Gilman’s Use of Literary Strategies to Establish the Theme of Oppression in “The Yellow Wallpaper”
When Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1892 the women’s suffrage movement was just beginning to gain momentum (VCU Libraries, 1995). “The Yellow Wallpaper” can easily be interpreted as a critique of how women of a certain social status were treated and regarded by men in their society. These attitudes, and their effect, can be seen as the primary theme of the story. Perkins Gilman uses a variety of literary strategies to develop her theme of madness as a symptom of patriarchal control, including, most notably, setting, symbolism, and figurative language.
In a literary context, setting refers to where the story takes place. The setting of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is very important, as the entire story takes place in just one room. Although the narrator describes the room itself in fairly pleasant terms as being “big, airy” and having “sunshine galore” (Gilman, 2009), it resembles a prison. The barred windows, rings in the walls, and giant bed nailed to the floor all create the impression that the narrator is being held captive against her will, which, in a way, she is. The most important element of setting to consider is, of course, the yellow wallpaper from which the story takes its name.
Symbolism in literature is the act of giving meaning to inanimate objects. The wallpaper in the story is a perfect example of this. It becomes a symbol of the narrator’s oppression, at first subtly through the use of negative descriptive words and personification, and finally more overtly as the woman behind the wallpaper struggles to escape. “At night,” the author points out, the wallpaper “becomes bars…and the woman behind it is as plain as can be” (Gilman, 2009). The woman behind the wallpaper wants desperately to be free, much like Gilman herself wishes to escape from her figurative bonds. However, as the narrator states, “nobody could climb through that pattern – it strangles so” (Gilman, 2009). Along with the other literary devices used frequently in describing the room and the wallpaper itself, the use of symbolism helps to define the main character’s captivity and, by extension, the author’s oppression.[“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]
Figurative language includes things like metaphors and similes, but also personification. Personification is defined as the ascribing of human traits to animals, ideas, or, as in this case, inanimate objects. In the author’s initial description of the wallpaper design the spirals and swirls “commit suicide” and “destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (Gilman, 2009). The wallpaper itself “looks to [her] as if it KNEW what a vicious influence it had” (Gilman, 2009). By personifying the yellow wallpaper and framing it in negative terms the author has turned it into a symbol for the narrator’s husband and the oppressive patriarchy under which she lived and wrote.[Click Essay Writer to order your essay]
The first time I read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I assumed that the narrator was insane. It was only when I went back and re-read it with the added context of the bars on the windows and the woman trapped behind the wallpaper that I understood her madness to be a symptom of her husband’s control. I also noticed that her choice of words when describing the wallpaper itself was much more negative than her descriptions of the rest of the house and made note of that. Additionally when I went back and re-read it I made note of all the instances describing the woman behind the wallpaper and her captivity, and came back several times to the phrase “I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?” (Gilman, 2009), which seemed important as it relates to the story being part of a larger historical narrative of the struggle for women’s rights.[Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]
The figurative language used to describe the wallpaper in “The Yellow Wallpaper” helps to establish it as a symbol of oppression. Gilman uses these and other literary strategies to create a story that clearly conveys the obstacles the narrator, and by extension any woman in her society, is up against when attempting to escape the binds of social expectations and the patriarchy.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (2009). “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). The Yellow Wallpaper and Selected Writings. London, UK: Hachette Digital.
VCU Libraries (1995). Woman Suffrage: History and Timeline. In The Social Welfare History Project.