Symbolism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s

“The Yellow Wall-paper” is a first-person account of a woman’s descent to madness, following the birth of her first child. The unnamed protagonist was ordered by her well-meaning but insensitive and dominant husband to relieve her postpartum depression by being locked-up in an upstairs room in a country mansion, which was a former nursery. This room was decorated with a yellow wallpaper, which will later on be the focal point of her insanity. Her husband, also a physician, instructed according to the medical sensibilities of that time, that she get a total bed rest and forbade her to engage in any physical or intellectual activity.

She wasn’t even allowed to see her own baby. But rather than alleviate it, the confinement has exacerbated her depression. The story was presented in first-person as a series of journal entries, where the narrator obsessively describes the wallpaper. She analyzes the imagery of her surroundings, but in reality, her analyses are representations of what was happening to herself—she tries to make sense of the state of her mind and her feelings—her own transformation.

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When she described the wall paper as “not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry”, she really was describing her current state of mind. One major theme is that repressive treatment and public exclusion will eventually lead to insanity. The use of imagery and setting help bring about this theme in the story. The narrator’s mental condition worsened with her feelings of being trapped and imprisoned by the room. She feels the hatred emanating from the the rooms walls—how the wallpaper mutates and changes.

For instance, she sees a “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure that seems to skulk about”, until the wallpaper transformed into a prison where inside there are women crawling on all fours. These women are trying to escape that prison, and of course, this just symbolizes her own desire to escape her illness and her situation. The protagonist became obsessed with the women’s actions and eventually, her sickness progressed so much that she became completely dissociated from reality.

In the end, she thinks that she was a woman who escaped from the wallpaper, and that at last, she was liberated from her illness. The irony however, is that she has turned completely insane. The woman in ”The Yellow Wallpaper” symbolizes the women in a society with Victorian sensibilities, where they are economically and socially dependent on men, where females are generally repressed, and where they have no real voice. It was a symbol of the oppression of women in a male-dominated word. During those times, the general consensus was that women do not really have any real mental illnesses.

They believe that depression is a natural female temperament, and that women are irrational beings incapable of forming sound opinions. Despite the protagonist’s suggestion that she would like to engage in stimulating activities, and her conjecture that incarceration would do her more harm than good, she was not given any mind—her opinions were treated as if they did not matter. The narrator, just like all women of her time are expected to be compliant and servile. The woman in the wallpaper, subservient and prostrate, symbolizes this oppression.