Analysis of character setting and symbolism in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’
The yellow wallpaper is written as a series of the narrator’s journal. The story is written in the first person and the narrator is a woman, confined into a room by her husband because of her mental condition. She has been locked and restricted from doing any work. The only thing that she could do is to write her experiences in to her journal. The story is basically about the effect that this restriction has to the narrator because it makes her descend into real insanity. As the story begins, she appears to be normal but as the story moves on and approaches the end, the narrator shows insanity (Crewe). The point at which she loses her sanity and begins to show severe psychosis is when she notices a strange yellow on the wall of the room. The story has developed several interpretations that make sense. One of the main interpretations is a result of a feministic perception (Johnson). The whole story focuses on the position of women in the society during that particular moment. Women used to be oppressed by men quite a lot and their freedom taken away from them. They were tied with situations and circumstances around them that they could not engage in any meaningful activity. This paper intends to create a profound argument on this theme through the analysis of character setting and symbolism in the story.
Most of the symbolisms created in the story are aimed at bringing out the idea of how women were treated in the society at that moment. The society at the setting of the story was generally a male dominated society where women had no say or freedom. The first and major symbol in the story is the use of the yellow color. This color plays an important role in pointing out how women were discriminated upon in this society. The use of the yellow color is mainly linked to sickness. This brings out the perception that men had to women. They treated them not as normal individuals but as sick people.
The yellow wallpaper that the narrator saw symbolizes a mental picture that women are constantly placed into by their male counterpart (Haney-Peritz). This was however the norm in the setting of the book. Men had developed a mental picture about women that treats them in a manner similar to enslaving them. One other major symbolism used in the story is the two windows where the narrator used to see the world. The husband had locked her into a room with protected windows and means where he could control her movements into the house. It was only through the window that she could get an opportunity to see the outside world. This symbolizes the opportunities for equality that women had with men. However these opportunities were impeded by the enslaving of women and they could only see them from a distance.
The narrator says that she has never seen a wallpaper of this nature in her life. She considers it to be the worst wallpaper ever. This creates a picture that always exists in the minds of men towards women. The narrator further describes the color yellow on the wallpaper as infuriating, hideous, unreliable and torturing (Gilman). This creates the picture of the extent to which women were limited in the society. This can also be interpreted to mean that whenever men refuse to give the women equal opportunity, the act is termed as hideous by the narrator (Hume). Even if the men decide to give a little bit of equality, the narrator considers that equality as unreliable. ‘Torturing’ has also been used by the narrator in this sentence to show the exactly how women were feeling in the presence of their husbands. When she says that she cannot work because the husband did not let her to, is a clear indication of all the torturing and infuriating experiences women went through in the 19th century society.
Both her husband and brother were of the opinion that she is not supposed to work because of the state of her mind. The author has put the word work in brackets showing that it represents more than the meaning of the word. The term has been used to represent the freedom to interact intellectually with anyone and reason philosophically with just anyone. The narrator says that the work that is most exciting to her is one that is different from what is used (Gilman ,p. 10). This means that in this particular society, women were never taken seriously in public. Whenever they were seen in public people would assume that they are seeking for a congenial work which has implications of being prostitutes. She says that if only she could be allowed to do what the men deny her not to do she would do it better or equally good as the men.
Some of the statements that the narrator uses are a direct and clear representation of what women were going through in the society of the setting of the story. For instance, the narrator says that she wishes she would receive no opposition and get to interact with the society more but her biggest obstacle is her husband, who does not want to her to even think about her condition. (Gilman ,p. 9). From this statement, she needs to interact with people in the society and that she wishes that she never had any opposition from her husband to do whatever she wants. From the statement it is also clear that her husband is aware of what he is doing denying his wife her freedom and tries to encourage her not to think about her circumstances because it would make her feel bad. This can be considered to a plan to enforce that idea that women are inferior by making them feel good about their oppressed position in the society. The whole point is that women did not take part in making their own decisions as independent individuals. All their decisions were made by the men (Johnson).
The protagonist in the story is the narrator as she narrates of her experiences locked from the world. As she goes through this experience she realizes a lot about herself and her inner reality. She spends time pondering about her position and what she really is supposed to be. For instance she realizes that she is worth more than what the small ideas that her husband and brother try to put into her head. She figures out that opportunity is out there where she has been locked from. Everything around her seems to be so innocent (Hume). The people, the situations, the images are all innocent. But the reality of the matter these things oppress her and they all have a sense of weirdness. For instance the husband seems to be innocent when he tries encouraging her not to worry about anything, not even her circumstances, but the reality is that she does not like being denied her freedom as a rational human being. While she was in that bedroom she gets to see things around her in a different perspective as before (Crewe ,p. 78).
The narrator is locked and prevented from engaging in any activity where she would begin thinking. This is the prescription that her husband has for her in treatment of her temporally mental situation (Johnson ,p. 46). She does not seem to agree with her husband on the idea of not thinking. This is not an appropriate treatment for her because it oppresses her even further. She begins to have a negative feeling of the color yellow on the wallpaper and this is because she imagines and likens the color to the circumstances surrounding her. When she says that the color yellow smells bad, she begins to figure out the nature of her real world where nothing around her seems to be impressive (Hume ,p. 67). Everything smells bad. She sees herself inside the wallpaper that has a bad smell. Then she realizes that the woman inside the wallpaper is exactly what she is in the real world. She undergoes a lot of oppressive situations as she interacts with her husband and other man in the society.
She further realizes how other women are equally trapped within their domestic patterns. They are forced to creep every single day as the stay at home locked from the outside world. She begins to think that she is the one to rescue her from the situation and that if she wants to have her freedom, then she has to lose herself. This is an indication that for women to have their independence, they have to fight for it and earn it. If they do not fight, then they will continue to be trapped inside the idea that they are not supposed to be rational beings and therefore do not deserve equality with the men. Finally as the story ends, the narrator says that “… I have got out at last …” (Gilman ,p. 101) meaning that she finally attained what she really longed for.
John is the other character in the story. But John plays the role of the antagonist. He has a feigned innocence and this aspect of him does not come out clearly in the story. He seems good as his suggestions to the wife are aimed for the good of the wife. That is according to him. But however this treatment fails to work because it was oppressive to the rationality of an independent individual. His major problem comes in when he uses his position as both the doctor and husband to the narrator to make decisions for her. He fails to consider the perspective of the narrator and what she wants. He overlooks all that the narrator wants and assumes they do her no good. John knows very little about his wife and has a superficial understanding what is going on in her mind. He fails to realize that the wife is struggling to achieve certain things in her life (Haney-Peritz ,p12).
Both John and the narrator’s brother are used in the story to bring out the relationship between men and women. The narrator’s brother shared a similar view with her husband on the appropriate approach of treating her condition. This was only a chauvinistic perception that was as a result of their gender. In the end, the narrator and her sense of imagination proved both the two physicians wrong about their prescribed treatment.
The setting of the story is in the 19th century in an isolated place in the country side. This brings out the whole feeling and attitude of isolation in the story. To begin with, the house in which the narrator is locked into is isolated from the entire countryside village. The house as described by the narrator is a good and fancy house, however it is still lonely and separated from the rest. She describes it as a place that limits and binds someone (Crewe ,p. 54). From what the narrator is going through emotionally, it can easily be noticed from this setting brought about by the house. Still inside the house there is a lonely room into which the narrator is confined. This room is locked and designed in a way that the husband would monitor every movement of the narrator (Johnson p.34).
The setting of the story brings out the theme of isolation especially in women. It shows how women were discriminated upon while separated from the rest of the society. The narrator could only see the world outside from a window that could not be opened. She was restricted even to move around her own house because of a misconceived perception about her state and nature. This was an indication of how women were entangled to their homes and domestic patterns. They were only left to see the world from a distance but because of the nature of things in their homes and their denied freedom from their husbands, they could only imagine what it’s like to be independent.
The story was also written in a period when the view of women and their ability was misconceived. During the 19th century, there was increased women suffrage and discrimination in almost every society, even the modernized societies. As the narrator says, women were entangled in domestic patterns and their abilities were only restricted to procreation and work at home.
Crewe, Jonathan. “Queering ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’? Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Politics of Form.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature (1995): pp. 273–293.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. Califonia: The New England Magazine, 1892.
Haney-Peritz, Janice. “Monumental Feminism and Literature’s Ancestral House: Another Look at ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,.” Women’s Studies (1985): 113-128.
Hume, Beverly A. “Gilman’s ‘Interminable Grotesque’: The Narrator of ‘The Yellow
Wallpaper.” Studies in Short Fiction (1991): 477-484.
Johnson, Greg. “Gilman’s Gothic allegory: rage and redemption in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Studies in Short Fiction, (1989): volume 26, pp. 521–530.