A very successful doctor and his family rented a summer house for three months. It was more like an estate. It was the sort of place where there is a big house and large trees are growing everywhere. And somewhere on the property, there is a boathouse built near a lake. It was also the kind of place that can give the creeps to someone not used to living in a colonial mansion. The husband and wife together with their new baby and housekeeper went to all the trouble of moving their stuff to a remote location. The estate was not only outside the city in a small town, “It is quite alone standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village (Gilman, p. 916). The husband decided to spend their summer in this huge yet rundown property because he believed that the country air will cure her of a “temporary nervous depression” (Gilman, p. 916). Yet the wife was not happy with the decision to live there in isolation. It was then when she began to notice the yellow wallpaper in her room and gradually began to develop a relationship with this décor because it symbolizes her struggles with her husband and the way that he was treating her.
The central character of the story is a woman married to a highly successful and well-respected physician named John. The skill and fame of John were detrimental to her overall well-being and it has affected her on many levels. First of all, because of John’s standing in the community, the wife could not go to another doctor for a second opinion. She could not go to any other doctor period. Secondly, because of John’s reputation and great skill he was the absolute authority when it comes to health matters in the family. But John’s specialty is to cure the human body. He had no training when it comes to mental health. This was a major problem because his wife had a certain sickness of the mind beyond his capability to provide a cure. He could not provide a correct diagnosis beyond the examination of symptoms and since there were no symptoms there was no disease to cure. She kept it to herself when she would complain “John does not know how much I suffer (Gilman, p. 917). Since he could not find anything wrong with her, he concluded that what she needed is a vacation in a place where there are lots of sunshine and fresh air.
In the Estate
John’s “diagnosis” led him to rent an estate far from the hustle and bustle of the city. But it was not only located outside the town, but it was also miles away from the nearest village. John had no idea that his wife did not need seclusion but freedom, a nurturing relationship with her husband, time with her friends, and the chance to work on her writing skills. The wife tried in vain to explain this to him but he figured that her wishes will only sap her strength and therefore prolong his “sickness” and so he was like a prisoner in that colonial mansion without no one to talk to except for the baby and a housekeeper that did not seem to be a very good conversationalist.
In those three months of isolation, her mental anguish will become worse.
Early in her ordeal, she began to notice the yellow wallpaper. Her relationship with this piece of décor developed into something very complicated. Her association with the wallpaper evolved from hate to being extremely curious about it, and then to finally bonding with it when she realized that it was not simply another inanimate object in her room. She saw her struggles in writing in code and her careful observation allowed her to decipher the code and freed the information hidden behind the patterns. In the end, she discovered that there is a woman trapped inside and she had to help her getaway.
Gradually, the wife began to interact with the wallpaper. At first, she projected all her frustrations onto the yellow wallpaper. She began to notice the hideous design and appearance of the wallpaper the moment she and her husband moved into that room. She was unhappy with their decision to stay and she had to find a reason why they should move away. When she realized that her husband’s mind was set on staying in that estate for three whole months she began to negotiate and told him that at least they should move out of that room and into another with a more picture-perfect view.
She believed that she was justified in her complaint because to her mind the wallpaper was truly repulsive. She wondered why it was only her who seemed to notice the ugly yellow wallpaper. If her husband could only perceive the truth then without a doubt he will consent to her wish to move out of that room and somewhere more relaxing and more inviting. But when she tried to bring up the topic her husband reacted this way, “Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain” (Gilman, p. 917). He was very slick and overpowered her with his words.
After a few weeks in that room with the hideous wallpaper, she began to accept the fact that she will be staying there for a very long time. It is at this point when she realized that there is nothing better to do than to study the pattern in the wallpaper and she said, “I start … at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion” (Gilman, p. 919). She was talking about the interaction with his husband, a pattern was emerging, and she had to follow where it leads no matter if it will lead to nowhere.
She began to deteriorate while her husband was still in denial. He still believed that there was nothing wrong with her. It was at this point when she realized that the pattern was changing regularly and the change was dictated by the kind of light that illuminated the room. It changes when sunlight shone through it and also when the moonlight or the lamplight. When the moonlight filtered through the room the pattern became like prison bars. But the most interesting discovery made by the wife was that behind the prison bars there was a woman. She was imprisoned behind the pattern but this was not obvious until nighttime, it is only after dark when the prison cell became obvious.
At the end of their stay, the physician’s wife began to understand the reason why the woman was trapped within the wallpaper. The more that she understood the reason for the woman’s predicament the more that she was emboldened to see her life more truthfully. She was in denial like her husband but now she was able to see what was going on and the moment she realized that she wanted to be free. Thus, it became her primary mission to free the woman trapped with the wallpaper, but it was too late when she realized it was her all along.
The ugly yellow wallpaper symbolized the abusive marriage between the young wife and John the physician. The doctor did not hurt her, did not slap her or beat her up but he was capable of something much worse than physical pain. He was an expert in subjecting his wife to mental anguish. He pretended to be nice to her but in truth, he was mean and controlling. Ironically he was unaware of it and continued to make decisions without consulting his wife and in the process brought her to an inexplicable state of depression that at the end she was reduced to a crawling animal unable to stand on her own two feet but fully evolved into a creature that has come to terms with a very unhappy marriage.
The yellow wallpaper, its design, its dilapidated condition, and the imagined creatures that lurk behind it as well as the woman that was supposed to be trapped behind it are all symbols used to describe what was happening in the marriage. The ugly wallpaper meant that the wife was unhappy with how her husband tried to control her and her frustration that her husband failed to communicate with her thus unable to know her on a more intimate level.
The meaningless pattern that she was described the way her husband tried to fix the problem and while she was in disagreement pretended to agree to his decisions. Then she will feel terrible yet every time she would try to explain to her husband he would always come up with a solution that to his mind was nothing more than brilliant but to her something useless and ineffective in treating her depression. Yet she still tried to obey her husband but the result is frustration and a pattern began to emerge “You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back somersault, and there you are. It slaps you in the face knocks you down and tramples upon you” (Gilman, 911). She had to escape.
The woman trapped behind the wallpaper symbolized the way she was trapped within an abusive marriage. The moment she realized that and allowed herself to critically assess the situation she was emboldened to fight back. At first, it was a change in the way she perceived her husband. In the end, she recognized what was the truth behind her husband’s words and actions, “As if I couldn’t see through him” (Gilman, 913). Finally, she was able to break free. She began to find the courage to fight back, “I am getting angry enough to do something desperate” (Gilman, 914). But when she finally decided to break free, she was also transformed by the ordeal because when she finally got out of prison she could only manage to crawl. There was something scary about the way she described how she behaved that final day, “I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. ‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘despite you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman, p. 914). This is how the yellow wallpaper served as the means for her to understand the reality of her life. By the time she realized that she was in denial all along and that it was time to do something about her situation, it was already too late.