Combining complex symbolism with forthright dramatic irony and stream of consciousness narration, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” invokes the theme of patriarchal repression and gender persecution with profound realism and reader-identification. These latter qualities are all the more technically accomplished given that the story involves the apparent mental deterioration (or derangement) of the narrator, resulting in a a narrative which is both more fragmented and thematically dense than many readers may anticipate.
The theme of male-oppression of women is introduced from the story’s opening lines, which comprise the narrator’s self-reflective “monologue. ” An odd line of reasoning, or peculiar form of rationality guides the opening lines of “The Yellow Wallpaper” initiating the reader into a sense of alienation and disempowerment. The narrator remarks that is highly unusual for an “ordinary” couple such as herself and her husband to “secure ancestral Halls for the summer.
” The intimation is that something quite disturbing and unusual has brought about a dramatic change to the “ordinary” world. Though the narrator imagines the house may be haunted: “I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity,” the reality of the situation soon becomes clear, that the narrator’s predicament is every bit as terrifying as being caught in a haunted house.
The comment clearly indicates the narrator’s ability (contrary to the opinions of other characters in the story) to distinguish fantasy from reality, indicates that her sense of irony and humor is quite intact, and that she (the narrator) can clearly distinguish not only the specific of her whereabouts and surroundings, but invest them with whimsy and historical color, as well. (Gilman).
The function of the opening scenes of the story is to prepare the reader for a deep identification with the narrator and initiate the reader into a “world turned upside down;” that is, a world where the typical day to day accouterments of self-empowerment and self-gratification have been denied, based solely on the inherent chauvinism that allows men in society to view women as an inferior “other. ” In contrast to the narrator’s colorful and imaginative description of the mansion, her husband John is described as coldly analytical and pragmatic.
“John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures. ” (Gilman) Though it would be “romanticism” to believe the mansion haunted, the astute reader is perfectly correct in assuming the mansion a desolate and unhappy place, given the narrator’s almost mawkish longing for a haunted mansion as opposed to the cold, oppressive place of ‘rest” that is the mansion.
The narrator’s solace is in writing, which is forbidden her by her “doctors” who are, respectively, her husband and brother. “I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition. ” The narrator after divulging her true feelings about the mansion, confides to her readers, “John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.
” (Gilman) So, after only a mere handful of lines in the opening of “The Yellow Wallpaper” have been read, the reader is initiated into a world of alienation, where a brother and husband have kept a woman against her wishes in a cold and desolate mansion for “rest” and the narrator, though suspicious of their acumen and intentions, is powerless to change her situation.
This type of powerlessness forms the root of the thematic impetus for Gilman’s story, with the events of the story enumerating with increasing intensity and hopelessness the de-humization of the narrator by the men who surround her, all performed under the most accomplished and correct social circumstances. “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do? ” (Gilman) The last words in the above quote “what is one to do?
Can be rightly imagined as a cry of desperation; the attentive reader will feel a strong sense of pain and foreboding at the narrator’s cry from the heart. The impact of these words will likely separate readers immediately into two categories; those who will identify so closely with the narrator’s subsequent experiences that they virtually share them, or the reader will be left feeling alienated from the narrator, the story, and will likely be unable to grasp the important thematic assertions made via the symbolism and action of the story.
In some ways, this potential (or even likely) separation of readers into diametrically opposed groups mirrors the gender based social fragmentation with which Gilman is concerned in this story. Such a dynamic extension of the story’s important themes elevates “The Yellow Wallpaper” into superlative articulation and long-lasting profundity. After this point in the story, when the narrator remarks “what is one to do! ” an intense reader-identification is established which will allow the following remarks by the narrator to attain their intended ironic expression.