"The Yellow Wallpaper" Theme

Marissa L.
7
min read
Jul 28, 2021

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is an important book from the 1800s that is as relevant now as it was back then. The tale of a woman's descent into madness speaks to the role of women at the time and the perceptions of mental illness. After reading this article you will know the answer to what are some themes in The Yellow Wallpaper.

Role of Women

As an early work of American feminist literature, one of the main themes in The Yellow Wallpaper is the role and expectations of women in the 19th century. Living in a patriarchal society, women of the era were expected to be content with being mothers and housewives. Men were supposed to work and make money, which meant they had the position of authority in the family. Women were often ignored and their concerns were considered nothing but childishness and hysteria. 

In the story, the narrator has no control over her life. Her husband decides that she needs a rest cure which includes no visitors, no physical exercise, and no mental stimulation. The narrator begs her husband to let her see people but to no avail. She asks him to change her room, but even this simple request was ignored because he could not see the logic behind it. Eventually out of desperation, she starts writing a journal but has to keep it hidden away from her husband.

Her deteriorating mental condition is made worse by the gender expectations of the time. She recently had a baby, and the fact that she was sick made it impossible for her to care for him. This made her feel guilty because one of the primary roles of women at the time was to be a mother. She couldn't host parties or manage the household, other expectations of women, and her inability made her feel guilty and incomplete. 

Mary the housemaid, who takes care of her baby, eventually becomes a reminder to the narrator that she is not fulfilling her duties as a woman. Jennie, the narrator's sister-in-law, represents the ideal woman according to the norms of the era. She takes care of the household and is quiet and obedient, the way women are supposed to be according to the times. 

When the book came out, it was considered a horror story, a frightening tale about a woman going mad. It was only in the 20th century that people started thinking about the book as a feminist story. 

Creativity Vs Rationality

The narrator is an inherently creative person but her husband dominates and exerts control over her. For her recovery, her physician husband believes that all she needs is relaxation. He is unable to see that she requires more than just physical rest but that her issues are mental as well.

As was normal for the time, men were supposed to be creatures of reason and women were creatures of emotion. As was also normal for the time, men's opinions and especially husband’s opinions superseded the opinions of women and wives. The narrator is a writer and requires creative expression but her husband is a highly rational doctor and does not understand her desires. 

With no way of expressing her creativity, the author starts obsessing with the patterns of the wallpaper. Though she initially finds the room and the wallpaper disgusting and ugly, her need for mental stimulation and self-expression makes her see patterns in the crinkles of the wallpaper. The story is told as a series of secret journal entries that are kept hidden away from her husband.

Her husband is unable to understand that even though she may physically be getting better her mental condition is deteriorating. Even when she clearly says to him that she is not feeling better he only pays attention to her physical condition. Eventually, her need for creative expression creates delusions where she starts seeing things and patterns within the wallpaper. Her escalating Madness without any creative outlet makes her create an entirely new narrative in her mind. Her feelings of being trapped are transferred to the story she creates, envisioning a woman that is trapped behind the patterns of the wallpaper. 

At the end of the story, faced with the complete madness of his wife, the highly logical and rational John faints as he cannot comprehend rationally what is happening to his wife. 


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Confinement

One of the other main themes of The Yellow Wallpaper is confinement and the feeling of being trapped. The author, Gilman, herself went through the rest cure in her life. Women in the nineteenth century and their issues were ignored more often than not. They did not have power in society and they did not have power within their own families, making them feel trapped.

The narrator is going through an extreme version of this confinement when she is forced to rest in just one room far away from her friends and family. Not only is she restricted to her room but she is also restricted from doing any kind of work that is mentally stimulating. it's not just her body that's been confined but her mind as well. Even when she tries to escape by asking her husband to change rooms, she is denied.

As her mental condition gets worse the ugly yellow wallpaper takes on a life of its own. Initially, she only sees patterns, but then starts seeing the people behind the patterns. Eventually, she realizes that there's a woman trapped behind the wallpaper. She relates to the woman confined and sees herself as the woman in the wallpaper,  eventually becoming obsessed with breaking out of it. By the end of the book, she relates with the character so much that she has a dissociative episode and rips into the wallpaper and embodies the woman behind it creeping and crawling around the room. She is triumphant rather than sad or miserable because she believes that she has finally escaped. 

Mental Illness

Mental illness was not very well understood in the 19th century and is, therefore, a major The Yellow Wallpaper theme. Most doctors were men who believed that through willpower many mental issues could be solved. The narrator’s husband John is that kind of physician. Mixed with the position that women had in society at the time, many issues that women spoke about regarding anxiety or depression were brushed off as female hysteria or womanly issues.

The narrator knows that it is not a good idea for her to not have any mental stimulation, that her issues were not truly physical but in fact mainly mental. Despite her best efforts, her husband does not understand this. As she physically gets healthier he believes that she is getting better overall, but through the journal, we the readers get a clear picture that she is diving deeper into her madness to a point where she is losing touch with reality and her false happiness is leading to her improving physical condition.

It is interesting that when this story was published people took it as a horror story. Mental illness was considered a frightening thing, something to be kept hidden away and feel shame about. Gillman herself faced the difficulties of dealing with anxiety and depression as a woman in the 19th century and drew on her personal experiences when writing The Yellow Wallpaper. 

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Self Expression

John is unable to understand the narrator’s need for creative self-expression. He is unable to understand the therapeutic reasons for her desire to write and as a man of logic and rationality can not understand her imaginative inner world. The narrator’s desire is so strong that she starts writing in secret but that isn't enough. She fixates on the yellow wallpaper because it is the only mental stimulation that her desire for self-expression can focus on. 

As her obsession with the yellow wallpaper deepens and she slips more and more into her delusions her journal entries become increasingly disjoined, reflecting her mental state. She seems to get happier as she goes along this process because her break from reality allows her to express her imagination in creative ways. By the end of the book, she is triumphant in her madness because she has shed the shackles of repression, does not care anymore, and expresses herself fully.

Reality

Everyone has their own reality but the narrator’s break from reality is both the climax and a major The Yellow Wallpaper theme. John is a well-known and successful physician who spends time outside the house and gets external validation and mental stimulation. His reality is one of logic and order. On the other hand, his wife, the narrator, lives in a reality where she is considered a second-class citizen.

Her reality is first changed when she has a baby, possibly leading her to postpartum depression. In response, her husband decides to remove her from her support system and take her into the countryside for rest where she's kept confined. 

Stuck In a room that she does not like, unable to express herself, she starts breaking off from the reality around her. As a highly imaginative person, she reflects her confinement into the story of a woman trapped behind the patterns of the yellow wallpaper. Without proper understanding, she breaks more and more from reality and creates one of her own. Eventually, the reality that she has constructed becomes more important to her than the one that exists. 

Many themes of The Yellow Wallpaper are interconnected, but the main The Yellow Wallpaper theme may be the suppression of women. If you need any help with an essay about The Yellow Wallpaper themes, don't hesitate to reach out to The experts at Studyfy!

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