In the story, wallpaper, a usually feminine, floral decoration on the interior of walls, is a symbol of female imprisonment within the domestic sphere. Over the course of the story, the wallpaper becomes a text of sorts through which the narrator exercises her literary imagination and identifies with a feminist double figure.
When John curbs her creativity and writing, the narrator takes it upon herself to make some sense of the wallpaper. She reverses her initial feeling of being watched by the wallpaper and starts actively studying and decoding its meaning. She untangles its chaotic pattern and locates the figure of a woman struggling to break free from the bars in the pattern. Over time, as her insanity deepens, she identifies completely with this woman and believes that she, too, is trapped within the wallpaper. When she tears down the wallpaper over her last couple of nights, she believes that she has finally broken out of the wallpaper within which John has imprisoned her. The wallpaper's yellow color has many possible associations - with jaundiced sickness, with discriminated-against minorities of the time (especially the Chinese), and with the rigid oppression of masculine sunlight. By tearing it down, the narrator emerges from the wallpaper and asserts her own identity, albeit a somewhat confused, insane one. Though she must crawl around the room, as the woman in the wallpaper crawls around, this "creeping" is the first stage in a feminist uprising.
Creativity vs. Rationality
From the beginning of the story, the narrator’s creativity is set in conflict with John’s rationality. As a writer, the narrator thrives in her use of her imagination, and her creativity is an inherent part of her nature. John does not recognize his wife’s fundamental creativity and believes that he can force out her imaginative fancies and replace them with his own solid rationality. In essence, a large part of the “rest cure” focuses on John’s attempt to remove the narrator’s creativity; by forcing her to give up her writing, he hopes that he will calm her anxious nature and help her to assume her role as an ideal wife and mother.
However, the narrator is not able to suppress her creativity, despite her best efforts to follow John’s instructions. Because she is not able to write openly and feels the repression of her imagination, she inadvertently exercises her mind via the yellow wallpaper. Although the narrator attempts to incorporate John’s rationality into the chaotic pattern of the wallpaper, she fails; the wallpaper cannot be quantified in John’s way. Her repressed imagination takes control, and she loses all sense of reality, becoming lost in delusions and the idea that she herself was the woman trapped in the wallpaper.
Gilman believes in creativity without restraints and argues that the narrator’s repressed imagination is the fundamental cause of her psychotic breakdown. Gilman also suggests that the narrator’s attempt to deny a fundamental part of her nature was doomed from the beginning. John should have been able to accept the true nature of his wife, rather than trying to force her to adhere to the prescriptions of his own personality.
The Domestic Sphere as Prison
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.
The "Rest Cure"
Because of Gilman’s personal experience with the “rest cure,” it is not surprising that S. Weir Mitchell’s treatment plays a significant role in the context of the narrative. From the start of the story, the narrator is supposed to be suffering from neurasthenia, a disease that requires Weir Mitchell’s particular technique for nervousness. Yet, it is unclear if the narrator is actually ill, or if the “rest cure” treatment causes her to go insane. Gilman’s argument is that a treatment that requires complete inactivity is ultimately far more detrimental to a woman suffering from a minor anxiety disorder. Significantly, according to Gilman’s autobiography, she sent a copy of “The Yellow Wallpaper” to Weir Mitchell, and he subsequently changed his treatment for neurasthenia.
Beyond the “rest cure,” Gilman also criticizes any sort of medical treatment in which the personal opinion of the patient is not considered. Although the narrator repeatedly asks John to change the treatment over the course of the story, he refuses to acknowledge her requests, believing that he had total authority over the situation. This is also a reflection of the society conditions of the time, but either way, John abuses his power as both a husband and physician and forces the narrator to remain in an oppressive situation from which her only escape is insanity.
Role of Women in the 19th Century
According to the social norms of the time period, women in the 19th century were expected to fulfill their duties as wives and mothers and be content in their existence as nothing more. Men and women were divided between the public and private sphere, and women were doomed to spend their lives solely in the domestic sphere. Not coincidentally, women who dared to enter the masculine public realm were viewed as something akin to prostitutes, the lowest level of society.
With that in mind, although John could be seen as the domineering villain of the story, he is simply a reflection of his society. The narrator’s desire to have more in her life than John and her child does not correspond to social expectations. Moreover, her love of writing and creativity further distinguishes her from the idealized “angel of the house” that she is supposed to emulate. Gilman herself rebelled against these social expectations and, by leaving her first husband and moving to California to write, was not deemed fit to belong in respectable society.
The Narrator vs. The Woman in the Wallpaper
From the start, the narrator has a constant bond with the woman in the wallpaper. Even when the narrator is unable to discern her figure beyond the pattern, she is still preoccupied with the wallpaper and feels an uncanny connection to it. As the story continues, the narrator’s connection to the woman in the wallpaper is heightened, and Gilman begins to present the wallpaper woman as a sort of doppelganger to the narrator. Although the woman is trapped behind the chaotic yellow wallpaper, she is essentially in the same position as the narrator: imprisoned in the domestic sphere and unable to escape without being strangled by the bars of social expectation.
By the end of the narrative, the narrator’s insanity has reached such a heightened state that she can no longer differentiate herself from the figure that she has seen in the wallpaper. She is the woman in the wallpaper and no one, not even John, can imprison her in the wallpaper again. There is no doubt that the narrator will be physically imprisoned at some point in the future. After John regains consciousness and discovers his wife still creeping around the nursery, he will have no choice but to send her to Weir Mitchell or place her in a mental institution. Yet, the narrator’s mind will still remain “free,” mirroring the freedom enjoyed by the woman in the wallpaper. In other words, the woman in the wallpaper can be seen as a manifestation of her creative imagination that finally breaks through the rigid expectations of the domestic sphere. Unfortunately, the escape of her imagination means that she cannot ever regain any sort of rationality; by freeing the woman in the wallpaper, the narrator ensures that her mind will be trapped in a prison of insanity.
Sunlight vs. Moonlight
Although the yellow color of the wallpaper has associations with illness, its most developed motif is the conflict between sunlight and moonlight. In Gilman's story, sunlight is associated with John's ordered, dominating schedule and the rational sphere of men. John prescribes something for the narrator for every waking hour while he goes about his daily rounds, forcing her to take on the same order and control that defines his life.
At night, however, the balance shifts. Men's day jobs in the public sphere are irrelevant, and women can achieve a more equal level with their husbands. While he is asleep, John is unable to monitor the narrator’s behavior, and she is not in a perpetual state of inferiority or being constantly controlled. More importantly, the narrator’s flexible subconscious roams free at night, as in during dreams. It is always by moonlight, a traditional symbol of femininity and the Goddess Artemis, that the narrator understands more about the figure trapped within the wallpaper. In sunlight, the woman stays still, afraid of being caught, and, once she creeps about outside, she does so boldly only at night. Moreover, the narrator cannot see the figure under the oppressive glare of sunlight in her room and is overwhelmed by the pattern of the wallpaper. By the cool, feminine light of the moon, the narrator is able to grasp the woman’s plight and ultimately recognize in it a reflection of her own imprisonment.
The Yellow Wallpaper Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Yellow Wallpaper is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.