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The Yellow Wallpaper Symbolism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1184 words Published: 30th May 2017

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“The Yellow Wallpaper” written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892 is a collection of journal entries written by a woman who suffers from the mental disorder, namely temporary nervous depression. All of the entries constitute an account of the woman who is taken by her physician husband to the country in order to regain mental stability. More importantly, it portrays the protagonist’s preoccupation with the ugly wallpaper in her sickroom. The work is filled up with plenty of symbols, but the most important and prevailing one is the mentioned above wallpaper. The protagonist is engrossed in it and feels an uncanny connection to it. This seemingly irrelevant and ordinary element of decoration represents many arguable issues in the story, making the interpretation of the text more complex and meaningful at the same time. The yellow wallpaper stands for state of mind, restrictions placed on women as well as for the racial problems in the late 19th century particularly in the United States of America.

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Firstly, let me have a look on the wallpaper as a symbol of the protagonist’s state of mind. The very colour of it is yellow. The most universal connotations with it are bodily fluids, sickness or uncleanness. In the case of “The Yellow Wallpaper” it would mirror a mental illness and the process of the downfall of the human mind. Moreover, the pattern of the wallpaper is illogical and chaotic just as the narrator’s shaken sanity. As her disease confuses her mind and contradicts logic, the paper parallels her psychological state at this point. She is confused and unstable just as the decoration. At first, the wallpaper is a source of an immense irritation to Jane as she cannot find any, even the smallest sign of consistency in it. “I never saw a worse paper in my life” (Gilman 4). However, she becomes gradually obsessed with deciphering its meaning. As her mental disorder progresses, she starts suffering from hallucinations and finally concludes that actually there is a logic in the paper’s pattern. “I have finally found out. (…) The front pattern does move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!” (Gilman 16). The wallpaper portrays a woman who is ambushed in this illogical system. It is only her who can see the woman, and therefore, the woman’s only chance to set her free. Jane slowly looses the contact with reality, retreats into her obsessive fantasy. As the time passes by, she becomes the woman within the paper who simultaneously loses her identity. She disconnects herself from Jane and assumes new personality as well as perception of herself. The subsequent deterioration of the protagonist’s mental state reaches the climax when she locks herself in the room to finally tear all of the wallpaper in order to set the woman free from imprisonment. When John finds her, with all the decoration torn to pieces, the woman vigorously shouts out: “I’ve got out at last (…) in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman 21). The narrator is finally free and there is no power which would imprison her again. She got rid of all chains, societal norms and constraints by total descent into insanity which surprisingly, turned out to be her only salvation.

Secondly, the wallpaper may be a metaphorical equivalent for all restrictions imposed on women in the 1800s. In those times, women were condemned from intellectual work, forced to conform to the dependence of males and all rules of decent woman behaviour. It goes without saying that as a result women were helpless and oppressed. The title wallpaper is a confusing and complicated pattern in which the fictional woman appears. This may represents women’s feeling of being lost in the oppressive and strongly hierarchical society and living in the world which does not appeal to them. The historically shaped division of the roles within family and marriage leaves its unbearable mark on women’s lives. As the time passes by, our protagonist starts to identify herself with the imaginary woman. At this point, all the narrator’s fears and inner emotions are projected on the wallpaper. Societal constraints and norms overwhelm her and deprive of any chance to live her life to the full. The only way to know peace is a complete fall into insanity.

The last and probably the most outrageous interpretation of the wallpaper is the one proposed by Susan Lanser. She set the story in the political and ideological context of racial anxiety and nativism. Her immensely provocative thesis that the yellow wallpaper is a reflection on Yellow Peril questioned the common perception of it and triggered out a wave of surprise and consternation. The main symbol of the story with its colour which stands for dirt, urine, inferiority and uncleanness, seems to signify the racial otherness. The racism is in a way encoded in the wallpaper. In the late 19th century Western countries, especially the United States of America, faced with a massive immigration of East Asians. This process evoked the conviction that new comers would be a threat for the White’s job market and may change standards of living (Frost). Due to that Americans were so obsessive and hostile towards the representatives of the ‘yellow’ race. On the basis of this information, we may interpret the protagonist’s tearing of the wallpaper from the wall as an act of getting rid of all unwelcome immigrants as well as an expression of hostility and racism. Moreover, to prove this thesis more reliable and feasible there is evidence that the author was personally an active supporter of racial uniformity. “She belonged for a time to eugenics and nationalist organizations; opposed open immigration; and inscribed racism, nationalism, and classism into her proposal for social change” (Lanser 429). Therefore, according to Horvitz, we may state that the narrator’s descent into nervous depression is in metaphorical terms a kind of escape to an utopian word in which there is no yellow, stained and smelly wallpaper, and in consequence no presence of other race.

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“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a perfect example of the symbolism in the literature. It plays a soul part of “The Yellow Wallpaper”. The main ideas, points are presented across it making the text more complex, intricate and interesting. The story is overfilled with various symbols such as the window, nursery and obviously the most influential one – the wallpaper. It may be a clear reflection of the protagonist’s state of mind, indication of societal suppression and its principles or as Susan Lanser pointed out, the metaphor of racial discrimination. In my paper I presented only three of the possible interpretations of this particular symbol, but it goes without saying that one may come up with as many ideas and conclusions as possible.


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