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The woman confined: Study of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Gilman



By Sukhan Johal

The Gothic short story The Yellow Wallpaper, authored by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892, revolves around a woman grappling with an undisclosed mental ailment. This condition leads to her being confined within a ‘colonial mansion’ at the advice of her husband John, allegedly for her well-being. The narrative primarily delves into the societal roles imposed upon women within the domestic sphere, exploring both literal and figurative forms of confinement. Additionally, themes of solitude, self-expression, and knowledge are central to the story’s exploration.

In terms of symbolism employed by Charlotte Perkins Gilman to put focus on these themes with the same influence as the narrative, The Yellow Wallpaper stands out as a prominent example. However, its significance extends beyond merely illustrating the narrator’s declining mental state. The Yellow Wallpaper within the mansion’s nursery serves as a representation of the narrator’s suppressed creativity. As the plot unfolds, it transforms into a symbol representing the boundary between sanity and madness. Ironically, the wallpaper itself acts as a catalyst that drives the narrator toward her eventual state by the story’s conclusion.

The primary literal depiction of the yellow ‘debased Romanesque’ wallpaper lies in its representation of the narrator’s deteriorating mental state, which worsens gradually and persistently. From her perspective, she is engaging in the seemingly innocent activity of deciphering the pattern, that only she can observe, attempting to comprehend the ‘conspicuous front design’, the arrangement, and the patches present on it. In her quest, she aims to unravel the mystery of the unknown yet appealing figure depicted within the pattern. Through the course of the story, this might initially come across as the narrator’s source of curiosity and sole diversion within her isolation. However, as the storyline advances, it becomes strikingly clear that the narrator’s preoccupation with the shifting pattern and her quest to unveil the woman concealed within it has evolved into an unhealthy and potentially dangerous occupation. The point of conviction arrives when the narrator herself writes, “I don’t want anybody to get that woman out at night but myself.” As her mental well-being deteriorates further, the patterns and alignments on the wallpaper assume an increasingly peculiar and unsettling nature to her perception.

The following element that the wallpaper explores, from my perspective, is that of the narrator’s creativity and the constraints placed upon her, supposedly for the sake of her well-being or due to broader societal pressures within the domestic realm. It’s not the wallpaper itself that symbolises the narrator’s suppressed artistic creativity, but rather the pattern gracing it. The narrator’s persistent endeavour to decipher the pattern’s colours and arrangement, coupled with her authoritative evaluation that highlights its flaws, as she asserts, “I know a little of the principle of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of.” Her quest to unravel the meaning behind this absurd and contrary stimulus appears as an unconventional effort to reconnect with her creativity and give her proof of her sanity. This endeavour, although not necessarily justifiable, becomes understandable in the context of her solitary creative outlet, which had been writing, being taken away from her. There are several instances in the narrative where the narrator is shown putting an abrupt stop to her writing which signifies that writing had been an activity she engaged in privately, and its removal seems to drive her toward this peculiar method of engagement with her suppressed creativity. She found a way through her creativity by means of the yellow wallpaper and the figure trapped in it.

The most distinct symbolism embodied by the ‘revolting’ wallpaper centres around the delicate boundary that separates sanity from insanity. This boundary and its breaking are depicted throughout the narrative with the narrator gradually failing to differ between the woman confined in the wallpaper and herself. Upon the narrator’s initial encounter with the wallpaper, her mood shifted to one of disheartenment, and the discomfort she experienced due to the wallpaper progressively evolved into a passionate in. The woman, concealed within the wallpaper’s design, serves as a representation of the narrator herself and the entanglement she has undergone, whether knowingly or unknowingly, which can be observed in the following statement by the narrator herself, “I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?”

Interpreting the wallpaper can take two distinct directions: it can be perceived as a stark differentiation between sanity and madness, or it can be viewed as a reflective surface that, when shattered, destroys all that the narrator had grasped as reality. The woman behind the yellow paper mirrors the woman in front of it. The narrator’s symbolic representation of this dissolution of boundaries or the fusion of the woman behind and in front of the paper is evident in her statement, “Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor.” This act of peeling the wallpaper equates to shedding the last remnants of sanity that the narrator gave up while confined within the mansion that was intended to restore her well-being. Ironically, while the wallpaper functioned as a boundary or a mirror, it also served as a contributor to the narrator’s eventual state of mind.

A different perspective that can be taken into consideration is that of how the narrator is driven out of her sanity due to the treatment of her husband. The narrator’s portrayal of herself as the woman entrapped in the yellow wallpaper depicts her feelings of isolation, depression, and the pressure of her husband. The enthusiasm towards the woman in the wallpaper gave the narrator a ray of hope for freedom from her isolated and suppressed lifestyle.

The story holds a number of symbols intricately woven into its words by the author, designed to add detail to their intended significance. Within the context of the short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, numerous symbols are present. However, from my standpoint, the most apparent and profoundly developed symbol is that of the yellow wallpaper. The wallpaper’s intense connection to essential themes makes it the predominant symbol within the narrative. The multitude of meanings associated with the wallpaper in relation to the story and the narrator makes clear the rationale behind the story’s title, The Yellow Wallpaper.