Isolation, confinement, illness, and patriarchal oppression - still think Victorian literature is irrelevant? Deputy Arts & Culture Editor Sairaa Bains explores why Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 short story 'The Yellow Wallpaper' is still haunting.
There is probably a reason why Oscar Wilde’s last words were: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us have to go.” The wallpaper survived, yet its dangerous influence remained. This certainly makes you wonder – How can a design on a wallpaper become so oppressive to the eye? Why are we so influenced by the colours and textures on our walls? What is it that paints our thoughts, emotions and desires? “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman answers some of these questions making the reader reflect upon the symbolism underlying a domestic object as basic and simplistic as a wallpaper.
Throughout the story, Jane, the protagonist, is describing her relationship with her husband and the confines of her room. Even though Virginia Woolf believed in women having a room of their own i which to write, the room in “The Yellow Wallpaper” was made wholly for reasons of suppression. This is the background of Jane’s story where she is not only constricted by the limitations of a patriarchal society but also that of rigid gender roles and expectations. It can be said that this is where the notions of females being overly emotional, dramatic and sensitive could possibly have started. In the Victorian Era, women were expected to take a hiatus from life indulging in no activity that could stimulate their senses. This was known as a “rest-cure” which was the required treatment for women who were diagnosed as suffering from a hysterical fit or nervous condition. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a reflection on this misdiagnosis whose cure directly aligns with “caging” a human almost. The woman at the heart of this story is a product of her surroundings and her lack of self-expression and opinion highlights the oppression she is under. Both her husband’s ideas of repression and silence as a healing practice further strengthens her distaste for the “repellant, almost revolting” pattern of the yellow wallpaper.
The pattern and design of the wallpaper are described as creating an “artistic sin” with indefinite lines and curves. It’s hard for the reader to imagine this wallpaper since it’s described as a living person with patterns that commit “suicide” and create “outrageous angles.” This description of the wallpaper re-emphasizes the fact that the writer does not expect the reader to visualize the patterns as much as the layered meaning behind it. While talking about her disturbed state, Jane also refers to another woman who is supposedly living in the wallpaper. At the same time, the longer she stares at the wallpaper, the more the woman seems to change shape and take proper form. For all we know, Jane’s troubled thoughts could have stemmed from the wallpaper itself. In this sense, the wallpaper is oppressive both on the exterior and interior. It holds a trapped woman while also surrounding the headspace of another woman who is imprisoned inside the room. There’s a sense of being boxed in and bound not only within the physical constraints of her room but also the patriarchal ideologies in society. As a result, Jane feels herself forming a connection with her bedroom walls and even tries to tear this wallpaper to free the woman she sees or even imagines. The destruction of this wallpaper is a moment where the protagonist sees herself in the wallpaper, and tries to break free. These attempts at freedom are stopped short when her mental state is questioned or used to compensate for her behaviour.
The yellow wallpaper and its description is confusing on the surface but when you really delve into it, you find that the confusion takes on meaning leading to a somewhat unexpected end. At the end of the story, much remains open to interpretation. It’s hard to say whether the woman in the wallpaper was conjured up by Jane’s imagination or if she was describing herself all along. The description that Jane provides could also signify her troubled headspace as a result of being subjugated on such a level. It’s almost as if she has become a part of the yellow wallpaper that she found so constraining. If Jane had really been living inside the wallpaper, she is nothing more than a decorative ornament. She is the wallpaper that merely covers the walls and is pushed onto the background by societal stereotypes. This can be equated with several customs in society that impose a particular form of behaviour onto males and females. In that sense, every person is trapped and confined within the ideals laid out by their particular religion, nation and society.
While referring to the pattern of the wallpaper Jane directly draws a comparison with her own being.
This is evident when the protagonist says, “There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will”- it can also be understood as her own idiosyncratic qualities that are left concealed and unseen. She is herself a storehouse of thoughts, ideas and emotions that she has been unable to put on paper or express in any form. In this way, The Yellow Wallpaper becomes a commentary on the art of writing itself which wasn’t easy to come by for many women. It is ironic that the process of writing is talked about as a form of healing or relief that is extremely cathartic, but society viewed it is as a form of mental illness for women at the time. When you read this story, you can’t help but become aware of this small act of defiance which is seen when the protagonist pens down the story we read. Even though she knows that her husband, John doesn’t like the idea of her writing, she still writes as a form of liberation or escape. Here, the husband can be linked directly to an authoritarian or fascist regime where press freedom is repressed and voices of both the people and media are censored. The comparison between a woman being treated like she is mentally unstable for writing and journalists being thrown into prison for speaking the truth has an uncanny resemblance. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” itself, repression takes the form of confinement in the guise of a medical cure that does nothing but silence the protagonist’s self-expression.