the wall.
Throughout the story, Gilman presents the domestic sphere as a prison for the narrator. Just as the woman in the wallpaper is trapped behind a symbol of the feminine domestic sphere, the narrator is trapped within the prison-like nursery. The nursery is itself a symbol of the narrator’s oppression as a constant reminder of her duty to clean the house and take care of the children. The numerous barred windows and immovable bed also suggest a more malignant use for the nursery in the past, perhaps as a room used to house an insane person. The narrator's sense of being watched by the wallpaper accentuates the idea of the room as a surveillance-friendly prison cell.
John’s treatment of the narrator perpetuates this sense of the domestic sphere as a prison. As a practical doctor, John automatically patronizes his imaginative, literary wife. He views her writing as unimportant, rarely takes her anxieties seriously, and constantly refers to her with the diminutive “little.” The narrator has no option of escaping her role as a wife and mother; John is unable to perceive her as anything more than that. However, the narrator is imprisoned even further because Jennie and Mary assume her identity as wife and mother; the narrator has no identity left to her because even the ones provided by the society have been taken from her. Unlike the narrator, Mary and Jennie do not have any aspirations beyond the prison of the domestic sphere and thus, they do not recognize it as a prison at all.