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In literature, symbolism plays the role of portraying abstract ideas and concepts. The author uses concrete objects to create images that convey meaning. For instance, a river often represents life and continuity. In this regard, symbolism is to the use of imagery to convey meaning that is different from the literal reference of the object. This paper argues that in the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author uses the symbol of the yellow wallpaper to portray the theme of domination by men and suppression of women’s freedom in society.
The nursery room where John confines his wife, the narrator, represents society’s tendency to limit the freedom of women. While John is physician, which presupposes his advanced education, his wife is a housewife who lacks the freedom to pursue any academic career. The idea of locking her in the room suggests a desire to domesticate women like caged animal. In a wider sense, it represents the “oppressive structures of the society in which the narrator finds herself” (Gilbert and Gubar 90). It represents patriarchy and societal values that literally chain women into their domestic roles by assigning them subordinate roles. The confinement also portrays the notion that women cannot perform outdoor roles as good as men. Consequently, her husband claims that all she needs is rest to cure her mental illness, whereas she believes that “congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good" (Gilman 6). This statement suggests that society not only deny women the opportunity to realize their full potential, but do so in the misinformed notion that they are better off tending to domestic chores.
The confusing patterns on the yellow paper in the room suggest the destructive effect of suppressing individuals’ freedom and potential. As a result of prolonged confinement, she develops an obsession with the patterns on the wall paper. This development signals a condition of losing intimate contact with human beings and instead developing closeness with inanimate objects (Walsh 67). Accordingly, Gilman portrays the dehumanizing effect of denying individuals room for personal development, symbolized by the cage-like room. The narrator becomes engrossed in her reverie about the wallpaper to the extent hallucinating. She believes that at some point the patterns "suddenly commit suicide- plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions" (Gilman 9). Gilman suggests that such suppressive societal values could only lead to insanity.
The room also represents an attempt to lock up the narrator’s mind and prevent her from engaging her intellect in worthwhile activities. The confinement in the room, therefore, suggests a desire to confine women’s ideas to their minds, denying them an opportunity to voice their views. For instance, the narrator’s husband claims that expressing anger is a sign of lack of self-control. Consequently, she "takes pain" to control herself when he is around, a task that she finds tiring (Gilman 8). Therefore, by losing her sanity at the end of story, the narrator symbolically breaks free from the chains of patriarchy and its suppressive values. This is because a madman is not subject to rules or reason, and therefore can do as he or she pleases. She has no “reason to reason” or conform to society’s repressive norms.
In conclusion, Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses the symbol of the nursery room to portray the values the societal norms that society uses to limit women’s freedom. The room’s small size represents lack of room/freedom for women to develop their potential. The narrator eventually succumbs into insanity, which suggests liberation from the normal/usual states of things- a license to disregard the social norms that limit her freedom.