Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an observation on the male oppression of women in a patriarchal society. The story itself presents an interesting look at one woman’s struggle to deal with both mental and physical confinement. Through Gilman’s writing the reader becomes aware of the mental and physical confinement, which the narrator endures, and the overall effect and reaction to this confinement. The story begins with the narrators description of the physically confining elements surrounding her.
The setting is cast in an isolated colonial mansion, set back from the road and three miles from the village (674). The property contains hedges that surround the garden, walls that surround the mansion, and locked gates that guarantee seclusion. Even the connected garden represents confinement, with box-bordered paths and grape covered arbors. This image of isolation continues in the mansion. Although she prefers the downstairs room with roses all over the windows that opened on the piazza the narrator finds herself consigned to an out of the way dungeon-like nursery on the second floor.
The windows in the nursery provide views of the garden, arbors, bushes, and trees(674). These views reinforce isolationism since, the beauty can be seen from the room but not touched or experienced. There is a gate at the head of the stairs, presumably to keep children contained in their play area of the upstairs with the nursery. Additionally, the bed is immoveable ” I lie here on this great immovable bed- it is nailed down, I believe-and follow that pattern about by the hour” (678).
It is here in this position of physical confinement that the narrator secretly describes her descent into madness. Although the physical confinement drains the narrators strength and will, the mental and emotional confinement symbolized in the story play an important role in her ultimate fall into dementia. By being forced to be her own company she is confined within her mind. Likewise part of the narrators mental confinement stems from her recognition of her physical confinement. The depression the narrator has experienced associated with child bearing is mentally confining as well. It is fortunate Mary is good with the baby.
Such a dear Baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous”(675). Specifically, she cannot control her emotion or manage her guilt over her inability to care for her child. These structures of confinement contribute to the rapid degeneration of her state of mind. As the wife of a prominent physician in the late nineteenth century, the narrators assumption of a typical female role illustrates one aspect of the mental and physical confinement present within both story and the society.
She is subservient and deferential to John her husband who enjoys the power traditionally associated with his sex and additional authority afforded him by his status as a doctor. John’s behavior illustrates his authoritarian efforts to control his wife as well. He tries to have the narrator’s brother who is a physician, to corroborate his diagnosis and prescribed cure, making it even more difficult for the narrator to challenge the prescription herself. The narrator complains, “John does not know how much I really suffer.
He knows there is no reason to suffer and that satisfies him”(675). Johns contempt for his wife ideas is obvious; he refers to her as “little girl” and when she requests that she be moved to a different room downstairs, he took [her] in his arms and called [her] a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if [she] wished, and have it white washed into the bargain”(675). After he said all this they still stayed in the upstairs room with the bed attached to the floor.
The relationship between John and his wife would be disagreeable in today’s modern’s relationship. Today, most women crave equality with their partner, which is what narrator doesn’t have. The story is a fascinating look into the mind of a woman slipping deeper and deeper in to mental and physical illness because of her husband’s enforcement of her mental and physical confinement. It is also however, clearly a statement of how absurd the confines society places on the women of her time effect extreme consequences for the women who attempt to break free from those confines.