Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," is a disturbing expose of the harmful effects of the 'rest cures' prescribed for women suffering from 'hysteria-' a euphemism for any female ailment not understood by the male establishment of doctors. Gilman herself was the victim of such a treatment, which recommended that she "Live as domestic a life as possible," and to restrict herself to "but two hours' intellectual life a day… never [ touching] pen, brush or pencil as long as [she lived.]" In short, to voluntarily immerse herself in a stifling social role that institutionalizes the oppression of women. Luckily, Gilman rebelled against the treatment before she suffered mental breakdown- unlike the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper," who grows progressively less sane as she realizes how trapped she is. Gilman uses the "repellent, almost revolting" wallpaper in the narrator's cell-like room to symbolize her gradually increasing awareness of the forces that keep her in a subservient role. The narrator's changing perception of her environment, especially her hallucinatory visions of a "sub-pattern" in the wallpaper, provide a window into her unconscious mind and reveal the magnitude of women's subjugated state.
In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator's surroundings symbolize the societal forces that emphasize a 'Cult of Domesticity' and confine women in the home. The narrator, suffering from "hysteria," is kept in the "nursery" on the top floor of a large colonial mansion, "forbidden" to engage in any stimulating activity. Despite the narrator's insistence that the room is "comfortable," it more closely resembles a cell in a sanitarium than a nursery, with "rings and things on the walls… [a] heavy bedstead… barred windows… [a] gate at the head of the stairs… [and] the floor… scratched and gouged and splintered." This prison represents the oppression of women in society, fashioned both by the outside forces of the male establishment and by womankind's own blind acceptance of their fate. The wallpaper, so abhorrent to the narrator, becomes a way for her to express her repressed hatred of confinement. Throughout the story, she attempts to cover up her anger, especially at her husband, John, the very physician who has recommended this treatment. Although she admits, "I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes," she quickly writes, "I think it is due to this nervous condition." By personifying both the medical establishment and the institution of marriage in the subtly antagonistic character of John, Gilman expresses her disapproval of both. John ignores all of his wife's pleas for activity, and condescendingly treats her like a foolish little girl. "John laughs at me, of course," writes the narrator, "but one expects that in a marriage." Her acceptance of such treatment is an example of the self-denying submission that many women voluntarily practice.
The evolution of the wallpaper and its sub-pattern as the narrator becomes more aware of her imprisonment-and more insane-give the story a psychological aspect. Since the narrator is unwilling, and perhaps incapable, of consciously acknowledging her captivity, her hallucinations bring her sub-conscious to manifest itself in her reality. The narrator first sees "a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about" within the wallpaper's convolutions. "It is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern," she writes, "I don't like it a bit. I wonder- I begin to think- I wish John would take me away from here!" The imagined woman, like the narrator, is trapped- a similarity she seems about to grasp but which she rejects as her conscious mind regains control.
Just as the sub-pattern reveals her subconscious, the cycle of day and night symbolizes the conflict between her conscious and subconscious. It is during the night that the figure manifests itself most strongly, creeping around the room. "On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind," the narrator writes. During the daytime, when reality is most firmly in control, the pattern still grates. At night, however, things become more clear- "At night, in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, [the pattern] becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be. …By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still." Oddly enough, the narrator's condition begins to improve- and she says that it is "because of the wallpaper." She certainly seems invigorated by the intellectual stimulation the wallpaper brings her, but she is obviously much less sane. "I don't sleep much at night," she writes, "for it is so interesting to watch developments [in the wallpaper]; but I sleep a good deal in the daytime." Her unconscious is gaining more and more influence and control over her, manifesting itself more strongly in reality, in the form of a peculiar smell. "[The smell] used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house-to reach the smell." Like her acceptance of the wallpaper, her acceptance of the smell reveals that a tenuous connection with reality has become the norm for her.
The sub-pattern continues to become more animated, with the woman in it "trying to climb through." The woman's struggle can be interpreted both as a symbol of women's battle to escape from the gilded cages they have been confined to, and as an attempt by this woman to enter the psychological fortress that the narrator has constructed for herself. "I think that woman gets out in the daytime!" exclaims the narrator- apparently her conscious defenses of denial have failed. Now, she seems openly disgusted with John, writing, "He asked me all sorts of questions, ...and pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn't see through him!" Now she attempts to free the woman at night, tearing the wallpaper from the walls. Her actions seem to symbolize the forseen birth of a more active feminist movement that openly attempts to destroy the societal forces that have oppressed women.
Finally, the narrator becomes the trapped woman in the sub-pattern, believing that she has escaped from the wallpaper. She creeps about the perimeter of the room with her shoulder rubbing a "long smooch" into the remaining wallpaper. John comes to the door, which the narrator has locked, finally opening it. Ironically, he faints when he sees her insane behavior, despite beliefs that man is the stronger sex. The narrator cries, "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." Jane, who has not been introduced in the story, could be the narrator herself, in which case her escape is from both John-the male-dominated societal structure, and herself-the voluntarily submissive woman. Now she "creeps over [John] every time" she makes her way around the room, moving over him in domination. The narrator's removal from reality, in which women are oppressed, seems to be a victory over herself and a symbol of the maturation of the feminist movement into a powerful and self-aware force. This is a bittersweet triumph, however, since she has fallen into insanity. By using psychological symbols that give insight into the narrator's unconscious, Gilman has accentuated the damage that oppression does to women, and made change seem much more essential.