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“The Yellow Wallpaper”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the story of women’s struggle for independence in a patriarchal society. In the story the wallpaper is an important symbol as is the woman behind it. The narrator’s thoughts about the wallpaper tell us a great deal of how she feels about the situation she is in. The theme of the story is that by tearing off the chains of oppression one can obtain independence.
The wallpaper in the story has two layers, one that is most evident and one that is symbolic and therefore less visible. The outside layer is in fact a person’s false front, the one that people let society see, the image of what society expects, if you will. In the beginning of the story the narrator hates the wallpaper, “I never saw a worse paper in my life.” (140). The wallpaper is a representation of how women conform according to society’s standards. During the time in which the narrator lived, the late 1800’s, society had very patriarchal standards, that is to say women were expected to behave properly and be subservient. Her hatred of this conformist attitude becomes known to us when she states, “It is dull enough [ ] constantly irritate [ ] lame uncertain curves [ ]” (140). In essence she hates having to act the way society dictates.
The woman behind the wallpaper is a symbol of the narrator’s inner-self, her real identity. Just as the woman in the paper yearns for freedom, “And she is all the time trying to climb through [ ]” (150), so does the narrator as we see when she says, “[ ] how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to [ ]” (144). Both these women are striving for escape but are prevented from doing so. Her overly protective husband stops the narrator and the bars in the pattern of the wallpaper block the woman in the wallpaper.
People behave differently when they are being watched as do the narrator and the woman. When people know they are being observed they usually act according to a certain set of standards. The woman in the wallpaper behaves differently in the dark than she does when it is bright as we see when the narrator tells us, “Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.” (150). This is exactly the same behavior the narrator exhibits. When someone is around she is quiet and subdued, but when she is alone she does all sorts of things like writing or peeling off the wallpaper. In both circumstances the women were in the spotlight, and repressed their will to do as they pleased. This is a mirror image of how women in the 1800s had to meet secretly to organize them-selves in order to tear down the wallpaper of society’s oppressive standards.
Later on in the story the narrator begins to tear away at the paper, “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had pulled off yards of that paper.” (152), in order to help the woman escape from her imprisonment. While doing this, the paper seems to enjoy her futile attempts at removing all of it. “Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it!” (153). This is precisely how people react when they see women trying to fight against patriarchal confines. People, men in particular, usually find women’s attempt at self-expression, individuality, or equality to be rather cute or humorous
Near the end of the story the narrator and the woman become one, “I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?” (153). This is a very important fact that the narrator tells us. From this we can determine that she has succeeded in breaking down the walls of oppression and gained her independence. The narrator has become united with her true identity.
The narrator’s determination to keep her independence is shown through her male-female role reversal when she states, “And then I said it again, several times, very gently, and slowly [ ]” (154). This was unheard of in her day and age. She is definitely not putting on the passive front that society so expects from women. Her determination is also shown that when, even though her husband passed out in her way, she doesn’t detour, but simply crawls over him. This shows her one-mindedness in not letting anything get in her way or stop her from being who she really wants to be.
The “Yellow Wallpaper”, is the story of woman’s journey to and achievement of freedom, from the realization of oppression’s ugliness to the tearing down of that oppression. Through the constant struggle of beating at the walls of oppression and a strong faith in her-self the narrator achieves her independence.
Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Points Of View: An Anthology Of Short Stories. Eds. James Moffet and Kenneth R.McElheny. New York: Penguin, 1995. 138-54.
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