When Charlotte Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the system of American society in the nineteenth century saw men (White men) ruling all facets of life, including the livelihoods of their wives. Gilman’s short story can be seen as an attempt to liberate women of the time from the constraints of men and give them the right to live on their own as adults. The author uses loneliness as a motif to help create the overall plot. It is through the isolation that the author manages to journal her thoughts and experiences, the separation also keeps the story flowing as it helps to build on other themes such as surveillance, mental health problems and gender inequality in the patriarchal society of the writer’s time. The protagonist who narrates the story in “The Yellow Wallpaper” also acts as a representation of all women who felt locked up in several situations in their lives as a result of the domination by males in the society. This paper, therefore, assesses the various ways in which Gilman uses isolation to build the short story.
Isolation in “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Separation is the basis on which the writer builds “The Yellow Wallpaper” since the writer introduces her readers to the story from a confined place within the house. All the events of the story also happen in the enclosed room as the narrator reports to the reader through her journal about the past incidences and connects them to the present. For example, at the beginning of the story, the narrator says that she is locked up in the summerhouse because of her mental condition. It is also through the narrator’s dissatisfaction with the separation as a form of treatment that the reader gets to learn of the patriarchal system especially when the narrator says that her husband and brother who are both physicians of high standing have misdiagnosed her condition and there is nothing she can do about it.
Apart from using separation to drive the plot of the story, the effects of isolation on the main character are used to present some of the themes of the story such as the connection between separation and mental health. Studies have shown that isolation is a likely cause of mental health problems especially depression (Cornwell, ErinYork and Waite, Linda J.). Because the narrator’s health condition could be diagnosed in the modern day as postpartum depression, keeping the patient separated from other people only makes the state grow worse. The narrator knows that keeping away from people and from doing other activities is only worsening the situation and she mentions that “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus”(1) to indicate how uncomfortable and un-useful isolation is to her condition. In the end, the narrator breaks down into complete mental illness as she crawls around the room thinking that she is crawling out of her confinement. That means, separation of women with postpartum depression only worsens their mental health problems instead of providing relief.
Furthermore, the summer house in which the narrator is confined is a metaphor symbolizing the restricted lives that many women led in the 19th century. In the house, the narrator is expected to do nothing other than rest. In fact, she informs the readers that she can only journal when her husband and his sister are not seeing, that is why the narrator hides the journal when she hears her husband approaching the room. The narrator who represents women in various aspects is isolated as a way of presenting the real personality of women are hidden under the traditional gender roles and their desire to find their real selves as well as exercise control over their lies. The frustrations that come with isolation force the narrator to see a route out of the confinement and in her mind, the patterns on the yellow wallpaper show women crawling out of their problems. Elìsabet Rakel Sigurðardóttir explains that separation of the narrator depicts the helplessness associated with being a woman in the nineteenth century. The babying and belittling that the narrator experiences from her husband but confiding in a room with the yellow wallpaper drives her to seek a higher position as a woman in the society.
Isolation also introduces the protagonist as a female author who loves writing but is restricted from doing it freely. Paula Treichler presents that the yellow wallpaper is a metaphor for women’s discourse which from a conservative perspective is seen as confusing, outrageous, strange and flamboyant. The narrator’s separation from the rest of the people helps the character to understand an interpretion to the reader the patterns that embody a woman’s life which the patriarchal order ignores. These patterns include the external expression of neurasthenia, sexual inequality, the narrator’s situation with patriarchy and the narrator’s unconscious (Treichler 62). What also comes out of the idea that the narrator is a writer who is being restricted from writing is a show of men’s failure to recognize the ability of women and that having to comply with orders that go against the wish of women causes them depression and can lead to other severe forms of mental illness. According to Helga Sigurðardóttir, John the narrator’s husband does not see his wife as an independent and creative human being, and that puts the narrator in a dilemma of feeling bad for not doing what she likes freely and feeling guilty for secretly disobeying her husband.
Separation is also used in the story to show the society’s expectations of a woman. The narrator’s husband administers the seclusion and rests treatment with the hope that the narrator would emerge as an excellent woman who is capable of taking up the gender roles as required by the society. Gilman intentionally creates a woman who is less interested in motherhood and more of an intellectual who loves working. The narrator’s approach to motherhood does not conform to the societal standards since she lacks the motherly attachment to her baby. Chalak Ghafoor Raouf explains that the narrator perceives motherhood as one of the means employed by men to maintain dominance over women in the society and prevent women from engaging in activities of their liking.
However, as it emerges from the story, separations do not always work as intended. The narrator’s husband expected a healed woman after some time of seclusion and rest. However, what he sees at the end of the story shocks him, and he faints. From a broader perspective, Gilman could have been sending a message to the males in the society that the restrictions they put on women can have an impact on their physical and mental health, but cannot stop their will to achieve what they want in life. Most women who live in patriarchal societies often yearn for liberation from the control of men. That freedom is what the narrator realizes on her own by crawling out of the yellow wallpaper. As the narrator crawls out, she says, “I’ve got out, at last, I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (1). Here, Gilman presents isolation as a temporary situation that women of will can get themselves out of. Furthermore, it indicates the author’s walk away from wrong treatment resulting from misdiagnosis. George Montero reports that Gilman wrote the story to save women from going mad as a result of the rest and inactiveness prescriptions forced on them by physicians in the 19th century.
Isolation serves many purposes in “the Yellow Wallpapaer”, the story is told by someone who is separated from the rest of the family members and the society. The effects of confinement on mental health are also brought out through isolation. Furthermore, separation and surveillance are used to give a picture of the situation as it was in the nineteenth century where women were supposed to accept the decisions made on their behalf by the men. Apart from that, the author relies on separation to present the events around the main character and the eventual attainment of freedom at the end of the story which involves walking out of confinement.
Gilman, Charlotte. Gutenberg.Org, 2012, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1952/1952-h/1952-h.htm
Cornwell, Erin York, and Linda J. Waite. “Social Disconnectedness, Perceived Isolation, and Health among Older Adults.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol 50, no. 1, 2009, pp. 31-48. SAGE Publications, doi: 10.1177/002214650905000103.
Monteiro, George. “Context, Intention, and Purpose in “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, a Tale In The Poe And The Romantic Tradition”. Brown University/USA, 1999.
Raouf, Chalak Ghafoor. “Partriachy’s Control on the Narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s the Yellow Wallpaper”. Research Journal of English Language and Literature (RJELAL), vol 2, no. 2, 2014, pp. 157-162. https://www.rjelal.com/2.2.14/157-162.pdf.
Sigurðardóttir, Elísabet Rakel. Women and Madness in the 19Th Century. 2013, https://skemman.is/bitstream/1946/16449/1/BA-ElisabetRakelSigurdar.pdf.
Sigurðardóttir, Helga. Behind The Wallpaper the Feminist Point of View in the Story “The Yellow Wallpaper“. 2010, https://skemman.is/bitstream/1946/5344/1/Behind%20The%20Wallpaper.pdf.
Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in “The Yellow Wallpaper”.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol 3, no. 1/2, 1984, pp. 61-77. http://sites.middlebury.edu/unquietminds/files/2013/04/Diagnosis-Wallpaper.pdf.