Yellow Wallpaper Essay, Research Paper
An Ironic Triumph
In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the conflict centers on the protagonist’s inability to maintain her sanity in a society that does not recognize her as an individual. Her husband and brother both express their own will over hers, forcing her to conform to “an appropriate code of behavior for a sick woman.” She has been given a “schedule prescription for each hour in the day; [John] takes all care from me” (1213). This code of behavior involves virtually no expression of her free will. Rather, she is expected to passively accept the fact that her own ideas are mere daydreams, and only the opinions of the men in her life can be trusted. While “Wallpaper” presents a powerful argument in favor of the feminist movement, the true issue behind the conflict is the healthy mental state of a human in an oppressive environment.
Obviously, it is impossible to maintain a healthy mental state in the oppressive environment surrounding the woman. Throughout the story, the author traces the woman’s mental deterioration from a having a normal but weakened sense of self, to a complete inversion of her ego. She slowly inverts her orientation of her place in society, turning away from society completely in order to create a world where she can act on her own free accord. In order to represent the stages of her gradually worsening state of mind, the author represents the woman’s struggles through a parallel with her view of the wallpaper. The wallpaper is at first a seeming inversion of the woman’s mind, but it is eventually revealed to be a parallel, showing her transition from a weak-willed but outwardly focused wife to a strong-willed but internally focused individual.
The wallpaper takes on immediate significance when it is introduced to the story, simply because its characteristics are described with such detail. At this point, the paper seems to represent all that is the opposite of the woman, and she is repulsed by it. “I never saw a worse paper in my life,”(l214) writes the woman. Whereas she is a sweet, dutiful wife to her husband, and her behavior carefully conforms to what society expects of her, she is disgusted by the paper’s poor condition, its faded, soured color, and its pattern, “One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin”(1214). Her mild-mannered behavior carefully conforms with what society expects of her. Therefore, this vague description of the pattern of the wallpaper seems to be an inversion of the woman’s personality.
However, a closer look proves that her reasons for hating the wallpaper are illogical, irrational and reveal hypocrisy in the way she views society. The idea of an artistic “sin,” implies that artists are supposed to follow a specific set of rules. This is not true. There are many schools of artistic thought, but artists are continually challenging those traditions and developing new ones. An artistic sin, then, would be an original technique, but to call originality in art sinful goes against the nature of art. Similarly, the woman feels that she is required to capitulate to her husbands wishes: 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? (1213). But for society to expect the woman to give in to her husband’s wishes regardless makes no sense. She is a complete person, an should be allowed to function as one, just like the artist should be allowed to experiment. Unfortunately, the woman feels that pressure from “friends and relatives” as well as her husband is equal to law, and therefore, her opinions do not matter. Her respect for the traditional idea of a well-ordered society is hypocritical because it does not allow she herself to thrive; instead, she becomes ill from the constant oppression.
She further describes the wallpaper pattern consisting of “lame uncertain curves” that “suddenly commit suicide–plunge off at outrageous angles, destroying themselves in unheard of contradictions”(1214). Her efforts at controlling her own life follow the same pattern. Her assertions are weak, and they continually give into her husbands stronger will, thus “committing suicide. ” They destroy themselves by allowing her to act according to her husbands will, even though it is an “outrageous contradiction” to her own. The pattern on the wallpaper thus represents her; specifically her methods of dealing with the societal figures around her: her husband, primarily, but also her brother, the maid, and the nanny. Her fascination with the wallpaper not only signifies its role as a symbol, but determines what that role is. She is behaving like someone looking in a mirror for the first time–fascinated and slightly repelled by her own appearance.
She is bewildered by this reflection of herself because until this point, she has been focused on the outward world. She seeks and receives advice from those around her instead of making up her own mind. John, a primary representative of her outside world, has told her “the very worst thing I can do is think about my condition” (1213) because this would be an internal focus. She tries to conform to his wishes, thus acknowledging that external influences are superior. She is still demonstrating this outside focus when she asks John to re-paper the room, instead of handling it. When John decides not to indulge her, she passively accepts his decision, though she still finds the paper “horrid.” The only action she takes is asking John, a weak action at best. Her acceptance of his decision against her desires signifies another failure on her part to exert her own will. Because she is still outwardly focused, and therefore trying to please her husband, she puts aside her irritation by the paper, and focuses on the view from her window, which is a connection to the outside world.
Slowly, the woman’s focus begins to shift from the external to the internal. One of the first examples of this change is her assertion that “this paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!”(l215). The paper which before had been merely unattractive is suddenly given the more forceful description of “vicious. ” This indicates that she is giving it more of her attention. Also, she is beginning to personify the paper. Up to this point, the only active forces in her life had been the people surrounding her, but she now sees the paper as having its own will. In her eyes, it is deliberately trying to worsen her nervous condition. However, I have already said that the paper is a symbolic mirror of the woman herself. This statement leads to the question, why would she be making herself worse on purpose?
As her perversity of the wallpaper becomes apparent, the wallpaper begins to show its own duality. Underneath the random outer pattern that represents the woman’s behavior towards society, the woman notices a sub-pattern, a “strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design”(l216). This new pattern, which embodies the shape of a woman, is even more obviously representative of the writer. It is also significant that the once “horrid” over-pattern is now reduced to being silly and conspicuous. She is drifting farther from her pattern of behavior designed to deal with the outer world, and beginning to explore this newly discovered side of herself.
Her change in behavior is acts as a catalyst for her change in attitude. She writes that she is “getting really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper”(1216). She has ceased to focus on her outside surroundings, in favor of describing her feeling about the room and its wallpaper. She writes that “I walk a little in the garden or down that lovely lane” (1216) but she “lies down up here [in the room] a good deal. ” (1216). This is another gradual step towards her embracing of an inward focus.
Her complete acceptance of her introversion requires a rejection of the outside world. The plot flows directly to this occurrence. The woman distances herself from her husband by being afraid of him, and from the others by suspecting them of learning her secret about the patterns in the wallpaper. She also makes her world more completely internal by staining everything with the yellow of the wallpaper. “The paper stained everything it touched” (1219), including John. She is replacing outside elements in her immediate surroundings with the yellow that represents her inner mind. In order to further the process of staining everything yellow, the paper also develops a smell to her. This travels with her where she is taken by John, so that she is always at least partially in her internal world.
The woman’s gradual deterioration rapidly increases until she is finally alone in her internalized world, and has locked John out. She has adopted the constant creeping of the wallpaper woman. Her transition has been completed. She has become a complete burden to John, though her original goal was to become “such a help to John.” She has discovered the one place where she can have supreme control, and nothing will contest it–her own mind. But she has zero capability left to even interact normally with the outer physical world, and so she is like a non-presence. The strength of will she achieves in the end is a mockery, for in reality, she has been swallowed up by her own imagination, projected onto the yellow wallpaper.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. Western Literature in a World Context.
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. pp. 1213 – 1219.
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