The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
In The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman we have the theme of control, freedom and powerlessness. Taken from her collection of the same name the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed female narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Gilman may be exploring the theme of control. Throughout the story the narrator appears to be under the complete control of her husband (John) and is not allowed to live her life as she might like to. He appears to be responsible for not only the narrator’s care but also how she is to spend her time while both he and the narrator wait for repairs to be completed on their home. If anything John appears to not only dictate the course of the narrator’s life but also has absolute control over how the narrator should live her life. This high level of control (by John) is noticeable when the narrator is forbidden by John to do any type of ‘work’. Rather in order to overcome her illness she is directed by John to continue to follow his prescription, despite the narrator feeling that ‘congenial work, with excitement and change’ would do her good.
The introduction of Cousins Henry and Julia to the story may also be important as their introduction appears to further highlight the absolute control that John has over the narrator. Despite wishing to visit Henry and Julia the narrator is told by John that she is not allowed to do so. This may be significant as it not only suggests that John is determining who the narrator should see (in essence controlling her environment and proceeding with his ‘rest cure’) but it is also possible that Gilman is suggesting that within a marriage (at the time the story was written) women were not allowed the freedom to make decisions of their own. If anything women may have been treated as second class citizens rather than being as equals to their husbands. This lack of equality within the narrator’s marriage is more noticeable when the narrator tells the reader that ‘John laughs at me, but one expects that in marriage’. This line may be important as it suggests that the narrator (when telling John what she thinks about the house) is not being taken seriously by John, which in turn suggests that John may not consider what the narrator has to say as being important. It is also possible that by introducing this line into the story, Gilman is suggesting that within a marriage (again at the time the story was written) there were two distinct roles, one for the male and one for the female, with the male’s role being considered to be more important. The fact that the narrator cries after John tells her that she cannot visit Henry and Julia may also be important as it is possible that the narrator feels powerless, knowing that her life is being controlled by John. She may also be aware that there is nothing that she can do to regain control of her life. If anything the narrator appears to be totally reliant on or at least submissive to John, though she does not wish to be. At no stage does the reader suspect that the narrator is being allowed to control her own life, which again may have been the case for many women at the time the story was written.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. The journal that the narrator is keeping allows the narrator to not only express herself and give her a voice (which she doesn’t appear to be allowed within her marriage) but it also serves to give the narrator her own identity (again outside the restraints of her marriage). The room in which the narrator is sleeping, with its barred windows, may also be symbolically important as Gilman through the use of the bars on the window may be highlighting to the reader how confined or restricted many women may have felt within their marriages, again at the time the story was written. The wallpaper itself may also be symbolic and may symbolise the male dominated society that existed at the time the story was written. Just as the narrator can see a woman trapped in the wallpaper, likewise there is a sense that the narrator is also trapped by John’s control over her.
The ending of the story is also interesting. Despite the narrator’s apparent descent into madness, she has in many ways freed herself of the constraints that she may have previously felt in the story. By ripping down the wallpaper the narrator appears to have freed herself from John’s control of her life. The fact that John passes out and falls to the floor may also symbolically suggest that the narrator is no longer being controlled by John. Something that is a little clearer when the narrator tells the reader that as she is moving around the room she has to ‘creep over him (John) every time!’ It would also appear that the narrator’s new found freedom has come at a cost, her sanity, which may the point that Gilman is attempting to make. It is possible that Gilman is suggesting that should a woman (or any individual) be continually controlled by a man and not allowed any form of self-expression (which seems to be the case for the narrator in the story) the result will only be the decline of a woman’s (or any individual’s) mental health. By not allowing the narrator the ability to express herself or allow her to make up her own mind and decide on what course of action she should take while she is recuperating, rather than helping the narrator John has assisted or aided her descent into insanity.