To many critics, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a story about a symbol. Wallpaper, a furnishing associated with domesticity, is used to represent the cultural pattern of male dominance and female submission that circumscribes the Narrator’s mental freedom. Just as the wallpaper with its imprisoning pattern literally surround the Narrator, the course of rest and quiet prescribed by her physician/husband comes to repress her body and mind. Though the Narrator’s body remains trapped – forced to creep – by the house and the wallpaper; her mind frees itself, first through her journal and then by succumbing to insanity and delusion. The irony that insanity was the thing which her physician/husband most sought to avoid only compounds the Narrator’s helplessness. For, as she observes several times in the story, her physician/husband has good intentions and is doing what he believes correct. This puts the Narrator in the position of appearing ungrateful, and thus deserving more treatment if she argues against it.
The parallels between the wallpaper and the Narrator are clearly delineated. Outwardly the paper’s disgusting shade of yellow symbolizes the Narrator’s own “illness” – the depression borne of nervous anxiety as diagnosed by her physician/husband. The sickly yellow, however, supports the wallpaper’s chaotic and restrictive pattern just as the Narrator’s illness is fed by the restrictions placed upon her body and mind by the male-centric world she inhabits. Finally, the Narrator’s mind creates a non-existant sub-pattern for the trapped woman to inhabit so that the Narrator herself can escape if only through her imagination.
During the course of the story, the symbolic power of the wallpaper asserts itself with greater prominence until the Narrator literally tears it from the wall to free herself. At first the ugly wallpaper in the upstairs room is merely one detail of a house that the narrator quickly concludes to be creepy and seemingly haunted. It’s only remarkable trait appears to be its ugliness. Though it is the one aspect of the house that the Narrator finds abhorrent, she is compelled by her physician/husband to sleep in the upstairs room with it. Her proscribed course of rest means that she spends increasing amounts of time under its influence. At first her journal helps to relieve her imagination and she begins to parse the ugliness of the wallpaper’s color from the ugliness of its pattern. As her mental and physical strength wane, however, the narrator’s imagination is increasingly drawn to the yellow wallpaper, it’s increasingly cage-like pattern and the figure(s) she now perceives trapped within the sub-pattern. Gilman skillfully marries each of the Narrator’s failed attempts to convince her physician/husband to allow her to leave with the rising power of the wallpaper and the trapped woman over her imagination. In this way, the wallpaper becomes not only the symbol of the narrator’s imprisonment, through the rubric of her insane mind it actually becomes the thing imprisoning her.
It’s appropriate that the wallpaper operate so clearly as a symbol of the domestic submission which trapped many women during Gilman’s time. Gilman wrote the story specifically as a critique of her physician Dr. S. Weir Mitchell whose enforced rest treatment nearly drove the author insane before she escaped both her doctor and husband and fled across the country. Recognizing Dr. Mitchell’s good intentions, like those of the Narrator’s physician/husband in the story, Gilman mailed a copy to him in the hopes that he would recognize the cruelty inherent to his “rest” treatment. Despite Gilman’s belief that Dr. Weir subsequently abandoned prescribed rest for depression, there is no evidence that “The Yellow Wallpaper” had any affect upon the doctor’s methods.
The moon has long been associated with female power as with early fertility-centered societies and the Greek goddess Artemis the huntress whose natural realm was the light of the moon. For the Narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” the contrast between daytime with its attendant limitations and nighttime with its attendant freedoms are symbolized by the alternating affects of sunlight and daylight upon the wallpaper. During the day, the Narrator’s freedom is checked by her physician/husband’s “rest” treatment. Though she can see a bay in the distance and paths leading to it, she cannot move beyond the confines of the estate. Daytime is also associated with work, an activity overseen if not performed by men in Gilman’s time. As an upper-middle class woman in the Nineteenth century, the prevailing societal mores and codes further restrict the Narrator’s daytime activities to housekeeping. At night, however, while her husband is either asleep or away, the Narrator’s mind is free to roam sub-pattern revealed by the moonlight upon the wallpaper. Thus, the moonlight symbolically acts in consort with the Narrator’s imagination to free it from the male-dominated confines of the daytime and, like the woman in the sub-pattern, roam free of interference from those that would seek to hem it in.
Like the wallpaper, the bed serves as a symbol of the Narrator’s nineteenth century male-dominated culture. Also like the wallpaper, the bed is traditionally associated with the female/domestic realm but its role in the story perverts its meaning and symbolically turns it into an aspect of the Narrator’s imprisonment. Like her physician/husband the bed, which is nailed to the floor, is immovable. Like the culture of male-dominance, the bed is old and (certainly in Gilman’s feminist estimation) antique but continues to be serviceable for those, like the Narrator, who lack the means to move it. Unlike the wallpaper, however, the bed as the location of intimacy and male-sexual dominance acquires the additional symbolic power of the physical subjugation of the Narrator to her husband/physician and the child which, as the result of her sexual subjugation, has led to her nervous, anxious condition.
The Narrator’s opinion of the garden, which symbolizes the world of possibilities unavailable to women of her day, changes during the story from appearing “delicious” to loathsome and frightening. As her mind retreats further into the safe, female world revealed in the moonlit sub-patter of the wallpaper, the actual, sun-drenched world of the garden ceases to be desirable becomes aligned with the fear of discovery. At first she feared that her physician/husband would discover her writing, then that he would discover her affinity with the wallpaper and finally, that he and the male-dominated world discover her “creeping” (itself symbolic of her escape). She observes that the women who escape from the wallpaper and enter the garden are forced to creep and hide, just as she must during the daylight when the wallpaper’s pattern subsumes the sub-pattern. So, the Narrator she prefers the bare room in which she can “creep” without fear of discovery.
The Yellow Wallpaper: Metaphor Analysis