Symbolism & Imagery in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper
Imagery in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper
From the 19th century to the 21st century in the U.S., the social norms of women across the board have flipped head over heels. From the fight for women’s suffrage movements back in the 1900s to the current ‘me too’ movements, the fight for woman’s ‘equality’ has never been greater. On television, we often hear more women’s marches being organized, as well as new companies’ public endorsement of women’s rights.
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Although we are in a time when things like those listed are common, this was not the case for those who lived before us. It was not until less than 100 years ago that women in the U.S. had the right to vote, and until Last year women in Saudi women could even drive! In the short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (published in 1892), the author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writes to add emphasis on some of the key sexist societal issues that were inappropriately addressed in her time. To expose the sexist norms of being a woman in the 19th/20th century to members of patriarchal societies, Gilman uses depictions of imagery and symbolism to describe a woman’s thoughts and actions during her ‘mental illness episodes.
Confinement and Symbolic Isolation in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper
Throughout ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ Gilman uses multiple instances of imagery to portray how the main character feels trapped and alone. As the day turns to night, the narrator describes the moonlight as ‘trapping’ and how it makes the woman outside look trapped by the ‘bars’ the moonlight produces. At first, it may seem like she was just making a sophisticated depiction of a shadow, but there is a deeper meaning to what it is. Gilman uses the words’ moonlight,’ ‘bars,’ and ‘trapped’ to convey the image of a jail-like room.
The woman in the story feels trapped by her husband, and the room is a tool used to help illustrate the effect. A connection to be made is that women in the late 1800s often did not have much control over their own bodies. The way that the main character felt trapped in her room is also how women felt while being trapped by their husbands’ will. Moreover, until more recently, the expected norm for women was to be confined to the home in the traditional roles of a wife and mother. The main character (Jane -I will be referring to the main character as Jane from here on out) describes the wallpaper as ‘she feels she is really alone’ and when ____.
Over the course of the short story, we observe that the wallpaper’s imagery represents how she feels. We can use it to better understand her observation of the wall as being really alone by restating it as Jane felt very lonely since she had been told to stay home. The impression the imagery sends off could be described as a scene of isolation and confinement: paralleled to the traditional roles of women. When she explained to her husband her discomfort, her husband’s ignorant and lax response supported an additional idea that the treatment she was given was not uncommon.
Control, Gender Roles, and Empowerment in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper
As the story progresses, the symbolism establishes an underlying focus on the topics of control and freedom. Over the course of Janes’s monologues, she brings up the sun and moon in multiple instances. While the sun was out, she remarks that she had to play under the ‘man’s’ rules, for in the daytime, she felt ‘subdued quiet.’ On the other hand, nighttime is when we see her express her feelings openly, as seen through the free-spirited adventures of the Yellow Wallpaper.
The sun and moon have long been known to symbolize two things; the sun represents masculine traits, and the moon represents feminine traits. The sun, in this case, represents her husband, controlling and of much power, and the moon, the Protagonist, weak and reliant. There are additional connections to be made when the bed is described as ‘great and unmovable.’ The word Bed is often times associated with things like sexuality, intercourse, or private matters. At the time of this short story’s publishing, it is important to remember that women were not supposed to express their sexuality.
The woman lying on the ‘great immovable bed’ offers reinforcement for the symbolism of how women did not have control of their own sexuality. The sickness the narrator had throughout the story is symbolic of the narrator and the overall notion of women breaking free from the stereotypes society had put in place. When John’s sister came over to help do some housekeeping, Jane noted how ‘perfect’ and ‘enthusiastic’ she was at being a housekeeper. Adding on, John’s sister ‘hopes for no better profession.’ Jane is clearly annoyed at this point by the blatant acceptance that the people around her have taken to the societal stereotypes, and as the story progresses, she slowly becomes more and more empowered by her so-called ‘Illness.’
Liberation Through Madness in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper
The story eventually builds up to a point when Jane can no longer withstand the circumstances she has been forced to live in. One day Jane is left alone and has the perfect opportunity to take charge of her situation. As soon as the moonlight started peeking out from under the moon, the pattern on the walls began to shake. Jane runs over and, throughout the night, peels away at the wall till she finally ‘frees’ the women ‘trapped’ behind it. This creepy and chilling scene of events that follow leaves the reader either shocked or admiring her efforts of trying to break free from the chains of society.
The story was originally published in 1892 when ‘radical’ women’s movements like the push for women’s suffrage were beginning to pick up attention; the symbolism of Jane’s mental breakdown is, in a way, implying how perhaps the only way to break free of the societal restrictions is to go completely insane. As the destruction of the room continues, we see for the first time Jane making her own decisions. Jane yells out, ‘I’ve got out at last,’ a clear marker of her finally feeling free from the shackles her husband has tied around her, effectively displaying that this culture that has constantly told her no or that she could not, no longer could keep her down.
The dramatic ending to The Yellow Wallpaper leaves the reader wondering if Jane really did become free. Jane could be seen as still not broken free at all; she still has to ‘creep’ over John’s body when he faints, which implies no matter how hard she tries to break free, the prejudiced society will continue to be there. The symbolism of her being able to break through her illness by herself but still having to continue living in the prejudiced society enforces the story’s overall focus on the sexism that exists in Patriarchal societies.
What’s more, while Jane is taking control of her own situation, she wonders if ‘they all come out of that wallpaper as I did,’ symbolizing the parallel to the women’s rights campaigns of the late 1800s that took many years and much effort to eventually get people on board. Perhaps the real reason Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper is to expose society’s stubbornness that pushes women down and to stress drastic measures that must happen to enact change in systemic beliefs.
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