The Yellow Wallpaper Psychoanalytic Criticism

In: English and Literature

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," first published in 1892, is a study of social degeneration into madness. As such it may seem an unlikely focus of American literary realism; yet it is a very fine illustration of realist symbolism. The furnishings of the narrator's room become a microcosm of the world that squeezes her into the little cell of her own mind, and the wallpaper represents the state of that mind.

The story line is deceptively simple. The narrator, a writer, finds herself increasingly depressed and indefinably ill. Her husband John (a physician), her brother, and her doctor all concur that she needs complete rest and a cessation of her work if she is to "recover," by which they mean "appear as a normal female in a world created by and for men." Gilman is not speaking in any militant feminist terms; she merely shows how her narrator needs to work in order to feel at ease with herself and the self's potential. Instead, she is hustled off to the country into a life of enforced idleness of body and mind. Although she would have preferred a room opening on the garden, her husband consigns her to the upstairs room, a former nursery, whose major features are ancient yellow wallpaper, bars on the windows, and a huge bedstead nailed to the floor.

The fact that the narrator's prison-room is a nursery indicates her status in society. The woman is legally a child; socially, economically, and philosophically she must be led by an adult--her husband; and therefore the nursery is an appropriate place to house her. The narrator's work threatens to destroy her status as a mere child by gaining her recognition in the adult world; this is reason enough for her husband to forbid her to work. Her work is, as he suggests, dangerous; but its danger is for him, not her, because it removes her from his control. The nursery, then, is an…...

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