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An Analysis of Symbolism in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman As Used in Illustrating Oppression of Women in the 19th Century

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a practical literature work that illustrates the complex nature of mental disorders and the oppressive challenges experienced by women in the 19th century. Gilman uses intricate symbolism to explore women’s liberation and confinement. This essay aims to dissect the symbolism of ” The Yellow Wallpaper” and unravel the strong connections to the primary theme, thus shedding light on the communal limitations placed on women during the 19th century.

Entrapment is a symbol of the Yellow Wallpaper. The theoretical Wallpaper, described as a given shade of yellow, is a primary and potent symbol illustrated in the story. As presented in the story, the Wallpaper was initially rejected as a typical decoration but later transitioned into a metaphor for the supporter imprisoned within the restrictions of expectations of society and the suffocating norms of the era. At the start of the story, the yellow Wallpaper is illustrated as an ordinary decoration, which is dismissed by both the readers and the characters; however, as the story progresses, the yellow Wallpaper becomes evident that the Wallpaper is linked to the supporter’s mental condition. When confined in a room decorated with Wallpaper, the narrator of the story finds herself intensely obsessed with the patterns of the Wallpaper:” The pattern does move, and no wonder! The woman behind shake it!” (page 9). The chaotic and intricate designs of the wallpaper transition into a visual example of the thoughts in the narrator’s mind. As the narrator spends more time researching the Wallpaper, the patterns transition to fixation, which reflects her advancing obsession and the complex nature of her mental condition. The symbolism of the Wallpaper acquires aesthetic significance, thus becoming a metaphor for the narrator’s inner wrestle and the degrading sanity that unravels within her room of confinement. To achieve a deeper understanding of the symbolic significance of the yellow Wallpaper, Müller pg. 14 offers ideal insights into the cultural and historical context of the 19th century by exploring how mental disorders were perceived during that era. Thus, an understanding of the societal attitude towards mental illness is an illumination of the symbolism connected to the yellow Wallpaper, and it is hooked to the prominent theme of women’s mental health in the strict society. Therefore, in the story, Gilman applies meticulous narrations in illustrating the emotional and visual connections that symbolize the mental confinement of the protagonist.

The room is a symbol of prison in the story. The room in which the protagonist is illustrated in the story to have confined the protagonist changes into a representation of the societal drawbacks imposed on women during the 19th century. The story uses barred windows in the room to symbolize society’s limitations on women, thus restricting their autonomy and freedom. The author implies society’s restrictions on women’s lives by physically limiting the protagonist within a space without access to the external world. Thus, the author uses the barred windows as a visual example of the obstacles that restrict women from being involved entirely in the outer world, “The windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls” (Gilman, pg. 6), thus restricting them to opportunities and experiences. The nailed-down bed and barred windows are used as reflections of the physical confinement and the physical limitations that are placed on the freedom of women. In her book, Goodman thoroughly describes the isolation mirrors in the room, which she describes as isolating women in a free society, thus confining them to predetermined roles and their denied agency. In addition, Goodman tells the room, which intentionally has inadequate stimulation, transitions into a canvas, which is used in the descension of the protagonist into madness, which symbolizes the repercussion of the repression of society. The author employs the physical room to represent the pervasive restrictions on the creativity and freedom of women. For example, the confinement within the space reflects the limits of women to indicate their roles in the domestic sphere in the world. Besides, the inability of the protagonist to escape reflects the societal expectations that limit women to given roles as mothers and wives, thus restricting their opportunities for intellectual growth and self-expression.

The patterns of the Wallpaper are a symbol of madness. In the story, the designs are illustrated as chaotic and erratic the yellow paper, thus becoming a visual example of the supporter’s degrading nature of mental state. As the protagonist becomes exceptionally fixated on the Wallpaper, the narrative indicates that the patterns transition into a representation of the descent of mental illnesses. At the story’s start, the yellow Wallpaper is presented as innocuous, interpreted as a supernatural feature of the room’s décor. Nevertheless, as the story progresses, the yellow paper changes into an illustration of the supporter’s unraveling psyche. The immediate yellow hue, which has convoluted and chaotic patterns, reflects the tangled emotions and thoughts in the narrator’s mind, “It is dull enough to confuse the eyes in following , pronounced enough to constantly and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance, they suddenly commit suicide- plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions”(Gilman pg. 6). The symbolism of color is essential in the short story since yellow is frequently connected with instability or mental illness. (Golden 17), her book describes the use of yellow in The Wallpaper as a foreshow of the mental drain later encountered in the story. According to her, the changes and turns of patterns reflect the complex nature of her thoughts, thus emphasizing the repercussion that communal expectations and the denial of agency can impact the mental health of an individual. Therefore, the symbolism of the patterns of the Wallpaper significantly enhances a deeper understanding of the supporter’s mental deterioration and the impacts of communal restrictions on her psyche.

A multisensory experience as a symbol of smell. In the short story, Gilman uses the sense of smell as a symbolic element, thus adding a sensory layer to the account. In the story, Gilman uses a nauseating smell that emanates from the Wallpaper, which contributes to the overall oppressive environment and symbolizes the toxic impacts of societal expectations on the mental health of women. In the story, the smell is illustrated as a frequent reminder of the oppressive environment of the protagonist, who is forced to persevere, thus further emphasizing the deteriorating effects of societal beliefs on her well-being. The oppressive climate in the confined room is intensified by the foul smell in developing a visceral relation between the protagonist and the reader’s experience in the story. The smell symbolizes the descriptive component illustrating the oppressive and suffocative nature of society’s expectations of women in the 19th century,” The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out. I got up softly and went to feel and see If the paper did move, and when I came back John was looking at me” (Page 9). The author prompts the readers to emphasize the psychological and emotional. This multisensory symbolism effectively enhances the protagonist’s psychological drain and emotional impact by evoking a physical reaction in the sense of smell in the story. Thus, in the context of the story, the noxious smell can be interpreted as a metaphor for the oppressive nature of the societal beliefs that restrict and confine women. The smell acts like societal expectations, which are invasive and pervasive and seep into every corner of the supporter’s existence in the room. Besides, the symbolism serves as a commentary on the oppressive effects of the native gender expectations and roles restricting women during the historical era in the short story’s setting.

In conclusion, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a literary masterpiece that effectively uses symbolism in exploring the theme of female liberation and the confinement of women in society. The short story employs symbolism in the yellow Wallpaper, the room, the oppressed woman, the patterns of the Wallpaper, and the multisensory smell effectively, contributing to a nuanced and rich illustration of the wrestle experienced by the protagonist against societal expectations. By use of these symbols, the author weaves a vital commentary on the discriminative nature of society’s beliefs and their deteriorating impacts on the mental health of women in the 19th century. “The Yellow Wallpaper” remains a timeless piece of literature that effectively progresses to resonate, thus inviting the readers to reflect on the perseverance and significance of individual liberation and agency from societal restrictions.

Work Cited

Golden, Catherine J. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Taylor & Francis, 18 October 2019.

Goodman, Lizbeth. Literature and Gender. Taylor & Francis, 2013.

Müller, Alina. The Representation of Material World and Things in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Bod Third Party Titles, 2020.

World’s Audiobooks. “The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman | Full Length Audiobook.” YouTube, 17 June 2019, Accessed 12 November 2023.


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