“The Yellow Wallpaper” is the story of a woman who suffers from depression. Advised by her husband to rest, the woman becomes obsessed by the yellow wallpaper that decorates the room in which she has been confined.
Role of Women
“The Yellow Wallpaper” examines the role of women in nineteenth-century American society, including the relationship between husbands and wives, the economic and social dependence of women on men, and the repression of female individuality and sexuality. The Victorian Age had a profound impact on the social values in the United States. Victorian values stressed that women were to behave demurely and remain within the domestic sphere. Suffering from postpartum depression after the birth of her son, the protagonist is advised to get complete bed rest by her husband and brother, despite her suggestions that she would like to write and read. While she does secretly write in a journal, it is made clear that her husband is to be the final decision-maker and that she has no role other than to be a charming wife and a competent mother. In fact, John often treats her like a child, calling her his “little girl” and his “blessed little goose.” When the narrator has a “real earnest reasonable talk” with John during which she asks him if she can visit some relatives, he does not allow her to go.
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” because of its first-person description of mental illness, is also considered a work of psychological fiction. In the story Oilman addresses such themes as madness, depression, despair, and self-worth by presenting a realistic and shocking account of the stages of mental breakdown. Because the narrator has nothing to do to occupy herself and because she has no say in her treatment, she comes to project all of her pent up feelings onto the yellow wallpaper in her room. She eventually believes that there is a woman trapped in the wallpaper’s pattern. This trapped figure symbolizes the narrator’s emotional and intellectual confinement. Left with no real means of expression or escape, the narrator represses her anger and frustration and succumbs to insanity. Greg Johnson emphasizes this theme in an essay for Studies in Short Fiction in which he notes that the story “traces the narrator’s gradual identification with her own suppressed rage, figured as a woman grasping the bars of her prison and struggling frantically to get free.”
The story also addresses how physicians, specifically world-famous neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, viewed mental illness in female patients at the end of the nineteenth century. Psychologists frequently dismissed serious illnesses like depression as nothing more than hysteria or a “case of the nerves.” Mitchell and his proteges advised their patients get complete bed rest, believing that intellectual activity was detrimental to women’s mental health. In 1935, Oilman explained the importance of this theme in her autobiography: ‘ The real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways…. Many years later, I met someone who said he had told them that he had changed his treatment of nervous prostration since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.’ If that is a fact, I have not lived in vain.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Published by Gale, 1997.