English Composition II
15 November 2006
Freeing the Woman behind the Wallpaper: The Symbolic Meaning of the Yellow Wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” first published in The New England Magazine in 1892, illustrates the damaging effects of the rest cure, a popular treatment for women suffering from mental and physical ills that was prescribed by male psychiatrists. The nameless female narrator in Gilman’s story, an upper-middle class wife, suffers from a nervous disorder after having a baby. Her husband John, who is also her doctor, prescribes the rest cure, removing her from social contacts and normal intellectual activities. She is confined to a room with the yellow wallpaper, the central image in the story.
The longer she observes the gaudy pattern of the wallpaper, the more it generates disturbing images until she crosses the line from sanity to madness. Critics have interpreted the yellow wallpaper in many ways: three popular interpretations of its symbolism are (1) the wallpaper as a way of evaluating the narrator’s deteriorating mental state as she becomes increasing detached from reality (2) the wallpaper as a “pattern” of social and economic dependence which reduces 19th Century women to domestic slavery, and (3) the wallpaper as a symbol of the confining values of the ideal of “True Womanhood.” In all of these interpretations, the wallpaper is a symbol of the repression of the 19th century woman and her response to the society that confines her.
The narrator of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is diagnosed with postpartum depression, a type of depression that occurs in women after they have a baby, and she is put on the rest cure for the summer. The rest cure, designed by the famous psychiatrist Dr. Mitchell, required complete inactivity and weight gain over the period of a few weeks. Gilman underwent...