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Themes and Symbols in 'The Yellow Wallpaper'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3105 words Published: 9th Aug 2021

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The Yellow Wallpaper is a feminist short story by Charlotte Perkins- Gilman. The significance of the story is astounding as it explores into the basic issues of a woman’s place in society, public perception of mental illness, and feminism in the 19th century. Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s theme behind the story was a feminist approach, due to the protagonists’ struggles against “the male-centric thinking” and society “norms”. The story tells of the close mindedness of how post-partum depression was treated and dealt with by physicians and society. It tells of a woman who is the protagonist and narrator, whom is going through post-partum depression. John her husband, who is a physician, tries to cure his wife’s “nervous condition”, in which this eventually leads to her complete breakdown; John tries to prescribe the “rest cure” treatment for the protagonist. She is advised to abstain from all physical activity and creative stimulation. She is not allowed to read, write, or to see her new baby, the only thing she can do is sleep and breath in the fresh air of the country estate. John manages to keep the protagonist in a subordinate role and make her think she did not have the ability to make her own decisions. Perkins-Gilman’s protagonist struggles against depression and male dominance, which was common in the 19th century. The protagonist is being held captive by John, locked away from the outside world because he believes this is one of his remedies to make her well. The protagonist describes the room as having been, “a nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium.” (Perkins P.688). She is constantly watched and controlled by John that this behavior of his, leads to her breakdown also. “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.”(Perkins P.688) The protagonist becomes increasingly fixated on the yellow wallpaper found in the room where she spends majority of the story. “It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide-plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.”(Perkins P.688). The protagonist’s house for the summer is a countryside estate. “A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house and reach the height of romantic felicity-but that would be asking too much of fate!”(Perkins P.686) The estate is isolated and secluded away from the main road. There are gates, locks, other small houses surrounding it, and large walls. Despite the protagonist’s progression into insanity, the wallpaper and the room become her source of strength, giving her the courage and confidence to leave her husband John.

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Throughout the story, the protagonist remains nameless and Perkins-Gilman never releases her name in the end. John, who is a highly respected physician diagnosis’ the protagonist, which his remedy is to keep her inside away from the world trapped behind the walls. The protagonist does not completely agree with her husband John’s remedies, but does not say a word to speak against him. “John is a physician, and perhaps-(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind–) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.” (Gilman P.87) She cannot make any decisions on her own without John or voice any concerns regarding her health because it may come out wrong. Instead, she writes her emotions and feelings on paper, which must be kept secretive from John and anyone else. Confined to this room day after day, the protagonist begins to study the wallpaper. The Protagonist creates an image of a woman behind the yellow wallpaper in the room, where she is being held captive. The room is where she and John sleep and where she remains throughout the day captive. The protagonist is fascinated with this illusion of a woman being held captive behind the wallpaper. She (the protagonist) almost becomes obsessed with this illusion. She continues to watch this woman behind the yellow wallpaper day in and day out. “Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out. The front pattern does move-and no wonder! The woman behind it shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.” (Perkins P. 695). In the end, the protagonist tries to free herself and the woman trapped by tearing down the yellow wallpaper.

In the beginning of the story, it is apparent that the protagonist allows herself to be inferior to John. “John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.” (Perkins P. 687). John dictates orders as a physician, for her to stay in bed, not to delve into her creativity, and discontinue her writings. “So I take phosphates and phosphites- whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good” (Perkins P.687). “But what is one to do?” (Gilman P.27). At that point, she is being inferior to John and having a low self esteem and confidence in herself. John knows his wife on a superficial layer only and he sees the outer part, but misses the woman trapped screaming to be set free. John’s ignorance blinds him from fully understanding his wife. Their relationship is not equal in a marriage sense. According to the 19th century, women were expected to fulfill their duties as wives and mothers. The protagonist is unable or willing to adhere to the ideal model of domesticity by the 19th century society and John is at loss as to what to do. With this in mind, John was a reflection of society. The ignorance and shortcomings of society led the protagonist in a direction that could have been prevented if they would of just stepped out of the box. John’s solution was to use Weir Mitchell’s rest regimen to cure his wife, not knowing he was going to push her over the edge of insanity. At times, John referred to the protagonist in third person “Bless her little heart!” (Perkins P.692) “She shall be as sick as she pleases!” (Perkins P.692). John eroded the protagonist’s personality. She is treated as a child relying on guidance and help from John. She relies on John, as a child would depend on a parent regarding any move or thought she makes.

The protagonist is modeled after Charlotte Perkins Gilman who is suffering from depression and anxiety. She is quiet and subservient to John. She desperately would like to please her husband and assume her role as a wife and mother. She is struggling with abiding to her husband’s needs and her inner most desires of creativity. “You see, he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do? If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression-a slight hysterical tendency-what is one to do?”(Perkins P.687). She hides in her writings that must be kept hidden from John. “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.”(Perkins P. 688) “It is hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.”(Perkins P.692). Isolation and boredom forces the protagonist to use the room as a playroom where her mind begins to wonder and she begins to find comfort in the yellow wallpaper. She gradually begins to see the patterns in the wallpaper, which is “a woman stooping down and creeping around behind that pattern.” (Perkins P.692) The protagonist becomes obsessed with the women in the wallpaper that she forgets that she wants to be the perfect wife and mother. The interesting thing is “At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern, I mean, and the woman behind is as plain as can be.”(Perkins P.693) “I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub pattern, but I am quite sure it is a woman.”(Perkins 693) The woman stooping down and creeping around behind the pattern that symbolizes submission to man in the 19th century era. The protagonist begins to focus only on the pattern during the nighttime and sleeping in the day. During the nighttime hours the protagonist believes the woman becomes alive and tries to free herself from captivity. “I see her in that long shaded lane, creeping up and down. I see her in those dark grape arbors, creeping all around the garden. I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines.”(Perkins P.695). In spite of her fixation on the yellow wallpaper, the protagonist begins to grow in strength and self-esteem. She begins to not listen to John anymore, not look for his approval in decision-making, and begins the growing process of her self-confidence. In the end, the protagonist has an awakening or rebirth of herself in regards to John. “Why there’s John at the door!”(Perkins P. 697). “It is no use, young man, you can’t open it!”(Perkins P.687). “John dear!” said the protagonist in the gentlest voice.”(Perkins P.697). These are examples of the protagonist has had a role reversal with John; she is the authoritative person now, instead of John. Also she could be described as the elder and John as the minor. The protagonist has taken ownership of her and could stand on her two feet without being inferior to John. The protagonist realizes I am a person that can make decisions on my own without waiting for permission from John. The protagonist is beginning to find her true identity in the story. “As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her.” (Perkins P.696). The protagonist has locked the room, while John is away and begins to peel off the layers of the wallpaper. Also the protagonist begins creeping around the room as the wallpaper-trapped woman does when she comes out at nighttime. John finally opens the door and sees what the protagonist has done and faints. “I’ve got out at last, said the protagonist, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman P.32). As John faints, the protagonist proceeds to creep over him to continue with her work. The creeping over him symbolizes that the protagonist has obtained control of her own life.

One of the pertinent symbols in Perkins-Gilman’s story was the yellow wallpaper. The protagonist believes she must decode the yellow wallpaper. It’s like the yellow wallpaper is the protagonist’s mind as if she was the yellow wallpaper. The color yellow is associated with illness or being weak. Sometimes yellow is associated also with a woman’s oppression by man. “The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.”(Perkins P.688). The wallpaper becomes the protagonist’s enemy and best friend. The protagonist remains obsessed with the yellow wallpaper until the end when she sets it free. The wallpaper reflects the protagonist’s feelings and emotions, but most of all the suffering she is enduring. The stained yellow clothes belong to the protagonist from creeping during the night. The protagonist sets the imaginary woman free by tearing down the wallpaper and she would like her wall with John torn down that he has built for her. The wallpaper represents family, medicine, and tradition in the protagonist’s life, which she finds herself trapped. By tearing down the wallpaper, the protagonist forms her own identity; an identity of herself without John her controller. The wallpaper has different patterns, some are round, angled, and others have uneven curves, this is a significance of how society looked at women in the 19th century. The house is separated and kept away from society, just as the protagonist is in the story is held captive and kept away from society. “I would say a haunted house”(Perkins P.686) “Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.”(Perkins P.687) “Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?”(Perkins P.687) The protagonist believes there is something strange or different about the house. She suspects there is more than what John is telling her. In the house, the windows are barred as in the wallpaper the woman in the wallpaper is behind bars. Also, in the protagonist’s heart she believes she is behind bars too. The house and its grounds have fallen into a state of disrepair. The protagonist becomes fixated on the nursery and its yellow wallpaper. There are bars on the windows of the nursery and the bed is secured to the floor. The house and its confinement symbolize the protagonist mental illness. When comparing sunlight and moonlight, the sun is a symbol of masculinity and the moon is a symbol of femininity. Sunlight is associated with John, who as a physician likes control, order, and a schedule. “I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day;”(Golden P.68). “He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get. Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear.”(Perkins P.688). At nighttime, John is asleep and unable to control the protagonist behavior; so she begins to creep. Her subconscious roams free at night in so many ways. It is in the moonlight, when the protagonist begins to understand more fully the figure in the wallpaper. In the sunlight, the woman freezes with the fear of being caught. When there is sunlight, the protagonist cannot see the trapped woman in the wallpaper because of the glare of John’s oppression. The barred windows in the house signified the imprisonment women felt in the 19th century. The room or nursery where John and the protagonist sleep is actually a prison mental asylum setting, but the protagonist sees it as a baby nursery. The protagonist imagines the room as a nursery because she just gave birth and she is longing for her child. She compares everything in the room to a child’s nursery such as the bite marks on the bed; wallpaper ripping, and the bars on the windows. Most importantly, the gated stairway, the protagonist imagines that there is a gate so the children won’t get out. Her imagination kept her from seeing the realization of the room. The room was a prison, but she was blinded by her insecurity and helplessness. At the end of the story, when the protagonist states, “The key is down by the front steps, under a plantain leaf!”(Perkins P.697). This leads the reader to believe her mental illness has progressed for the worst.

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Finally the woman enjoys looking and playing with the wallpaper that she doesn’t care what anyone thinks, even John. She in a sense lets go and lets her emotions run wild. “Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it.” In the end, Perkins-Gilman’s protagonist character has triumphed against her male oppressor and realizes her opportunities for her own personal choice and growth. During her experience in the room, she has had a transformation in her life. She begins in the nursery, where John treats her as a child, then she proceeds to the playroom where she is growing up, after that she is in the stage where she has internal strength and confidence in the gymnasium. Finally when she locks John out of the room making him go find the keys, she proclaims her independence. Furthermore, she makes a choice without John of tearing down the wallpaper; this gives her the sense of freedom. The wallpaper started off as a simple distasteful covering on a wall that leads to the protagonists’ outcome of strength. The house gave her confidence to believe in herself, without being inferior to John. The room gave her courage to stand up for what she believed in. The protagonist had a transformation of her inner self. She began as a helpless child to a grown mature adult without restrictions. The protagonist had lived in a bubble surrounded by ‘norms’ of society and by men that had pushed her in there. Now, she along with many other women of the 19th century are able to step out of that bubble and breathe. I think of the analogy of a fish gasping for air that is how I envision the protagonist growing up in the 19th century. Sometimes I feel society had blinders on their eyes and it takes a medical break through to take those blinders off so they can see what is right in front of them. After giving up the treatment of “rest cure”, Perkins-Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper. She eventually sent a copy to her physician, but he never responded to her. I believe Perkins-Gilman’s reason to write this short story was not only to advise women of a healthcare issue, but also to assist them mentally with the correct medical diagnosis. In other wards, Perkins-Gilman was trying to save them from the torment she endured. In the yellow wallpaper, Perkins-Gilman showed what happens when a woman is not allowed to express her creativity, have no mental stimulus, and have no access to the things that fulfill her as a woman. Many years later Perkins-Gilman, discovered her physician had stopped prescribing the “rest cure” as a treatment for women. Perkins-Gilman story was a step or advancement in the medical field in regards to mental illnesses. She opened the door to different trial of testing, medications, and alternative procedures regarding the medical field. Despite her progression into insanity, I believe the protagonist did conquer John, herself, and men in regards to the ‘norm’ in the 19th century. She gained her respect for herself back. Charlotte Perkins-Gilman paved the way for women regarding women’s rights and women’s health issues. Whether it was on a feminist note or a psychological stand- point, Perkins-Gilman helped construct the start of feminism in our country. May we all learn from her dedication and commitment to this misconstrued mental illness that still confuses so many physicians and may we unite as women to support out fight with mental illness.


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