Short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is not just about a woman going insane. As a matter of fact, it has a more profound meaning. It is a story about the dynamics of gendered relationships and power struggles between men and women. More importantly, “The Yellow Wallpaper” portrays the sexual power conflicts and addresses major problems in a patriarchal society such as the complete dominance of women in the late 19th century. The narrator of the story represents all women who had to experience the infamous “rest cure” which was designed by men to keep women in control and make them more submissive by completely stripping off their creativity and individuality, thus making them immobile and infantilized. During those times only men had the privilege to get an education, work and be the decision makers in the family. Most of the women were seen merely as the managers of their homes who were only expected to cook, clean, take care of the children and please their husbands. Hence, women who showed any signs of self-determination, self-expression or any kind of resistance were judged as being insane. Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” illustrates the complexities of female oppression and shows that women should not give in to suppression and not be afraid to show their true selves. The narrator in the story feels mentally, socially and physically confined by society’s standards and, as a result, goes insane in order to get away from this entrapment and regain control of her life. The narrator’s eventual insanity actually represents her breaking free from female oppression.
The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a woman suffering from a postpartum depression, which is a type of clinical depression that affects women after childbirth. We can infer this from her journal where she writes that she cannot be with her child since it “makes [her] so nervous” (318). However, her husband, John, does not believe this and assures her that there is nothing to worry about since it is just a “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency” (316). It illustrates that men were seen as being omniscient and never wrong. He uses the notorious “rest cure” method to treat his wife, which ironically is worse than the illness itself. Consequently, the narrator is forbidden to work, write and even socialize in order to suppress her intellectual faculties. This shows how women were seen as lesser than men and expected to obey their commands. John is clearly seen as the dominant figure in their relationship as well as in control of their marriage and the narrator’s life. John’s dominance and authority can be recognized not only because he is a man but also because he is a “physician of high standing” (316). He keeps reinstating his authority by reminding her that he is a doctor and knows everything better than her. For instance, when the narrator says that the treatment is not working and she wishes to leave the house, John replies that he thinks otherwise and says, “I am a doctor, dear, and I know” (322). Nevertheless, the narrator is aware that this kind of treatment does not do her any good and, contrarily, only makes everything worse. She writes that John is “one reason [she does] not get well faster” (316). The narrator believes that some pleasant work and change would make her feel a lot better. However, she thinks that she has no choice but to do what her husband thinks is the right thing to do and blindly obey to his commands. The narrator asks the reader thrice, “But what is one to do?” (316). Repetition of this question illustrates how she and other women feel about their marriages and how little to no control they have in their own lives.
The narrator turns to writing a journal in order to fulfill her needs for self-expression and relieve her mind. However, she has to write in secret since her husband forbade her to touch a pen and told her that it would only make her