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Themes in The Yellow Wallpaper

Treatment of Mental Illness: Although one of the central themes in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” mental illness was a taboo topic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the time, those with mental illnesses and emotional distress were often extremely misunderstood and abused in society. The unnamed narrator suffers from what is now referred to as postpartum depression. Rather than addressing this illness, her husband believes the best cure for her is a “rest cure,” a medical treatment in which the patient is confined to bed until she has recovered. In the case of the unnamed narrator, the isolation, loss of control, and boredom cause her to gradually descend into madness.

Female Oppression: Throughout “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman creates a distinct contrast between outward appearances and inward thoughts as male characters frequently fail to see the rich inner world of the female narrator. Marital constraints prevent the narrator from receiving successful treatment for her mental health issue and her husband’s authoritarian behavior stifles her creative self-expression, only exacerbating her illness.

Themes Examples in The Yellow Wallpaper:

The Yellow Wallpaper

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"Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Gilman ends “The Yellow Wallpaper” on an ambiguous note. Readers can only guess what becomes of John and the narrator. Literary critics generally agree that if the story were to proceed further, the narrator would be sent to a mental hospital. Instead of receiving proper treatment, she would likely continue to live in confinement and isolation, her illness only becoming more and more aggravated.

""John dear!" said I in the gentlest voice, "the key is down by the front steps, under a plantain leaf!"..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Some literary critics may claim that, even in her stupor, the narrator adheres to female Victorian ideals by calling out to her husband in the “gentlest voice.” However, other critics may argue that by defiantly tearing down the wallpaper and calling out to her husband in a gentle voice, she is actually mocking Victorian ideals and subverting how society should view women.

"I know well enough that a step like that is improper and might be misconstrued...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Even in her hallucination, the narrator cannot escape the Victorian ideals enforced on women. She briefly considers jumping out of the window but realizes that doing so would be an indecent act, incongruent with societal norms. Despite her best attempts to tear the wallpaper away in an act of defiance, she fails to fully relinquish herself from the patriarchal oppression so deeply ingrained in Victorian society.

"for he sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

The adjectives “stern” and “reproachful” mean harsh and disapproving, respectively. After the narrator’s second failed attempt to stand up for herself, John shoots her such a powerful look of disapproval that she immediately quiets down. This moment highlights the power John has over his wife to acquiesce and oppress her.

"If we had not used it, that blessed child would have! What a fortunate escape! Why, I wouldn't have a child of mine, an impressionable little thing, live in such a room for worlds...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, talking about mental illness—especially regarding women—was taboo in many cultures. At the time, postpartum depression was not recognized as a legitimate mental health issue. It was especially difficult to diagnose women who displayed affection for their babies but still exhibited symptoms of depression and exhaustion. Today, research has help shed light on this mental health condition and it is generally understood that such behavior is very common among women who suffer from postpartum depression.

"And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

In another instance of infantilization, John coddles the narrator and lays her down to rest. Notice the irony as John asks the narrator to take care of herself, when in fact his very treatment of her—his prescriptions, his isolating her, and his complete oppression of her every choice—has caused her to descend into madness.

"But I MUST say what I feel and think in some way—it is such a relief!..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

The narrator finds herself in a bind. On the one hand, she feels guilty for indulging in writing, a practice her husband hasn’t prescribed; on the other, writing is the one activity that offers her a sense of autonomy and freedom of expression. Without the ability to write and to express herself in the face of the stifling oppression of her husband, she might easily lose her voice. Despite her fear of getting caught, the narrator continues to write, recognizing that this solitary practice is her only source of power.

"I don't know why I should write this. I don't want to. I don't feel able...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Although most of the short story is structured into a series of one- or two-sentence paragraphs, this sequence of sentences stands out specifically for its briefness. This sequence of curt sentences encapsulates the narrator’s state of mind. Her raving “fancies” have left her mind exhausted and her body depleted.

"I'm getting dreadfully fretful and querulous...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

The adjectives “fretful” and “querulous” mean restless and whining, respectively. As the story progresses, the narrator’s mental state deteriorates further. Her husband fails to provide her with accurate treatment and stifles her only creative outlet. As a result, she descends into madness, going so far as to imagine someone hiding behind the wallpaper.

"So I try...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

The short story brings up issues over the compatibility of imagination and realism. The narrator, a writer, often “fancies” the happenings of the world around her. John, in contrast, is a man of science and does not divulge in “story-making.” There is a clear dichotomy between how the two individuals cope with their surroundings—the narrator does so through imaginative thinking, and John does so with practical thinking.

"Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose,..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

To silence the narrator, John often resorts to coddling her and calling her pet names. Here, he calls her “a blessed little goose” and comforts her like a child. By infantilizing the narrator, John dismisses her pleas to go downstairs. This pattern recurs frequently throughout the story—whenever the narrator raises an opinion, John silences her.

"It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I CANNOT be with him, it makes me so nervous...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Here, readers encounter the first of only two times the narrator mentions her baby. From these few lines readers can gather the key information that the narrator’s baby is a boy who is cared for by a nursemaid, Mary. As the she states, the narrator does not spend very much time with her son because doing so causes her to become anxious and experience feelings of exhaustion and sadness. Readers can ascertain that her nervous condition may be the result of postpartum depression.

"It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Gilman sets the story in a former nursery in order to emphasize the infantilization of the narrator by her husband, John, who chooses this room for her against her will. The barred windows evoke a sinister sense of imprisonment and isolation.

"there is something strange about the house—I can feel it...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Gilman draws on motifs from gothic literature—a popular genre in the 1800s—in her description of the “strange,” isolated, seemingly haunted mansion with its ruined greenhouses, abandoned servants’ cottages, extensive gardens, and mysterious past. Gothic tales often revolved around a troubled heroine narrating her own story while imprisoned in such a setting.

"he hates to have me write a word..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

One of the major themes of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is silence and the way that women's voices are silenced. There's no physical reason for the narrator not to be allowed to write, but under her rest cure, it is prohibited to her. Her husband is very controlling in the enforcement of her treatment, preventing her voice from being heard.

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