Use Of Symbolism In Charlotte Perkins Gilman
’s The Yellow Wall-Paper Essay, Research Paper
In “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” the dominant – submissive relationship between an oppressive husband and his submissive wife pushes her from depression to insanity. Flawed human nature seems to play a great role in her breakdown. Her husband, a noted physician, is unwilling to admit that there might really be something wrong with his wife. This same attitude is seen in her brother, who is also a physician. While this attitude, and the actions taken because of it, certainly contributed to her breakdown; it seems that there is a rebellious spirit in her. Perhaps unconsciously she seems determined to prove them wrong.
As the story begins, the woman, whose name we never learn, tells of her depression and how it is dismissed by her husband and brother. “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?” (726). These two men, both doctors, seem completely unable to admit that there might be more to her condition than just stress and a slight nervous condition. Even when a summer in the country and weeks of bed-rest do not help, her husband refuses to accept that she may have a real problem.
Throughout the story there are examples of the dominant – submissive relationship.
She is virtually imprisoned in her bedroom, supposedly to allow her to rest and recover her health. She is forbidden to work, “So I . . . am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again” (726). She is not even supposed to write: “There comes John, and I must put this away — he hates to have me write a word.” (727). She has no say in the location or decor
of the room she is virtually imprisoned in: “I don’t like our room a bit. I wanted . . . But John would not hear of it.” (727). She can’t have visitors: “It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work . . . but he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now” (728).
In large part because of her oppression, she continues to decline. “I don’t feel as if it was worth while to turn my hand over for anything . . . ” (730). It seems that her husband is oblivious to her declining condition, since he never admits she has a real problem until the end of the story, at which time he fainted. John could have obtained council from someone less personally involved in her case, but the only help he seeks was for the house and baby. He obtains a nanny to watch over the children while he was away at work each day: “It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby” (728). And he had his sister Jennie take care of the house: “She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper” (729). He does talk of taking her to an expert: “John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall” (729). She took that as a threat since he was even more domineering than her husband and brother. Not only does he fail to get her help, but by keeping her virtually a prisoner in a room with nauseating wallpaper, little to occupy her mind, and no offer any kind of mental stimulation, he forces her to dwell on her problem.
Prisons are intended to be depressing, and she is rather like a prisoner in her situation. If she had been permitted to come and go and do as she pleased her depression might have lifted: “I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.” (728). It seems that just being able to tell someone how she really felt would have eased her depression, but John would not hear of it. The lack of an outlet caused the depression to worsen: “. . . I must say what I feel and think in some way — it is such a relief! But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief.” (730). Meanwhile her reaction is to seek to prove him wrong. “John is a physician, and . . . perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster. You see he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?” (726). It seems that while putting on an appearance of submission she was frequently rebelling against her husband’s orders.
She writes when there is nobody around to see her, she tries to move her bed, but always keeps an eye open for someone coming. This is obvious throughout the story. It also seems that, probably because of his oppressive behavior, she wants to drive her husband away. “John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious. I am glad my case is not serious!” (727). As her breakdown approaches she actually locks him out of her room: “I have locked the door and thrown the key down into the front path. I don’t want to go out, and I don’t want to have anybody come in, till John comes. I want to astonish him.” (736). There is no apparent reason for this other than to force him to see that he was wrong, and, since she knew he couldn’t tolerate hysteria, to drive him away.
“The Yellow Wall-Paper” was full of examples of this submissive wife being oppressed by her domineering husband, leading her from depression to insanity. Though it often seems as though women’s struggles for equal rights only started later in our century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s writing shows the struggle has existed far longer, and is a fabulous example of American Literature.